A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 15th October 2006 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang.
Two Sundays ago, Mainline Protestant Churches throughout the world celebrated the 67th worldwide communion Sunday. Though divided and scattered, we were bold to affirm once again that there is only ONE Church, namely, the Church of Jesus Christ.
Is it not a fact that historical churches, the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran and sometimes, Presbyterian and Reformed Churches often recite in public services the 391 version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed: “Credo unam sanctum catholicam apostolicam ecclesiam” or “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”.
At the same time, as we say our creed, we are reminded that not only our world, but also our Christian Church is fragmented. Moreover, many divisions within and outside the Church to-day are caused by us Christians!
Have we not seen enough wars and serious conflicts often instigated by Christians in our life time? The World War II in the 1940s, the Korean war in the 1950s, the war in Vietnam in the 1960s, the religious conflicts in Northern Ireland in 1970s, the incessant extreme violence in Palestine, the genocides in Uganda, in Sudan…. the recent wars in Iraq, in S. Lebanon. We do not have to go very far to-day to see horrid conflicts and violence .They are in our doorsteps as well. Do we sometimes have a selfish heart and a selfish mind, full of hatred and jealousy? Do we sometimes condone violence?
We are called to be peacemakers on this earth. We are called to be ambassadors of Christ – reconciling humankind to Christ. But how often do we take this vocation seriously? We may not have committed the sin of commission; but how about the sin of omission?
Why is this so? Why are our thoughts and our actions contrary to what we believe? What is the Christian faith all about?
Let us go back to see the Gospel reading a while ago.
The first part consists of two statements: Peter’s profession of faith (8:27-30) and Jesus’ first prophecy of his passion (8:31-33). In a way, they pose no contradiction to one another. As a matter of fact they are two components which constitute the basis of our Christian faith.
However, as we study the text, we notice that there’s a big gap between Peter’s perception of Jesus and what Jesus actually said and did. Peter’s confession, “Jesus is the Christ” was both superficial and conceptual. To borrow John Henry Newman’s terms, Peter’s confession was at best “intellectual assent” Peter did not and could not go deeper than that. That explained why Peter remonstrated Jesus when Jesus predicted he himself was destined to suffer and die.
Peter’s remonstration immediately drew rebuke from Jesus. For to Jesus, as the Lord, he must suffer and die. In his own words, “I did not come to be served, but to serve, to give my life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
This indeed is what constitutes the crisis of our faith today. We think always in terms of ourselves and our rewards. We choose to be Christians, because in becoming Christians, one way or the other we will be better off, if not materially, at least mentally or spiritually. Was it St. Augustine who said that everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to take up the cross?
To be a Christian is to be a disciple or a follower of Christ. Jesus laid down certain conditions for his disciples, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him/her renounce himself/herself and take up his/her cross and follow me” (8:34).
Jesus himself took up the cross and served others all his life. Thus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described Jesus as “the man for others”. The Gospel according to Matthew summed up Jesus’ ministry in these words, “he went around all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good news of the Kingdom and curing all kinds of sicknesses and diseases (Matt. 4:23; 9:35). Jesus was busy serving others all the time.
One of the best known hymns of Christ in the New Testament is Philippians 2:6-11. Jesus was divine. Yet he did not cling to his equality with God; but gave up all this to become a slave; suffered and died on a cross ( the most humiliating way to die, to be nailed on a cross, together with two robbers). He was buried, and the Apostles’ Creeds hurriedly added, he was descended into hell. In a word, Jesus was in the highest in Heaven, beyond our imagination, yet he became the lowest, again beyond our imagination, he was in “Hades”.
Jesus was full. Yet he emptied himself totally for the sake of the humankind; so that we all could be full.
This indeed is the mystery of the Christian Faith. It has deeper meaning than to profess or acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ. To use Cardinal Newman’s terms again, the Christian Faith is about “Real Assent”. It has claims not only on our intellect, but our total life. Faith means faithfulness. It demands our total obedience and following to Christ. Martin Luther suggested that Christians are the “little Christs”. It means as Christians, we say the words of Jesus (Jesus’ words are those of hope and encouragement); we also do the deeds which Jesus did (Jesus worked towards a more just society and individuals becoming more wholesome); and above all to witness to Jesus’ total sacrificial love.
A Christian must move from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, hence others-centeredness. A Christian must not seek for his or her own interests and benefits, but the well-being of the whole humankind. This is what it means to bear the cross, to live a sacrificial life.
Here lies the mystery and meaning of life. Jesus said, “For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.” (8:35).
The Gospel is not cheap. It calls us to give up our whole life. In doing so, we can live meaningfully. We live a fulfilled life. This is the Christian Gospel. It’s the Gospel of Renunciation. It is what this world needs. The Church must try its best to preach this gospel. But first, it must put this gospel into practice. The Church must convince the world that it exists for the world. The Church is here to serve the world’s needs.
Unfortunately, the Church today is far too preoccupied with its own business interests. As we go around the world, we see many churches amassed great wealth, social status, and moral as well as political influence in the pretext of serving the world. “Sacrifice”, the core of the Christian message is indeed quite foreign to the church’s practice today. As a matter of fact, those churches which are so preoccupied with preserving their own lives that they are quite prepared to allow or even ask those in need to sacrifice for them.
By and large, the socio-economic-political systems throughout the world are far from just. Oftentimes many are extremely repressive. As a result, the powerless and the “have-nots” suffer. But churches throughout the world, which often benefit from the existing systems, are quite reluctant to have this “status quo” changed. Some say that as the churches are so very “status conscious” that they actually follow an 11th commandment, “Don’t rock the boat, play it safe”. The Church throughout the world needs to be transformed, in its faith and in its mission. The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. states clearly in its motto, acclesia reformata semper reformanda, the church renewed, ever renewing. The Church of Jesus Christ, wherever it may be must constantly renew itself, by relearning once again the meaning and implications of the Gospel of Renunciation. Every Church, including the Kowloon Union Church, must continuously learn how to sacrifice itself so that it can serve the world more relevantly. Would you accept this challenge?
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 8th October 2006 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang.
Grace and Peace from God – the Lord of our life – be unto you and your loved ones.
I could never imagine that I would have landed in Kowloon Union Church (KUC): not that KUC is completely foreign to me. In fact, since James Muir in the 1960s, I have come to know quite a few KUC ministers. I am a minister of the Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China (CCC). CCC and KUC share the same roots. We owe our existence to the London Missionary Society. The reason I am here is because I was touched and indeed moved by the sincerity and warmth of the KUC council members. I highly treasure the trust they put on me.
For better or for worse, I have become the first local minister of KUC. KUC has had 17 ministers. All of them came from England, Scotland, Australia or New Zealand. This must be a brave decision of KUC, especially the Council and Trustees to break this long tradition of more than eight decades.
I am invited to be the Senior minister and mentor of KUC. Few local churches throughout the world have a senior minister. This is a big challenge to me. As the first senior minister of KUC, I am involved, yet detached. I am involved, because one way or the other, I am ultimately responsible. If something goes wrong, I shall be in deep trouble. I may even go to jail for it. Yet detached, because I shall not do the nitty gritty in running KUC. Nowadays ministers spend far too much in “church administration” (whatever that word means). Consequently most of the pastors to-day have become second-class managers and third-class pastors! I am here to provide leadership and direction for KUC. Together with your core members, we need to turn a new page for KUC.
KUC is 82 years old (the building itself is 75 years old). It needs some transformation. I shall share with you a little bit more about this, particularly what I intend to do for KUC next month.
This is my first sermon at KUC as the Senior minister. I consider preaching at KUC as one of my most important roles. I am keenly aware preaching is not the same as teaching or didache. Preaching is solely about the interpretation of the Word of God or the Kerygma. But in the next half-a-year, I shall include a bit of teaching into my 13 sermons. It is because I wish to use the occasion to share with you my basic understanding of the Christian faith and the Christian Gospel as well as what the Christian Church is all about?
I have said that preaching is to expound God’s Word. But God’s Word is never abstract. “God said let there be light and there was light” (GEN 1:3). This was the foundation of the Judeo-Christian faith. The entire Old Testament tried to communicate to us one and only one message: “God is the God of history.” God acts in history. God also acts in our midst. Hence finally, the Word of God gives meaning to our existence. God’s Word does not only inform us what life is all about; it inspires us to live a life of purpose, full of meaning.
So in the first sermon, I am going to share how the Word of God came to me. I wish to give witness to and share with you how God’s Word has affected my life. I am sure if you look hard enough, it does the same to you as well.
My 67 years of life and 40 years in the ministry were not all smooth sailing: not free from crises. But as the Chinese character indicates, the word “crisis” is formed by two characters: “danger” and “opportunity”. How true!
In looking back, God has given me ample opportunities in my life and ministry, especially in the midst of the many difficulties I encountered. These opportunities are far more than I could possibly realize or take.
First, God gave me plenty of opportunities to receive. I was born into a small traditional Chinese family of five. My father was a hard working man, a Chinese scholar and a deacon of a big CCC Church. My mother was a full-time home maker. I was deeply loved and chastened to be a good boy. Years later my grandma would tell me that if my eldest brother did not die from meningitis when he was seven, I would not have come into this world at all!
My home church was fairly ecumenical. Later, I discovered that it did help me to have an open mind, especially in faith and life matters. God prepared me to go into the ministry with an impeccable education in the early 1960s. I went to Hong Kong University to read philosophy and Yale University Divinity School to do my theological training. (HKU was the only university in Hong Kong at the time). The Divinity School at Yale was generally considered the best in the world in those days. I could not possibly study at Yale if I did not get a Fulbright and a Yale scholarship. I was ordained at the Centre Church on the Green in New Haven. This Church helped to start Yale University. That is why in every congregation of the university, the procession walked pass the Church before it went into the old campus. All this boost my self-confidence a great deal throughout my ministry.
Since that time, I have decided that I must use the many opportunities and blessings which God gives me to be a blessing to other people, especially to those who need some help. The first ever recorded covenant between God and Abraham as recorded in Genesis 12 helped to reinforce my conviction. God said to Abram: I will bless you so that you will be a blessing to all the nations.”
Upon my return to Hong Kong, God provides me many opportunities to serve, many more than I could ever dream of: a pastorate in a slum area for 11 years; to lead the Hong Kong Christian Council for 10 years during its transition period and head of Hong Kong Christian Service (the second largest social welfare agency in Hong Kong in the 1980s); then ample of freedom to do what I thought is good for Hong Kong through Hong Kong Christian Institute which I founded together with 120 Christian leaders. Then for several years in the 1980s, I was the supervisor of all C.C.C. secondary schools, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Alice Ho Miu Ling Nethersole Hospital, chairman of the Board of United Christian Medical Service, a part-time teacher at Chung Chi and then representing the Board of Trustees of Chung Chi College to sit in the Council of the Theological Division. After I officially retired in August 2001, The President, Vice President and Dean of Studies of the Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTS) approached me and invited me to teach at LTS; my own denomination asked me to help train its younger pastors and preachers; Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) invited me to be an honorary consultant, giving me ample opportunities participating in many training programs, giving lectures, etc. My life was immensely enriched by these opportunities to serve.
God also gives me many opportunities to give back what God has richly provided me.
Upon my return to Hong Kong, as a freshly ordained minister, the head office of CCC wanted me to be the deputy Principal of a newly built high school. Chung Chi College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong asked me whether I had any interests in a teaching post. Finally Shum Oi Church (Deep Love Church) situated in Shek Kip Mei Resettlement Estate (the first resettlement estate ever built in Hong Kong as a result of a squatter fire in the same area on Christmas day, 1953) approached me saying that a new building would soon be completed and that they were unable to find an ordained minister. I was somewhat touched by their sincerity and trust in me. My major struggle at the time was whether I should give back something to God by serving in a Church in that “slum” area. To say it was a struggle is an understatement. Being a rather poor church Shum Oi Church could afford to pay me HK$500 while if I took the other job, I would get more than thrice as much. I finally decided it was the time to give. So I took up the ministry in that local church.
Then in 1988, there was a difference of opinion whether HKCC should lead the church in Hong Kong by responding to the 1997 issue, which basically in the issue of political power re-alignment. I thought it should, but the denominational leaders thought it should not. By then, I had become the second most important church leader in Hong Kong (at least from the point of view of New China News Agency and the Hong Kong government). My struggle was whether to fight it out with the church leaders or succumb to their pressure by keeping a low profile, thus I could hold onto my job. I did not want to take the first option as it would split the council and consequently it would take years to heal the rift. I did not want to take the second option because it would not be true to me. So finally I decided to step down as the general secretary of HKCC and went on to start a new think-tank called Hong Kong Christian Institute. Immediately I felt the financial pinch. I received a substantial cut in my pay cheque. Instead of living in a flat of 1,700 sq. feet in Kowloon Tong, I moved to a small flat of 400 sq. feet. At that time I was aware once again that in order to serve meaningfully, I had to make a sacrifice.
I decided to retire early from any salaried post so that I would be free and could concentrate to do God’s mission through the training of those who decide to work in local churches which are the basic units of the Church.
In looking back, in almost every important decision in my life and ministry, I have tried to give rather than for self-gain. But along the way, I discovered what Paul experienced, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). I like this translation from the Revised Standard Version than the Good News Bible, or the New Jerusalem Bible which says, “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.” Because the word “happiness” no matter how vital denotes a state of mind; but “blessing’ is more rounded. It denotes the well being which comes from God.
In the case of working in the slum area, superficially I have given up a great deal of material reward and comfort, (it was even a cultural shock when I, who came from a middle-class family, started to live and work in a slum area which I have never been exposed to). But through drug-addiction, prostitution and gambling controlled by syndicates which were abound in the area, and through witnessing abject poverty and seeing how people coped with it; I learned a lot about what social justice is all about and why spokespeople for God like Amos, Hosea and the suffering servant depicted by Isaiah demanded for Justice (c.f. Amos 5:21-25; Hosea 6:6; etc.). Similarly, when I gave up my big job as the general secretary of HKCC, I experienced a great awakening regarding what the Christian Church is all about and that I, as a servant of God must stand firm in the Lord (quoting PHIL. 4:1).
Apostle Paul wrote, “God’s grace is enough for me” (II Cor 12:9) It has become but a reality in my life. I was never in want! When I first started to work in the slum area. I had little money, hardly enough to even furnish my living quarters. But my parents, a few parishioners as well a missionary friend stepped in to help. When I started Hong Kong Christian Institute, my wife Dorothy gave me full backing financially. Without even asking, Church of Sweden contributed HK$150,000 so that we can rent and equip an office, paid the salaries of three staff in the beginning months. I have often been asked why my life and ministry is so different than practically all ministers in Hong Kong and that I have always a keen sense of thanksgiving and dedication. This is my answer: I firmly believe that “Everything has come from God, I have given only what God has bestowed to me in the first place” (I CHRON. 29:14). It is with this understanding and spirit that I came to KUC. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to serve God through my service at KUC.