The God Who Stoops

Preached by Michael Cheuk, October 4, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

God-Who-StoopsWhat do you do when a congregation is struggling? How do you bolster a congregation’s faith? Well, that was exactly the problem that the book of Hebrews had to address. Professor Thomas Long says that while Bible scholars are not sure exactly who wrote this book nor exactly to whom, the book addresses a problem that many churches today can relate to: declining attendance and members who are tired and losing confidence. Professor Long also describes this book as more a “sermon” than a “letter,” and calls the author of this sermon, “the Preacher.”[1]

So imagine this Preacher leading worship in this congregation. As he (and during that time, this Preacher was surely a man), as he looked out, he saw many discouraged and weary faces. The congregation was going through hard times, and it needed a good word. When the time came for the Preacher to give a sermon, he slowly got up, and as he faced the congregation and felt the weight of their gaze and expectations, he began with these words: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers [our ancestors] by the prophets, but in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son.”

From the get-go, the Preacher reminded the congregation that while God had spoken effectively in the past to their ancestors by the prophets, in these last days, the full and final revelation of God has been spoken through God’s Son Jesus Christ. The good word that the congregation needed to hear was not through human words, but through the divine Word of God’s own Son. For you see, during times of hardship, it is tempting to get mired in the struggle, and to focus our gaze downward on our problems. The Preacher of Hebrews reminds us to lift our eyes and focus our gaze upward on the exalted Jesus Christ. The Preacher of Hebrews is bold and brash enough to think that hearing a word about the nature of Christ is the solution to the problem.

The Preacher makes staggering claims about the superior nature of Christ. Christ is God’s Son appointed heir of all things. God created the world through Christ. Christ is the reflection of God’s glory and radiance. Christ sustains all things by his powerful word, purifies sins, and was raised up to the right hand of God. Throughout this sermon, no matter what the question is, no matter who the Preacher is talking about, Jesus is always the better answer. It reminds me of all the questions children get asked in Sunday School or children’s sermons.

So a young preacher opened his children’s sermon one time with a riddle for the children: What’s brown, furry, and eats nuts? The children nervously look at one another, but none raise their hands. So the preacher continues, “You know… it runs up trees? And hops from branch to branch?” The children looked at one another uncomfortably until a brave soul raised a hand and said, “I know the answer has to be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me!”

This story is often used to suggest that not only in children’s sermons, but in most of church life, Christians tend to say that Jesus is the answer… to everything. And that’s certainly what the writer of today’s text seems to be suggesting. But for some of us, maybe those who have experienced hardships and disappointments, or those who may be a little jaundiced and cynical, we may not be as receptive in hearing from a preacher who simply asserts that Jesus is superior to everything. For some, such a high and exalted Jesus is just too distant and “perfect” to have much relevance in the muck and messiness of our everyday lives. For others, such claims of superiority sound like boastful bluster.

The Preacher in this passage had a very difficult task. In making a case for the superiority of Christ without making him unrelatable or too triumphant, the Preacher used a familiar passage from Psalm 8 to make his point. “It’s been testified somewhere,” says the Preacher, “what is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?” This language comes from the beautiful poetry of Psalm 8, which goes on to assert that man – or humanity – is made a “little lower than the angels.” However, in the Hebrews passage, the Preacher is not referring to the exaltation of human beings in general, but to the exaltation of the one particular Man, Jesus Christ who has been crowned with glory and honor, so that everything is subject under Christ’s feet, and nothing is left outside of his control.

On Sunday mornings, we proclaim Christ’s superiority over all things. On Sunday mornings, we worship a vision of an exalted Christ. On Sunday mornings, we focus our gaze on the Christ who has everything under his feet, subject to his command. Amen and alleluia! But on Monday mornings, what do we see? On Monday mornings, we still see a world that is being torn apart by war. We still see a country in mourning for victims of violence. We still see people hurting and suffering and dying. We still see in so many ways where things are not what they ought to be. The Preacher of Hebrews recognized this, and with no triumphant bluster, he conceded, “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him [the Christ].”

So what do we see? What we see is only part of the story. Professor Long writes: “When all is said and done, it is the gospel heard through the ear that turns out to hold the full truth. Yes, the Preacher says, Jesus did suffer. The whole world saw that. Yes, Jesus did exhibit the weakness of human flesh. Yes, Jesus did die, sharing the fate of all humanity. But those were only the pictures; listen to my words. Jesus was made lower than the angels for a little while, and this stooping into human history was for a distinct purpose. When one hears this full message of the gospel, one recognizes beyond mere sight that the season of Jesus’ suffering was a necessary segment of the arc of grace that curves finally to the place we cannot yet see, to the place of triumph where the Son is even now crowned with glory and honor.”[2] And when all is said and done, God in Christ was not too proud to stoop down in such a manner. Indeed, Jesus so identified with us, that he is not ashamed of calling us his brothers and sisters.

“In the rich verses of Hebrews, we are given a Jesus who embodies glory and humiliation, power and suffering, authority and servanthood, radical grace and radical obedience. Each side of the paradox makes the other side possible. In stunning symmetry, we find in Hebrews an utterly majestic and cosmic God [stooping down] to touch us—up close and personal.”[3] Therefore, the polarity of the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ is not a problem to be solved. Instead, it is a mystery that we must gently hold in tension.

It’s sometimes hard to hold two seemingly opposite things together. Take sunshine and rain. I know we need both, but I prefer sunshine. Given all the rain we’ve had this week, I’m so ready for sunshine! However, Lynn Martin recently taught me a lesson about holding them both together. She told me that, as a child, when she was outside on a sunny day, she always envisioned God with arms open wide, smiling and ready to embrace her. When it rained, she envisioned God stooping down and gently touching her. She loved being out in the rain, feeling water drops on her skin, and she still does. I guess Lynn has really felt God’s presence this week!

Another way to experience the presence of God is when we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. At this supper, the exalted Son of God stooped down to wash his disciples’ feet so that we may have communion with him. Jesus was not ashamed to offer such a humble act of love, nor was he ashamed to experience the brokenness of the universal human condition through his broken body and shed blood. But he also said that as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” We may be struggling and we may be discouraged, we may even be sick and dying, but in Christ, death and suffering will not have the final word, not in our lives and not in our congregation. No, the final word is this: we worship a God who stoops, a God who comes down to us into the messiness of our humanity. This God died, but He was raised and ascended, and He will come back in order to raise us up to a newness of life. This is not a message of success and comfort; rather, it is a message of the glory of the cross and the power of the resurrection. It is a message that the Preacher of Hebrews wanted his congregation to hear, and it is a message that this preacher needs to hear and be reminded.

On this World Communion Sunday, Christians worldwide may eat different breads, and sing God’s praise with songs drawn from different countries, but we do so today acknowledging the one Source of our salvation, Jesus the Christ. As we remember the Word made flesh that was broken, and the slain Lamb who is now enthroned in glory, as we eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, may God make us make us brothers and sisters of Christ and of one another.


[1] Thomas G. Long, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Hebrews, p. 3.

[2] Ibid., p. 38.

[3] Susan R. Andrews, “Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12,” Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

Healing Prayer

Preached by Michael Cheuk, September 27, 2015
Taken from James 5:13-20

FaithInAction-icon w textThis morning, I conclude my “faith in action” sermon series taken from the book of James. As I’ve mentioned in the Sundays before, James is a book that is full of straightforward and practical advice on how to live a good life, a life of faith. Faith for James is not just believing in the right things. Faith is doing the right things like loving our neighbors by looking after orphans and widows, treating the poor just as well as the rich, listening before speaking, and being careful with our words. In all of this, James is dispensing wisdom that comes as we draw near to God.

So how do we draw near to God? According to James, the answer is prayer. Prayer is the way we listen carefully and speak rightly to God. In fact, ethics professor (and my old UVA classmate) Mark Douglas writes, “wise speech simply is prayer. The wise speak always as if [they are speaking] before and to God.”[1] Can you imagine how we might change our speech if we were aware that each word is said in the presence of God?

For James, prayer and wisdom are inextricably linked. James begins his letter by stating in chapter 1 verse 5, “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God (in other words, pray to God), who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” James now ends his letter by strongly encouraging Christians to pray in all circumstances. “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Prayer takes many forms: some are spoken, some are silent, some are sung. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther once said, “When I cannot pray, I always sing.” Luther not only sang, but he also wrote thirty-seven hymns, the most famous being “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Hymns and spiritual songs have a powerful way of not only expressing our faith, but also strengthening our faith in both challenging and joyful times.

Just as authentic faith is a faith that works, and spiritual wisdom is a wisdom that works, for James, the prayer of faith is a prayer that works. “The prayer of faith will save the sick,” says James, “and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

I must confess, I struggle with these verses. This passage implies that if you have enough faith, your prayer can restore a sick person to health. I do believe that prayer can bring about healing, but if healing doesn’t occur, does that mean there wasn’t enough faith? Now, I must concede that sometimes our prayers, however sincere, may arise more from our own motives than from our submission to God’s will. This reminds me of the story of a little boy and his older sister who went to visit their grandma. As the little boy said his bedtime prayers, he was shouting at the top of his voice, “Please God, send me an iPad mini 4, and send me a Star Wars Jedi Master light saber.” His sister said, “Not so loud. For heaven’s sake, God isn’t deaf.” The little boy replied, “Yes, I know, but grandma is.”

I’ll say it again, I believe that prayers of faith can bring about healing, but I’ve also seen people of deep faith earnestly pray for a sick loved one, but physical healing does not take place. In those situations, if we were to tell a grieving person that the reason why their loved one wasn’t healed was because of their lack of faith, aren’t we just adding insult to their injury?

To make things even more challenging, this passage also seems to imply sickness is caused by sin. The ancient Hebrews definitely made a close connection between sickness and sin. Even Jesus was asked whether the man born blind was the result of his sin or the sin of his parents. However, as our medical knowledge has grown, we tend not to identify sickness with sin.

But even if various people might disagree about whether sin causes sickness, we perhaps can agree that both sin and sickness result in separation. Barbara Brown Taylor has pointed out that sickness, like sin, can separate individuals from their communities—illness by isolating a person physically from others, and wrongdoing by isolating a person socially. Sin and sickness both heighten the vulnerability of human beings. But instead of politely looking away, or separating ourselves, James is asking us to face our human vulnerabilities head on as a community.[2]

“Are any among you sick?” asks James. “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” I don’t know about you, when I’m sick, my first thought is not to call the church deacons and have them come and pray and perform a healing ritual over me. When I’m sick, I’m weak. I’m in need. I’m dressed in my baggy pajamas. I’m not eager for people to see me in that vulnerable condition, and I wait until I’m better and more presentable, before even asking people to come and visit me. And yet, I’m always glad when people come. As Baptists, they may not come to anoint me with oil, but they will bring over a casserole, which in my mind is a Baptist anointing!

Similarly, I’ve noticed that people sometimes drop out of church or separate from others when there’s a personal or family crisis: they got divorced, someone got arrested, there’s been a moral failure or relational challenge. Oftentimes, they don’t feel like they can come to church until they’ve cleaned up their life, until they’re more morally presentable. They think church is for healthy people, for respectable people, for good people, and often times we in the church reinforce that idea, even though time and time again Jesus told us that he came for the sick and the sinners.

In our day and age, while we may have a hard time believing that sin causes sickness, we can understand how both sin and sickness cut us off from each other, and the healing God offers is a spiritual healing. I do believe that prayer of faith will save the sick. A physical cure may or may not take place, but in Christ, there will be a healing, a salvation, because the Lord will raise them up in a resurrection, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven by our merciful God. God offers this healing not just for an individual, God offers it for the community. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed,” says James.

Rachel Held Evans says that “at its best, the church functions much like a recovery group, a safe place where a bunch of struggling, imperfect people come together to speak difficult truths to one another. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned as individuals. Sometimes the truth is we have sinned corporately, as a people. Sometimes the truth is we’re hurting because of another person’s sin or as a result of forces beyond our control. Sometimes the truth is we’re just hurting, and we’re not even sure why. The practice of confession gives us the chance to admit to one another that we’re not okay, and then to seek healing, [forgiveness] and reconciliation together, in community.”[3]

James offers the illustration of the prophet Elijah as a model of powerful and effective prayer that took place on top of a mountain during an outward battle between Elijah versus the prophets of Baal. Perhaps for us today, a model of powerful and healing prayer may be what takes place weekly down in the basements of many churches during Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, where each participant confesses inward battles not only against sin, sickness and addiction, but also fear, doubts, injuries, trauma and pain. In this process, a healing community is created where each person no longer needs to wear a mask of goodness and respectability, but is free to show each other the places where he or she is broken and beloved.

This week, as Pope Francis visits the United States, I’m struck by how many people are drawn toward this man. But James would not be surprised, for here’s a man whose faith is shown by his actions. He isn’t polluted by the power and trappings of his position. He shows no partiality for the rich over the poor. Indeed, he looks after orphans and widows, he sneaks out at night to talk to the homeless, he embraces the handicapped and reminds the rich of our responsibility toward those on the periphery of life. He has offered words of blessing to gays and lesbians, words of forgiveness to women who have had abortions, and words of compassion to couples who are separated. As part of a Lenten tradition, he went to a jail and washed inmates feet – but for the first time, he included the feet of women and Muslims. As he did so, he publicly confessed, “Even I need to be cleansed by the Lord. And for this, pray during this Mass, so that the Lord also washes my filth also, so that I become more slave-like in the service of people as Jesus did.”[4] Here’s a man who has shown what it is like to love our neighbor as ourselves, and he inspires and challenges me to do the same. I believe his actions and his words have brought back many who have wandered away from the faith, and he has also gained the admiration of those who have no desire to join the faith, but still see something truthful and gracious in this man.

In this passage, James does not give us a theology of prayer. He does not give us any theories about how prayer works. The wisdom and power of prayer is not about what we believe about prayer, it is about whether we pray or not. Therefore, James gives us concrete things to do to make our lives a prayer.  He tells us to pray for one another in our suffering. He reminds us to sing songs to lift our spirits. He encourages us to call spiritual leaders to pray over us when we’re “sick” – weak, feeble, needy and poor. He tells us to anoint each other with oil or perform some other ritual that symbolizes love and care – like laying on of hands, or having a group hug, or bringing a casserole to someone who is sick. He reminds us to confess to one another and to forgive each other. When we do these things, we put our faith into action and have a greater chance to bring the wanderers back home. James calls us to make our lives a healing prayer.

As I end this sermon, I’d like to offer a prayer that is in keeping with the spirit of James and of Jesus. It is supposedly offered by a Christian Confederate soldier:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.[5]



[1] Mark Douglas, “James 5:13-20,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “James 5:13-20,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[3] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, p. 67-68.



Wisdom from Above

Preached by Michael Cheuk, September 20, 2015
Taken from James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

FaithInAction-icon w textThis morning, I continue my “faith in action” sermon series taken from the book of James. As I’ve mentioned in the Sundays before, James is a book that is full of straightforward and practical advice on how to live a good life, a life of faith. Faith for James is not just believing in the right things. Faith is doing the right things. Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves,” says James, “Do what it says.” And what are we to do? James mentions many things like looking after orphans, and widows, keeping oneself pure, not showing partiality for the rich over the poor, listening before speaking, and when speaking, being careful with our words. All of these actions can be summed up by the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself.

Throughout this book, James has been dispensing wisdom, and for James, wisdom is not found in our head, but in our behavior. Just as faith without works is dead, wisdom without works is just as dead. Wisdom is not just about having good ideas; it is about living good lives. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” asks James. “Show by your good life,” he answers

What is the good life and how do we live it? In the world today, there is no lack of “wisdom” being dispensed to answer this question. Many times, we hear answers like this: The good life is getting ahead and being wealthy, powerful, and successful. This is a dog-eat-dog world that rewards the survival of the fittest, and earthly wisdom teaches that you have to look out for number one, don’t admit mistakes, don’t show weakness, promote yourself and squash the competition. We hear slogans like, “Have it your way,” “Might makes right,” and “God helps those who help themselves.” We see this earthly wisdom being displayed on TV shows, in political wrangling, in our work place, in our families and even in church. We also see the fruit of such earthly wisdom: disorder, conflicts, and disputes.

Contrast this earthly wisdom with spiritual wisdom from above. James writes: “Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” We can spend a whole day going through each description of spiritual wisdom, but for our purpose this morning, I think it is enough to say that the spiritual wisdom that James describes has these characteristics: it is pure or holy, like God. It strives for peace or wholeness in ourselves and in our relationships. Wisdom from above is “willing to yield” or “willing and inclined to obey God.” It is full of mercy or good will toward those who are afflicted, and full of good fruit or good deeds. It is impartial or whole-hearted and undivided toward everyone. It is sincere, and not two-faced and doubled-minded. Bible scholars have noticed the similarity of James’ description of spiritual wisdom and Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Wisdom from above is not just believing or thinking the right things. Wisdom from above is also doing the right thing in the right way, God’s way. Those living the way of wisdom from above will reap a harvest of personal integrity and wholeness.

Purity, peaceableness, gentleness, willing to yield, mercifulness, wholeheartedness and sincerity. These are the qualities of a good life born of wisdom from above. This seems like such common sense. Who would disagree with these qualities? Now, if only other people would wise up and live out these qualities, my life would be so much better!

There once was an old couple who had been married for a long time. The man feared that his wife wasn’t hearing as well as she used to and he thought she might need a hearing aid. Not quite sure how to approach her, he called the family doctor to discuss the problem. The doctor gave him a simple test that he could perform to give the doctor a better idea about her hearing loss. “Here’s what you do,” said the doctor, “stand about 40 feet away from her, and in a normal conversational speaking tone see if she hears you. If not, go to 30 feet, then 20 feet, and so on until you get a response.”

That evening, the wife is in the kitchen cooking dinner, and he was in the den. He said to himself, “I’m about 40 feet away, let’s see what happens.” In a normal tone he asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” No response.

So the husband moved closer to the kitchen, about 30 feet from his wife and repeats, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Still no response.

Next he moves into the dining room where he was about 20 feet from his wife and asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Again he gets no response.

So, he walked up to the kitchen door, about 10 feet away. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” Again there is no response.

So he walked right up behind her. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” 

The wife turns around and says, “Ralph, for the fifth time I’ve said, ‘chicken’!”[1]


When there are problems, conflicts and disputes, it is so tempting to think that the problem lies with other people. And sometimes, that may truly be. At other times, however, we are the ones with the hearing problems. Instead of trying to change others, it is a better use of our energy to look into our own lives. Perhaps our conflicts and disputes stem from cravings and desires that are at war within us. We want something that we do not have, we covet something that we can’t obtain, so we engage in disputes and conflicts. How many times have we seen small children fight and argue over one toy because both are not willing to let the other have it? Conflict occurs because both covet something they can’t obtain. But when one child decides, “OK, you can have it, I’ll play with something else,” the other child takes that toy and many times quickly loses interest in it. Even when we obtain the object of our desire, we will often find that it does not ultimately satisfy.

Wisdom from above is learning how God can help us to order our excessive desires, to order a cease-fire in the war that is raging inside us to obtain love, approval, worth, comfort, security and acceptance from other people and from our environment. The only way for that war to end within ourselves is to submit ourselves fully to God. If we don’t submit and surrender to God, we will have a devil of a time finding peace and wholeness in our lives.

Last Friday, several members of UBC and I attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia’s General Assembly meeting. The theme was “Neighbours” and in the final worship service, we heard from our Baptist neighbor Jennifer Lau, Director of Global Discipleship at Canadian Baptist Ministries in Toronto, Canada. In her sermon, she mentioned Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, professor and writer. Her comments got me to thinking about Nouwen, who taught at Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School in a span of 19 years. However, in 1986, he permanently left academia and went on to work with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto, Canada. Nouwen, this brilliant professor, spent the rest of his life living and learning from people that the world usually discounts and discards. The wisdom he gleaned from his neighbors has been recorded in many books and articles.

One famous Nouwen quote is this: “Our life is full of brokenness – broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations. How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives.”[2] In another place, Nouwen also wrote, “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Blessed are those who care for the poor.’ He said, ‘Blessed are we where we are poor, where we are broken.’ It is there that God loves us deeply and pulls us into deeper communion with himself.”[3]

Wisdom from above is acknowledging that we are broken. We have broken relationships, we have broken promises, and we have broken expectations. Henri Nouwen continues to speak to this reality in his writing. I’ll quote and paraphrase at length from his writings here since I think he speaks directly to this.

Nouwen writes, “At issue here is the question: ‘To whom do I belong? God or to the world?’ Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves. All the time and energy I spend in keeping some kind of balance and preventing myself from being tipped over and drowning shows that my life is mostly a struggle for survival: not a holy struggle, but an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.

Nouwen continues, “As long as I keep running about asking: ‘Do you love me? Do you really love me’ I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with ‘ifs.’ The world says: ‘Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.’ There are endless ‘ifs’ hidden in the world’s love. These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain ‘hooked’ to the world – trying, failing, and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.”[4]

Nouwen offers us wise words. As I read them, I wonder, perhaps after all that’s said and done, wisdom from above can be boiled down to this: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” Because you see, I can’t love my neighbor as myself, if I don’t love my true self as God loves my true self. I can’t love my neighbor if I’m still using my neighbor to give me the unconditional love that I crave. Only the unconditional love of God can satisfy the deepest craving of my heart, and free me from my anxious insecurities and disordered desires that are at war within me. Only the unconditional love of God can give me the spiritual wisdom from above to live a good life.

I’ll conclude today with some parting thoughts and questions from Nouwen. He says, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking.” And so I offer you the questions that Nouwen often asked himself: “Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love?”

May the wisdom from above draw us near to God and help us answer these questions this week.



[1] As told in Cathy L. Wray, The Perfect Blend Devotional (WestBow Press, 2014) pages 147-148.




Loving ‘Neighbours’

Preached by Michael Cheuk, September 6, 2015
Taken from James 2:1-10

FaithInAction-icon w text

Have you ever attended a church service, where you found yourself silently arguing with the preacher? When the preacher made a point, you muttered under your breath, “Yeah sure, but . . .” When the preacher made an application, you jotted a mental note, “That’s easy for you to say, but it’s a whole lot harder to do . . .” All this week, I was having those thoughts and feelings as I was studying this passage. It’s bad enough when you have an ongoing argument with your preacher during a sermon; but it’s even worse when you have an ongoing argument with the preacher during the sermon and you ARE the preacher! But perhaps, the real preacher this morning is James. For as I said last Sunday, James is so straightforward and practical, that this morning’s epistle passage from James almost preaches itself. So let us place ourselves under tutelage of James as we hear these words through the power of the Holy Spirit.

James begins this message with a warning against favoritism using an opening illustration where members of a Christian community are fawning over a wealthy man dressed to the nines, all the while neglecting a poor man dressed in rags. Apparently, that was a problem that James had to address in his community. Here, I found myself inwardly arguing with James: “Surely, that isn’t a problem for us today. Of course I would be welcoming to both.” But then, I hear a whisper in the back of my mind: “That’s easy for you to say, but it’s a whole lot harder to do.”

Pretty regularly, a church member will drop by the church office unannounced. I often hear him or her speaking with Sue or Stephanie, and while sometimes I’m busy at my desk working, often times, I gladly put down what I’m doing to step out of my office to greet the member. Occasionally the church member will apologize for the interruption. I then say something like, “You’re never a bother; come by anytime.”

But things are different when someone buzzes in to ask for help paying an overdue bill. In these occasions, I’m usually a little wary and I can’t help but wonder about that person’s situation, judging whether that person is doing all he or she can to take responsibility for the problem at hand. I don’t want to naively hand out money to people who are trying to scam the church. On the other hand, when I think about how I treat church members compared to how I treat the folks who come looking for help, I feel convicted by the words of James: “If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you’, but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet’, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Reading this passage, I realize that I show favoritism and James has harsh words to say about this: “But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

I don’t like to think of myself as a law breaker. I find myself arguing with James, “Hey, I do the best I can. I try to keep the law.” To which James replies: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” James pulls no punches and his is a seemingly harsh judgment.

To be fair, the apostle Paul issued the same judgment to the church in Corinth. In the early days of the church, when Christians gathered together to worship, and they would have actual meal together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. At the church in Corinth, the rich Christians apparently got together for a private meal without inviting the poor to join them. In 1 Corinthians 11:20-28, Paul warned the church, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!  For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.” Many of you will probably recognize some of these words. The words we use every month to celebrate the Lord’s Supper come within the context of Paul’s warning not to show favoritism within the church.

So far, I’ve given nothing but bad news. Is there any good news in this passage from James? Well, James continues, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  There is judgment to be sure, but the good news according to James is this: it is a judgment by the law that gives freedom, and a judgment that is trumped by God’s mercy,

The law that gives freedom. What does that mean? When we show favoritism based on a person’s wealth, we are enslaved by the way society conditions us to value people according to what they earn and produce. What does our society value more, the work of the CEO, or the work of a minimum wage worker or a stay-at-home parent? To whom do our media pay attention, the rich and the famous, or the average Joe? When young people think about what to study in school, are they (or their parents) looking toward meaningful work or lucrative careers? In a society that tempts us to favor the rich and the powerful and to look down on the poor and the weak, God’s law strives to free us from such judgments and to free us to see all people as our neighbors, whose lives and well-being are intertwined with ours. When we are freed from such judgments, we are also freed to be merciful to our neighbors. Jesus reminds us: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”

The apostle Paul once said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the Kingdom of God, there are no second-class citizens; we are neighbors to one another. Not showing favoritism in loving our neighbors is a spiritual practice that frees us to show the mercy and love of our Lord. As we love our neighbors as ourselves, we are called to attend to our neighbor’s physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. This morning, we have an opportunity to show our love to our Hispanic neighbors here in Virginia by filling these orange Neighbor bags. Instructions for filling these bags are printed in the bulletin insert. This Wednesday night, we have an opportunity to learn how the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia is learning to love our ‘neighbours’ north of the border through our partnership this year with Canadian Baptists. That night, we’ll also have more of these orange bags to fill, no need to buy anything since all the items will be supplied. The bags will then be delivered to our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly meeting in a couple of weeks.

As we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s invitation does not favor one group over another – the rich over the poor, the saints over the sinners. The Lord’s Supper reminds us that while God’s love is impartial, God has such a special mercy for us law breakers, sinners poor and needy, that God in Christ moved into our neighborhood as a human being to be a living sacrifice to meet our ultimate need. Faith in this Christ means that my salvation is not just about how God can get me into heaven as an individual. No, faith in this Christ means that salvation is about how we can love God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength, so that we can love our neighbor – regardless how rich or poor – as ourselves, in community here and now, so that we may be prepared for eternity. Without such love in action, our faith is impoverished and anemic, or to use James’ words, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” In this morning’s passage, James is training us to live a robust faith, and in so doing, preparing us for heaven.

Long ago there lived an old woman who had a wish. She wished more than anything to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. An angel heard her and agreed to grant her request. He put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, “First you shall see hell.”

When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The hall was full of round tables, each piled high with the most delicious foods — meats, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts of all kinds! The smells that reached her nose were wonderful.

The old woman noticed that, in hell, there were people of all socio-economic backgrounds, seated around those round tables. Some were dressed in fine clothes, others in plain clothes. But all their bodies were thin, and their faces were gaunt, and creased with frustration. Each person held a spoon. The spoons must have been three feet long! They were so long that the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get the food back to their mouths. As the old woman watched, she heard their hungry desperate cries. “I’ve seen enough,” she cried. “Please let me see heaven.”

And so again the blindfold was put around her eyes, and the old woman heard, “Now you shall see heaven.” When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, filled with round tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that there were people – rich, poor, black, white, male, female – sitting just out of arm’s reach of the food with those three-foot long spoons.

But as the old woman looked closer, she noticed that the people in heaven were plump and had rosy, happy faces. As she watched, a joyous sound of laughter filled the air.

And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now she understood the difference between heaven and hell for herself. The people in heaven were using those long spoons to feed each other.

As we are fed by Christ at his Table this morning, let us also get a glimpse of heaven, where we feed each other as we pass the plates of bread and the trays of juice. In so doing, may God also strengthen us to put our faith into action, to love our neighbors without favoritism as a channel of God’s impartial grace, mercy and love.



Be Doers of the Word

Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 30, 2015
Taken from James 1:17-27

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Today, I begin a sermon series taken from the book of James, a brief letter found toward the end of the New Testament.  As I studied this book in preparing to preach it, I’ve found that many people either love or hate the book.  People love the book because it is so straightforward and practical.  Its main focus is on what it means to live an authentic Christian life, and James, in a very simple, rapid-fire, shot-gun way, makes pronouncements on a lot of topics.  Other people hate it—well, maybe “hate” is too strong a word—other people are not that fond of it because they think this book teaches a salvation by works, instead of by faith. For some, it is too simplistic, too scattered, and too preachy. Let’s face it, you’re reading James, and you get to verses like: “be quick to listen, slow to speak” (v. 19), “get rid of all moral filth and evil” (v. 21), and “look after orphans and widows” (v.27), it all begins to sound like your mother nagging you to “pick up your socks,” “brush your teeth before going to bed,” and “eat your vegetables before you can have dessert.” And you just want to say, “Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. Momma don’t preach!” Granted, who would disagree with the wisdom that James is teaching?  But do we have to hear it again?

I heard a story about an old preacher who preached a wonderful sermon one Sunday, and everyone in the congregation really loved it. The next Sunday, he preached the very same sermon again, and while the congregation thought that was a little strange, they didn’t think too much about it. But the following Sunday, that preacher preached the exact same sermon for the third time. This time, as one of the ladies of the church was making her way out of the church and shaking the minister’s hand, she just had to ask the minister: “Why have you preached the same sermon three weeks in a row?” To which the minister replied: “Well, ma’am, when you all start doing what I’m preaching, then I’ll move on to the next topic!”

Ahh, now there’s the rub. We hear and know what James is teaching us. We probably agree with the wisdom dispensed. But hearing and knowing and agreeing with what James is saying is not the problem. The problem is actually doing what James is telling us. The challenge is found in verse 22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

So how do we become “Doers of the Word?”

According to James, we become doers of the Word when we first embrace the generosity of God. We are reminded that “Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from God.” God generously gave us the universe when God, as the “Father of lights,” spoke at the beginning of time: “Let there be light.” God is also generously faithful to us.  Like the hymn says: “Great is thy faithfulness O God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with thee.” God’s generous gift of divine faithfulness is not variable; it doesn’t turn or change. Furthermore, God created us and gave us a new birth, the generous gift of salvation, through God’s word. This salvation we have experienced is the “first-fruits” or the foretaste of the salvation of all of God’s creatures. Let’s name our blessings: our universe, our lives, our salvation, our family and friends, our church family, our material possessions, our physical and intellectual capabilities, etc. Truly, we are the recipients of every good and perfect gift from God! We become doers of the Word when we first embrace the generosity of God, because God is the source of who we are and the resource of what we do.

Second, we become doers of the Word when we embody a generosity of Spirit. One way to embody a generosity of Spirit is by listening. We can’t be doers of God’s word when we haven’t listened to what it says we ought to do. As a Type A personality, I often find myself just jumping into doing without first praying and listening for an answer to this question: “God, what is it that you’re calling me to do?” I find that I’m much more like Martha busy and frantic at doing many things, when the only thing that is needed is to be like Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet to listen to him.

It takes a generosity of spirit not just to listen to God, but to listen to others. James tells us to be quick to listen and to be slow to speak and slow to become angry. How many times have we let our emotions to get ahead of us, and we stop listening to others? How many times have we not listened but instead assumed we knew what the problem was, and therefore, we applied the wrong solution?

A Baptist evangelist arrived in town for a healing revival service. During the healing service, a man comes forward and says, “Preacher, I’m concerned about my hearing.”
The evangelist says, “You say you’re worried about your hearing, brother?”
“Yes,” says the man, “I’m very concerned about my hearing.”
The evangelist suddenly slaps the man on the forehead and yells, “Be healed, brother!”
The man is stunned and falls backward.
The evangelist says, “Rise, brother! Tell me, how is your hearing?”
The man, still a bit stunned, answers, “I don’t know, Preacher. My hearing in court is next week.”

Many times, in our haste to do something and “help” in a situation, we don’t take the time to actually hear and listen in order to understand what the problem from another person’s point of view. It takes a generosity of spirit to take the posture of a learner and to listen before we speak.

In order to become a doer of the Word, we are called to embrace the generosity of God and to embody a generosity of spirit. Listening is crucial, but just listening is not enough. It must be followed by action. Therefore, we become doers of the Word when we exhibit a generosity of service. In verse 27, James writes: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Here, James challenges us to put our faith into action.

The word “religion” in verse 27 is actually the word for “religious worship.” James is saying that the pure and faultless worship of God manifests itself when we care for the powerless and dispossessed in our midst, and when we live an upright life. Many churches today fight about what is acceptable worship to God. Methodist Bishop Will Willimon once said: “Sometimes I have heard people say of church on Sunday morning, ‘I think of church as a filling station. I come here empty, and during the service I get filled so I can make it through the week.’ See? Passive, receptive, not active.”  Willimon continues: “It makes church into a place where we come, sit back and say, ‘OK preacher, choir, organist, what have you got for me today?  Fill me up.’ No. The test for good worship, the mark of a good church is not what we do here, during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week. Yet here, as elsewhere,” concludes Willimon, “after all is said and done, more is said than done.”[1]

On Sunday mornings, we receive God’s generous gifts of beautiful music, lovely singing, warm fellowship, scripture reading and preaching. It would be a shame to then walk out those doors and act like nothing had happened, and go back to our old lives unchallenged and unchanged.  To do that would be like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and, after looking at himself and noticing that his hair is all messed up, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like—without pulling out a comb to fix his hair. But James is exhorting us to be like the person who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and instead of looking and forgetting, the law is put into action. It’s not just what you know, it’s also about doing what you know. This generosity of service on our part reflects our belief that every perfect gift comes from God.

As children, we sang a song about the wise man who built his house upon the rock, while the foolish man built his house upon the sand, based on Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:24-27. What’s the difference between the two? Jesus says that the wise builder “hears these words of mine and puts them into practice,” while the foolish builder hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice. Both hear the words of Jesus. The only difference is that one puts them into practice and the other doesn’t.

During the past several weeks, the staff and I have had conversations with our church leaders to discover and discern ways that University Baptist can better put our faith into action. This coming week, a letter will be mailed or emailed to our members and regular attenders, and it will contain five questions for us to answer prayerfully. Some questions will ask us to embrace the generosity of God’s good and perfect gifts in celebrating the positive things that are going on at UBC. Other questions will require us to embody a generosity of spirit as we listen carefully to things we identify as challenges, problems, and priorities. Your frank and honest answers will be strictly confidential, and they will be printed out verbatim in time for our UBC Leadership Retreat on October 3. At the retreat, members of church council, deacons, and ministerial staff will listen both to the Word of God and to the words of our respondents to identity, prioritize, and implement action plans to put our faith into action so that we as a church may exhibit a generosity of service in the name of Christ to our neighborhood, our community and our world. Please be in prayer as we seek God’s direction for University Baptist Church.

Finally, I want to share a story of faith in action that happened just this morning. How many of you drove to church last Sunday, and saw the sea of red and blue plastic cups all along 14th and Wertland Streets? Every fall, right after move-in, parties take place all along those streets, and the cups and litter are a constant presence. Just as the first robin signals spring, the first red solo cup signals, “The students are back!” The trash is certainly ugly and I must confess that I shake my head in disbelief and disgust every time I see the rivers of trash left over from a long night of partying by students.

Two Fridays ago, I visited the manager of the apartments behind our parking lot and asked her when the “Wertland parties” were taking place. She replied “tomorrow night,” and the tense look on her face betrayed her anxiety as she prepared to get an earful from me. Was I there to complain in advance about students trashing our parking lot? Before I could respond, she quickly added, “but we’ve got our staff ready to clean up, and we’ve told our tenants not to throw stuff off their balconies onto your parking lot.” I thanked her for her concern about our property, but said that wasn’t the reason why I was there.  “I just wanted to tell you that a group from our church is planning to help pick up trash along the street next Sunday morning.” Her face softened visibly and she replied, “Oh, that’s so nice of you! Thank you!” I replied, “We just want to be good neighbors.” And that’s just what happened this morning – our youth and some of their parents went out earlier today along Wertland and 14th—and they were good neighbors.

Be doers of the Word. God’s Word calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the past several months, Will Brown and I listened to the concerns of UVA’s administration about the parties on Wertland St. Instead of speaking out in anger against drunken students trashing our neighborhood, I’ve been praying, “God, how can we address this problem in a way that showcases your grace?” God has generously blessed us with a wonderful youth group, and this morning, we tried one idea by empowering our youth group to love our neighbors. It’s a small thing. It’s not meant as an act of judgment. It’s not going to stop the problem. It’s just one small way, on this particular Sunday, to put faith in action, here in our neighborhood.

How will you put your faith in action this week? How might you embrace the generosity of God and offer the resources you have back to God? How might you embody a generosity of spirit to actively and carefully listen to God and to others? How might you then exhibit a generosity of service as a witness to the grace of God?  May God bless and empower us to be doers of the Word.



[1] William Willimon, “Doers of the Word.”

Be Strong in the Lord

Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 23, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 6:10-20


During the past five weeks, we have been exploring the book of Ephesians in our morning worship. This letter emphasizes how in Christ, God has broken down walls that separate us to unite us even in the midst of our diversity and differences. It reminds us of the breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s love and power at work within us to accomplish more than we can imagine. Therefore, we are called to put on Christ, to be imitators of God, as God’s beloved children, and to live in love, in the same way that Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.

Today, we come to the end of the letter, and in the sixth chapter of Ephesians, we are given a reality check. For Christians to live in unity while acknowledging our diversity, to live imitating God and putting on Christ, to live with love in our hearts and spiritual songs on our lips… to do all these things can be difficult. There are forces and powers out in the world and within ourselves that are constantly waging war against us to discourage and defeat us. In the midst of this struggle, we hear these words: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

How do we define strength in the world today? Oftentimes, we think of strength as an ability to out-smart, out-gun, out-think, and out-number our rivals, our enemies, and our adversaries. Political candidates tout their strengths and highlight the weaknesses of others. We celebrate companies like Apple and Google, and athletes like the women’s U.S. soccer team and football stars like J.J. Watt. UVA flaunts the SAT scores of their incoming first-years. Every fall we pray that the Cavaliers will beat the Hokies. Parents want their children to excel. We don’t want to be seen as weak. We don’t want to fail. There are so many high achievers here at UVA and in the Charlottesville area that competition is part of the air we breathe. We want to be strong.

But what does it mean to be strong in the Lord and putting on the full armor of God? While there are many battles taking place in our world today – literal battles with guns and tanks, political battles and debates, cultural battles – this passage suggests that the one really important battle is not a battle between “flesh and blood” human beings. Rather it is against forces and powers that we cannot see, but which do serious damage to individuals, families and communities. While the Roman empire was built on its military strength, early Christians were not called to bear arms against any human beings, because their battle was a spiritual one. Therefore this letter uses the common military gear of the Roman soldier and transforms this gear into new Christian metaphors of spiritual warfare.

Twice in this passage, Christians are told to “put on” the full armor of God. The word for “put on” is the same Greek word used earlier in Ephesians 4:24, where Christ followers are put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Putting on the full armor of God is just another way to illustrate what it means to put on Christ, to become a new self, a new creature in Christ. Therefore, the various pieces of armor are first and foremost, characteristics and qualities that Christ offers to believers to incorporate into our lives so that we can be strong in the Lord and stand firm even in the midst of attacks from the forces of evil.

The first piece of armor is the “belt of truth,” which holds the battle tunic together. In Colossians 1:15-17, Christ is described as the image of the invisible God, and “in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” When our world is unraveling and falling apart, we have Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life, who will hold us together as the belt of truth.

The second piece of armor is the “breastplate of righteousness,” which protects our heart and lungs. Romans 5:19 says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Christ) the many will be made righteous.” When the demonic powers of sin and shame and rejection attack us to break our hearts and puncture our spirits, we have Christ, whose obedience made us righteous in God’s eyes. In the saving work of Christ, we are loved and accepted by God.

When Christ has a hold of our lives and we experience Christ’s righteousness and God’s approval, we experience shalom, a wholeness and a peace that transcends all understanding and all circumstances. We can’t help but share that good news with others. Therefore, our feet will be fitted with the third piece of armor, a readiness not only to “talk the talk,” but to “walk the talk” that comes from the gospel of peace.

The fourth piece of armor is the “shield of faith.” “The Lord is my strength and my shield; My heart trusts in Him, and I am helped,” thus sings the psalmist in Psalm 28:7. As far back as Genesis 15, God spoke to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you.” When we don’t know what the future holds, when the flaming arrows of fear are hurtling our way, we can be sheltered behind God’s power and faithfulness because God reassures us, “Do not fear; trust in me. I am a shield to you.”

The fifth piece of armor is the “helmet of salvation.” 1 Thessalonians 5:8 says, “Let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” As Christians, our salvation comes through our Lord Jesus Christ. But the powers of this world are constantly attacking this truth, tempting us to think and believe that our salvation comes also from worldly success. We think we’re doomed if we don’t get into the college of our choice. We think we’re damned if we don’t “make the grade.” We think we’ll face the wrath of our parents or our peers or even ourselves if we fail in one way or another. A recent survey of 150,000 college freshmen nationwide found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently “felt depressed” during the past year. More than a third “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments. One respondent said that as a high school student, “You have to get good grades, have all sorts of after-school activities that take up tons of hours, and you have to be happy and social — you have to be everything. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to sometimes.”[1] Students, as important as grades and activities are, remember that your salvation comes from Jesus Christ. Put on the helmet of salvation as a protection against the demonic temptation to seek salvation elsewhere.

The final piece of the armor of God is the “sword of the Spirit,” which is the word of God. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Some say that the sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon in the armor of God. But I would say that before we use it on our enemies, the word of God should be used on ourselves to judge the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts.

When we put on the full armor of God, then we can be strong in the Lord. This strength does not come from ourselves. In fact, one mystery of the gospel is that through our human weakness, the strength of Christ is made most evident. The apostle Paul, when he talked about struggling with the torment of Satan as “a thorn in his flesh,” heard the Lord say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responds, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Last Thursday, former President Jimmy Carter told the world that he had cancer in his liver that has spread to his brain. Presidential scholars and everyday Americans can argue about Carter’s years in the White House, but most people agree that no other former President has done more to champion human rights, fight third-world diseases, or build Habitat for Humanity homes than Jimmy Carter. Throughout his press conference, he had a broad smile and an upbeat attitude. At ninety years old, Carter said that he’s had a wonderful life, and that he was feels “perfectly at ease with whatever comes.”  Despite this news, he continues to focus on others – he’s still hoping to travel to Nepal with Habitat this fall, and he talked about the Carter Center’s work in eradicating the parasitical guinea worm from Africa. In fact, he joked, “I’d like for the last guinea worm to die before I do.” Closer to home, even though he received his first treatment on Thursday, he is planning to teach Sunday School at his Baptist church this morning, just as he’s done for decades. By some standards, President Carter’s cancer diagnosis puts him in a position of weakness; but to me, he’s a living example of a Christian who is strong in the Lord.

Many of you here know Millie Fitzgerald, who passed away earlier this week.  Millie was a long-time member of UBC and a long-standing member of our sanctuary choir. For several years now, Millie suffered from various physical maladies, but despite the weakness of her failing body, she was strong in the Lord. Nine days ago, Millie contracted pneumonia and decided to forego treatment. Last Monday night, after our Deacon’s meeting, Ed Lowry suggested that a group of us walk across the street to visit Millie at UVA hospital. About eleven of us went to her room and found her asleep on her bed, laboring for breath, with no signs of recognition that we were there. For twenty minutes, we sang psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to Millie, with her daughters and other family members present. We left the room at around 8:45 p.m., and early the next morning, Millie’s daughter Amy emailed Ed Lowry: “Mom departed this life a little past one this morning. Betsy and I were with her, holding her hands as she took her last breath. It was very peaceful, and remarkable in that we knew it was happening. I have no doubt that the hymns helped to usher her on to a better place. I’ve never felt such overwhelming love in one place.”

In my conversations with Millie, she often felt useless and wondered why God still had her here. In all those conversations, I didn’t have an answer for her. But on that night, I couldn’t help but wonder if God kept her here so that Millie could give us one, final parting gift: the gift of the overwhelming love, grace, peace, and power of God, made perfect in her weakness.

Jimmy Carter, Millie Fitzgerald, and others you may know who are strong in the Lord are reminders to us that at the end of the day, at the end of our days, the most important things in life are not our GPA’s, our SAT scores, the number of letters behind our names, the number of digits on our paychecks. The most important thing is whether we have put on Christ, who is our spiritual armor, so that when the day of evil comes, we may be strong in the Lord and stand firm.



“Dressing for the Part”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 9, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 4:22 – 5:2


How many of you, when you were children, liked to play dress up?  I love watching my children play dress up.  I loved watching Thea put on her princess costume, because when she did that, all of a sudden, she was a princess, with aristocratic mannerisms, and a stately royal walk. In fact, there are some in this conversation who hardly remember seeing Thea when she wasn’t dressed up like this! Wesley had a wide array of dress-ups, too – athletic costumes, firefighters, Peter Pan, and more.  Eventually, his grandmother made him a variety of Star Wars costumes, from Han Solo to Darth Vader.  When Wesley dressed up in all black and put on his Darth Vader mask, all of a sudden he was a Sith Lord, embodying as much ominous presence, ponderous steps and heavy breathing that his six-year-old frame could muster.  And there’s just something about a 3-and-1/2-foot-tall Darth Vader walking up to me and solemnly declaring: “Luke, I’m your father!”

But playing dress-up is not limited to children.  As we grow up, I think most of us like to play dress up, too.  Think about your high school prom.  Think about the amount of time you spent finding the right suit, dress, jeans, or swimming suit.  Think about a wedding – now there’s even a slew of shows on TV that capture the moments of shopping, trying on dresses, making alterations, finding the right veil, etc. so that the bride can say “Yes to the Dress.” We might think shows like this can be excessive, but it shows that the brides – and the viewers – think it’s important to dress the part.  Setting aside weddings, think about our work world – company uniforms, lab coats, construction gear, coats and tie.  In this church, there’s a tradition of ordained ministers wearing robes in worship. The very act of dressing the part makes us a difference in fulfilling our jobs more appropriately. But when we come home after a busy workday, what’s the first thing we often do?  We change clothes, because sometimes the very act of trading your work clothes for jeans and a t-shirt can help the stress slip away.

It’s amazing the transformation that can occur when we put on new clothes.  Sometimes, it makes us behave differently, speak differently, even think differently.  Many times, we put on a new attitude befitting the clothes.  And that’s the picture from today’s lesson in Ephesians, which continues to teach us about what it means to be mature members of the one body of Christ.  Remember, the first three chapters of Ephesians described God’s amazing and costly reconciling work of bringing everything and everyone together in unity.  Last Sunday, chapter four taught us that we have an important role to play in maintaining that unity, all the while acknowledging the diversity of gifts within the members of the one body of Christ.  Today, we get to the nitty-gritty in terms of what it means for Jesus’ followers to grow up in maturity to be fully alive like Christ.

Today’s text states: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts,  23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  The dominant imagery in these verses is the image of someone putting off old clothes and putting on new ones.  It says: Put off your former way of life, your old self, and as you are doing so, put off old behaviors and attitudes.

First of all, when we put off our old self, we put off old ways of speaking—like falsehood and slander.  We are in the same family now, we are part of the same body, so let’s not lie to one another, let’s not smear another person’s reputation, let no evil talk come out of our mouths (vs. 29).

Secondly, when we put off our old self, we put off old ways of behaving—like letting anger fester in us so that it becomes destructiveLike taking things that are not ours.  Christians are expected to work honestly,[1] not solely for one’s benefit, but rather to help the needy.

Thirdly, when we put off our old selves, we put off old attitudes—like bitterness and wrath and wrangling, together with all malice (vs. 30-31).

We are called to put off those old behaviors and attitudes because it grieves the Holy Spirit.  Parents of children often grieve seeing their children fight and wrangle with each other.  But when we see our children playing nicely with one another, sharing, and encouraging one another, it warms our hearts.  I think that’s the way it is also with God.  How sad it is for God’s Spirit that dwells within God’s children to witness the bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander among us.

But it is not enough to just put off the old self, we must put on or clothe ourselves with the new self, modeled after the image of God.  Going back to the idea that when we come home from work, we often change clothes, it’s the same principle here.  Sure, when we get home from work, we might want to ditch our work clothes and stiff shoes.  But none of you just take off the old clothes, right?  Let me put it this way, if you’re coming home and walking around the house naked or in your undies, I don’t want to know about it.  Too much information!  No, we take off the old, work clothes, and we put on the new, comfy clothes.  This passage tells us not only to set aside the old self, but to clothe ourselves with God’s goodness, to put on the new self.  The Greek word used here for “put on” is the same word used in Romans 13:14: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Ephesians tells us that as we are adopted into the one family of God, as we are members of the one body of Christ, we now need to dress the part—we need to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.  And in doing so, we put on new behaviors and attitudes, the exact opposite of the old attitudes that we set aside.

First of all, when we put on Christ, we will put on new ways of speaking.  Let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  But we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and we speak only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that our words may give grace to those who hear.

Secondly, when we put on Christ, we will put on new ways of behaving.  We should labor and work honestly, so that we’ll have something to share with the needy (vs. 28).  And be kind to one another (vs. 32).

Thirdly, when we put on Christ, we will put on new attitudes.  Be tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Members of the family of God are to be compassionate and forgiving to one another, because it is only through the compassion and forgiveness of God in Christ that we became members of God’s family in the first place.

“Therefore,” the letter concludes: “be imitators of God.”  In 1992, Gatorade came out with a hugely successful commercial called “Be Like Mike.”  It took advantage of the fact that a whole generation idolized the Chicago Bulls basketball great Michael Jordan.  Thousands of Americans wore his number 23 Bulls uniform jerseys; thousands more donned his Nike Air Jordans.  We studied his moves, and even though we did not have his hang time, we hung out our tongues while we attempted to dunk the basketball.  And of course, we drank Gatorade, because we wanted to imitate Michael Jordan.  We wanted to be like Mike.

As followers of Jesus, we are called not to be like Mike, but to be like Christ, not to imitate Jordan, but to imitate God.  Of course, imitation of God, strictly speaking, is impossible because of the unbridgeable gulf between us and God.  Nevertheless, Christians are called to emulate God as children who are the recipients of God’s love.  We are called to imitate the God of love, the God who is love, by living in love.

One caution: dressing the part is not about the “outer clothes” (suit or robe) but our behavior and attitudes. Living in love by putting on Christ is not playing “dress up” on Sundays, and then going back to their old clothes and old selves the rest of the week.  Christ is not a costume we dust off and put on once a week or for special occasions.  Putting on Christ is putting on who we were created to be, who we were meant to be, and it is a life-long journey. One way to measure the progress of our Christian maturity is by asking ourselves, “How have we been more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, and kind during this year than last year?” “How have our words been more grace-filled and less critical lately than they were a decade ago?” “How have we been less enslaved by our fears, our anxieties, and our bad habits this year than last?”

The good news is that not only God’s Spirit abides in us to help us grow toward Christ-likeness, but God also places persons in our lives to walk alongside us as role models and fellow pilgrims in our spiritual journeys. They may be our parents, our peers, or a mentor. One group in the church that may help us in our spiritual journeys is our deacons. Here at University Baptist, our deacons do not function as a governing board telling the ministerial staff and other members what to do. Rather, they represent those entrusted by the congregation to exhibit servant leadership, to be a spiritual compass, and to model Christian character in their attitude, their behavior and their speech. In the New Testament, the word “deacon” comes from the Greek word diakoneo, which literally means “through the dirt.”  It refers to an attendant, a waiter, or one who ministers to another. We first see deacons in Acts 6 when the twelve apostles enlisted other disciples to serve as deacons, to minister to the church’s physical needs like waiting on tables during church meals, while the apostles ministered to their spiritual needs through preaching and teaching.

Here at UBC, our deacons don’t just take up the offering and serve communion during worship. Our deacons main function is to lead in organizing our Circle of Caring teams. We have a Congregational Care team that seeks to regularly check in on members. We have a Comfort Food team that brings food to those who may need a meal in the midst of a family illness or tragedy. Our Homebound team visits those in our congregation who are not as mobile as they used to be. Our Small Jobs team helps those who need a help hand in simple household tasks like changing light bulbs, replacing batteries in smoke alarms, and even some home repairs. Our Bereavement team provides comfort and support to those who have recently lost a loved one.  Our Transportation team provides rides for students and others on Sunday mornings and emergency situations. Our Hospital Visitation team ministers to those who have been hospitalized and their families. And our Celebrations team remembers the birthdays, anniversaries and other high points in our members’ lives.

This morning, we are blessed to have a group of individuals set apart by the church to serve as deacons. But while they may have a specific part to play in the life of UBC, all of us are called to put off our old selves and to clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Many years ago, an evangelist by the name of Jakov arrived at a village in Serbia. He met an elderly man there named Cimmerman, and Jakov began to talk to him of the love of Christ. Cimmerman abruptly interrupted Jakov and told him that he wished to have nothing to do with Christianity. He reminded Jakov of the dreadful history of the church in his town, where church leaders had plundered, exploited, and killed innocent people.

“My own nephew was killed by them,” he said, and continued: “They wear those elaborate coats and crosses, but I cannot ignore their evil.”

Jakov replied, “Cimmerman, suppose I were to steal your coat, put it on, and break into a bank. Let’s say that the police saw me from a distance. They could not see my face but they clearly saw your coat. What would you say if they accused you of breaking into the bank?”

“I would deny it,” said Cimmerman.

And Jakov countered, “‘Ah, but we saw your coat,’ they would say.”

The analogy annoyed Cimmerman, and he ordered Jakov to leave.

Even so, Jakov continued to return to the village periodically just to befriend Cimmerman, encourage him, and share the love of Christ with him. Finally one day Cimmerman declared that he wanted to be a Christian. After praying with Jakov, Cimmerman rose to his feet and hugged his longtime friend.  He said, “Thank you for being in my life. You wear God’s coat very well.”[2]

May we all dress the part, and clothe ourselves with Christ this coming week. Amen.



[1] Acts 18:3; 20:34; 1 Cor 4:12; 1 Thess 2:9; 4:11.

[2] Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? From a sermon by C. Philip Green, cited in

Gifts for the One Body

Preached by Michael Cheuk, August 2, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 4:1-16

body-of-christ_webThe human body is an amazing organism. I don’t think you have to be a biology major or a medical doctor to appreciate the complexity and beauty of the human body and its functioning. Each organ has its unique function and in order for the body to be fully healthy, every part of the body must do what it is designed to do. Did you know that:

  • By the time you turn 70, your heart will have beaten some two-and-a-half billion times?[1]
  • It takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 to frown?[2]
  • Human thighbones are stronger than concrete?
  • Your body uses 300 muscles to balance itself when you are standing still?[3]

Each member of the human body is different in its function, but each is needed for the full vitality and health of the organism as a whole. Perhaps that’s why the metaphor of the human body is used so many times in the Bible to describe God’s people, the Church. In our Epistle lesson this morning, the image of the body is used again to describe our life together as Christians. This passage highlights three characteristics of a healthy Christian body or community. We are called to maintain unity, acknowledge diversity, and strive for maturity.

The first quality of a healthy Christian body is the ability to maintain unity. Verse 3 states, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” It sounds great to maintain unity, but it is harder than it seems. We’ve all heard of people with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, or lupus, where the body begins to attack itself. Those are terrible diseases, and it is just as bad when a family, church, or group attacks itself through bickering and in-fighting. Many times, these attacks take place when the body loses sight of its mission and gets distracted by little things. The members fight about insignificant matters. That’s why the chapter opens: “I’m begging you all to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”

Do you know what your life calling is? Is it just to be successful in life, and to make a lot of money? Or is there a higher calling that God is calling you to that is bigger than your life? Do you as a family know what God has called you all to be? Is it just to make other family members happy? Or is there a higher calling to look beyond your family and its comfort? Do we as a church know our unique calling? Is it just to serve our own members? Or is there a higher calling that looks beyond our walls to be the presence of Christ in our community?

When we have a compelling vision and calling from God, we have a better chance to rally around that calling and not pursue our own individual interests and agendas. But maintaining unity in the body of Christ does not mean that every member has to think, act, believe and worship in exactly the same way. The passage notes that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. This unity comes from the nature and character of God. But notice what this passage doesn’t say. It doesn’t say there is one age group, one social economic class, one set of opinions, or one worship style. Matthew Henry once wrote, “The nature of that unity which the apostle prescribes is the unity of the Spirit. The seat of Christian unity is in the heart or spirit: it does not lie in one set of thoughts, nor in one form and mode of worship, but in one heart and one soul.”

The unity to which we are called is the unity of our hearts to love God. When we do that, we can better acknowledge the diversity of the gifts that God has given to each on of us. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. And we must also realize that God graces us with gifts often in ways we do not expect.

When I was about ten, I walked into the kitchen and found a bag on our kitchen table. Curious, I opened the bag and looked inside. I smelled the delicious perfume of peaches, but as I looked inside, I noticed the peaches were all wrinkly and bruised. I yelled out, “Mom, where’d you get these peaches? They need help!” My mom quickly entered the kitchen and tried to shut me up: “They are the overripe peaches that your aunt handpicked for us, and she’s still here!” Later that night, when we had some of those peaches for dessert, they were the juiciest, sweetest peaches I ever remember eating.

How many times do we reject God’s gifts just because, like those overripe peaches, those gifts are not presented to us in ways that are perfectly wrapped to our liking? Every day, we are confronted with people and situations that are different than what we expected or hoped for. In life, we have to reach beyond what is different and unfamiliar or initially uncomfortable to experience the rich fullness – even the sweetness – of what God offers. As we heard today, the youth and adults on our mission trip this week accomplished great things while working in very unfamiliar circumstances with very different people; yet by the end of the week, they built connections and found common ground. May we, too, be open to the unfamiliar and new, investing our time and resources so that the larger body of Christ may be built up.

Maintain unity. Acknowledge diversity. Finally, we are called to strive for maturity. One mark of spiritual and emotional maturity is having the conviction of one’s beliefs and values, yet still remaining connected to the body without having to have everything your way. We need the conviction of our beliefs so that we are not tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching or every passing fad. But we also need to remain connected to the body through Christ, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, as each part does its work. There’s this classic image of children who don’t get their way on the playground: They take their marbles and leave. We’ve seen so-called adults do that too. But we are called to a higher way of remaining in fellowship with those who are different and difficult, for the sake of Christ and in response to His love.

An 11-year-old girl wanted her dad to accompany her and some friends to a Taylor Swift concert. Her dad was a professional musician with the symphony and, frankly, could not stand pop music. He reminded his daughter about his taste in music and told her to find another parent to chaperone. On the night of the concert, when the girl and her friends found their seats, she also found her father sitting in the row waiting for her. “Dad, what are you doing here? I thought you hated this music!” “Yes, I hate this music,” her father replied, “but I love you.”

Maturity means having clarity of one’s conviction and yet remaining connected to those in community with us. For each member of the body of Christ is made in the image of Christ.

A monk meditating in a hut in the wilderness opened his eyes to discover an unexpected visitor sitting before him – the pastor of a well-known church.

“What is it you seek?” asked the monk.

The pastor recounted a tale of woe. At one time his church had been packed, but now hard times had come. People no longer flocked there to nourish their spirits, the stream of young people had dried up, and the church was struggling. Only a handful of members were left, fulfilling their Christian duties with heavy hearts.

The pastor asked: “Is our trouble due to some sort of sin in the church?”

“Yes,” said the monk, “a sin of ignorance. A person in your church community is the Messiah in disguise and you are ignorant of this.” Then monk closed his eyes and returned to his meditation.

Throughout the arduous journey back to his church, the pastor’s heart beat fast at the thought that the Messiah had returned to earth and was right there in the midst of the congregation. Who could it be? The head of Deacons? A choir member? One of the youth? A Sunday School teacher? Maybe a visitor? No, not them; they had too many defects, alas. Come to think of it, everyone in the church had defects, including the pastor. Yet one of them was the Messiah!

Back in the church, the pastor assembled the members and told them what he had discovered. They looked at one another in disbelief. The Messiah? Here? Incredible! But one thing was certain. If the Messiah was there in disguise, they would not recognize that person. So they took to treating everyone with respect and consideration, welcoming them into the body and affirming their gifts. “You never know,” they said to themselves when they dealt with one another, “maybe this one is the Messiah.” [4]


We like our stories to have happy endings, so we wonder… Did this church return to the glory days of people filling the pews? Perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps the point is the growth of a church where members, with love and joy filling their hearts, treated those inside and outside the church as the Messiah.

Where is the Messiah today? Christ the Messiah is here in our midst as we celebrate communion. As we take these elements, as we receive these gifts of the bread and the cup, may they strengthen the One Body of Christ, the church. As we take these elements, let us realize that the Messiah is also in each of us.

As a church here on West Main that is part of a church that extends around the globe, may the love of Christ within each of us overflow in our hearts so that we may mature in Him. As one body here and around the world, may we accept God’s gifts and live a life worthy of our calling. Amen.

[1] Assuming 70 beats/minute.




“More Than We Need”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, July 26, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-13

Loaves-and-fishesBack in 2004, Beth’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by taking the whole extended family on a week-long Caribbean Cruise. We boarded a Royal Caribbean cruise liner, and, true to its name, we were treated royally. There were chocolate mints on our pillows every night, and each day, our steward would make animal shapes out of our bath towels. At times we enrolled Thea and Wes in a kid’s camp, which left us free to do what we wanted. And there were lots of things to do: hanging out by the pools, playing shuffleboard, rock climbing, shopping, dancing, taking in shows, etc. They even had a casino – not that I would know anything about that. Even walking around the ship was a delight to the eye – there were fountains, chandeliers, libraries, lounges. The whole week was about luxury and indulgence.

But the highlight of the cruise for me was the food. Now, while so many people who go on cruises rave about just how exquisite the food is, Beth and I agreed that the food they served on our cruise was good, but it wasn’t “out-of-this-world” great. Perhaps we are jaded by our dining experiences in some very fine restaurants in Charlottesville. But from my perspective, what the food lacked in gourmet quality, it abounded in gourmand quantity. For those of you who don’t know French, “gourmand” is another word for “glutton.” And let me tell you, it was a glutton’s paradise! You should see the quantity of food they served in their all-you-can-eat breakfast and lunch buffets! Eggs of all kinds, sausage, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, donuts, pastries, fresh fruit, and then for lunch, smoked salmon, shrimp, roast beef, ham, all different kinds of salads, vegetables and desserts. I’m getting hungry just talking about it!

While a more sane person would have just enjoyed the spread, I saw each meal as a personal challenge, man vs. food, and the food was going down! One night our waiter heard me trying to decide between the sea bass and filet mignon and said, “Why don’t I just bring you both?” I replied, “No, no, no, I couldn’t . . . well, if you insist!” Who was I kidding? I ate them both. And then there were the midnight dessert buffets, with ice sculptures and chocolate fountains. At the buffet and dinner, the more people ate, the more food the staff would bring out. After a while, even I had to quit. When I got back home, I made the mistake of checking myself on the scale. Oh, yeah: I had gained more than 7 pounds in seven days! All that food was more than I needed. And the description of my big ole appetite was more than you needed to know!

Looking back, it just all seemed so extravagant, so excessive, so decadent. And that’s just how you could have described the city of Ephesus during the time of Jesus. Ephesus was a major metropolitan area. Ephesus had a population of nearly 250,000 people and was home to more than twenty pagan temples. Artistic beauty, cultural learning, pagan worship, world trade, criminal activity, and sorcery flourished amidst great wealth. As residents of one of the most sophisticated cities of the Roman Empire, the Ephesians enjoyed such luxuries as running water, indoor toilets, fountains, gardens surrounded by magnificent columns, colonnaded streets paved with marble, gymnasiums and baths, a library, and a theater that could seat an estimated 25,000 people. Compare that to John Paul Jones Arena, which can seat a little over 14,000 people!

At the heart of the city’s life and economy was the worship of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, nature and fertility. And the crown jewel of the city was the temple dedicated to Artemis. It was 450 feet long, 220 feet wide (much bigger than a football field), and it had more than 120 columns sixty feet high. It was designated as one of the seven wonders of the entire world. Because Artemis was considered to be so powerful and protective of her temple, people from all over the world deposited money there, which in turn was loaned out at a high rate of interest. Due to the glorious temple of Artemis, the Ephesians became very successful, very powerful, and very rich.[1]

I can imagine that in the midst of all this excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication, and extreme power, the fledgling, little church at Ephesus felt small and insignificant. The writer of this letter, some think it was the apostle Paul, wanted to remind this church that despite their unimpressive, outward appearance, they were in fact, adopted sons and daughters of Jesus Christ, chosen before the creation of the world. Last Sunday, we learned that while they were once Gentiles, outsiders and strangers to God’s chosen people, they were now, through the saving work of Christ, members of God’s household, built together with Christ the cornerstone to become a holy temple. While the citizens of Ephesus had the famous, temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world,[2] the citizens of God’s people were themselves a living temple of the living God. They themselves were the building where God’s own Spirit dwelt. They themselves were a wonderful testimony of the grace and love of God.

In this morning’s reading from Ephesians, a prayer is offered for the church members at Ephesus. In this prayer, the excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication, and extreme power of Ephesus are countered by the excessive extravagance and power of God’s love and blessing. Paul seemed to be saying, “Some might think that what you should be most known for is the temple of Artemis, but I say that what you should be most known for is being the temple of God, and having your identity as sons and daughters of God the Father.

Furthermore, while some might think that what’s most important are the outward riches and glory provided by the temple of Artemis, “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, … you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” While some might think that the magnificent dimensions of the temple of Artemis—220 feet wide, 450 feet long, with columns sixty feet high—is what gives the city its power and prestige, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of God’s love].” I pray that you will “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” For Christians, the excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication and extreme power that characterized the city of Ephesus and the temple of Artemis paled in comparison to the extravagant love, grace and power of God.

Some of you might remember the movie Crocodile Dundee, a story about Mick Dundee, an Australian who lived in the wild outback but who was now trying to make his way in New York City. In one scene, Mick was walking the streets of New York when he was approached by a mugger brandishing a small, sharp switchblade. Mick looked at the blade and remarked, “That’s not a knife, mate.” Drawing his own 9-inch bowie knife, he continued, “Now that’s a knife.” Similarly, Paul seemed to be saying about the culture in Ephesus, “That’s not riches, glory and power, mate,” and then pointed to the grace and love of God, and continued, “Now that’s riches, glory and power!”

I must confess, many times it is easier to hear that we have the riches, glory and power of Christ within us than it is to truly believe it and to live it out. Too many times I’m more awestruck by the outward trappings of wealth, power and influence of other people than I am cognizant of the riches, grace and love of Christ within me. How much of our identity is wrapped up in the outward trappings of what we have? In our own lives and in our community, what are the temples of Artemis that have power over our lives and make us feel small and insignificant? How many times do we play the comparison game, and find ourselves not measuring up?

As I look out in the world today, I also feel a sense of inadequacy in meeting the needs in our community, in my family, in the church. I feel like we’re already living on thin margins, and any little thing will push us over the edge. Many times, despite promises of the power and resources of God, I often feel like we don’t have the resources to meet our own needs, much less other people’s needs. Have you ever felt like that?

I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt in our Gospel lesson when they saw 5000 hungry people, and wondering how in the world they were going to buy enough bread to feed them as Jesus requested. Philip came right out and said that money was not budgeted for that expenditure. Andrew went a bit further and started looking for contributions but all he could come up with was one volunteer: a child, a boy, who had in his lunch basket five barley loaves and two fish. Even Andrew wasn’t impressed with what he found, for he said: “But what are they among so many people?” But what did Jesus do with the lunch? Jesus took what was offered to him in faith, he gave thanks, and he multiplied it so that at the end of the day, everyone had their fill. And the food that was left over would have brought a cruise liner buffet to shame.

Isn’t it amazing how over and over again, God takes whatever we have and does a great thing with it? The Bible is full of stories like that. Do you not remember Moses holding only a shepherd’s staff and God asking him, “Moses, what do you have?” “Only a stick, Lord,” replied Moses. But in the service of God, a mere stick did a mighty thing. Remember the little boy David with only a slingshot and five river stones? But in the service of God, that stone felled a mighty giant. The Bible is full of stories of people who offered what they had (whether that be, in the eyes of the world, a little or a lot), and God took it and multiplied it into much more than they needed in the service of God’s work and glory.

But here I must add a word of caution. In our overly consumerist world, it is easy to make God’s extravagant power, riches and blessings into a buffet to gorge our spiritual and materialistic appetites. It is tempting to think: “Oh great! God will give us more than we need! Bring it on! Give me more love! More power! More riches! More blessings!” But if we grasp the width, length, height and depth of the love of Christ in this consumerist way, then in the end, we just end up being full of ourselves. But that’s not what Paul is praying for. He’s praying that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God so we can turn around and offer it back to God. Paul writes: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

The abundant power, riches, and blessings that God gives to us were not meant to stay in us. They are the resource that God gives so that we give glory to God for the sake of the church and all generations. There’s a special word that Christians use to describe this phenomenon. We call this: “Stewardship.” Stewardship is not just about giving a percentage of our income, or offering our time and our talents to the church. It is more about recognizing and appropriately responding to the abundant blessings that God has already given to us. As such, it is less about our finances and more about God’s faithfulness. It is less about our bank account and more about God’s riches. When we look at things this way, we start moving from an attitude of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. In the Kingdom of God, there are no “free-riders,” people who consume and benefit from others’ work and gifts without making a contribution of their own. Each child of God in God’s household is called to special tasks and chores. It does not mean that we say “yes” to everything, but it might mean that we go beyond what we think we could offer, trusting in God’s abundant riches to provide ultimately for more than we need.

Last Sunday, the Finance Committee met, noting that at the end of June, our church has collected $58,000 less than the ministry plan we voted on. As of the end of June, we’ve collected $16,000 less than what we collected at the same time last year. Understandably, there was some concern among committee members, and it is good for all of us to be mindful of this update. However, I want to remind us all that UBC has always stepped up in faith to meet needs and give witness to God’s abundance and grace. In our giving and in our whole lives, may God’s power at work within us, accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

Because the truth is this: in Christ, we do have more than we need. As adopted children of God, we have God’s salvation. We have God’s love and grace. These are things that no money in the world, no work we can accomplish can earn. We have our church family, flawed though we may be. We also have God-given talents, gifts, and abilities to accomplish far more than we can imagine for the glory of Jesus Christ.

The question we’re confronted this morning is: “What’s in our basket? What’s in our hands? Will we offer them to God?” The good news is that when we offer all that we have to God, we find that in Christ, we have more than we need.


[1] “Ephesus,”


“Breaking Down Walls and Building Bridges”

Preached by Michael Cheuk, July  19, 2015
Taken from Ephesians 2:11-22


Walls. Throughout history, human beings have constructed walls for various reasons: to mark boundaries, to protect inhabitants on one side and to keep out intruders or enemies on another. There have been famous walls, like the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall in England, and the Berlin Wall that divided Germany. When I was in Israel earlier this spring, we visited another famous wall, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a 187-foot-high section of the ancient wall that once enclosed and supported the Temple at the time of Jesus. It is also called the “wailing wall” because for centuries Jews have gathered there to lament the loss of their Temple, which was completely destroyed by the Romans about forty years after Jesus’ death.

Today’s New Testament lesson mentions another wall, the “dividing wall” that separated Jews from Gentiles. There was such a wall in the Temple during Jesus’ time, but it was also destroyed by the Romans. If you look at your bulletin insert, you’ll find a simple diagram of the Temple in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time, and you’ll see a dark rectangle that separated the court where Gentiles could gather from the inner court reserved for Jews and Priests. Gentiles were separated from Jews because they were seen as unholy and unclean. In the middle of the diagram, you’ll see a small shaded T-shaped building which is the Temple building. Inside was the “Holy of Holies,” the most sacred dwelling place of God, which must not be defiled by unclean and sinful human beings. Not even Jews were allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies, except for the High Priest once a year in order to offer a sacrifice seeking God’s forgiveness for Israel’s sins.

For centuries, Jews understood the holy nature of God and the unholy nature of Gentiles in this way. The dividing wall in the Temple was a physical symbol and reminder of the historical, racial, religious, and spiritual divide between the Jews and the Gentiles. For centuries, Gentiles were seen as detestable and an abomination (Deuteronomy 18:9), without God, and with no hope. Gentiles were called “the uncircumcised,” which was a racial slur and a religious insult.

Imagine yourself as a member of one of the congregations in the region of Ephesus that heard the message of our New Testament lesson this morning. “So then, remember that at one time you who are Gentiles by birth, you were without Christ, you were labeled with derogatory terms, you were excluded from citizenship in Israel, you were segregated from God.”

Have you ever been treated as an outsider? I have. When my family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1970s, my sister and I and our cousins were the only Chinese students in our elementary school. For some of my classmates, I might as well have been an alien from Mars. Looking back it’s hard to blame them since they’ve never seen anyone like me. However, some showed their discomfort by making fun of me, making “slanty eyes” faces at me, and calling me names. It was painful to be reminded again and again that I was different. It was painful to be excluded, to be on the outside looking in, to feel inferior and ashamed.

I wonder if those Gentile Christians in Ephesus felt the same way? Thankfully, while they were once strangers and aliens, that was not the whole story. The good news was that while they were once far away from God, now in Christ, they have been brought near. It’s as if the physical dividing wall in the Temple courtyard that separated them from the Jews had been torn down, opening the way for the ending of hostility between the two groups.

According to the writer of Ephesians, Jews and Gentiles were brought together as one people, as a new humanity, by Christ. Through Jesus’ painful rejection and death on the cross, all human beings, Jews and Gentiles alike, now have access to God in one Spirit. Instead of depending on a high priest to offer a yearly sacrifice in the Holy of Holies, Jesus himself is described as the ultimate High Priest (in the book of Hebrews) who continually ministers on our behalf to God. Jesus our high priest not only broke down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, but even more importantly, he broke down the dividing wall between human beings and God.

In Christ, Gentiles were made full-fledged citizens with God’s people, and not just citizens, but also members of the family of God. Do you know how radical this is? It would be akin to someone saying that all undocumented aliens in the United States are now full-fledged citizens, and not just citizens, but members of our families with a right to an inheritance from our parents! All this sounds like amazingly good news if you are the outsider, the alien, the Gentile. It does not sound so good if you are already an insider, a citizen, a Jew. To put it another way, this all sounds like grace if you are the laborers who only worked an hour and still received a days’ wage. However, we’re likely to sound off and grumble if we are the laborers who’ve worked all day and got the same pay as the latecomers. Breaking down walls is a messy business. Some see it as an entry way toward unity and reconciliation. Others see only ruin and the rubble of a former way of life. We need not only walls to be broken down. We also need bridges to be built up to span and connect the divides.

Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully human, serves as a bridge for all human beings to have full access to God. Toward the end of this passage, the writer uses a construction image: Christ Jesus is the cornerstone, and in Him, we are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place, a temple, for God. In these two verses, the writer of Ephesians radically redefined the Temple, overturning one thousand years of history and religious practice! Because of Christ, the Temple of God is no longer made of inanimate bricks, but is being built together spiritually by you and me and all those who call Christ Jesus “Lord” and “Cornerstone.” We are now the dwelling place for God! What’s more, the Holy of Holies is no longer a place in Jerusalem, but it is the person of Jesus, who, as we’ve seen in the Gospels, was not defiled by unclean and sinful human beings. Indeed, Jesus hung out with unclean people. When he touched them – like lepers or the woman who suffered twelve years with bleeding – Jesus didn’t become unclean. Instead, Jesus made them clean and whole. That’s why Jesus is our peace, who brings not only an end to hostilities, but who also brings wholeness, healing, and reconciliation . . . with God and with others. Christ, who left the holiness and comfort of the heavenly realms to dwell on earth and identify with human beings, both broke down the wall and bridged the divide between God and humanity.

So what does breaking down walls and building up bridges look like for us? Let me offer three vignettes.

First: Mark Andrew Miller’s life is a study of contrasts. He is black, but was adopted and raised in a white family, a situation that came with a good bit of tension trying to figure out his racial identity. He went to Julliard and trained in classical organ, and he knew he wanted to be involved in music ministry. His first job was at a black church in Harlem, and on his first Sunday, he played “This little light of mine” on the organ, in a style much more appropriate for Julliard than this particular church. The church actually stopped him in the middle of the song and told him he couldn’t play like that. It was only then that Mark discovered a whole new genre of music: gospel. So he immersed himself in this new musical culture and learned from scratch how to play gospel music in a black church. Now, almost all of the songs he composes are a mix of classical and gospel music. Mark Miller is on the faculty at the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. Will and Erin Brown sang under his directorship in the Gospel Choir at Yale. He’s also the composer of today’s Hymn of Response: Christ Has Broken Down the Wall.

Second vignette: In Molly Baskette’s book, Real Good Church, she shared a testimony offered by a young woman named Celeste. Celeste said:

“I confess that I have hated myself. As I gradually, begrudgingly, painfully realized that I was attracted to women and not men, I had to radically reassess how I viewed myself. I came from a tradition where all the adults I loved and respected taught, in no uncertain terms, that being gay was a choice, and a morally reprehensible one at that. It is hard and stressful for any of us to rearrange deeply embedded convictions. The process for me has included grief-filled years of journeying through denial, shame, paranoia, fear of exposure, desperation, and, quite recently, outward rejection by those whom I most sorely want to give me protection and unconditional love. . . . To my surprise, some of my biggest supporters have been two conservative evangelical friends who are uncomfortable with homosexuality. Some people would call them homophobic, but in my time of great need, they have been nothing but gracious and loving. They respect me. They trust my love in God. They are grieved at the fact that I am in pain. They love me. And I love them. . . . Even though their lack of enthusiasm for my sexual orientation is hurtful, I love them too much to draw lines in the sand. None of us are interested in talking about who is “right” or “wrong.” And slowly I think we are challenging each other’s assumptions. These conservative friends and I are parsing out what is means to be friends, despite beliefs that hurt each other. They know that a house divided can’t stand and the love we have isn’t worth losing.”[1]

Third vignette: During my years as a college student, whenever I came home for a visit, my mom would sometimes ask me this question: “So, have you found somebody?” She would most often ask this question while she was cutting my hair. Mom probably figured that since I couldn’t get away in the middle of a haircut and she had a pair of scissors in her hands, I was stuck and had to answer her question.

“Have you found a girl that you like?” Mom continued. “Maybe a nice Chinese girl?”

“No,” I would answer, “I haven’t found anyone.”

For three years, Mom asked me that question, and every time I said, “No.”

But during the spring of my senior year in college – I’m such a procrastinator – I did find someone that I liked . . . a lot. I liked Beth so much that I asked her to ride up from Houston with me to Shreveport to meet Mom and Dad. Incredibly, she said yes. But throughout the trip, I was fearful, because I wasn’t sure how Mom would react. I had told Mom about Beth, but would she welcome her? Would Mom be disappointed that I didn’t bring home a Chinese girl? I have heard of parents who disapproved of their children dating and marrying outside their race.

We finally arrived, and Beth and I knocked on the front door. Mom opened the door and the first thing she said was, “Beth!” and wrapped her arms and gave Beth a big hug. I was both relieved and disappointed. Relieved that Mom truly welcomed Beth into our household. Disappointed that Mom acknowledged Beth first before turning to me to say, “Oh, and hi, son!” Had I been less secure in my mother’s love, I might have been afraid that Mom’s welcome and inclusion of Beth might mean that she would love me less. But of course Mom has shown over the years that her love is big enough to include my dad, me, my sister Lisa, our Anglo spouses, and her four grandchildren fully, equally, and uniquely.

I believe that God’s love is big enough to include all humanity and strong enough to transcend our pain. For God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, who has broken down the dividing walls between heaven and earth, between Jews and Gentiles, between female and male, and, I believe, between black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, trans, and all other categories that the world uses to identify people. I don’t believe that God wants to destroy those identities. God only desires that as Christians, our main identity comes from Christ.

Christ is our peace. He breaks down our walls of guilt, walls of shame, walls of fear. Christ is our cornerstone. He builds up bridges to connect us to God’s grace, forgiveness, and love. Christ ushers in a new humanity, bringing wholeness, healing, and reconciliation.

In other words, God invites us to be fully conformed into the image of Christ, which is a life-long journey that begins with our baptisms, as John Brown reminded us this morning. Remember also, at one time – you, me, we – all were Gentiles by birth, outsiders, unclean, aliens, separated from God. Thanks be to God who, in Christ, has broken down the dividing wall and built a bridge for us to become citizens with God’s Kingdom and members of God’s family!

In Christ, we have been recipients of God’s grace. May we now follow this Christ in extending the same grace to others by breaking down walls that divide and building up bridges that connect us to God and with one another!  Amen.

Go now with the blessing of God. And as you go,

May Christ our peace break down walls of guilt, shame and fear

May Christ our cornerstone build up bridges of grace, forgiveness and love

May the Spirit of wholeness, healing and reconciliation make us into a new humanity,

citizens of God’s Kingdom and members of God’s family.



[1] Real Good Church by Molly Phinney Baskette (2014), p. 133-135.

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