Life Slowly Emerging
Wow. I cannot believe we are here, with so many people in the pews. It’s almost surreal.
I’m sure many of you are excited to be here and see each other, but I’m sure there’s also a sense of nervousness about seeing people you haven’t seen in so long. It can be awkward seeing each other again.
These mixed feelings are signs of life slowly emerging again. The driver of this return to life has been the miracle vaccines that have so far worked better than people had expected. Little known to much of the world is the story of one of the pioneers behind the vaccine. Her name is Katalin Kariko.
She was born in a small village in Hungary in 1955. She grew up with no electricity or running water. Her father was a butcher. She was country village girl. But in school, the science bug hit her, and she studied in biology at university.
In graduate school, she learned about a molecule that scientists had just discovered – it was called messenger RNA. What this molecule could do was for her a revolutionary insight that held infinite possibilities. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t really understand all this stuff, but what we know is thatAt the age of 22 – right around the age a lot of you are – she was gripped by the possibilities of this molecule. The thing is, at this time in the late 1970’s, it was merely a theory. It was considered by most scientists as a joke and fantasy. In Hungary, there were no tools to make this molecule. But she was possessed by this idea and utterly convinced of it.
She began work on trying to make this mRNA, but her lab ran out of money and she was out of a job. She realized that there was no future for her in Hungary, so like Jesus in today’s passage, she packed up and left for the United States with her husband, 2-year old daughter, and 900 pounds that she snuck inside her daughter’s teddy bear, because they weren’t allowed to take money out of the country.
In the US, she toiled away in low-level labs. No one took her seriously or paid attention to her. She continually applied for research grants but got rejected over and over again. For one grant application, 6 out 7 applications were funded: hers was the one that wasn’t. Because she was unable to find funding, she was unable to do the research that would get her published in major journals. And because of that, she could not get tenure at any university. No one would talk to her or entertain her because she had no grants, no publications, no tenure, and no reputation.
But she was unwavering in her commitment to this science. She caught a lucky break in 1998, while photocopying documents. At the photocopier, she met an immunologist, Dr. Drew Weismann, who worked for Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is now famous after COVID. She told him about her work with mRNA and he was intrigued. He brought her in to work at his lab. After many experiments, they were at last able to make the mRNA do what they wanted it to do.
But that breakthrough led to more setbacks, because no one was interested in what they had discovered. No one invested in their company, they received no grants, and no journals would publish their research. For them, it was an amazing discovery, but the world shrugged. No one really understood what the significance of it was, and no one cared.
But still she did not give up. One day, in 2013, she was giving a lecture on mRNA, when this man in the audience came up to her. He was the founder of a small start-up called BioNTech. He understood her vision and what she wanted to do. He offered her a job right there on the spot, and she accepted.
Soon after, BioNTech partnered with this big pharmaceutical company named Pfizer – have you heard of it? In 2018 they began to develop an mRNA-based influenza vaccine. She was working on that, when in 2020, Covid hit. At first, even Kariko didn’t think much about it, because it seemed so far off and isolated in China. But we know how the story goes.
The mRNA work they had been doing was well advanced, and they were in a unique position to quickly shift gears to develop a Covid vaccine. Everything she had worked on, all she had endured, led to this moment. This odd thing that no one understood, that they had been toiling on for years in obscurity, might suddenly save the world. A normal vaccine takes a very long time to develop, but they were up and ready to go because they had been working on it for so long, and that’s how they rolled it out so quickly.
Kariko had complete confidence in the science behind her work and this vaccine. And the trials would soon prove this to be true. A normal vaccine is considered effective if it has 60 percent efficacy. This one exceeded 90%, beyond anyone’s expectations. The rest is history, and here we are now.
When she was asked about her journey: the decades of ordeals, setbacks, and dark moments when no believed in her, this is what she said: “I never doubted it would work.” (Katalin Kariko) I never doubted it would work.
Her unwavering belief in the power of messenger RNA to make a difference in this world kept her going.
Where Confidence Comes From
I heard this story soon after I chose the passage for today’s sermon, and I immediately connected the two in my mind. Reflecting on the passage, and reflecting on this story, I came to realize this: Where our confidence comes from determines the shape of our lives.
Katalin Kariko’s confidence was in the power of messenger RNA. That confidence determined the shape of her life. She did not have the pedigree, connections, reputation and resources that you need in scientific research. It was her confidence in the power of mRNA that kept her going. Never would she have imagined that this confidence would lead to a vaccine on a global scale. Her confidence in it determined the shape of her life.
Where does your confidence come from? This may be the most important question you need to ask yourself, because your answer to this will determine the shape of your life. And not what you think the answer is on the surface, but what it really is when you dig deeper and honestly examine yourself. Does it come from your appearance or looking good to others? Does it come from financial security and control? Does it come from your family or being a good parent? Wherever your true confidence comes from, that will really determine the shape of your life.
Or do you simply lack confidence in anything? I know that during the pandemic, it became clear to many young people that they don’t have much confidence in anything. That too, determines the shape of your life – in the form of being aimless and having no motivation.
Where your confidence comes from determines the shape of your life.
St. Paul once found great confidence in his pedigree as a Jew, things he refers to as “the flesh”:
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Philippians 3:4-6)
He found his confidence in his birth and living out the way of a good Jew, and that shaped the course of his early life. He really thought he was living a good life.
But on the road to Damascus, something changed. He met Christ and was blinded for 3 days. Scales fell from his eyes. He saw that what he had confidence in was so small and insignificant.
This is his confession:
“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Philippians 3:7-9)
All these things he had once found confidence in paled in comparison to the greater reality he found in Christ. His newfound confidence in Jesus determined the shape of his life to come. That is what a real encounter with Christ is like: it makes everything else we’ve placed our confidence in seem so small compared to being found by him and in him.
St. Paul’s influence is the most enduring one in our Christian faith today. His letters are full of insight and understanding into human nature. He reveals what it looks like for people who are so different to be a community that coexists with love and peace in diversity. And his faith is an inspiration for every generation of believers.
He was not an obvious choice to be such a trailblazer for faith. He was an outsider to this early community of Jesus followers. He was not an original follower of Jesus while he was alive. He was not one of the revered Twelve disciples. All the early followers of Jesus were from Galilee; Paul was a city guy from the Greek-speaking world of Tarsus in Asia. He did not speak the Aramaic that the Galilean followers did. He was not based in Jerusalem like the disciples in the early church. And most of all: he had been a fierce persecutor of this very community – something that would mark him for his entire life.
But nonetheless, Paul carried on, shaped by his confidence in Christ. He endured persecution, suffering, rejection and undermining from others for the sake of the good news he had found in Christ.
You know, something we learn from Katalin Kariko and St. Paul is that they were both outsiders. There was no reason for them to succeed, but yet they did. It was their faith, or confidence in what they believed, that drove them.
We exert so much energy trying to be insiders. That is the safe path. You’re in college so you can develop the right credentials and pedigree to make you an insider somewhere. These are important things in life. But what’s most important is finding a source of confidence that is lasting and gives shape to your life in a meaningful way. It doesn’t lead to an easy life, as we’ve seen with St. Paul, Kariko and Jesus, but it’s a good and meaningful life. I think the most important thing during these years is not getting good marks and a good career – as important as they are – but discovering what you’ll place your confidence in, because that will determine the shape of your life. Careers will come and go, but what you stake your life on should not.
Jesus called his disciples and sent them out. But the manner in which he sent them out is similar to the stories of St. Paul and Kariko:
“He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.’” (Mark 6:8-10)
They were not sent out with great preparation or provisions. Going out in this manner left them very vulnerable.
Jesus was training his disciples to have confidence in nothing else but him. Jesus gave them authority to carry out the ministry he had started. They were to trust and have confidence in that authority. They were to have confidence in Jesus.
The gospels reveal that they didn’t have confidence in Jesus. When things became difficult, they deserted him and ran away.
The disciples did not have confidence in Jesus because they didn’t really know him. They thought they did. But the Jesus they thought they knew was really their own projection of who they wanted Jesus to be. They had their own ideas of what a Messiah should be, and they projected that onto him. And so when things unfolded differently from what they expected, they ran away. One of them even betrayed him.
Only after Jesus’ death did they come to know who Jesus was. The resurrection opened their eyes to who Jesus really was. And once they got to know Jesus, they developed confidence in him. They had confidence in the last words Jesus spoke to them: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
That confidence determined the shape of their lives from there on. They became courageous pillars of faith and created the Jesus-following community.
Where is your confidence? Is it in Jesus?
Focusing on Jesus
Looking back on my time as a Hi-C pastor, I realize that I didn’t focus too deeply on Jesus. I talked a lot about God and God’s love, and about Jesus’ teachings, but I didn’t go too deeply into Jesus himself. I realize now that I was dealing with my own baggage when it comes to Jesus.
For a long time as a young adult, I was conflicted and uncertain about who Jesus was for me, because I felt that the Jesus preached in church was too simplistic, and that this Jesus could not help me work through my real-life struggles in this complicated, messy world. I didn’t like how people used the name of Jesus so brashly and confidently, so simplistically. I was angry at how in the name of Jesus, European and North American Christians conquered people with violence and inflicted such great suffering. We see that clearly nowadays, as horrific evidence of what happened in our church-run residential schools continues to surface. So many bad things have happened and still do in the name of Jesus. We need to be very humble about how we use the name of Jesus.
But still, I realize in hindsight that by not focusing centrally on Jesus, I missed a key entry point to God. I remember, many of you in Hi-C struggled and still struggle to understand a God you cannot see or feel, and so God is just an abstract concept, or you don’t know if God is real. What people do understand is human relationships. That is concrete. Focusing on Jesus as the human manifestation of God here on earth could have been a more concrete entrypoint to knowing God. To know Jesus would be to know God. To understand Jesus is to understand who God is.
And so I lament that when I look back and think of the college students here. Pastors and ministers are people, and we all have our own baggage, even when it comes to faith. As a person, I’ve been on my own journey, and I thank God for the grace that embraces my faults. The last few years, and especially the pandemic, have been a turning point in who Jesus is to me. This journey has come while delving deeper and deeper into our Scriptures – the Bible.
We studied Mark for the past year. Through this study and my own preparation and reflection, my understanding, appreciation and love for Jesus has grown. I see that Jesus has deep and enormous implications for my life and for this world. Profound implications.
I realize that to really know Jesus, we have to engage our whole selves with the Jesus who is made known to us in our Bible. That is where we must get to know him – not through people’s personal opinions or even what religious leaders say about him. It’s not an easy process: we have to get underneath the old and archaic language of the Bible and understand the historical context to uncover what the authors are really saying. We then have to bring our whole selves and engage critically and honestly with what they’re saying. Only in that honest engagement of our lives with the text do we get true insight and a real living encounter with God and Jesus. That encounter is when the Word of God comes alive in us. This is why study of the Bible is at the center of what we do in this church. It’s not a solo journey – there needs to be a community with which we grapple and struggle with. I hope that our College Group, and everyone in this church, can participate honestly and fully in our Bible studies, because this is how we come to know Christ. It does not come merely with our emotion or religiosity.
Knowing Jesus is a life-long journey. I consider myself still at the early stages of it. But I’ve tasted what a life in and with Jesus is like: there is nothing else like it. It is a hidden treasure more valuable than anything else in the world, and it gives me great confidence. This was St. Paul’s discovery and declaration too:
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:10-12)
That is my goal, to know Christ more and have my life take on his own shape, because he has made me his own.
Jesus ministered in a context beset with hardship, suffering and difficulty. Crushing circumstances led people to be possessed by demons, develop debilitating physical ailments, and a breakdown of social cohesion in communities. Jesus came with power to show people that they were not mere victims of their circumstances. He came to love, heal, serve and liberate. That is all right there in the Scriptures.
As we Emerge
As we emerge from this pandemic, we emerge into a world that needs love, healing, hope and restoration. In other words, the world needs the love and healing power of Jesus. Jesus calls us to carry on what he began while he was on earth. And like the disciples, he is with us now through the Holy Spirit that empowers us and leads us. We are not alone.
My beloved college students: our idea of Jesus is coloured by the perceptions and opinions of others. But I encourage all of you to take on this journey of getting to know him – who he truly is – as presented in Scripture. Because I think having our confidence in him is really the best kind of life. Let’s take this journey together to get to know him, what do you think?
And all of us, as a community of Jesus followers, let us recommit ourselves to this lifelong journey of getting to know him, finding our confidence in him, and having our lives being shaped by him.