Sunday, May 21, 2006

6th Sunday of Easter (B)
Between Success and Salvation

Readings: Acts 10:25-26,34-35,44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17

Dear sisters and brothers, I recently visited Malaysia. And at the place I was staying, I came across a rather large coffee table book, published in 1990, entitled, Singapore: Island, City, State. It was filled with many beautiful glossy photographs, scattered among several very well-written essays on various aspects of Singapore. One of the essays spoke of how Singapore’s survival and success was the result of the diligence of its people and leaders, as well as their constant striving for excellence. As I said, it was a very well-written and well-researched essay, with which there was much to agree and little, if anything, to find fault. In fact, as I read that article, I couldn’t help but feel proud of being a Singaporean. It was that kind of essay.

More than a decade has passed since the book was published. But the sentiments expressed in the essay remain relevant, and perhaps resonate even more strongly with our times. More than ever, whether one is a Singaporean or not, survival and success in this globalizing world seems to depend on a constant struggle and striving for excellence. One image that comes to mind is that of a mountain-climber – doggedly scaling a steep slope.

And that is to be expected and even commended, isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with hard work. After all, in the book of Genesis, doesn’t God tell Adam: “With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread” (Genesis 3:19)? And if one does climb strenuously, and has made all the necessary sacrifices, is one not entitled to enjoy the fruits of one’s labours with a clean conscience?

But here comes the rub. Even as we work hard and shop even harder – the Great Singapore Sale is upon us – we can’t quite quiet the voice of conscience, can we? We can’t quite shut out the faces and voices of those who, for one reason or other, can’t seem to keep up the pace. This information age ensures that we hear about them. We hear, for example, of the people whose upward climb is impeded because their livelihoods – indeed their very lives – are imperiled by an erupting mountain, or a raging typhoon. We hear about those who can’t even get started on the climb because their countries are crushed by debt or riven by deep divisions, unrest and war. Then there are those we don’t hear much about, but are left behind all the same – the aged poor, for example.

Can we afford to ignore these voices even as we climb? Can we simply leave behind those who can’t make it, like so much excess baggage? Isn’t this the danger that climbing presents us? Our continual striving for excellence, important as it is, risks hardening into a cruel elitism, an exclusion of the less fortunate.

In contrast, our readings today, present us with a very different set of images.

Here we find that the Christian faith has to do less with our own striving for success than with the salvation won for us by a loving God. As we heard in today’s psalm, God’s “right hand and his holy arm have brought salvation.” And if salvation is indeed a gift from God, it has less to do with climbing than with recognizing and receiving. Of course, salvation has to do with love, and love is always effortful. But, salvation doesn’t begin with our effort. As John tells us in the second reading, “this is the love I mean: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.”

Salvation begins with our attentive recognition and grateful reception of God’s love in Christ, the very same Christ who calls us his friends and who laid down his life for us. And this love comes to us in so many different ways, doesn’t it? We have only to look back at our personal and communal histories to be amazed anew by it. To speak of Singapore, important as our collective and individual efforts as a nation are, seen through the eyes of faith, is not our success also due in large part to the grace of God?

And if salvation begins with our recognition and reception of God’s love, it continues through our efforts to “remain in his love.” “If you keep my commandments,” says Jesus, “you will remain in my love.”

But, for Christians, this business of keeping commandments is not a stressful and scrupulous keeping of accounts to ensure that our spiritual debits and credits are always kept in the appropriate columns. Rather, Jesus says, we should keep the Father’s commandments just as Jesus himself did, by “loving one another,” to the point of laying down one’s life for one’s friends.

The mechanics of salvation is described for us in very practical terms in our first reading. Not only is Cornelius a gentile, a non-Jew, he is also a Roman centurion, an officer of the much-hated foreign army occupying the land of the Jews. Yet, Peter heeds God’s call and reaches out to him and his household by entering their house and sharing the good news with them. This is not an easy task for Peter. In order to do this, a part of Peter has to die: that part which was brought up to believe that entering the house of a gentile would render him unclean, and that God’s call was only to the chosen people of Israel. But, following his master’s footsteps, Peter does in some way “lay down his life,” and in the process, Cornelius and his household find themselves included in the Kingdom of God. As a result, what we proclaimed in the response to the psalm comes to pass: “The Lord has shown his salvation to the nations.”

Notice the stark contrast between the secular striving after success and the workings of salvation. For success, one has to climb up. And, all too often, this climb results in elitism and exclusion. People are left behind. For salvation, however, one has to “lay down one’s life” in a way that reaches out and includes rather than excludes. The contrast couldn’t be starker: success versus salvation, climbing up versus laying down, leaving behind and excluding versus reaching out and including.

And yet, to simply stop climbing, to simply stop striving for excellence does not seem to be an option for us. As is written in John’s gospel, even if we Christians do not belong to the world (cf. John 17:14), we have been chosen, commissioned and sent into it (cf. John 17:18) to bear fruit that will last. This means that we must somehow find a way to remain in the Father’s love, even as the world around us climbs for success. Or, better yet, we must somehow strive for excellence in a way that is also a laying down of our life for others. How each of us strikes this balance will vary with our different situations in life, but it is a grace for which we must all pray, confident in the promise that Jesus makes to us today: that “the Father will give (us) anything (we) ask him” in the name of his Son.

Sisters and brothers, how are you being called to balance between climbing and laying down your life, between success and salvation?

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