Text: 1 Cor 15:10
ESV 1 Corinthians 15:10
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Introduction – Looking back at the Rich Heritage
of the Malaysian Church in Nation Building via Education
“From their inception, Methodist Schools have been the vanguard [fore front] of nation building. They have transcended the narrow confines of ethnicity, religion, language, culture and socio-economic boundary. Methodist schools continuously endeavour to develop each individual’s potential and encourage interaction with others so that everyone will become an integral part of the total school community. I believe these are important strategies that will create awareness of multi-racialism and will foster the spirit of mutual respect, understanding, oneness and loyalty. They will also enhance social values such as tolerance, cooperation and harmony between different communities. The records will reveal that Methodist schools have long been involved in the promotion of national unity – even long before Merdeka.” Almarhum YAB Tun Hussein Onn [Third Prime Minister], at the launching of the Methodist Education Foundation, 1986.
The above statement of commendation would be true not only of the Methodist Church in Malaysia but also with the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Brethren and Presbyterian Church. Teachers are the key contributors to the formation of young lives, contributing to this nation by laying the foundation of education and moral development so that the necessary fruits of character, vocational and professional expertise can sprout in a young person’s life.
Teachers are like Architects
A country may have resources like land and natural building resources and materials, but without the building team under the architect who is trained and who possesses the necessary skills, knowledge and ethical values, these natural resources, no matter how abundant, will not transform the environment into well planned and constructed townships, comprising residential homes, condominiums, recreational parks etc.
In the building of this nation, it is acknowledged that many of the post-Merdeka teachers and educators who are essential builders of our Malaysia are themselves educated in knowledge and character by our many mission schools.
Tun Abdullah Badawi [former PM] and Tan Sri Koh Tsu Khoon had received part of their education in MBS Penang, a school established 127 years ago. Our present Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Abdul Razak had his Primary and secondary education in St. John’s Institution, KL.
The beloved late Chief Minister of Sarawak Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Datuk Amar Haji Adenan Satem was educated in St Joseph’s primary and secondary schools in Kuching.
Our first Prime Minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman was an old boy of Penang Free School, which was started by an Anglican missionary who left an indelible mark in Penang, the Rev Robert Sparke Hutchins. This is reputed to be the oldest English-medium school in Southeast Asia founded in 1816, and it was also the first school to be established in Malaya. It has produced other notable personalities such as Tan Sri Eusoff Abdoolcadeer - Malaysian Supreme Court judge, Tun Lim Chong Eu - second Chief Minister of Penang, Tan Sri P. Ramlee - film actor, director, singer, songwriter, composer and producer.
Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, the former Minister of International Trade and Industry for 20 years, received her education in Primary School Convent Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur, Sekolah Menengah Convent in Johor Bahru and the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur.
Paul – the Master Builder-Teacher
May I now refer to another great missionary teacher, the Apostle Paul of the New Testament. This spiritual educator par excellence was a skilled master builder, using the building analogy to describe the work of building up God’s Church in terms of imparting spiritual knowledge towards the end of equipping and transforming lives. In 1 Cor 3: 10-15, Paul speaks about building the church which is also about building the all-important resource of HUMAN lives.
1 Corinthians 3:10 says –“Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert...”
Paul was a skilled builder-teacher who had contributed to the New Testament canon with 12 written treatises and letters that formed part of the 27 writings of the NT. All these have blessed many, many generations that came after him.
In Paul, we can see the reality of the apple seed analogy: “you can count the apples on a tree, but who can count the apples in a seed?” Paul’s teachings inspired by God went on to influence the founding and building of modern Western civilizations like the United States of America - “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The U.S. Constitution established America’s national gov- ernment and fundamental laws 1787, and guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens. The preamble states clearly: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it ,and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
1 Cor 15:10 – Paul clearly spells out how he
became a Master Builder-Teacher
ESV 1 Corinthians 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
We first notice 2 “bookends” of “the grace of God” in Paul’s statement. He knew his first conversion was by God’s grace: that though he was a most intelligent, talented and a spiritually zealous person, yet only by God’s grace was he able to know Christ and enter the Kingdom of God.
He knew that his subsequent conversion from a zealous persecutor to “Apostle to the Gentiles” and builder of the Gentile Church – was by the grace of God.
The one thing that Paul would never lay claim was that of being a “self-made” man; he was utterly clear that he was the least of the apostles – and it was only by the grace of God that he was what he was!
But we also notice the 2 things he mentioned in between the 2 “bookends”.
Firstly, Paul had to face multiple and repeated frustrations. He openly declares - “His grace toward me was not in vain” as he faced frustrations in the form of hindrances, blocks, opposition and disappointments - both from enemies without, and those within the church.
He had to overcome the suspicions of the early church believers with the help of Barnabas, and to work twice as hard to gain the trust of the other leaders and believers, in order to be credible and accepted.
He encountered multi-occasions of injuries to limb and body in various hostile situations when reaching out in the synagogues in the cities of the Mediterranean world with Barnabas, Silas, Luke etc. He kept at it – quite literally not being a “once beaten twice shy” person! In Lystra, Acts 14:19 tell us that “Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead”.
He was viewed with contempt - his authority and standing questioned so as to embarrass him, as we read in 2 Corinthians 10: 10 For some say, “ Paul’s letters are demanding and forceful, but in person he is weak, and his speeches are worthless!”
He had to face and address multiple messy situations in the churches as demonstrated in the letters to the Corinthian church. He encountered disunity [claiming bragging rights as to who had baptized them]; flagrant sexual immorality of the most grievous kind – incest; suits and legal actions against one another; divorce problems etc.
He had to deal with his disappointments in fellow key leaders like Peter and Barnabas who were not behaving with integrity towards Gentile believers when under pressure from Jewish believers [Gal 2: 11-13].
Secondly, we note that Paul was unhindered: “On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them”
He just “got on with it” – realizing and accepting that he had to work harder because the frustrations and challenges were many!
He had worked hard because he had hope as he knew that all his labour in the Lord would not be in vain. It was just like the daringness and audacity displayed by Job when he declared within ear-shot of his friends – “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain [prove, defend, argue] mine own ways before him”.
Job said that because he knew that at the centre of the universe is a God of justice; justice would prevail because He was Jehovah Tsidkinu – the righteous God.
Similarly, Paul knew that this same God at the centre of the universe is not only just, but that “God is love” [1 John 4: 8, 16]. He would ensure that all “things work together for good to them who love God” [Romans 8:28]; that all the good works inspired by Him and for Him will never be in vain. Hence, he proclaimed in 1 Corinthians 15:58 – “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”.
Paul knew the truth and richness within the balanced tension of God’s sovereign grace and empowerment, and the role of human responsibility and responsiveness that can be aptly summed up in the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar – “What you are is God’s gift to you, what you make of yourself is your gift to God” – though finally, we still do not forget – “though it was not I but the grace of God that is with me”!
The Pike and the Invisible Barrier
Management gurus, Paul Hersey and Kenneth H Blanchard tell of an experiment that was conducted that shows how the perception, or the interpretation of reality affects one’s actual behaviour.
A pike was placed in an aquarium with many minnows swimming around it as its fodder. After the fish became used to the plentiful supply of food at its disposal, a sheet of glass was placed between the pike and the minnows to separate them.
When the pike became hungry, it tried to reach the minnows, but then it continually hit its head on the glass. It tried ever harder to get to the minnows as the strength of the need for food increased, resulting in greater painful futility!
But finally its repeated failure of goal attainment reached saturation point of frustration that the fish no longer attempted to eat the minnows.
When the glass partition was finally removed, the minnows again swam all around the pike, but this time no further goal-directed activity took place from the pike. In fact, eventually, the pike died of starvation while in the midst of plenty of food. The “fish operated according to the way it perceived reality and not on the basis of reality itself”.
In the teaching profession today, there are indeed many glass-like invisible hindrances blocking many. For some, we have knocked our heads against “invisible” barriers of policies, disappointments and frustrations so often - that we apathetically just “live and let live”; while others no longer “see” the issues since we have learnt to live with these “barriers” and become so used to them.
Our original dream and calling as a teacher, a flaming desire to make a difference to young lives, to contribute to the nation by a stable profession that will touch young lives – have all faded and even died away. Now these “invisible” issues of disillusionment with the system – personally feeling the injustice in the way one is rewarded in terms of career pathway. There is no more joy in teaching; being inundated and overwhelmed with so much administration and data compilation work have drained longsuffering teachers of their passion for teaching. It would seem other meetings are more important than classroom time!
These invisible but felt barriers – make us hang down our heads and our hands, blocking us from seeing the missional opportunity reality of the abundant “young fishes” swimming around us each day in the classroom and the school as a whole!
May we together see and recover the “Big Picture” today of 1 Corinthians 15:10 – “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
God through the Holy Spirit will give us the grace to pursue being a “Master Builder-Teacher” so that we may be “frustrated but unhindered”. As we discharge our call faithfully, the Lord will yet surprise us with the outcomes – just as the Rev Robert Sparke Hutchins would be - to see 200 years on the innumerable apples that the seed he had planted, Penang Free School – has yielded!
Allow me to conclude with a tribute to a beloved teacher of about 5 decades ago that I remember so well because of the way she had touched my life through her dedication and kind heartedness.
Miss Eng somehow sensitively understood the needs of a lonely 8 year old who came from a big family, so that that boy 50 over years on cannot forget that Std 2 teacher who touched his life when he needed it most, in a most vulnerable season of his young life.
She had significantly contributed to the education, formation and leadership skills of that young boy, making him look forward to going to school each day! By the good hand of our sovereign gracious God, she contributed strategically to the life of that once lost and lonely boy – so that God could make use of that boy as the 5th Bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia one day!
To this day, I do not cease to give thanks to Almighty God for Ms Eng whenever I recall my childhood and my calling.
May our Sovereign God of 1 Cor 15:10 – give you His promised power as you choose to act on – What you are is God’s gift to you, what you make of yourself as a skilful master builder-teacher, is your gift to God.
We wish all teachers a Happy and Blessed Teachers’ Day!
[Excerpted from the sermon preached at Klang Valley Christian Teachers’ Day Celebration 2017, 10 May 2017, St Paul’s Church, PJ]