The Purpose Driven Life

Old Mystic, February 28, 2010
Philippians 3:12 ~ 4:1


Life is God’s precious gift granted to us, human beings; life in this world, here and now, life to be cherished and protected, life eternal in love and peace; life with God in Jesus Christ. Paul purpose was to attain that life for him and for others and he acknowledged that it implied embracing the paradox of the cross.


The title of this message in no way attempts to plagiarize the very popular book—which has inspired millions—by well known pastor Rick Warren. If I can interpret correctly the message advanced by this pastor, based on a wealth of scriptural quotations, his Purpose Driven Life, portrays Christian life as existence in this world and beyond in God’s service and in faithful commitment to Jesus Christ, the Way to that life. There is no question; life must be lived with a purpose.

It is hard to imagine, however, how anyone could live a life without purpose. Even those who are hardly pressed, or in danger, and can only respond instinctively reacting to life situations, at the very least they have survival as a purpose. When faith awakens, on the other hand, the purpose has a clear end or a goal: eternal life in Jesus Christ. I would like to propose that the purpose of life, whether it is survival in the midst of adverse conditions or the assurance of life for ever, is life itself.

Paul lived his life fully aware of his purpose. He acknowledged his mission declaring it in a powerful and decisive statement: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” and he also made clear his commitment to advance the “Gospel of Salvation,” “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard... How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Paul wanted to grasp life and the way he had to articulate it is implicit in the Lectionary text where he asserts his intention to continue to strive to attain his purpose or goal which has a prize: “the heavenly call in Christ Jesus.” The apostle’s metaphor of running a race—an image so familiar to us living in a world where sports are so prominent—is descriptive of Paul’s journey: he was called to enter the race, he prepared to run, and he ran the race aiming at reaching the goal and winning the prize. I argue that the call, the running, reaching the goal, and obtaining the prize, all of them are part of that desired life; life is not just the end, in the future. The beginning, the process, and the end are life itself.

We are called to life! That is our purpose! It is perhaps reasonable to expect a time of “perfection” in the future whatever and whenever that is; yet we are on a life journey with God in Jesus Christ. It is life for us to keep, to enhance, to build, and to share. We have life to give, to promote, to defend, and to protect. It is our life and the life of others. It is not our purpose to flee this life; in a very existential way, it is a life to live in space and time because life is the stage of our encounter with the Living God for ever, whatever shape life takes in the future. Life with the Living God here and now is our purpose.

I want to focus on two appeals by Apostle Paul in his sermon to the Philippians. I believe they are appeals to seek life with God which go—implicitly in the passage—through the cross. The first one is an appeal to maturity. Paul’s words are very critical of those who he calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” because “their god is the belly” and “their minds are set on earthly things.” My interpretation for our times is that we have to mature as people who walk with God. Self centeredness and unwarranted preoccupation with things that do not promote life are a hindrance to our maturity—and to life.

Our bellies—this is just a metaphor—may indicate an overgrown concern for our own selves forsaking life in community. It is the mistaken understanding that when our lives are well fed, protected, and fulfilled then we can think about others when life, real life, is life with others and even for others. Being the body of Christ means that we live for others (the body) and others (the body) live for us.

For that reason Paul calls for maturity! “Be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.” If we are attaining that life, life with God, we have a life in common and maturity has to do with sharing that life. It is not about uniformity of agreement or subscribing to a particular doctrine; having the same mind is perhaps just to covenant to share life—life with God—agreeing to disagree. After all, Paul believes, sooner or later God will reveal to us what is right. What would that be? When would that be? How would that be? We don’t know. We are just called to love, share, protect, and promote life on our process of maturing—and that is life.

Paul’s second appeal is a call to transformation. Isn’t that obvious? Aren’t we constantly being transformed? We often argue about change saying that it happens. And it does! So life is a transformative process. For that reason Paul throughout his writings speaks about “new life” or “newness of life.” In his words, we should expect the “Savior from heaven,” that is Jesus Christ, to transform “our body of humiliation.” Again, the Apostle is speaking in negative terms of the lowest points in human life when the outcome of living apart from God is painfully reflected in the body. It is not about the body being evil; it is about God through Jesus offering renewal of life and life abundant.

Paul is critical of those who fail to see and embrace this life with God. He calls them “enemies of the cross.” This could be interpreted that those who embrace life with God are “friends of the cross.” But the cross is an instrument of death and torture! Yet, the cross keeps on bringing us to confront the paradox of life and death that it portrays. The cross symbolizes the death of Jesus that gives birth to life.

Jesus came to show us the way of transformation; the way of life. And God’s saving purpose in Jesus Christ took him to the point of not withholding his son but surrendering him to death on a cross. Paradoxically, in the cross, while dying, Jesus was affirming life. Embracing the cross is embracing life; it is embracing God and allowing God to embrace us. And it is a surprising life! It is life with a purpose; the purpose of walking with God from here to eternity.

The Way

Old Mystic, January 31, 2010
1 Corinthians 13:1-13


Writing to a church immersed in a controversy about the possession and use of spiritual gifts, Paul points to a more excellent way: the way of love. Real life, what Jesus calls abundant life, is life powered by love in speech, in action, and in expectation. It is Christ’s way; The Way.


Most of us would agree about the importance of knowledge. Even the most ardent defenders of the subjective—perhaps even mystic—nature of experience, especially religious experience, would attempt to articulate it and explain it through a careful rational account. Furthermore, we would systematize it and even dogmatize it so that everyone should conform to its validity as we perceive it: objective universal truth.

Beyond of what our understanding of the nature of knowledge is, common sense seems to indicate that our human ability to have just a grasp of the truth is bound by our own limitations. Paul’s statement is sobering for the Corinthians as well as for us: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The Apostle’s metaphor is colored by the fact that mirrors in his day were imperfect and only reflected a pale and dim image of reality. It is like if in our time we attempted to distinguish the features of a body through a dark, thick, and rugged glass. Again, we would only perceive a distorted image of the object.

It is perhaps against the grain of certainty and objectivity about truth with capital “T” that Paul is speaking today; to claims of authority whether religious, political or economic. It sounds—to me, at least—like Paul is saying, “folks, you don’t have all the facts. Moreover, you just have a dim, distorted, insufficient idea of reality.” The way of human knowledge is and has been quite deficient to achieve the good life for all human beings; taking a look at history should be enough proof. But Paul knows, as we do—hopefully—that love can be experienced and that the very description of the nature of love in our passage claims its power to transform our lives and the whole world. “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And love is God’s way: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Can we in any way love like God does? The very idea of sacrifice is horrifying to many. Yet, the scriptures also tell us that God’s love has been shed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. When we embrace God, when God is in our own center, we begin to understand more about love and we grow in our ability to love God and one another even if it is sacrificial. Paul made it clear to the church in Corinth, a church that believed it was spiritually empowered for life and ministry: there is a more excellent way! The Way; the Way of Love, the Way of Christ.

Loving, however, entails many challenges. Interestingly, Paul addresses his audience about the power and consequences of speech. Speech can be edifying but it can also be destructive. Though the apostle refers to speech in spiritual utterances as tongues and prophetic verbal communication—as sermons, perhaps, I am going to take the liberty to expand the challenge to speech in general. It is about how we talk to one another; what we say about each other; the weight and the tone of our words. For good reason James referred to the human tongue as “a fire” that “stains the whole body” and as “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Beyond the hyperbolic rhetoric of the biblical writer, there is so much speech in the world that is aimed to mercilessly destroy another human being.

Hasn’t political speech increased in its hatred in the last few years? As far as I can see—though I’m subject to my own bias, as anybody else—the tone, the use of words and arguments, including flagrant fallacies and outright lies are constantly being used, not to just debunk the opponent’s ideas or proposals, but to completely destroy that person if possible. Good dialogue and debate are absolutely essential to construct a social and political world that seeks the common good. Yet, the language used in politics today is far away from being constructive. We are constantly bombarded through all the types of media available today with negative, destructive, and even evil speech.

We have the blessing of the first amendment: freedom of speech. Yet, as any right, this precious right is bound by the universal challenge of the golden rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Freedom of speech is not permission to use words in any way we please; after all, we all know what it means to have to take back what we said. It is the creative possibility to build, to encourage, to nurture, to save, and to care through our words. We can speak the truth in love. How often we tell someone that we love him or her? Without love, speech may be like a “clanging cymbal” or perhaps “piercing dart.” Praise be to God, there is a better way.

The way of love is challenging beyond our speech. In fact, we know that we speak out of the “abundance” of our hearts, as Jesus taught and that our speech is rooted in deep convictions. But again, love has been granted to us by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can be guided by love in speech and in action. In his hymn of love, Paul goes beyond the power of words generated by love; he expands to how human action can be inspired by love—or not. The apostle uses religious metaphors to illustrate human action: faith that removes mountains, giving away possessions, and giving away our bodies in sacrifice. Indeed, human endeavors require the strong determination to get things done, but unfortunately, very often throughout history this has been done not without the enslaving of others. Human action has been constantly fueled by the human spirit of achieving great things, yet it has also often been plagued by the lack of love.

Are the words of Paul strong? Is building the Golden Gate, or the Empire State Building, or the statue of Liberty of no gain if there is no love? I have no doubt that there must have been a higher motivation in those who undertook these architectural endeavors; they probably loved humanity and they envisioned the beauty of a good society. But the statement of the apostle is compelling, and let me paraphrase: in the end, there is going to be little or no meaning to any human construction—whether physical or spiritual—that is not made out of love. For that reason, I say, Love is the Way.

Love is so essential for the church! I’d love to be able to call us a “missional church.” A congregation that goes beyond its walls to build, to act, to inform, to create, to serve, to bless—in a word, to do mission—beyond its walls. Yet, it has to be out of love! Mission begins by loving our neighbor and I mean the person next door. Or perhaps we should begin by loving those in our own household. No matter how small we are or how insignificant the drop we pour into the bucket it is for us, love will make a difference.

Finally, Paul spoke about the expectation of love. Actually, love can wait. Put it that way it doesn’t sound too good. The victims of the earthquake in Haiti, real people with names and faces, can’t wait for our love to be poured unto them. They need concrete expressions of that love right away. Yet, love is patient. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Don’t we know well that love has not been fully realized in this world? When it is finally fully realized that will the beginning of the consummation of the kingdom of God.

Love can wait and, by loving, our expectation of the kingdom and of the “shalom” to come is hopeful. We can love and wait even without receiving love in return because God loves us, because we can love, and because love will never end. There will be a time when preaching and hope will no more be necessary, yet love will remain for ever.

Messages about love are always challenging. Love is constraining, very often difficult, and occasionally painful. We could perhaps call it a commandment. It is the law and it should be obeyed. But that sort of legalistic approach will fall short of love’s purpose which calls for doing good in God’s Spirit. But that same Spirit also compels us to love. And the reward of love is so powerful, so precious, and so beautiful, that any suffering related to it will be completely overshadowed. Love is and will continue to grow to be the blessing of the very presence of God at the center of our lives as we go on with our journeys. Love will show the way; Love is the Way; the Way of Christ.

Grand Opening II

Old Mystic, January 24, 2010
Luke 4:14-21


Luke opens his Gospel portraying Jesus anointed with the Holy Spirit and announcing his mission of freedom and life-giving to those who are captive, blind, and oppressed. Luke was anticipating that, by virtue of the coming of the same Spirit upon Jesus’ followers, they would engage in a liberating and life-giving mission to the world in the manner of Jesus.


As John opens his gospel with the powerful sign of turning water into wine, declaring that the Glory of God is among us, Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry inauguration, is set on the context of what was the center of Jewish community life: the social and religious encounter of the synagogue. People would gather in the small, poor, peasant town of Nazareth to worship and study the Torah in that assembly, the forerunner of what we call the church. For the contemporary reader, it may not be as climatic as Luke originally might have intended since, besides having a Christology enhanced by two millennia of Christian tradition and the detailed narrative of Jesus birth, Jesus had already been filled with the Spirit at his baptism and by then he counted with many enthusiastic followers.

Yet, the stage is set for the inaugural address; the Grand Opening of Jesus’ ministry with a declaration of purpose: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The words on record are very brief for what they encompass; they state what Jesus came to begin showing the way, teaching God’s wisdom, and empowering his followers to embark in world changing action. It was a call to do hands on work; a call to do mission.

There was no powerful sing at the synagogue in Nazareth. None besides the anointing of the Spirit upon that man called Jesus; a special manifestation that might not have been obvious to many. Jesus stood calmly at the lectern in front of the assembly and declared that the words he had read from the book of Isaiah were being fulfilled on that day. It was a challenge to the religious system, to the political system, and to common wisdom. The good news was that the transformation of the world was possible as it is possible today, in spite of so many monumental obstacles. The task that Jesus was announcing to be at hand ruffled some feathers even among those who needed the transformation announced. For that reason things went sour after that inaugural message. They were expecting the signs they heard Jesus had performed in other towns only to hear him say that unfortunately he was not prophet to them. Enraged, they tried to hurl him off the cliff on which the town was built but Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” It was really a close call!

This opening declares the same hope of God’s Glory been revealed as told in John’s gospel: God is with us. And Luke was telling the world that there is a new way; a different way that challenges all world systems of domination, of oppression, and enslavement; a way that transforms the human condition into new life. As we often say, this new reality, God’s kingdom, is in tension between the “here and now” and the “yet to be.” We are having perhaps just a taste of what we hope and expect and in the meantime we still undergo the “birth pangs” of that life. As we look at the world and the pain, suffering, violence, alienation, and death present, we cringe, not just as spectators, but also as participants of that suffering and failure. However, God is with us. Building upon this eternal reality, I want to point to two ways in which God is with us.

First, God’s Spirit is with us, in us, upon us. Jesus had declared that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him and that was the sign that according to Luke pointed to God calling Jesus his “beloved son.” It was the special anointing from God that the evangelist saw as the mark of Jesus’ special status as the incarnate God confirmed at his baptism. But Luke was definitely going beyond the witness of God’s anointing of Jesus. He already knew, as he wrote in the book of Acts, that that Spirit, the Holy Spirit, came upon all flesh. The story of Pentecost portrays in an extraordinary way how God is with us.

God’s Spirit is a gift; the most precious gift we have. It is God’s life-giving presence in us or available to us. It is not an external force that comes and goes which intensifies or decreases in relation to our faith. It is not a matter of believing in it because it is written; it is a matter of experiencing and acknowledging it because it is God’s presence in the world and in us. That does not make us special, lest we become arrogant. Let us not forget, it is available to everyone and it is in fact what many have called an “equalizer.” It was God’s Spirit that moved Jesus to love, to heal, and to serve; by virtue of that Spirit Jesus declared that he came to serve and not to be served. It was because of God’s Spirit that Jesus had the courage to face the cross for the love of humanity.

The Holy Spirit in us, God with us, is life-giving. As we embrace that Spirit, as we seek God and celebrate his presence, we experience life, real life; not life beyond this earth, but meaningful life here and now. It is the realized and at the same time yet to be fulfilled liberation from captivity, oppression, sickness, and failure.

Second, God Spirit is with us and is sending us into the world. Jesus was clear about the task for which he had been anointed: to bring good news to the poor, announce release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. God is with us, with his followers and wherever we go, in word and deed we are his life-giving agents. The symbolic image used by Luke, the “year of the Lord’s favor,” made reference to the Jewish Year of the Jubilee. It was a year of proclaiming liberty, of returning to the family, of recovering the lost land, of setting free those who have been enslaved, of resting and letting the soil rest, of forgiving debts, of celebration, and of peace. It was the fiftieth year celebration and anticipation of the Messianic kingdom that might have never been followed. Jesus said and says, now is the time; the time to make it a reality.

The Spirit is sending us into the world on a mission that faces immense challenges. A careful look at the concrete content of this missional call clearly indicates how much it goes against the grain even by today’s church standards. We have really accommodated to this 21st century world system—with our nation riding on top of the wave—that the task of liberating “the captive” and letting “the oppressed” go free may sound too political and counterculture—to say the least. Since we have been anointed with the Spirit, we “spiritualize” this call from Jesus confining it to an invisible realm. “When human hearts change,” we say, “then things will get better.” Yet, we are being transformed by the Spirit that is in us!

Wherever we go, the Spirit goes. And all we do, when we seek to do good, to act justly, to meet human needs, will be God’s mission in Jesus Christ to heal and transform a broken world. God has not sent the angels to change what needs to be changed; God is sending us. We just need to do, what we are equipped to do, with God’s Spirit.

Jesus ran the risk of being thrown off the cliff! And at the very end, as we know, he was crucified. I’m not sure I want to preach about martyrdom—I may end up with no audience. Not everyone has to literally become a martyr. Let us remember, God’s ineffable presence is with us. Therefore, there is going to be joy in spite of any suffering; it is going to be—and it already is—a wonderful ride. We are God’s people because God’s Spirit is in us, with us, and upon us. And for that reason we enjoy “giving life” in any way we can in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.