WORLD-WORTHY BEARERS OF THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS, OUR MESSIAH
The American writer Samuel Clemens, who is better known as Mark Twain once said, “New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions.” And yet, we give careful considerations to exceptional occasions such as the beginning of a new year, birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc. My mother, who had great respect for traditions and values of our honored and antediluvian Judeo - Christian upbringing, used to help us observe such meaningful events in our family. On the contrary, my father kept me abreast of significant events from major, sometimes seismic transitions and interruptions such as moving in the early 1930s from historic Melukara and Maramon to Vadaserikara, a desolate and in those days remote jungle settlement in the vicinity of Nilackal, one of the first-century Christian matrixes founded by the Apostle Thomas and his training at the Maharajas College in Trivandrum where I followed his footsteps decades later. On the other hand, it was my mother who kept me well-informed about the importance of family, the faith community at the Carmel Mar Thoma Church. Therefore, early in my life I began to appreciate, enjoy and value the indispensable role of our dynamic church community capable of being ‘there’ for me.
A notable anecdote from my school days might be helpful here to highlight what I intend to say. When I was a graduate student at the Loyola College, one evening I joined my classmates to see a movie. We did not know that our Jesuit professors were comfortably enjoying the movie behind us in the dark balcony! On our way back to our residence, my friends decided to stop at a local bar or a toddy shop better known as bootleggers where the local laborers hang out and chill. In order to avoid a lonely walk through the dark, rugged road, unsuspecting as I was, I chose to go in with them but I would refrain from consuming suspicious products. Little did we know that we were being spied on by the college bus drivers in the bar. After a drink or two, we finally trudged our way back the college to be greeted by our Principal. He urged me to leave my classmates in his repressive watch, where they endured a harsh interrogation followed by abrupt eviction. Unaware of their predicament I went to bed and learnt more on their nerve-racking ordeal the following day. Meantime, my parents weren’t pleased to receive a letter from the principal about my friendship with evidently dodgy elements in the college. I had to creatively and skillfully deal with this new rather disconcerting situation. I happened to have an informal chat with a relative of my father namely the Syro-Roman Catholic archbishop, who encouraged me to focus on my studies as well as attend the morning mass at the college. The college authorities, enthusiastically aware of my family connection with the archbishop, were delighted to see me at the 5 A.M. mass. In a week or so, my parents were overjoyed to receive a congratulatory note from the principal, saying “your son, a bright scholar, demonstrates independence of character, seriousness of purpose and maturity”. Following year I was acclaimed as the general secretary of the institution with many rousing perks! In retrospect, during those five years with very basic and simple resources, I lived the Spartan lifestyle of a monk!.
Life was good ever since with the Jesuits. They, including the archbishop, felt badly snubbed when I left for Edinburgh to study at a Reformed Theological Seminary. Such an eventful and albeit stabilizing upbringing always kept me in check! I had, still I have to, watch my language, think through who I associate with including my friendships, a profound sense of duty to family and community, an admirable appreciation of role-models in life, a sincere passion to set my goals early life and above all, as my mother would remind me the words of St. Paul,” Always be glad because of the Lord! I will say it again: Be glad. Always be gentle with others. The Lord will soon be here. Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. With thankful hearts offer up your prayers and requests to God…..keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise…..so follow my example. And God, who gives peace, will be with you.” (Philippians 4: 4 -6; 8- 9)
In ancient civilizations, citizenship was not a right but a privilege awarded exclusively to worthy men and women who gladly and dutifully fulfill specified and stringent requirements. I recall when I took a pledge to be a faithful Scout at age 12; also the promises I made at my ordination service. As St. Paul would put it, “you must live in a way that brings honor to the good news about Christ….I hear that all of you think alike. I know that you are working together and that you are struggling side by side to get others to believe the good news.” (Philippians 1:27). As an observer in my early in the west, I have never witnessed any struggling side by side to others to believe in the good news! On the other hand, in the post-war decades western missionaries of all theological persuasions were hollering evangelistic songs and leading their scary hullabaloo sermons all over the world except in their own backyard. In the mid 1960s, as a student of philosophy on my home in the capital city of Trivandrum, I noticed a large gathering of people at a former palace now open to the public. There on the stage was Oral Roberts, an interesting American preacher known to many conducting an evangelical rumpus for a captive audience. I stood aloof by the door and at point he commanded them to hold hands together yelling at them: “Now I am going to touch my neighbor standing next to me, he will touch his friend next to him and all of you will receive power from me!”. Power from an American tourist-preacher? What a gag? I did not believe him any more than the snake charmer across the street who volunteered to predict my future for a nickel. He noticed a headstrong young student who would not be part of his power chain! Staring at me, he went on to say, “ I am asking that young man to join us. The Holy Spirit is here with me and the Spirit wants to empower him right now!”. God’s Spirit was with me years before I ever left home. Was he worthy of the good news of Jesus? I don’t know.
In order to elucidate, what I mean by ‘world-worthiness’, let me first focus on consistently noteworthy terms like ‘roadworthiness’ and ‘air-worthiness’. When I began my pastoral ministry in the rugged northern Ontario, Verdun Crozier, one of my good friends and parishioners, advised me to always have a road-worthy automobile. One wouldn’t compromise safety standards especially in the winter when the road conditions from winding unpaved back-roads packed with snow to icy bridges can change for the worse anytime. It was fun flying from city to city almost anywhere in the 1960s. Since the 9-11 tragic saga of terrorism, any reasonable traveler would think twice about safe travel. In wintry northern Ontario, the aircrafts are diligently de-iced before they are considered airworthy for safe flights. I have watched over the years how carefully the aircrew and the aircraft maintenance technicians conduct the requisite inspections prior to flights. In all countries no one is allowed to operate an aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition.
Speaking of air-worthiness, Soren Kierkegaard, well-known Danish theologian, had told many stories about geese. Once, a wild goose who invited himself to live with some tame geese. He was a driven bird resolved to help liberate his relatives from their captivity where they were well taken care with good food albeit the ultimate purpose of their lives was the farmer’s gourmet dishes. In spite of his mission to set free his cousins from the dull but rich life, he too became used to an easy life in the barnyard. When the wild geese would fly over them and honk their invitation to join them up in the blue sky, he too would flutter his wings in vain to rise a few inches up in the air with a resolve to join them some day. On the hand, he was quite content to live with his tame, fat and flightless cousins within the farmer’s secure, safe fence where the corn was good although the bird became downright un-air-worthy.
One of my former parishioners in the United Church of Canada who used to be very faithfully involved in the life and work of our congregation in a small village just across the street from her home now drives to a Baptist church about an hour away where she claims, “people truly believe in Christian teachings with no political grandstanding.” 21st century Western Christianity, saddled with too many rattling issues from sexuality to racism and distracted by too many insignificant theological views, is in very deep trouble. I was invited to work with other church leaders to find out the reasons of the failure of the western church for three years at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ. At times when we got bogged down by dangerous experts who are too preoccupied with spawning ineffective books out year after year, I was under impression that we were looking for a needle in a pile of hay.
Yes, when life becomes convoluted, we crave for the good old days with nostalgia. I do cherish the days when I joined the church in the mid-1970s and powerfully persuasive and prominent pastoral presence of the Rt. Rev. Wilbur Howard, our moderator and Principal Bob Bater, one of my beloved teachers at my ordination service when we had the largest church gathering ever since the beginning of Christian presence in 1896 in Oxford Mills, ON. When I returned to Oxford Mills as guest-preacher at their 100th anniversary service in 1996, the church community was still vibrant. But right now, the church community is almost gasping for life; the folk whom I used to know are no more except a few in the nursing homes and the youth of the 1970s are not overly excited to include church in their hectic life.
Jesus said to his followers: “You are like salt for everyone on earth. But if the salt no longer tastes like salt, how can it make food suitable for eating? All it is good for is to be thrown out and walked on. You are like light for the whole world.” ( Matthew 5:13-14a)
The former worshipper of Sol Invictus, the Sun God, Constantine was wrong when he, driven by his deceitful desire to destroy his own brother, declared Christianity as the formal religion of the empire! The church is only the salt of the earth. The body of Christ is much bigger than the church. We are not the baker; we are not the bread; we are not the oven; we are simply meant to be the salt – nothing more, nothing less!
No state should be exclusively dominated by one faith tradition. Look around the world. Christianity has been around in my home province of Kerala before Hinduism, or what is known as Sanadhana Dharma or the Eternal Order ever showed up. Culturally, the same manner all who live in Canada are Canadians whether native, or settler or immigrant, all who live in India are Hindus with their own unique and distinct faith tradition, the land of Indus river! What do we do with religious minorities in our world? Christianity is always at its best when it is a minority, when it acts and serves its purpose as salt to the entire community.
Am I a worthy bearer of the good news of Jesus, the Messiah? Most bad-mouthing Syrian Christians behave like the bickering Irish in their religious discussions. Some, when forced to donate to church projects endlessly complain. Others untrained in theology would endlessly argue about theological issues. Recently one man told how painful it was to stay away from crabby family reunions with touchy traditionalists and cranky fundamentalists. It is better to gather to enjoy company and good food. Religious deliberations, sermons, long-winded prayers should not be on the agenda of such volatile occasions.
Having served several congregations over the years, I watched how communities morph into vicious fighting camps. I can be with one church community at a time in total peace; whenever we discuss joint efforts, even future amalgamations of congregations, suddenly church gatherings become battlegrounds! Are we faithful followers of Jesus who own up the pre-eminent quality of world-worthiness? What kind of examples and impressions do we exude to outsiders who may or may not belong a faith tradition?
Mahatma Gandhi once cautioned the so-called Christian nations of the west, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it's not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.” Having lived in the west most of life, I don’t like the disfigured Christ of the west at all, for it is a tortured and tormented Christ, badly mangled Messiah, whom I never knew in my formative years. In fact, first and foremost, Jesus Christ was a Palestinian Jew whom the Romans crucified! Apostle Thomas brought the good news of Jesus to Malabar and founded the very first seven churches between 52 CE and 72 CE. Perhaps Gandhi wasn’t aware of that historic fact; like most Indians, he assumed the Europeans introduced Jesus to India during the 15th century colonialism! That’s what the world can do to one’s perception of history. Ernest Hemingway was quite right when he said, “ The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. Bu those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
The world is becoming a tough place to survive. That’s why we must ‘world-proof’ our children, even adults. Jesus indisputably acknowledged this in his ecumenical or high priestly prayer: I don’t ask you to take my followers out of this world, but keep them safe from the evil one. They don’t belong to this world, and neither do I.” ( John 17: 15, 16)
May we like the salt for and light to the world in which we are called to live.
May God grant us grace to be worthy to live as salt and light on earth.
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