August 4, 2019
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Set Your Mind on Things Above
Discipline for Our Faith’s Journey
Last Tuesday, Rev. Stan and I traveled to Worcester, MA to meet Pastor LyAnna Johnson and see her special “Simple Church” ministry. She does her special ministry, not at a church, but a restaurant. I asked her, “What caused you to leave the church and serve people here in this restaurant?” She simply replied, “I don’t like the institutional church… I don’t want to be bound to the rules of the Book of Discipline or the Conference… I followed where my God has led me and here I am.” I believe that she set her mind only on God’s calling and that’s why she was bold enough to pioneer into that special ministry she wanted to do.
Unlike Pastor LyAnna’s calling, God has called me to serve a local church; that’s why I am here with you. As much as she likes her dinner church ministry at the restaurant, I like my local ministry with you here at Rockville Church. Unlike LyAnna, I didn’t choose it at my will; my Conference appoints me to serve the church. As God’s servant, I also set my mind on God and obey his words, but as a commissioning pastor who is still working on ordination, I am obliged to be loyal to my Conference.
There are two types of UMC ordination candidates. One group sees it as a long process. They take ordination as a life’s journey, accepting all the evaluations as God’s disciplining. They work hard to nurture their growth in grace. The other group sees ordination as “pass or fail.” If they are not allowed to move on, they consider it a failure. They might show anger and even persecute themselves in bitterness.
Friends, our Christian belief is not the matter of pass or fail, but a spiritual journey (sanctification) toward perfection. Unfortunately, some Christians think that believing in Jesus is to get a pass to God’s kingdom and not believing in Jesus is to fail to get into God’s kingdom. The key lesson of the New Testament is that believing in Jesus is about being born again, living a new life in God’s grace. It is a life of holiness as we obey Jesus Christ and serve others as he taught us. Once again, our Christian belief is not about pass or fail to God’s kingdom but a spiritual journey toward perfection here in our everyday life.
My Broken Heart
Concerning my ordination track, I am going to apply for it, which means I didn’t get an ordination this year at this Annual Conference. During the clergy appointment session, I could only sit back and watch my fellow pastors’ ordination ceremony. As I shook hands with them and gave my congratulations on their ordination, I was calm in my heart because I knew God didn’t fail me but called me to wait. I knew I am called to be disciplined more until God calls me again. However, my emotions were more complex than that; I wasn’t content with the delay in my ordination. Honestly, my heart was deeply broken, and I said to myself, “Why not me?” My heart was aching with strong emotions-disappointment, shame, resentment, and even fear-because I felt lost. I hate to lag behind. I want to pass all my tasks and exams as fast as I can so that I can relax in my local ministry.
Two different emotions are fighting against each other in my heart. On the one hand, I could remain faithful and celebrate others’ success. On the other hand, I was pretty upset that I failed my chance. I have one body and one heart but I had to struggle with two different natures in my heart. Where did this emotional conflict come from? I feel conflict in my heart because spiritually I am a citizen of heaven but physically I am still a citizen of this world.
Just like my emotional experience, the disciple Paul also confesses in Romans that he has to struggle with evil nature in his heart: “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:21-23).
How can we overcome this evil nature with which we struggle in our hearts? The Buddhists teach us to empty our minds; the Confucians emphasize self-discipline. They both teach us that we can do it by our own power; it can be the way of negation of ourselves or of nurturing our moral principles. Whatever it is, we can fix our problems by our own free will.
Unlike the Eastern religion or philosophy’s viewpoint, the Christian opinion of human nature is not positive. Simply put, we human beings are too weak to save ourselves out of sinfulness. We need help from someone else. Salvation comes from outside of human power, that is, God or Jesus Christ. If we want to live well, we should entrust our lives to God, ask his mercy, and trust in his grace. Based on this point, the disciple Paul concludes in his confession, saying “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).
Focus on Jesus Christ
In the epistle lesson for this morning, Paul gives us another way to overcome the evil nature in our hearts: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (vv. 1-2). He admonishes us to look up because we human beings are inclined to look down. When I walk along the street, I usually look down. Perhaps I can find a coin if I am lucky, but there is nothing I can get when I look up.
Looking down means that we are too concerned about worldly things. Simply put, we spend most of our time working hard to survive in this jungle-like world. Yes, without filling our stomach, we couldn’t sustain our lives in the world. If we want to live well, we should have enough money. I know and believe that God is the Shepherd and he will feed me and protect me, but I still need to keep my job and have insurance for any possible accidents in my life.
However if we spend most of our time only looking down, we become slaves of the world. We will consider others as rivals whom we need to beat for our survival. That is why Paul admonishes us to look up to heaven. As we look to heaven, we can live a human life, not an animal life. Animals always look down to get food for their stomachs, but human beings know how to raise their heads to look for God.
Yes, it seems that everything we need comes from the earth, but think about this: if heaven doesn’t give sunshine and rain, there is nothing we can reap on earth. So when Paul says “look up,” he tries to remind us of the true source of life, God. God is the Creator, and He is in charge of everything in the world: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” (Mt. 10:29).
Further, we are inspired to freedom and liberation when we look up to heaven. Heaven doesn’t show any boundaries, divisions, or conflicts. Everything is welcomed to fly in the air. Birds and clouds never fight. Sun and wind welcome each other. People are good at making boundary lines on the land, saying that this is my property and don’t cross over it. However, but nobody can say that this part of heaven is mine, so don’t look at it. People share looking at the stars in the sky with their neighbors.
Thus, if we set our minds on heaven, we can set ourselves free from any competition from this jungle-like world. As we resemble the oneness of heaven, our hearts may be filled with the spirit of peace, toleration, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (v. 11).
Looking for God’s Grace
Unlike any other animals, human beings are created to raise their heads to look up to heaven. In Paul’s words, they set their minds on what is above. We human beings are created to look for something divine, something holy, something eternal, something beyond our worldly experience.
As we look up to heaven, look for God’s grace. We can give up our ego and rely on God as our Lord. As we rely on God, we are given a strong foundation on which we live in confidence. We can endure and overcome the storms of life. We can continue to nurture our growth in God, showing our service to God and people.