Saturday, October 06, 2012

Passing On The Legacy of a Gospel Centered Life

Sermon audio can be downloaded here 

Saying goodbye can be very hard, sometimes. Some of us who are parents will probably remember that heart-wrenching first day when our children went to school. I remember Yoong Zhen in his kindergarten uniform, trying to put up a brave front but cried desperately when he saw us leaving. It feels horrible. Bidding farewell to a loved one at the airport can be painful too. 

Usually, when we say goodbye to our loved ones, there is an implicit promise that we will return home. That we will meet again later in the evening... or in a few days… a couple of months… maybe even years… I’ll be back. But what would you say to them if you do not expect a return?

Imagine if you could record a video for them on the smart phone or digital camera, what message would you leave behind? 

To grow up is to learn about the reality of death, about its power to take away the people we love, about its finality, about the sorrow it brings, and about the fact that it is the one sure thing about being human. But it is also one thing that we are most uncomfortable about, and we prefer not to face it. We prefer the illusion that life goes on forever.

In the passage we read just now, the apostle Paul gave an emotional farewell message to the leaders of the Ephesian church. They have traveled all the way to meet Paul in Miletus probably because he was still on the wanted-list, still hiding after the riot in Ephesus. He believed that they would never see each other again this side of heaven. It was an opportunity to say what’s closest to his heart… to leave them with a reminder of what is most important in life and ministry… and that’s exactly what Paul did, he gave them an inside look into his own soul…    

One of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is: Begin with the end in Mind. Think about where you want to go before you travel. If life was a painting and you were the artist, what would you paint? What colors would you choose? Would you draw breath-taking landscapes of far away lands? Or would it be a portrait of yourself or family? When others look at it, what will they remember? Random sketches here… some scribbling there? Or will they see a masterpiece?

What do you live and die for? What are the priorities in your own soul?

Paul says: “I don’t know what will happen to me. I will follow the Holy Spirit wherever He may lead. Everywhere I go, prison and hardships await me. But I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me”.

At the end of his life, a couple of years down the road, Paul writes something similar to another church leader he mentored named Timothy, saying,
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race [that same phrase!], I have kept the faith. There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but to all who loved his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:7–8)

As we reflect on this passage in Acts 20, I hope the Lord will help redirect our priorities and refocus our goal in life so that we too may fight the good fight, finish our race, keep the faith… and approach Him with confidence on that glorious Day.

So I would like to organize this message with three points
-         What is the message of a gospel-centered life?
-         What is the pattern of a gospel-centered life?
-         What is the legacy of a gospel-centered life?

1) What Is The Message Of The Gospel-Centered Life?

The apostle Paul told the elders of the church: “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you… I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will, the full purposes of God.” That means: He did not hold back just because he was afraid of offending someone. He did not shrink from telling them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Nor did he back away from difficult and politically incorrect topics to gain a crowd. He wanted to please God more than pleasing men.

So he was committed to teach them the whole counsel of God whether in public and in private (from house to house). Be it in the synagogue or one-to-one, he declared the inclusive good news of God’s grace to both Jews and Greeks, regardless of ethnic or cultural background. It cuts across racial barriers.

And what was his message? He tells us in verse 21: That they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus… Turning away from sin (repentance) and turning to God (faith) are two sides of the same coin. It is the same turning. You cannot have one without the other. To turn to God is to turn away from sin.

Nowadays it is getting popular to promote a watered-down version of Christianity: “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us. You will often receive preferential treatment simply because your Father is the King of kings, and His glory and honor spill over onto you. If you just believe and pray the right way, you will be happy, wealthy and healthy…”

Hello? What about being holy? What happened to the bits about carrying your own cross? And counting the cost? These things are not so much denied as simply downplayed, bypassed and ignored.

And although this kind of popular teaching fits nicely with our kiasu culture (afraid to lose/materialistic culture), it is not ultimately helpful to people when they are faced with pain, suffering or cancer. Indeed, they can be destructive to our souls by baptizing greed and worldliness in Christian lingo.

Even today, as it was in the first century, real commitment to Christ is often costly.   Bonhoeffer, a modern day Christian who paid the ultimate price for his faith in Nazi Germany wrote that: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

That is not what Paul has in mind when he describes his own calling as the task of “testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” That’s not Paul’s idea of grace.

Rather, this good news has two important, inter-related themes. The first one is that guilty sinners are now declared as righteous by God’s grace alone (not through our moral performance) received through the empty hands of faith alone (not through our merits or achievements) in Christ alone (not in any other person or philosophy). It does not depend on our status or culture. And this is the most humbling, fundamental basis for Christian unity.
This grace does not come cheap. It is free but it’s expensive because it costs the Son of God his life on the cross. We are bought with His own blood (according to Paul).   
If I am accepted by God because of my good karma or my “sacrifices” for the church then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me. I would be like a taxpayer with ‘rights’. We can negotiate. I have paid my offerings, put in a sermon once a month and the job is done - now I deserve from God a certain quality of life. It’s like a contract. I’ve done my part of the deal so there’s a limit to what God can ask. Or I can expect something from Him in return.
But if I am a sinner saved by sheer grace alone – then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me. There’s no room to bargain. Everything that I have now belongs to Him. Nothing is really mine, anymore. I am not my own, I was bought with a price, I was purchased with the previous blood of Jesus Christ. Now we belong to the One who gave up everything for us.  
It’s a paradox… the irony of this love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all… To give up control of our lives into the hands of Someone else is scary, isn’t it? But it’s also comforting to know this Someone infinitely loves us and gladly laid down his life for us … The fact is: we are never in control anyway. We are enslaved by whatever we are living for – be it career, pleasures, family or reputation. Grace is only a threat to the illusion tat we are free, in control and living life as we choose. When we let go of control, then we are truly free. Those who lose their lives shall find it.

Last week, we had the privilege to listen to Grace Boey at our weekly Faith and Work interview. She was sharing about her plans to join Teach For Malaysia. It is an NGO committed to the vision that one day, all children around the world will have the opportunity to an excellent education. One thing that struck me was that she was going to get a pay cut even before starting on her 2-year program. Wow, that is major shock to your value system if salary is the main criteria for choosing a job, isn’t it? It’s unthinkable.

It doesn’t make any sense unless… unless she found something that is more valuable than a big paycheck. You can’t explain it any other way. She must have done some cost/benefit analysis that says obedience to God’s calling and investing in the future of underperforming children is worth more than all that.
God’s kingdom, to her, is the pearl of great price … the wise businesswoman will sell all her goods to purchase it. This kingdom is the treasure hidden in the field, for its sake someone will gladly go and sell all that he or she has.
It’s a powerful challenge to our consumeristic culture, isn’t it? It gets you to wonder: She must have found something worth more than what everybody is chasing after. Have you found that treasure… that pearl of great price? It is costly grace.

After reminding the elders of what he has told them, Paul goes on: “Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole counsel/purpose of God…

What is he talking about here?

The phrase “innocent of your blood” alludes to the prophet Ezekiel’s words in Ezekiel chapter 33. In that passage, there’s a solemn warning that when God brings a sword of judgment upon the land, the appointed watchman who stands guard on the city walls must blow the trumpet and warn the people to save their lives. Those who heard the trumpet sound but did not take the warning seriously will be responsible for their own destruction. Those who heard the warning and repented will be saved. But if the watchman sees the coming sword of judgment and does not blow the trumpet and the people are not warned, they will be destroyed in their sin. But their blood will be required at the watchman’s hand. He is guilty of their death… He is responsible for not warning them.

So Paul is saying to them: “I have preached to you the whole will of God, everything that you should know. So I have discharged my duty as a watchman and have given you the warning to repent and be saved.”

What about us? Are we faithful as watchmen on the city walls? Have we taken seriously our calling to sound the alarm so that those who are spiritually asleep may be warned? So they too will see the danger and repent? If they perish in their sin without being warned, then we are held responsible for not warning them.

There is a poem that brings home this message of our responsibility to be bearers of the Light in our circle of friends, colleagues and family members. It is called The Letter from Hell. This letter was part of a story in which someone eternally separated from God in hell wrote a letter to her Christian friend. Here is how it goes:

My Friend,
I stand in Judgment now,
And feel that you’re to blame somehow.
Never did you point the way.
You knew the Lord in truth and glory,
But never did you tell the story.
My knowledge then was very dim;
You could have led me safe to Him.
Though we lived together on earth,
You never told me of the second birth,
And now I stand this day condemned,
Because you failed to mention Him.
You taught me many things, that’s true.
I called you “friend” and trusted you,
But I learn now that it’s too late,
You could have kept me from this fate.
We walked by day and talked by night,
And yet you showed me not the Light.
You let me live, and love, and die,
You knew I’d never live on high.
Yes, I called you “friend” in life,
And trusted you through joy and strife.
And yet on coming to the end,
I cannot, now, call you “My Friend.”

Church, we are called to be bearers of the light in this Puchong community and to share this burden of bearing the Light together. None of us can do it alone. For example, every Saturday morning, there are always parents who bring their young children to the Children’s Library. Many of them have yet to know Christ. There are always opportunities to talk with them, get to know them and prayerfully invite them to join our worship on Sunday mornings. We definitely need more volunteers so that this ministry can be more effective in blessing the community. Would you consider prayerfully how you may work alongside this outreach work? We need volunteers to tell stories to the children and befriend our guests.

Michael Card, one of my favorite Christian composer and singer wrote this song:
The Light we must bear 
Is the Light we must share 
Is the Light that illumines the darkness 
The promises kept 
Give us strength to accept 
This burden of bearing the Light 

Let us share the burden of bearing the Light as a family together. At the end of the day, the message of a gospel-centered life is the good news God’s free but costly grace.

2) What Is The Pattern of the Gospel-Centered Life?

Godliness is not only taught, it is caught. You learn it by hearing the message preached and perhaps more so, by seeing and getting involved in how it is being modeled in real life.  

That’s why Paul reminded the Ephesian elders to look at the pattern of his own lifestyle:  “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into this area. I served the Lord with humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents…  I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions.  In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

The emotional intensity of our prayers… How we respond to opposition and difficulties? How we handle money? How we treat the weak and needy? Every day, consciously or unconsciously these are opportunities to model a pattern of gospel centered life.

And Paul’s life is consistent with his message. He lived out what he preached. He walked the talk. He says what he does and does what he says. You know how I lived… You know I did not hold anything back… You know my own hands have supplied my own needs… (Sometimes, he worked as a tent maker to earn his own living so that he may serve the church even when no one supported him financially.)

“You can see my example with your own eyes”. That’s a bold claim to make.
Someone once said: “The single greatest cause of atheism (people not believing in God) in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable”. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate loyalty to money, sex and self-fulfillment.
How is my life different because of faith in Christ? What are you doing now that you would not do had you not been a follower of Jesus? Does our faith make a difference in how we address challenges at work or at home?
For Paul, the good news has two important, inter-related themes. The first one was justification by faith as we saw just now. The second major theme is the redefinition of the people of God, no longer according to race, circumcision or culture, but according to faith in Jesus, so that all believers are equally the true family of God. All of us stand on level ground at the foot of the cross. There is no difference now between Jews and Gentiles in the fact of their sin, in Christ’s offer of salvation or in their status as God’s people.

That’s why he is willing (compelled by the Spirit) to go to Jerusalem even though everyone is telling him, “It’s crazy! If you go there, it’s madness. Your enemies are waiting for you there”. Why did Paul insist on going to Jerusalem? Is he trying to be a hero? Nope, we get a clue of his real purpose in Acts 24:17 - when he was arrested, sent to prison and stood before the judge, Paul explains it like this: “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings”. This is no ordinary collection to maintain the everyday functioning of the church.
Do you remember that Paul did the same thing in Acts 11? When a famine hit the church in Judea, the multiracial church in Antioch took up a collection and sent their gift to the mother church in Judea through Paul. Here in Acts 20, Paul is willing to die to bring this collection to Jerusalem, because in it, he sees the greatest symbol of the grace and power of Christ to tear down barriers and walls of separation. Like Jesus His Master, the apostle Paul was actually prepared to lay down his life for the church. We see this collection mentioned again and again in his letters… In Romans 15 he refers to the churches’ contribution to the poor in Jerusalem in this way, “If the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” In this mutual sharing, Paul sees a great symbol of unity and solidarity of the Jewish and Gentile people of God.

A Christian from South Africa told a painful story 30 years ago when he was fighting against apartheid, an oppressive system of racial segregation. One night, he met an underground Communist cell of young people who opposed apartheid with violence. "Tell us about the gospel of Jesus Christ," they asked. So he explains how personal faith in Christ wonderfully transforms persons and creates one new body of believers where there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich nor poor, black nor white. Then a teenager said, "That is wonderful! Show me where I can see that happening." The Christian’s face fell as he sadly responded that he could not think of anywhere South African Christians were truly living out the message of the gospel. "Then the whole thing is a piece of sh—," (doot!) the youth angrily replied. Later he joined the war and lost his life.

Unless people can see gospel transformation happening in us, it’s not credible or attractive. Show me where I can see that happening in Malaysia. There is a pattern of life that is consistent with the gospel.

You may recall a few years ago that racial and religious tension was high with cow’s head and pig’s head being thrown around. Acts of provocation that seek to divide and incite hatred amongst Malaysians. In the midst of that, something strange happened. Farish Noor wrote a great article in English calling Malaysians of all walks of life and belief to reclaim our nation from the hate-mongers. In Hikayat Padawa Lima, there is a ferocious demon/monster called Chandrabirawa. Many warriors tried to fight it but they failed. If you cut off his arm, a more powerful arm grows out in its place. It thrives on hate and violence. Until Yudistira, a young pacifist prince faced this monster. The demon tried to provoke him but he remained calm. Prophecy has it that it can only be defeated by a man of pure heart who does not harm anyone. The demon’s anger grew until it is consumed by it flame of its own hate. Farish wrote: “Hate will not be defeated by more hate, and racism will not be defeated by more racism. Love - for peace, for others - is a mighty force that can defeat the demons among us.” Then he says on Facebook that he wished someone can translate it into Bahasa. I thought “Yah! It would be more relevant and reach more people” so I did the translation in Bahasa and he put it up on his website. 

There’s a small, even funny symbolism in this because here is a Muslim author of Malay-Indian descent writing in English and a Christian-Chinese translator writing in Bahasa, both quoting from the Mahabratta epic to call for peace for all Malaysians.

By God’s grace, step by step, through small acts of reconciliation and small symbols of peacemaking, we can create a social space for gospel demonstration. It’s the ultimate defense of the gospel.  

What is the Legacy of the Gospel-Centered Life?

At the Beijing Olympics, the United States men’s and women’s 4x100-meter relay teams had high hopes of winning the gold medal. They were talented and fast individuals. They had trained hard for many years. They came with blazing feet but the problem is not with their feet. The problem is with their hands. Both teams failed to win any medal because they dropped their batons and were disqualified.

And Paul saw his life and ministry as running a race… As we learn from David Jackman last week, it is also a Relay Race – there’s no use being the fastest individual runner if we fail to pass the baton safely to the next runner. So we need to consider: What kind of legacy are we leaving behind after finishing our race? Are we passing on the Light to the next generation?

Paul knows that the future of the church in Ephesus depends on these elders gathered before him. That’s why he poured his life into them. He wanted them to run the race and passed the baton well, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!”

The church leader’s role (be it pastor/elder) is to take care of the sheep and drive away the wolves. It has a positive and negative dimension. The minister’s life is on public display for the whole world to see. This is why the qualifications for a minister of the gospel given in 1Timothy 3:1-7 carries emphasis on the life and testimony of the pastor/elder. He must not only be “able to teach”, “he must have a good testimony among those who are outside.”

Without these shepherds, the flock of God’s people will be scattered by the wolves or false teachers. Without the church, there will be no community to display and pass on the gospel. There will no legacy left.

Someone once said: “without the church, we cannot be Christians”. Or “you cannot have God as your Father without having the Church as your Mother”. Do you agree with that?

Honestly, my first instinct was to disagree with the statement. We don’t need the church in order to be Christian. Our decision to follow Christ is personal and independent of the church. But if you it sink deeper, the statement contains truth.

Without the church, the body and community of Christ, how do we know Christ in a living and lived way? You can hear about Christ from one person and decide to become a follower, but you wouldn’t necessarily know what it means to be living as a Christian, beyond your beliefs until you encountered and experienced other Christians, for better or for worse! 

Being in a community of Christians allows us to reflect, mirror and model to one another what God’s cost grace really means. In offering comfort to those who mourn. In caring for those in need. Rejoicing in the success of others. Offering biblical wisdom and correction to each other. We are reminded of our identity as bearers of the light when we mirrored the light through corporate worship, serving and doing life together, we sing, narrate and enact to each other God’s grace in Christ as a family here in CDPC. That is how we pass on a legacy of faith.

The song “BEARERS OF THE LIGHT” that I quoted just now describe three kinds of relationships we may have with other believers so that we can share the burden of bearing the light. Who is a Barnabas/Timothy/Paul in your life?

The first one is about spiritual friendship:

He will walk beside us 
A strong friend, Barnabas 
He will be that sure shoulder to lean on 
The promise we share 
Is our burdens to bear 
And our Light tells the darkness to be gone 

The second one is about guiding younger believers:

He will come after me 
A young Timothy 
Looking for someone to guide him 
I will kindle his Light 
Make him strong for the fight 
I will promise to be there beside him 

The last one is about finding a spiritual mentor

The great need of us all 
A true mentor, a Paul 
Who has traveled the road that's before us 
He has made good the pledge 
To take the Light on ahead 
We can follow his footsteps before us 

I wonder: What do we look like if we intentionally seek out relationship such as this in CDPC? When we walk with one another, help each other as spiritual friends, caring and guiding a youth/child among us and seek out to learn and follow the footsteps from more experienced mentors even as they follow Christ.

I think when we do that, we learn to carry and pass on the light to the next generation. So let us commit each other to God and to the word of his grace, which can build us up and give us an inheritance, a legacy among all those who are sanctified. 

This is your life… It’s God’s gift. There may be dark blots and grey patches on the canvass. But against that background, the brilliant, manifold colors of God’s grace can shine through.  May our lives be a gospel-centered work of art. Paint a master piece. Sign your name on it. 


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