Saturday, January 24, 2009

Our Hope of the Resurrection

Bombs rain down heavily upon the Gaza strip upon the countless thousands of its unsuspecting inhabitants. Artillery shells and tank projectiles pummel several dozen targets designated by the Israeli government as Hamas hideouts or rocket launch sites. Armoured vehicles roll across the streets, crushing and demolishing civilian infrastructure in their wake while infantrymen, armed to their teeth, let loose a crippling barrage of deadly ammunition, taking the lives of anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way. Bodies lay strewn on the streets, some in pools of blood, some in mangled pieces. An entire city reduced to rubble within days, critical infrastructure demolished and the lifeline of Palestinians severed. Not even those seeking refuge in facilities bearing the United Nations flag are spared, as these too become the targets of the Israeli blitzkrieg.

On the Israeli border, countless people awake each day to the sound of rockets. They wait in hushed anticipation each time they hear a whistling that grew louder and louder with each passing moment, wondering where the incoming projectile would strike next. Though their losses are few, far fewer than the casualties of the opposing side, they were significant – significant enough to bring about fear and inflict a paralysing blow to their psyche. They wonder, like the people on the opposite of the border, when would be the day when their very lives would be snatched away from under their breaths.

Elsewhere, all around the world, alarm bells go off. From great nations to small, all call for the cessation of the armed conflict, for a peaceful resolution to the situation, for bilateral talks aimed towards coexistence and cooperation. All but one – the mightiest nation of them all, the conglomerate of 50 states called the United States of America. The mighty eagle supports Israel in its crusade against the Palestinians, an agenda perhaps to undermine the Hamas government. With one simple word, the eagle nullifies a Security Council resolution calling for action against Israel.  It is only with increasing international pressure that it finally relents to allow a resolution calling for the ceasefire in Gaza to pass. Even so, it was only through its abstention from voting.

So now comes the question. Would there ever be lasting peace in the troubled region of Gaza, and elsewhere in the world for that matter? Can there ever be a solution or an answer to all the conflict, the bloodshed and the turmoil that have engulfed and suffused the region for decades now? Can there ever be a lasting respect and understanding between the two mutual enemies to not only avert yet another humanitarian crisis, but also to inject a sense of reciprocity, of caring and sharing between both nations?

The simplest answer to this hapless mess can be encapsulated within one word – LOVE. Almost any human being who has ever walked on this earth would say without or with minimal hesitation that mutual respect and understanding, in other words love, needs to be present in both parties for the conflicts to be resolved. This would inevitably mean that either one or both parties must lay down some of their self interests in the process of achieving lasting peace because one cannot love another when all he can think of is himself.

Thus, almost everyone regardless of faith or non-faith attests to the need for love. In this sense, all of us share a commonality. However, as we readily see all around us, the act of giving can actually be a gigantic task and the choice to lay down our interests for another party can prove to be an almost impossible step given our propensity towards self-preservation and “need” to claim our “rights”. In other words, all of us find it difficult to give to another person in love because it goes against our very nature of self-preservation. Of course, giving to a friend can be easy because we like the person. But how about giving to an enemy? (Evidently, we would rather give them a punch or two in the face) We insist in having things our way, laying claims readily to what we believe is rightfully ours, instead of consciously choosing to “lose” so that others can “win”.

So now comes the dilemma then. If our human nature insists on having its own way, which is clearly quite devoid of love, then how can there ever be lasting peace and unity among all mankind? Take the scenario I have presented earlier. Israel refuses a sovereign statehood for the Palestinian people, while Palestine can hardly accept the notion of allowing Israel erect a whole empire on the piece of land that was rightfully theirs. If both sides will not let go of their interests and claims, then clearly, no amount of negotiations, no number of treaties, memorandums and pacts will have substantial impact towards peace and unity.

But of course, we cannot blame either party for their decisions. After all, they are only trying to protect the interests of their people. In this world where survival of the fittest is the golden rule of the game, one can hardly point a finger towards any one single group for all that is happening around us.

Yet, what if it were never meant to be that way? What if there was another way, a new kind of hope that would push us towards love? What if there was such a hope that, if were real, would move us out from our survival games and push us to a whole new level of loving and giving? Is it possible that such a hope can exist in this messed up, chaotic and tumultuous world?

What if I say that such a hope does indeed exist, that in fact, this hope that we so dearly need is already present amongst us, for the past two millennia? Indeed, this hope is present even today. We think otherwise simply because we have not had the eyes to see nor the ears to hear. To know this hope does not require sophisticated knowledge of philosophy or science, nor does it demand that you possess great power and wealth. Yet, when we tie this hope securely to our hearts, we can be moved to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable, things that we would never be able to accomplish by our own nature.

Without dragging on too much, I shall tell you of this hope then. It is this. That once there was a man called Jesus Christ who walked this earth two thousand years ago. For preaching the coming of a new kingdom that would set people free, he incurred the wrath of the religious system of his day. Yet, he remained faithful to the end, believing, trusting that God would raise him from the dead. Sure enough, he was killed for his proclamation, crucified on the cross to expose the world of its sins. Yet, for this act of righteousness, of willingly facing death so that many more may have new lives, of willing laying down his being so that others can be brought to light, God raised him from the dead and granted him eternal life. Though he lost so much in his death – his reputation, his disciples, what little possessions he had – God gave him back so much more when he resurrected him – all the kingdom, power and glory.

Our hope is simply this – the promise of the resurrection. That the same way that Christ was raised from the dead, God too will one day grant us new life through his Spirit that lives in us. With this hope, then, we have no reason to fear death. We have no reason to be afraid that we will lose our rights and interests in this life, because in the resurrection, we will receive again our allotted inheritance.

I want us to be clear of the implications of the resurrection. Now, the reason that most people are afraid to do what they believe is right, the reason that they fear losing what belongs to them, the reason that stops them acting and responding in love is very similar. It goes against our self-preservation instincts. Now, if this life were all there is and if there was nothing that awaits us after death, then we can hardly blame anyone for doing everything they can to preserve their life and self-interests in this life. But if it is true that we have the resurrection awaiting us, then we can be sure that we are expected to live a radically different kind of life – a life that is unafraid of death, fearless of losing, unintimidated by the prospect of having to give up everything because all shall be restored to us (and even more shall be given) in the resurrection.

Thus is the message of Christianity. Perhaps here I would like to stress one thing. The central message of Christianity is that Christ died but rose again from the dead. Everything that Christianity stands for hinges upon the resurrection. As Paul points out 1 Corinthians 15:14 that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, the all our preaching is useless and so is our faith.

It was the hope of the resurrection that moved the early apostles to brave all the perils and dangers that are the very nature of their ministries. It was certainly the sole reason why Paul “placed himself in danger every hour…dies to himself everyday…fought the wild beasts in Ephesus” (1 Cor 15:30 – 32). It was the hope of the resurrection that enabled the early believers to stand up against the tortures and tyrannies of the Roman Empire. They fought, not with weapons of stone or steel, but with the weapons of grace and hope. Instead of forming an uprising or insurgency against the Roman Empire, they willingly gave their lives to the gospel of Christ, to proclaim the arrival of a new kingdom, even to death. As a result, more than a third of the Empire become converts to Christianity and even the Roman Emperor himself embraced Christianity 300 years later. As such, Christianity triumphed not by might, nor by power but by the hope of the resurrection.

So how, then, you might ask, does this hope result in love? Let us take at what Paul has to say in his epistles. He says:

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 NKJV)

First of all, our hope gives us faith.  The Greek word for substance is the word hupostasis. Hupo means ‘under’ while stasis means ‘standing’. Therefore, the word can also be translated as ‘under-standing’, or ‘sub (under) stance (standing). Here, I would also seek to address the many misunderstandings about faith. Many might think of faith as “leave things to God” or “only God knows”.  Well, unfortunately that is not faith. Rather, that is fatalism – leaving things to fate. Of course, certain details of God’s plans are known only to him. BUT, the “mystery” of God’s will has already been revealed to us, as Paul tells us in Ephesians, e.g. Eph 1:9. The blueprint of God’s will has already been made known to us – to be conformed to the likeness of the image of his son. And what is the image of the son? One who lays down his life for others, only to take it up again.

Hence, our faith is the understanding of the hope that lies before us. Our faith is placed not upon the things that we do not know, but on the things that we do know. And the promise that God has revealed to us is the resurrection. Our faith is placed upon the resurrection of Christ – that just as we join in the suffering and death of Christ, we too share in his resurrection and his glory.

Alright, so now we know that hope produces faith. What next?

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6). A little clarification before we proceed. When I say love, I am not talking about the feeling of “being in love”. I, for one, believe that love is not a feeling. It is a choice based on our faith. We can feel that we are “in love”, yet still make very selfish decisions. On the other hand, we can feel sad or moody, yet still make a choice of love that arises out of the faith that we already have.

Love is simply this – to lay down your life and self-interests for another being, to care not only for your rights or rewards, but for another person’s wellbeing and welfare (whether you feel like it or not).

So to put all things together, with the hope of the resurrection, we can have the faith that God will raise us from the dead, and restore to us all that we have laid down in this life. With that faith, we can now have the certainty to go out and preach the gospel in love, to lay down our lives and interests so that others can come to know grace and forgiveness, joy and mercy, and ultimately they too will lay down their lives for others in the same manner.

I believe that if we start embodying this faith, hope and love in every part of our lives, it won’t be long before we start turning this world upside down and expressions of love become a common sighting. But it all comes down to the hope of resurrection and it requires people who would dare to believe in this kind of radical and audacious hope.  

The choice is simple, but not easy. It brings about life and abundance, yet it is costly. It requires that we lose, so that we will gain.  It appears a defeat, but is ultimately a victory.

Do you dare to believe in this hope and embrace it?