Pastoral Perspectives

Two Cities

14 February 2024 was Valentine’s Day, but it was also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The former is celebrated by couples exchanging gifts and having a romantic candlelight dinner together while the latter is a solemn 40-day period preceding Easter that is characterised by fasting, prayer and repentance as believers commemorate the death of Jesus Christ.

It was the second day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and we had a combined service at 8.30 am so that worshippers could proceed with their visitations thereafter. The sermon title was “You have sinned?” based on Job 4 & 5. Did anyone feel that the sermon was not too appropriate for such an auspicious day?

When we had our combined service with our Chinese Church a week later, a once-a-year affair which we always look forward to, there was again this dilemma whether we should put the spotlight on Lent or the Lunar New Year. Do we display a vase of bright colourful flowers to augment the festive mood or a pot of twigs to signify the solemnity of Lent?

The above three anecdotes highlight the bigger tensions we face as Christians embarking on our faith pilgrimage. We often hear this saying, “We are in this world but not of this world.” Does it sound contradictory? If we are living in this world, can we be set apart from it?

In the Bible, the word “world” sometimes refers to worldly attitudes, values and systems that oppose God. The apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” (1 John 2:15) It boils down to who or what we love. If we walk on this earth and love God dearly, we can be in the world yet not of this world.

In the same vein, the Church Father St Augustine (396 – 430 AD), has written a book entitled “The City of God”. In the book he contrasts two cities – the heavenly city and the earthly city, and they are differentiated by what they love.

Augustine writes, “Two loves have made the two cities. Love of self, even to the point of contempt for God, made the earthly city; and love of God, even to the point of contempt for self, made the heavenly city.”

The earthly city consists of atheists, agnostics and even religious people who live only for themselves. The heavenly city consists of those who strive to deny self and carry their cross daily, those who have been crucified with Christ and continue to put to death the old self for their love of God, knowing full well that they love because God first loved them. 

According to Augustine, these two cities intersect. He explains that in this world, in fact these two cities, remain intermixed and intermingled with each other until they are finally separated at the last judgement.

We shouldn’t be too quick to conclude that someone’s citizenship is in one city or the other.  Even among the enemies of the city of God, some may become its future citizens; even among those who come to church and share the sacraments, some may actually be citizens of the earthly city. It depends on the object of their love.

A pastor who preaches and engages in pastoral work may be motivated by the desire for praise rather than the love for God and his people. Even Augustine doubted himself – when his sermon was greeted with shouts of ‘Bravo!’, did he rejoice that the love of God had touched his people, or was he pleased by the reception of his sermon?

We should therefore examine our motives. Of course, we are not perfect and sometimes we may have lapses, but we thank God that forgiveness is always at hand when we confess and repent from self-pride and self-love.

Since these two cities remain intermixed and intermingled with each other until they are finally separated at the last judgement, the citizens of the heavenly city can seize the opportunity to shine into the earthly city and, by the grace of God, urge many others to transfer their citizenship.

If we want to be effective in such endeavours, we must continue to be in the world but not of the world. For if we are as dark as the world, we will never be able to point others to the gate of the heavenly city and we ourselves may run the risk of not belonging there too.

However, if we show our love for God by radically loving others, not expecting any reciprocity but always be willing to go a second mile, like the Good Samaritan, wouldn’t that kind of love compel others to switch allegiance?

Or if those in the earthly city have no qualms cheating as long as they don’t get caught while we walk in righteousness regardless the cost; if others cut corners when their bosses are not watching while we give of our best even when no one sees because ultimately we are serving God, not man; if others freely sleep around for pleasure while we maintain our sexual purity; if others exhibit ‘every man for himself’ attitude while we put the interests of others above self, the citizens of the heavenly city will stand out in a positive light and some people from the other side will take notice and be inspired and emboldened to cross over.

Returning to the anecdotes I shared at the start of the perspective, we could creatively resolve the tensions since those were not moral issues.

On Valentine’s Day, the theme is love. Though couples focus on eros – romantic love, we can point them to agape – the unconditional love of God. He is the One from whom all types of love flow since he is the source of love.

Preaching on the topic of suffering on the second day of the Lunar New Year should be fine unless one is superstitious, thinking that dealing with such a topic will bring bad luck. Some in our midst are going through very dark times during the festive season and they often feel very lonely because everyone seems to be happy and enjoying themselves. They may actually find the sermon helpful!

For our Chinese New Year combined service, the Call to Worship consisted of a reading on Lent. Though the sermon was on how we could be blessed beyond measure, a topic befitting the occasion, I reminded the congregation that true blessings can only be found in God, and we can access him only through our Lord Jesus who came to die on the cross for our sins in order for us to be cleansed and forgiven. There you are – a Lenten focus in a message on blessings.

In addition, the choir presented an anthem in Mandarin that spoke of blessings being experienced even in times of suffering.

For visuals, we changed the liturgical cloths to purple, the colour of Lent, but we didn’t put up the two big purple banners until the following Sunday. Instead of the usual pot of twigs, we let the vase of colourful flowers remain on the stand to remind those who are aesthetically more sensitive that we can learn to manage such tensions as we continue in our faith pilgrimage.