LENT Tomorrow (Ash Wednesday) once again we enter into another season of Lent. During this season we try to take account of our lives. We try to look into our inner life. To do this we use various means. Fasting is one of the traditional ways of focusing on our inner life. With the same purpose fasting is used in other religions such as by Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Do you think we can still use this age-old method meaningfully in the twenty-first century? How can fasting be meaningful? What do we expect to gain by fasting? When we fast we feel hungry. For the food to be digested the stomach produces hydrochloric acid. That’s why when we are hungry we feel something burning in our stomach. That’s why in Sinhala the word for hungry literally means a fire in the stomach. And this makes us contemplate the material needs of others. Often we forget how many people in this world scarcely have the basic necessities of life. Here I am reminded of a saying of the Roman Catholic Archbishop Don Helder Camara. He said Food for my stomach is a material need, but food for my neighbour’s stomach is a spiritual matter. Do you think that it is God’s will for some people to have too much and others to have too little? This is a spiritual matter. Think about it. Some people have too little because others have too much. Secondly, fasting teaches us self-discipline. When we fast we learn to control our emotions. This really helps us in our day-to-day activities. Lack of self-discipline is one of the main problems in our society. Often people try to control others but find it difficult to control themselves. Fasting is a good way of seeing how far we can control ourselves. Thirdly, fasting helps us to realise that our lives do not wholly depend on material things. Perhaps unconsciously we think we depend on material things. Let me ask a question. &Do we live to eat or eat to live?& At times we think we live to eat and forget we eat to live. Do you remember how people wanted to make Jesus a king when he fed the five thousand? Jesus was very unhappy about this and said, “You follow me because I gave you something to eat” Often we don’t realise how much our lives are controlled by material things. We have become slaves of money and wealth. Fasting helps us to liberate ourselves from this bondage. It is necessary for us to understand that although we need money and wealth for everything money and wealth are not everything. Today I would like to draw your attention to these three aspects as subjects for meditation. Just think on these three things and see whether you can get some benefit from fasting. Let me remind you of them. First, to have a taste of the suffering of others. Secondly, to learn to control ourselves. Thirdly, to realise that we do not fully depend on material things. I am sure you can use this as a way towards a higher level of spirituality, both for yourself and for the benefit of others. Take the first step during this Lent and go forward. Let us ask God to give us His grace to understand ourselves so that we will be able to serve him and His creation in His world.

 New Year

In Roman mythology there was a god called Janus. This god had two faces.  From one of this faces he looked into the future because that face was in front of his face. And from the other face he looked back into the past because that face was in the back of his head.  The first month of the year January is named after this god called Janus. Today is the first of January and the beginning of another year. Year 2018.  As we start yet another year the philosophy behind this mythical god conveys a very important message for us.

Because the beginning of a year is an appropriate time for us to look back into our past and also look forward into our future. Some of us often try to live in the past. We praise our past and complain that our present situation is not like the past. Although these people physically and geographically live in the present time, mentally, psychologically and emotionally they linger in the past.  Consequently they speak of today’s matters in yesterday’s language.

There are others who think that the past is not important for them. Often this happens with the unpleasant memories of their past. Therefore they try to look forward to the future ignoring their past happenings. As a result, this group of people often live in a dreamy world of the future of their imagination.

Today not only we celebrate the New Year but also the circumcision of our Lord. By this act our Lord Jesus Christ was sanctified the past but with a future expectation. That’s why once Jesus said that he came not to abolish the Law or the past but to fulfil it. We see in the life of Jesus how he lived and worked live a Jew. But he was able to go beyond his past traditions to fulfil his law or the past.

Therefore as we enter into this New Year this message is very important for us. The past war is finished in our country. The future is uncertain. We are living in the present, here and now. What our responsibility?

We are called to learn lessons form the past and look forward to the future. This should be done by living in the present understanding and getting involved in the present realities. As Christians we not called to live in a dreamy future or a gloomy past. The past and future should be brought together into present time.

This is what Jesus did throughout his earthly ministry. If we try to understand his earthy ministry with regard to our present realities in Sri Lanka we can see how concerned he was regarding ethnic and religious identities of the people of his time. For instance this clear in the parable of Good Samaritan, narrated by Jesus. 

Jesus narrated this parable as an answer to a question asked by an expert in the law. Here the question was, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Although in this discussion both Jesus and the expert in the law accepted that to inherit eternal life it was necessary to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, neither of them was interested in having a dialogue on ‘who is my God’. Instead the expert in the law was interested to know “who was his neighbour”.

Jesus told this story not as a fairytale but took the material from real life situations of his time. During this time it was dangerous to travel from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road was frequented by looters and robbers. It is clear that to compile this story Jesus chose the personalities very carefully. The characters (the man who was attacked by the robbers, a Samaritan, a priest and a Levite) were active, influential and at times problematic types of figures of that time.   When the Samaritan decided to help the fallen man he had to cross his ethnic and religious boundaries. On the other hand in order to stand on his feet once again, the fallen man had to rely on a person who was not of his own group but from a hated group.  He had to acknowledge the goodness and the kindness of the Samaritan. Without any doubt the fallen man was forced to compare and contrast the unwillingness of two people from his own group with the willingness of the Samaritan to help him when he needed support.

In our present context this is something that we urgently need to promote if we are to enjoy lasting peace in Sri Lanka. The only effective way to reduce the prejudices of the other group is to get into the other group to help them, and we do this by crossing the narrow ethno-religious identities of my own group.  This is not easy because whenever anybody try to do this s/he could be suspected by both groups. But this is the cost of our discipleship. This is where we meet the cross. Jesus crossed his narrow ethno-religious boundaries to redeem and transform the world.

When Jesus crossed his ethno-religious boundaries the leaders of his nation and some of his people found it difficult to understand him. Since the Roman imperial government also did not recognise what he was doing, the Jewish leaders were therefore able to use the Roman imperial power to crucify him. If we ask God to use us to transform our world we cannot avoid this cross. But that’s where we find redemption and liberation. This model is not something of the past. This is what Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa did to transform South Africa into a country where blacks and whites have equal rights. Are we ready to fulfil the will of God in this regards? Let’s keep a moment of silence and reflect on these thoughts.

Annunciation

During advent we commemorate the annunciation of the Birth of Jesus. We remember this with gratitude to God for informing Mary the mother of Jesus that the saviour or the Messiah or the Christ was to be born. Today we celebrate this event in a happy mood. But to comprehend the in depth of this happening it is necessary to have a sound understanding of the background of this occurrence.

This message was given to a young virgin from a village who was engaged to a carpenter. They would have had their own dreams of making a happy family and to have children of their own. Then when Mary received this message from the angel Gabriel all their dreams would have shattered into pieces.   This is where we get the climax of this experience. That is the way they faced this challenge.

In that society if a young woman got pregnant before the marriage the punishment was stone to death. Not only in that society even today in some countries they have punishments of this nature. Joseph and Mary took the risk and faced this situation. What was this risk? This risk was the openness to the unknown future. This openness was their faith to fulfil the will and purpose of God to redeem the world.

If we are willing to have faith in God we cannot avoid this risk. We should take calculated risks to promote the will of God in our world. But often we are reluctant to take risks and be open to the future. This cannot be developed at once. First of all we should learn to have our trust in God and our sisters and brothers.

Without any doubt most of you would tell me that we can trust God but it is so hard to trust people. Yes, this is true. But this is where we develop our faith. It is impossible to have faith in God without having faith in our sisters and brothers.

That’s why Jesus said that when you offer your sacrifice at the altar if you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and reconcile with your brother and then come and offer your sacrifice.

Mary had to have faith in Joseph and most probably with some people close to them. Joseph had to have faith in Mary.  On this circle of trust and faith God was able to use them to fulfil his will and purpose to bring redemption to our world.

Are we ready to have this faith of Mary? Very often when are called to take risks to fulfil the purposes of God we runaway and try to give all sorts of excuses to justify ourselves. But that rural village girl called Mary is challenging us today to consider taking calculated risks to be part of the redemption plan of God.

Let ask God to grant us his grace to become and active member of his kingdom to fulfil his will and purpose.

Advent

We are in the season of Advent. Advent is a season of hope and expectation. This is a season of waiting. At the same time, according to the natural seasons this is winter. Winter is also a time of hope and expectation. Therefore religiously and secularly Advent is a time of anticipation. During this time what do we anticipate?

At the end of this season we expect new life. Therefore during Advent and Winter we wait for the arrival of new life. We wait for renewal and revival. That’s why Christmas is also called Nativity. It is the birth of new life.

Similarly, in the natural world at the end of winter the whole environment gets new life. The world of plants and animals springs up with renewed vigour. Our surroundings are filled with vitality.

The next question is how do we wait as we anticipate this new life? Do we just wait? No. We do many things to prepare for the season of transformation.

We buy new clothes, decorate our houses and do many other things. Some trees shed their leaves in order to grow new ones. Some animals go into hibernation.

In the midst of all these things we often forget the rhythmic and cyclic nature of life. We assume that life goes from one happening to another. We try to accelerate things in order to get the maximum out of life.  We may forget to rest, sleep, eat and do all the other things necessary for our lives. In this process, though we get short-term benefits, in the long run we face many problems, such as illnesses.

This seasons of advent and winter remind us of God’s way of natural renewal, which refreshes us in the long run. This waiting is not time wasted but time well spent in harmony with the rhythmic nature of our lives. 

In this present world we depend so much on man-made systems and structures. If we think we are independent and  don’t need others to live in this world, the reality is just the opposite. Some may find it difficult to write a letter without a computer. We depend so much on electricity, gas and so on. If these systems were to fail what would happen to us? I am sure we would panic, not knowing what to do. When we had a youth uprising in Sri Lanka in the late '80s many people in towns who depended on technology had difficulty in getting even basic things.

All these man-made systems have increased the pace of our lives and gradually alienated us from the rhythm of the natural world. Today we find difficulty in waiting with patience.

As Christians approaching another Christmas let us reflect how all-powerful God became a man in Jesus. He chose the natural system of becoming a man. He was born of a woman. God did not choose any instant way of becoming a man. Although man-made systems and structures could make our lives easier, we should remember the danger in entirely depending on those things.

Therefore in our present world let’s try to reinvent the importance of waiting patiently. Let us enjoy God’s natural way to enrich our lives and make this world safer for us and for the generations to come.  May God bless you, Amen.

ADVENT

We are in the season of advent, and just a few days away from Christmas. We know that advent is a season of hopefulness. Advent reminds us of the need for hope in our earthly life. Hope keeps us going. When we lose hope we get frustrated and at times some may get depressed. When there is no hope some may even think of suicide. Hope is an essential part of human life. this can be found in almost all the religions of the world.

For instance, Muslims are hoping for the coming of Esa Nabi. Hindus believe and hope that from time to time the avatars or incarnations of their god Vishnu will come to the world to redeem it. In this present era or Uga, called Kali Uga, they are expecting the coming of Kali.

Buddhists are waiting for the coming of Martini Buddha. According to their belief Buddhas appear from time to time to proclaim the truth or Dhaka.

We Christians are hoping and waiting for the return of Jesus, which we call ‘The Second Coming’. How should we understand this Second Coming? Let us first look at the background to this.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus His followers expected him to come back soon. The way in which they understood the words of Jesus made them expect this event during their lifetime. According to the letter to the Church in Thessalonica, some people waited without working, expecting the Second Coming very soon.

But if we look carefully at the words of Jesus in the Bible we can see that he clearly said that even he was not aware of the exact day of his coming again. But he said we should be ready at any time. He gave us parables to stress this point. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is a good example of this.

We know Jesus came to this world two thousand years ago as a baby and after His death and resurrection today is alive in our world. Then why should we wait for His second coming?

Let me give an example. It is something like learning a new language. Think about learning English. I began to learn English some years ago. I am still learning English. I will be learning English in the future. My learning English has three dimensions - past, present and future.

Similarly, the coming of Jesus has three dimensions. He came. He is a present reality. He comes, and the fulfilment is in the future.

So his coming is an ongoing and growing process. As Christians we are called to grow in this process.

I believe in the context of our multicultural and religious society we need to understand this coming in the light of the universal hope of humanity.

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas let us remind ourselves of God’s coming – how he came to us two thousand years ago as an infant, how he comes to us at every moment, and how he will be coming again in the future.

How should we get ready for his coming? By getting involved in the activities of his kingdom in our world. this is what he taught us to say and expect in the Lord’s Prayer "Thy Kingdom come and they will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

THE REIGN OF CHRIST

Who is a king? What are the things that have been generally associated with a king? When we think of a king usually we think of a throne, a crown, and a king rules a certain land and his rule is limited to a certain period of time. These are the general things that we think of when we think of a kingdom.

But what do we mean when we say Christ is King? Because Christ never had any of those things which have been associated with a king. Then why do we call him a King?

To answer this question let us see what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry. According to St. Mark’s gospel chapter 1: 15 he said that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that we should repent and believe in the good news. Here Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God. Where do we find this Kingdom? When his disciples asked this question his answer was that the Kingdom is in you, among you and within you. this shows that this kingdom is not confined to time or space. It is a state of being. Wherever there is God there we find the Kingdom of God. Here the emphasis is not so much on the Kingdom but the reign of God. In Greek – "basilia tou theou"

Jesus’ ministry was to make the reign of God a visible reality in this world. That’s why he asked his disciples to pray "Thy Kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." It is clear that his intention was not to take his disciples to heaven by separating them form the world, but to get God’s will to be done in our world as it is in heaven.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus encouraged people to enter into his kingdom. In his sermons he narrated parables to explain the Kingdom’s values, attitudes and priorities. In today’s gospel passage we listen to one such parable. The context and the content of this parable of the last judgement are not connected to anything that can be called "religious". It is about the way of life of human beings: whether they are able to fulfil the will of God in their day-to-day life.

this is what Jesus tried to teach his disciples during his earthly ministry. In that process he had to face many conflicts with the Jewish religious leaders of that time. These conflicts became strong enough for Jewish leaders to want to get rid of him. That is why they were determined to have him executed. We know that the main accusation against him was that he claimed to be the King of the Jews.

Therefore, the Jewish leaders of that time and the officials of the Roman colonial rule of that time contrived to have this ‘king’ defeated on the cross. But the place where they thought he would be defeated became his ‘throne’. The crown of thorns used to torture him became the crown for his reign over the whole world.

But when the church became the state religion something very sad happened. The church removed his crown of thorns and gave him a crown of gold. They replaced the cross with an earthly throne. They tried to make him a colonial king. When Christianity was introduced to Asian countries such as my country Sri Lanka this distorted portrayal of Jesus became a real hindrance in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus. Even today, fifty-five years after Sri Lanka gained independence most people in Sri Lanka think Christians are disciples or representatives of the past colonial masters. For them Jesus is the supreme King of the colonial masters.

Today as Christians we have to proclaim that Jesus is not the King of colonial masters but the King of God’s Kingdom where peace and justice prevail. He is especially the King for all who have been oppressed and marginalised by the evil powers.

We should make people realise that the Kingdom of God is not confined to the Christian church, though church exists to proclaim the Kingdom. If the church fails to proclaim the Kingdom others will be used to proclaim the Kingdom. We should remember that the church does not have the monopoly of the Kingdom.

Let us be citizens of the Kingdom here and now by doing the will of God as in today’s parable. Let us proclaim the Kingdom and invite others to become citizens of the Kingdom.

New Commandment

Towards the end of his earthly ministry Jesus gave a new commandment and asked his disciples to love one another. As you know in many religions the believers are expected to love one another. Then what is new in this commandment?

The clue to the answer of this question is given in the next verse in the text. Jesus said the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. What is this love that Jesus is talking about?

In his society there were at least four words for different aspects of love. The word philia was used to denote love between friends. For instance the word philosophy is a combination of two Greek words.  Philia is love and Sophia is wisdom – Therefore Philosophy mean love for wisdom. This philia love is the affection between friends. Often feelings and emotions are involved in this kind of love. This is the bond of keeping the relationship of friendship.

Then the love between men and women are called eros. From this word we get the English word erotic. This is the sexual love that attracts men and women to each other. This love keeps man and women together.

Then there is another which is not very much used in the New Testament. This is storge – Which means family love. Love between parents and children and among children themselves. Jesus is mainly talking about another kind of love called Agape. In a way this agape love embraces the other three forms of Love. Agape love is the self-giving love. Love that does not expect anything in return. In the other three forms of love we expect something in return. Among friends, men and women and in a family when we love each other we expect others to show us love in return.

But the agape love does not expect this. Also agape love is always active. For instance when God so loved the world God gave us God’s son to redeem the world. Agape love is never passive and it is always active. This love is not selfish and self-centered. It does not expect glory. That’s why Jesus said when you give from one hand don’t let your other hand know what you have done.

We cannot have God’s love if we don’t show that love in action. This is pre-requisite. This is essential. That’s why it is written in the first epistle of John that if we say we love God and hate our brothers we are liars.

We cannot possess or cling on to this love because that is selfish. We need to develop this love. This love always allows for the growth of the others by emptying ourselves.

Now you may be thinking that it is impossible to find this kind of love in the world. No this is possible. Think of a person like Mother Teresa of Kolkata, India. She did everything possible to look after poor and destitute people without expecting anything in return. She made arrangements to continue this ministry even after her death.

The supreme example of this love is described in the second chapter of the letter to the Philippians. It says although Jesus had the nature of God he emptied himself and became nothing for the salvation of the World.

This is the supreme bliss that we can enjoy as human beings to develop agape love.

This is the new commandment that Jesus gives us – Love one another as he has loved us.  Amen.

Jesus the Healer

Jesus the Healer

 What do we mean when we say Jesus the healer? When we go through the pages of the Bible we can see that Jesus healed people in many ways. Let me give you a few examples. Jesus healed people from physical illnesses like Blindness. We know the story of Bartemaeus. Jesus healed people by casting away demons. Where the Samaritan women and Zacchaeus are concerned Jesus was able to heal them from social isolation. Here we see that Jesus’ healing ministry was not confined to one area of life. He was able to grant the healing of body, mind and spirit.

The next question is that why did he heal people? Did he heal people to earn something or to marvel people? You know the answer is NO. Then what was the reason? This is connected to the main purpose of his ministry. Jesus came to this world to proclaim the Kingdom of God. The healings that he performed were the signs of this Kingdom. Because in God’s Kingdom people enjoy healing. This healing is the wholesome healing of body, mind and spirit. As disciples of Jesus we are called to get involved in this wholesome healing.

This is the main reason that Christians throughout the ages got involved in establishing churches, schools and hospitals. Churches for spiritual healing, schools for mental healing and hospitals for physical healing. But today we are called to get involved in another healing ministry. That is the ministry of ethnic healing.

Jesus during his lifetime was fully involved in this ministry. Let’s try to understand the ways in which he performed this ministry. During his earthly ministry he had to deal with the ethnic issue of Jews and Samaritans. Once he contributed to ethnic healing by narrating a parable. This is the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Traditionally the Church has been telling that Jesus narrated this parable to show “Who is our neighbour”. But it is very clear that this parable shows the importance and the necessity of ethnic healing. The Samaritan had to break the narrow ethnic boundary to facilitate the healing of the fallen Jewish man. The fallen Jewish man had to cross his majority ethnic limitations to accept the help of the minority Samaritan to start his healing process.

What really happened here was the Xenophobia of the Jew and the Samaritan was transformed into Xenophilia. Here the word xenophobia means the fear of strangers, foreigners or others who are not with us. Xenophilia is not in the dictionary. I coined this word. What I mean by Xenophilia is the love for foreigners, strangers and others who are not with us.

Today if we are to become effective members of God’s kingdom we are called to be involved in the ministry of Xenophilia. We are called to take steps to reduce and minimise the fear of foreigners, strangers and others who are not with us but in midst of us. This may be between Sinhala and Tamil people, Christians and Buddhists or Hindus or between any other groups.

You may start this ministry here and now. In our midst we have many strangers, foreigners or others who are not really in ‘my group’. Make every effort to help them by understanding their situations. Be sensitive to their feelings. If we are to involve in this healing ministry, before I have my own way, I must be able to have a good understanding of the repercussions of my actions on other people. Even after my actions I must take every step to make the other comfortable. If we follow this Xenophilia, without any doubt we will be able to contribute to the healing process of the society.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus performed this healing ministry of Xenophilia. We know he started his ministry with Jews, his own people. But he kept on expanding his boundaries by getting involved in this healing ministry of Xenophilia. That is why Jesus became the Saviour of the world and not just the Saviour of the Jews.

Let us ask God’s help for us to become active members of this healing ministry of Xenophilia in God’s kingdom here and now. May God bless you! Amen.