Sosthenes? I am Sorry. Who is that?

Acts 18: 12- 17

 

While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment.  “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”

Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” So he drove them off.  Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.

 

Message

I remember a story narrated by Rev Abey T Mammen in midst of his ever thought provoking sermons. It went like this. There was a man who was bitten by a dog. He was taken to the hospital and the doctor finds out that the man was bitten by a dog with rabies. Now people who know about the disease do know the amount of frothing from the mouth and the literal dog like behavior that the person contracts. But when this man calmed down he started taking a paper and started writing. His concerned relatives who were sure of his death thought to themselves that this man was writing his will. When they came closer they saw him writing names and were convinced that he was indeed writing the will of his earthly inheritance. When they asked him what he was doing, he replied, “I am writing the names of my enemies so that I can bite them.”

 

The point that the story makes is the bitterness that we live with every day. The deep trouble that we all have in letting go off our vengeance. Yesterday the newspapers were full of the statement by Prime Ministerial Candidate of India Narendra Modi who called his opponent Arvind Kejriwal, a Pakistani agent along with A. K. Antony. This is by a man who in all his speeches starts with the word ‘Mitron…’ which means friends. My friend Aby Tharakan very rightly pointed out that for some to succeed they need a good enemy. Nurturing a hurt is what we all do, we like it or not. It is this sense of revenge that drives us further. But Anne Lamott very cryptically says ‘Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.’ But in spite of knowing all this we find forgiving or letting go of our hurt as a sign of weakness.

 

Now let us come to our passage. We all know that Paul had a lot of opponents. They tried all they could to destroy him and the gospel. The fact that he too belonged to that gang once is really incredible. In the text we see that the Jews in Corinth made an attack on Paul and brought him in front of the Roman Proconsul Gallio. They pressed a case of Paul misleading the people to believe in God, contrary to their law. Kenneth Bailey in ‘Paul from the Mediterranian Eye’ says for a case to be pressed against Paul, the initiative has to come from the Synagogue leader. Who was the synagogue leader? He was a man called Sosthenes. Kenneth Bailey affirms that this Sosthenes was very opposed to Paul as taking a person to a Roman court for faith matters was last done in the case of  Jesus where he was brought in front of Pilate. This was surely done so that Paul gets the maximum punishment possible. But the plates were turned on the Jews in Corinth where Gallio dismissed the case and humiliated them. Gallio says this is your internal matter. He refuses to interfere. Now Kenneth Bailey explains that since this case was vigorously pressed by the leader of Synagogue Sosthenes, the Jews in Corinth held him solely responsible for the humiliation and therefore beat him up in front of the Proconsul who was least bothered about it.

 

Well the story ends there as far as the book of Acts is concerned. Where does this man Sosthenes disappear? Well we have to turn our Bibles to 1 Corinthians Chapter 1 verse 1. What do we see there?     “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes.” Tada. Lost and found? How did that happen? The man who was out to harm Paul and was not ready for any internal compromises, who dragged him to the courts, features in the opening statement of the First Letter to Corinthians. He appears there as a co- author of the letter. It is said that it must be Sosthenes who wrote the Letter as a secretary writes and Paul only dictated it. Whatever it is, this is surely a dramatic turn around like Paul himself who was out to harm the believers, aids the gospel. Kenneth Bailey proposes the theory that, that evening when Sosthenes was attacked and humiliated, when he was hurting over the psychological and physical wounds, Paul must have visited him. He must have extended his friendship and pardoned Sosthenes. It makes sense that in this very letter to the Church of Corinth Paul writes “We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it;” (1 Corinthians 4: 12). Let us not forget that Paul wrote an entire letter to Philemon to be reconciled to his ‘Run Away Slave’, Onesimus. So the thrust of Paul’s ministry was reconciliation and forgiveness, in theology and in action.

 

 “ Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 [ Romans 12: 19- 21)

 

 Kenneth bailey says that Paul’s formulation above could be based on his experience of reconciliation with his opponent Sosthenes. The reaching out of Paul to Sosthenes transformed an opponent of Paul as a fellow worker of the gospel. I truly find this story very incredible.

 

We live in midst of a culture where honour and revenge are given a lot of importance. But Christian life and the example of Jesus calls us for a radical commitment to ‘Reconciliation and forgiveness.’ The Great Lent starts with the Service of Shubkono which is a service of Reconciliation and forgiveness. Reconciliation and Forgiveness is the major emphasis of the Mar Thoma Liturgy and the Liturgy of many other Denominations. Let me leave you with a true story that took place in South Africa where Nelson Mandela had won and the Apartheid was defeated. The strategy of Justice was the commission of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ where the oppressor faces the oppressed in the court room. So let us now read this incredible story.

 

The scene is a courtroom trial in South Africa

A frail black woman rises slowly to her feet. She is something over 70 years of age. Facing across the room are several white security police officers, one of whom, Mr van der Broek, has just been tried and found implicated in the murders of both the woman’s son and her husband some years before. He had come to the woman’s home, taken her son, shot him at point blank range and then set the young man’s body on fire while he and his officers partied nearby.

Several years later, van der Broek and his cohorts had returned to take away her husband as well. For many months she heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, van de Broek came back to fetch the woman herself.

 

How vividly she remembers that evening, going to a place beside a river where she was shown her husband, bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood. The last words heard from his lips as the officers poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame were, “Father forgive them…”

Now the woman stands in the courtroom and listens to the confessions offered by Mr van de Broek. A member of the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turns to her and asks, “So what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?”

“I want three things,” begins the old woman calmly, but confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.”

She pauses, then continues “My husband and son were my only family, I want secondly, therefore, for Mr van der Broek to become my son. I would like him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining in me.

“And finally,” she says, “I want a third thing. This is also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr van der Broek in my arms and embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”

As the court assistants come to lead the elderly woman across the room, Mr van der Broek, overwhelmed by what he has just heard, faints. As he does, those in the courtroom, family, friends neighbours – all victims of decades of oppression and injustice – begin to sing, softly but assuredly. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

 

 

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Are We There Yet?

Exodus 13: 17- 22

 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.”  So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.”

After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

 

Message:

As a priest of the Mar Thoma Church, Northeast of India was my first assignment. I was really excited and was also anxious as I had no clue how to get there or what to do. Guwahati is the destination became clear. Now I found out that there were no direct trains from Pune to Guwahati. So on 30st July 2011 along with my anxious parents, I set out first to Kolkata. The journey was for 32 hours. Now I felt the tough part was over as from Kolkata to Guwahati the journey was just 19 hours. On 1st August we again left for the station. The previous day there was a train derailment which meant the train had to reroute so instead of the route from West Bengal to Assam, the train had to go through Bihar and Orissa to Enter Assam. The train to begin with was 7 hours late. Instead of reaching on 2nd August at 6 am we were still very far from destination. And I tried sleeping and when I got up I kept asking “Are we there yet?” And the answer was obviously no. And the journey dragged on and on. We reached Guwahati on 3rd August at 9 am. A 19 hours journey took 47 hours. A 19 hours train was 28 hours late? Wow. And the day we reached we had rain with ferocity that I have never witnessed in my life. And the electricity took leave for another 22 hours. The nightmare seemed to be never ending.

 

We all have stories of awful journeys and frustrating experiences. So the people of Israel who were Hebrew slaves, all excited about being free were ready for a shock. God who was to lead them, instead of hurrying up through Philistine, decides to take a roundabout through the desert toward the Red Sea. And the Bible tells us they were there for next 40 years. Why? What good did it do?  In one night God took Israel out of Egypt; but it would take the next 40 years to get Egypt out of Israel. Honestly a journey through the desert is not done out of choice. It is something we would love to avoid. I am sure the Israelites would have jumped to the option of skipping it. But to begin with the initiative to free the Israelites was not an internal decision.  And most likely in the rule of Pharaoh they did not realize that they were slaves. It was God who took the initiative through Moses to liberate them. So God was interested in reaching the Promised Land. But more importantly he was interested in the people the slaves would become. It was a journey ‘from being slaves’ to becoming ‘People of God’. But we are sure they too kept asking Moses “Are we there yet?” So my dear friends if you feel awfully frustrated and completely lost, you have every right to feel so. I have gone through times when I felt God does not answer my prayers. I have had times where I had no sense of direction or reason for going ahead. You may too have a frustrating job or a dead end task. There were dreams that you had set out to fulfil but now all looks like a concentric circle of repetitive failures. The question that you will be asking is “Will you ever get out of this desert?” Will you ever see the sunshine. The Bible says yes. Where exactly does it say so?

 

 Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” (Exodus 13: 19). Why did Moses have to carry these old bones of Joseph? What significance did it have? Well we are well versed with the story of Joseph. A dreamer who set out with hopes was one day sold into slavery by his own brothers. When things looked good in the house of Potiphar, he was sent to Jail for being righteous. The dream he saw won freedom for the cupbearer who after the release forgot Joseph. There were series of setbacks after setbacks that Joseph endured. But in the end he survived to become the second most powerful man in Egypt. The message of “Joseph’s bones” was simple. It communicated to the Israelites through the witness of Joseph that “You will definitely get through this”

 

Let me leave you with a parable about a man thought of quitting and went to argue with God.

 

“I quit my job, my relationship, my spirituality… I wanted to quit my life.

I went to the woods to have one last talk with God

“God”, I asked,

“Can you give me one good reason not to quit?”.

His answer surprised me…

“Look around”, He said. “Do you see the fern and the bamboo?

“Yes”, I replied.

“When I planted the fern and the bamboo seeds, I took very good care of them.

I gave them light. I gave them water. The fern quickly grew from the earth.

Its brilliant green covered the floor. Yet nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo. In the second year the Fern grew more vibrant and plentiful.

And again, nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo. He said.

“In year three there was still nothing from the bamboo seed. But I would not quit.

In year four, again, there was nothing from the bamboo seed. I would not quit.” He said.

“Then in the fifth year a tiny sprout emerged from the earth. Compared to the fern it was seemingly small and insignificant…But just 6 months later the bamboo rose to over 100 feet tall.

It had spent the five years growing roots. Those roots made it strong and gave it what it needed to survive. I would not give any of my creations a challenge it could not handle.”

He asked me. “Did you know, my child, that all this time you have been struggling, you have actually been growing roots”.

“I would not quit on the bamboo. I will never quit on you.”

“Don’t compare yourself to others.” He said. “The bamboo had a different Purpose than the fern.

Yet they both make the forest beautiful. ”Your time will come”, God said to me.

“You will rise high”.

“I left the forest and brought back this story.”

 

My dear friends, it is my witness that when I felt I had hit the rock bottom, God led me on. He will lead you too.

Exodus 13:  22 says – “Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” This symbolizes the presence and guidance of God that leads us forward. Even in the darkest night and when we feel abandoned and lost, the Scripture assures us that God is in control and he is leading us on. He is not in a hurry to reach the destination. He is interested about the person you turn out to be. So in times of uncertainty and frustration let us pray the prayer of the Catholic Monk Thomas Merton who prayed like this.

 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot

know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am

following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to

please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope

that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead

me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always

though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with

me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

 

Amen.

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

 

 

 

 

 

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Who Is Your “John The Baptist”

Luke 3: 7-14

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Message:

In the movie “Few Good Men” there is a memorable sequence where Tom Cruise plays the role of a lawyer cross examining the Character of Jack Nicholson. Cruise says “All I want to know is the truth.” To this the iconic reply of Jack Nicholson is “You can’t handle the truth.” We can’t handle the truth. People who challenge us, who correct us or expose our hypocrisy are definitely not the best of our friends. M. Scott Peck the author of “Road Less Travelled” says that “Today people prefer to live in pseudo-community or false community. Its hallmark is the avoidance of conflict. We keep things safe, we speak in generalities, we like to talk about things where others will agree with us. Conversations are carefully filtered to make sure no one gets offended. If we feel hurt or irritated, we are careful to hide it. Pseudo-community is agreeable, polite, gentle, stagnant and finally fatal.” He finally says that what we need today are truth tellers, people who dare to shake us out of our slumber and intoxicated life style.  Let me share with you an incident from my life. As a youth because of my plans to become a priest, people in my Church had great regard for me. I loved the attention I received without actually doing anything significant. I basked in this glory. It was those days when Rev Minoy N Kuruvilla was the Vicar of our Church. People who know him are aware of his concern for youths. He tries his best to initiate the youths in a living faith that does not depend on mere platitudes but exudes the love and compassion of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. One day there was a knock on my door. It was Rev Minoy who did not pretend to engage in niceties. He had observed that I had become laid back in my fervor and therefore was deeply concerned. Out of his concern he challenged me, provoked me to a deeper understanding of faith. He questioned my witness and mirrored my hypocrisy.  This all happened in front of my parents. And my reply was “Thank you Achen. I appreciate your concern and will mend my ways.” I wish that was true. I was hopping mad. I was bitter. How can anyone come into my house and say something like that. That was my reaction.

Let us come to the passage set before us. Here was a man from the desert who had people coming to him. They were coming to be baptized as it was seen as a religious thing to do. (Let us not confuse with the topic of baptism as we know it. John the Baptist’s ministry was a Baptism based on the Jewish Qumran community that gave thrust on repentance and living with purity. Therefore Baptism was cleansing that was open to gentiles and Jews.) He had the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the common Jews all lined up to do a collective show of repentance without actually repenting or bearing the fruit of repentance. It is here he breathes down fire on his audience. He calls them “Brood of Vipers.” He sees through their intentions of religious display without inner transformation. He unlike many of us, does not mince words in fear of losing an audience. The question he poses is “If you are repenting, then where is the fruit?” The people tried to take a spiritual upper hand by saying ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Such kind of spiritual boasting has no place informs John the Baptist. ‘For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.’ That is quite a statement. It just says that “God has only children and no grandchildren.”

 There is a story that goes ‘Once upon a time, the Devil and a friend went for a walk. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something from the road. “What did that man find” inquired the friend. “A piece of truth,” said the Devil in a very casual tone. “No, it does not” the devil said, “I will encourage him to make a religious belief out of it”’. Unfortunately the truth of faith are made into religious doctrines or beliefs where “Who is the most authentic”, “Or who has got more traditional depth”, “Whose worship is more meaningful” or “Which Baptism is more valid” are the great concerns that we struggle with. John the Baptist is shouting it out to you and me. He confronts our duplicity where we call “Lord, Lord” and practically do nothing. If we believe in the Gospel, what are we doing about it?

 In May 2013 I happened to go to Bristol. There I visited the Chapel of John Wesley along with the Museum which later became the hub of Methodism. It is said that John Wesley built small communities where people met together to help hold each other for their deepest Christian values and most important decisions. Before someone entered the community, they would be asked a series of questions to see if they were serious about mutual accountability. The questions honestly makes me feel very uncomfortable.

 

*Does any sin, inward or outward have dominion over you?

* Do you desire to be told of your faults- plain and clear?

* Do you desire that we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear concerning you?

* Do you desire that in doing this we should come as possible as a community, holding each other accountable in our growth in faith?

* Are you also ready to talk your heart without disguise and design and contribute in our growth?

John Wesley knew that a life of total dedication to truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. And he had thousands and thousands flocking to his community.

The crowd asked the question that is the opening point of repentance. “What should we do then?” (vs 10). We have heard many sermons on giving and doing good that it has become too obvious to us. John the Baptist asks us to deeply imbibe the radical love of God. Returning to that deep love of God is the act of transformation. How do we do that? Let me suggest to you an exercise.

 Read with me 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8a that has the most beautiful exposition of Divine Love done by Paul.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Now replace the word ‘Love’ with ‘Jesus’ and it neatly fits in. It is perfect. Now again replace the word ‘Love’ with your name for eg in my case “Merin.” It is an absolute misfit. Do it once again. I am already feeling uncomfortable. My acceptance that I am a misfit is repentance. My journey to become like Jesus is transformation. But for that I cannot do it on my own. I need truth tellers. We need ‘John the Baptists’ in our life who wake us out of our spiritual stupor. I thank God for people like Rev Minoy who dared to speak the truth no matter how much I hated listening to it. It definitely in the long run was a turning point in my life. Do not silence the ‘John the Baptist’ in your life. Embrace them. Repent and be Transformed. Finally Like the Crowd asked, The tax collector asked and the soldiers asked you too ask the question “What should I do?”. Be ready for the answer and do likewise.

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati