Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church
The Church Participates In God’s Mission
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 30th September 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Genesis 12:1-9 and John 5:19-29.
For the past 4 Sundays we have explored the Identity and the nature of the Church. This morning, let us examine the Purpose of the Church: The Sole Purpose of the Church is to carry out the Mission of God.
Contemporary theologians suggested that the Church does not only have a mission: It is Mission. Mission is the sole reason for the existence of the Church. Just as a fire does not exist unless burning takes place; likewise the Church. A Church, God’s Church, is at best exist in name only unless it is mission-centred.
When I started to serve as a minister in a local church in a slum area in Hong Kong in the mid-1960s, there was a fierce debate about the Mission of the Church in Hong Kong. The mainline churches suggested that the Mission of the Church in Hong Kong should concentrate to deal with the physical needs of the people. Hence to build schools, clinics, social centres, etc. should be their priority. The conservative churches disagreed. They insist that preaching of the Gospel to non-believers should come first. In looking back, this reflected the immaturity of the churches in Hong Kong.
I never thought this was an important and meaningful debate. In fact, I was busy enough to be interested in such a debate. However, for some reason, I was attacked by our fundamental brothers and sisters. They branded me as a radical because of what I wanted to do in the local church. I had decided to turn it into a neighbourhood church, concentrating to equip the congregation to serve the neighbourhood and beyond. Moreover, since at the time, I also served concurrently as a part-time lecturer of New Testament in Chung Chi Theological Seminary associated with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a place accused by many Christians as a breeding ground for New Theology. In looking back they were courteous enough of not labeling me as a heretic. Later, in the 1970s I became a rather popular speaker in local churches. But all they asked me to speak on was Social Concern; rather than my specialty, which was the New Testament.
I always believe the debate about what is the Mission of the Church is rather futile. It is because this may be the wrong question to ask. In a way, the Church does not and should not have its own mission or its own agenda, so to speak. The Church belongs to God and not to us. The Church is God’s Church. It never is our church. Therefore, the Church should be concerned exclusively about God’s Mission.
There is a vast difference between the Church has its own mission and the Church only participates in God’s Mission. First of all, when the Church is too preoccupied with doing its own mission or to be precise, doing its own thing, it can easily fall into the pit of endless argument and disagreement. Only when everybody’s attention is on God: when we turn to God, can we avoid conflicts.
Then there is the question of attitude. Many of you have heard the story about three stonecutters in a church construction site. When asked what they doing, the first one answered “I was cutting stones”; the second answered that he was cutting stones for use in the building of a building. The third one replied proudly, “I am building a house of God”.
Similarly, when members of a church turn their full attention to God and seek to carry out God’s mission in the world, the quality of work and its meaning for members are very enriching.
What then is God’s Mission or the Missio Dei? Frankly I do not fully know the answer. But there must be a few clues we can obtain from the Bible.
The faith which our foreparents passed onto us is that God is the God who acts. Furthermore God works through His chosen to reveal himself and His will to people.
This is one of Isaiah’s oracles: “Seek out Yahweh while he is still to be found, call to him while he is still near. Let the wicked abandon their way and the evil ones their thoughts. Let them turn back to Yahweh who will take pity on them, to our God, for he is rich in forgiveness. For my thoughts are not your thoughts and your ways are not my ways, declares Yahweh.” (Is. 55:6-8)
Another by Jeremiah: “Look, the days are coming. Yahweh declares, when I shall make a new covenant with the House of Israel (and the House of Judah), but not like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, even though I was their Master. Yahweh declares. No, this is the covenant I shall make with the House of Israel when those days have come. Yahweh declares. Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people. There will be no further need for everyone to teach neighbour or bother, saying, “Learn to know Yahweh!” No, they will all know me, from the least to the greatest. Yahweh declares, since I shall forgive their guilt and never more call their sin to mind.” (Jer 31:31-34, NJB)
Yet another by Micah: “You have already been told what is right and what Yahweh wants of you. Only this, to do what is right, to love loyalty and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 NJB)
As the Letter to the Hebrews asserted, “At many moments in the past and by many means, God spoke (or revealed) to our ancestors through the prophets, but in our time, the final days, God has spoken to us in the person of his Son…” (1:1-2, NJB). So finally, God decided to become flesh and reveal himself through Jesus Christ.
The Church came to realize that all God’s revelations and actions have salvation overtone. As the noted German theologian Gerhard von Rad once declared, the whole human history is Heilsgeschichte or Salvation History.
Indeed one of the pillars of the history of Israel is the Exodus Event. God delivered them out of Egypt, while they lived as slaves. This event formed the core of the creeds of Judaism (c.f. Deut 6:21-25; 26:5-9 and Joshua 24:2-13); historical psalms (such as 78, 105, etc.); and temple prayers (Nehemiah 9:5-31). This is how the Ten Commandments or the Ten Words began, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you lived as slaves.” (Ex 20:1). For Christianity, this is the introduction of the Ten Commandments. But for Judaism, this is the very first and the most important commandment whereby the other nine commandments rest.
In the Exodus Event, the Israelites came to understand that God’s will was always to deliver people from chaos to order; from meaninglessness to meaning; from darkness to light; from despair to hope; from death to life…
Order is what the first creation story is all about. For the Old Testament faith, God’s creation is not creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing; but rather, from chaos to order; or from distortion to wholeness. The very first verse of the Bible reads, “when God began creating heaven and earth, the earth being then a formless void, with darkness over the deep…” (Gen 1:1, NJB). Then God put it in order, stage by stage (or day by day). In every stage God saw that it was good – which literally means it was in perfect order. As Paul later observed, “for God is a God not of disorder, but of peace.” (Cor. 14:33). Peace (eirene) can mean in perfect conditions or in good order.
The General Epistle of Peter put it in this way: “God does not want anyone to be destroyed or lost, but wants all to be brought to repentance or turn away from their sins, i.e. alienations with God, with all God’s creation” (II Peter 3:7).
The world to-day is in disorder. God intended human beings to be in relationship with God Himself, with Nature and with each other. Now all of us, nobody excepted, experience all kinds of disrelationship. We are alienated from our environment through abuse. We are alienated from one another as a result of fierce competition for self-gain. Sometimes we are even alienated from ourselves, because we simply could not accept ourselves for not doing as well as we had hoped. But most important of all, we are totally alienated from God our Creator. We have lost our dignity which God intends for us.
As people of faith do we dare to affirm God is still at work?
We must honestly admit that we do not have all the answers. But if we still have faith in God, we must believe that yes, God is very much alive and is still at work. What we experience now, as in all of human history ever since Adam and Eve, is the perennial struggle between God’s order and human disorder.
If we believe God is still at work, than how do we participate in God’s saving activities in this world?
First, we have to start from the very fundamental, i.e. we humbly seek God’s will and God’s guidance, through serious spiritual exercises of meditation, contemplation and prayer.
Second, we must be sensitive and aware what is going on in the world, in Asia, in China and in Hong Kong as well as people we associate with. The more we know what’s going on, the more we will care. So we need to spend time to reflect on what is going on on a regular basis. Karl Barth, the most influential theologian of the last century advised his students to hold the Bible on one hand and newspapers on the other (in the 1930s, T.V. was not common).
While we have to constantly ask the big question: How is God at work to-day in this world, we must not ignore to do whatever is necessary to help our brothers and sisters who are in need. In other words, we must think big, but at the time act small. The small things we can and must do often times are the simple acts of charity. Indeed this is what Jesus taught us to do in his teaching of the Last Judgment, “In truth, I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine. You did it to me.” (Mt 25:40). To give food to the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to welcome strangers, to give clothes to those lacking clothes, to visit the sick and the prisoners. These are the simple acts of charity or love. Jesus expected us to do. I am sure everyone of us can do all these things.
Besides doing the simple acts of love, we must go one step further and ask the question why? Why do these people suffer? For example, in Hong Kong we have to ask, with Hong Kong’s seeming affluence (the GDP per capita for last year has risen back to the 1997 figure, i.e. HK$ 200,000) Why more than one in ten citizens still live in abject poverty? When we ask the question “why” enough times, we will be forced to speak up. Speaking up is an important measure towards social change or social transformation. It will force the decision makers to think thrice before they act. It will also bring many people into awareness of the problem. I coin this process, the process of conscientization, i.e. to arouse the conscience of concerned people.
After the collapse of the totalitarian governments one by one in Eastern Europe, from Rumania’s Caesescu to East Germany’s Honnaker in the fall of 1989, a group of Christian leaders in Hong Kong invited a Polish theologian to help the Christians in Hong Kong to reflect on the situation in E. Europe and China. Halina Bortnaska explained to us why this sudden change in E. Europe. She related to us despite the extremely harsh and tight conditions in E. Europe, many artists, pastors, academics, labour union and student leaders did whatever they could to help people think and ask the question why? Her observation was that these concerned people believed that doing something is always better than doing nothing. In a way, the fall of the Communist regimes in E. Europe was not the uprising of their people in three months; but rather the work of the millions who in 40 years have each done their very small part in resisting the oppression of their ruthless leaders.
God does not expect all of us to do great things. But He demands us to be persistent. As God never gives up on anyone of us, how can we give up so easily on the people and the world God creates and loves so much?
Let us pray.
O Lord our God, we give you thanks for ever working in this world and in our midst. Grant us the same mind and spirit so as to participate in your saving acts. Guide and strengthen us with your Holy Spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we ask. Amen.
The Church As The Fellowship Of The Holy Spirit
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 23rd September 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 51:10-11; Isaiah 62:1-2; Romans 8:5-11 and Matthew 12:18-21
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of your hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Refuge and Redeemer (Ps. 19:14). Amen.
We can see clearly from the four gospels that Jesus spared no efforts to build up his disciples – to be a body who could carry on his work on earth. Jesus knew his disciples were human. They needed constant guidance and empowerment. So in the farewell discourse, Jesus had promised not once, but five times the coming of the Holy Spirit after he physically left his disciples. The coming of the Holy Spirit was recorded in some detail in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles. This marked the birth of the Christian Church.
What is the Holy Spirit? As I have dealt with it in the sermon on Pentecost on May 27 this year, I shall not repeat. But very briefly, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God.
The Holy Spirit and the Church are interrelated. Paul labeled the Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In fact in all the ancient creeds, the Nicene Creed, which we say in Holy Communion Sundays and the Apostles’ Creed, which we recite on other Sundays here at KUC included only 3 articles of faith, namely, I believe in God… I believe in our Lord Jesus Christ… and I believe in the Holy Spirit. Our faith in the Church is included in the third article. So the Church and the Holy Spirit are inseparable. The Church is actually the work of the Holy Spirit.
Let us examine this in greater detail.
First, what is fellowship? Fellowship is composed of two words; fellows and ship. So 2 or more people on a ship is a fellowship. When several people are on a ship, they must be together in their heart and in their mind. Otherwise, the ship may be in danger of being capsized.
When I was a kid, my brother and I together with two family friends of our age were very fond of going to Silvermine Bay for a day or overnight a couple of times a year. We did a bit of hiking, lots swimming, and rowing a sampan to a small island. It was quite a long journey, about 45 minutes to an hour one way. We took turns to row. It gave me the experience that in order to finish this long journey safely all of us had to be together and give our very best. To me, that is fellowship.
Yet the Church is more than an ordinary fellowship. It is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
In a human fellowship, we have a group of people relating to each other. For sure it is difficult because each one of us has our own interests and ways of doing things. But it is very different in the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In this fellowship, Christ is the centre. Christ stands between me and my fellow Christians. Our relationship to each other is not direct; it is not confrontational. We all relate to our Lord Jesus Christ; and through him we relate to each other. This indirect human relationship is being described in the allegory of the True Vine as recorded in John 15. In this allegory, Jesus Christ is the true vine; we all are the branches. We are joined together for sure. But we are not joined together directly. As each branch is joined to the vine, so we are all related to Jesus Christ before we are together and can relate to each other genuinely.
In the first letter of John, Christ was described as the expiator (I Jn 2:1). This is a difficult word. Expiator means the middle-man. Jesus is the middle man between God and human beings. Through his atoning sacrifice, Christ is able to reconcile or join together God and all human beings. Likewise, Christ enables us to join together in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In this special fellowship, we can get rid of our self-centreness. Because as Paul once said, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). In this Fellowship called the Church, we can be together with one mind, one heart and one spirit. Our Church can then exist for a higher goal, and a more noble purpose, which transcends all human desires and horizons.
The term “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” first appeared in Paul’s benediction to the Church at Corinth. The Good News Bible or our pew Bible as well as the New Jerusalem Bible which many Biblical scholars use, reads: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”. (II Cor 12:13). The meaning is clear, Paul wished God’s blessings: grace, love and the fellowship be upon God’s people.
However, the New Revised Standard Version or the New RSV of the Bible which most of the major denominations as well as students of the Bible use, reads slightly different. Instead of “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”, it reads, “the communion of the Holy Spirit”. The word “communion” literally means “SHARING”. God shares His goodness with His People. As Christ promised, the best gift of God to the humankind is the Holy Spirit (c.f. Lk 11:13).
The Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament of our Bible was an attempt to interpret God’s Communion or Sharing with His chosen.
“Yahweh would talk to Moses face to face…” (Ex 33:11). This was how the Israelites believed God shared His Will directly to their leader Moses.
Prophet Amos observed that God would reveal Himself through the prophets: “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7)
The Israelites also believed that oftentimes, God shared himself as well as his will through God’s own spirit.
With God’s spirit or the Holy Spirit, Prophet Micah prophesied: “I am full of strength, full of Yahweh’s spirit, of the sense of right, of energy to accuse Jacob of his crime and Israel of his sin.” (Micah 3:8)
Or the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted.” (Is 61:1)
The Church is the communion of the Holy Spirit. In other words, God chooses the Church to share Himself and His goodness to his people. The Church to-day should be a means of God’s grace. Are we ready and willing to take up this calling and demand from God?
The Church is synonymous with the communion or fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
Let us go back to the very beginning of the Early Church.
When Jesus was arrested and met the fate of being crucified, his disciples dispersed, “Then the disciples left him and ran away.” (Mt 26:57). Peter even denied three times that he was acquainted with Jesus.
But when the Holy Spirit came to them on Pentecost, they were radically changed. They dared to stand up and preach in a loud voice (Acts 2:14). They dared to bring the Gospel to many other cities outside of Jerusalem: to Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, … and finally to Rome. (It was also believed that Thomas went to India to establish the Mar Thoma Church). All this required great strength and persistence. Without the power of the Holy Spirit, they could not have done so. That is why the work of Jesus’ disciples and all his followers is called the work of the Holy Spirit.
When the day of the Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered in one place. They came from “every country of the world” and spoke different languages (Acts 2:1-4). However, the Holy Spirit enabled them to speak and be able to understand each other. The Holy Spirit breaks down all walls and barriers, be they language, physical or psychological. Through the Holy Spirit, we can communicate to each other.
The Holy Spirit has transformed a body of people: from a group of individuals to a community of sharing, “all the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met with one heart in the Temple, and they had their meals together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God, and enjoying the good will with all the people…” (Acts 2:43-47).
Many churches to-day have lost a sense of direction – each going its own way: some seek for numerical success and prosperity. Others feel that they are powerless to confront all kinds of secular forces such as materialism and dominance and oppression by the rich and the powerful. Yet others drift to personal struggles. It is because churches and the Holy Spirit are disconnected. Churches have become purely human dominated and controlled organizations.
Some churches recognize this very problem. So they resort to the practice of our Pentecostal sisters and brothers in seeking the Holy Spirit through singing, clapping of hands, dancing and prayers. But the work of the Holy Spirit is more than stirring up our emotions, though this may be very important. But as Jesus enlightened his disciples in his farewell discourse in John 14-16, the Holy Spirit is to guide and direct us and lead us to the truth. The Holy Spirit is also our counselor – empower us to do whatever God wants us to do. So churches throughout the world to-day must first seek for the fellowship or communion of the Holy Spirit, so that once again like the first Jerusalem Church, churches and the Holy Spirit are re-united again.
Let us pray,
O Holy Spirit, hear us as we pray:
Let your wisdom shine upon us.
Make us aware of God’s presence.
Dispel all kinds of fear and anxiety in our hearts.
Inspire us to understand God’s Word.
Inflame us with Christ’s love.
Help us to open ourselves to the needs of others.
O Holy Spirit, descend upon your Church.
In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
The Church As The Body Of Christ
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 16th September 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Exodus 19:1-6 and I Corinthians 12:12-30.
The first Church in Jerusalem was a gathering of Jesus’ disciples and followers as well as the followers of his disciples. Later, these followers, both Jews and non-Jews were given a new name of “Christian” (c.f. Acts 11:26; 26:28; I Peter 4:16, etc.). So the early Church was formed by a gathering of Christians or as the name suggests, a gathering of the followers of Christ. Martin Luther, the great German Church reformer of the 16th Century used to call Christians the little christs.
As followers of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we must be clear about what Jesus did, taught and “Be” so that we can follow his footsteps: try to do the things he did; say what he said; and be what he be, that is, to imitate his life style. What Christianity is all about finally is not about doctrines, but about the transformation of one’s life style; or about following a different life style which is known as the Jesus’ life style.
What did Jesus do and say, and what was his life style? The whole New Testament was centred around Jesus. It is a record of what Jesus did and taught; and interpretations about the meaning of his deeds, his words as well as his sacrificial love on the cross.
First of all, Jesus was a great teacher. Matthew had this to say, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes.” (7:28).
Jesus was not so much concerned with teaching his followers about the Law and the Prophets who tried to interpret God’s will and God’s relationship with people. Jesus transcended all this. He concretely expressed in no uncertain terms what is God’s Kingdom or God’s will on earth.
Secondly, jesus was a miracle worker. He healed the sick. He drove out demons who tormented people. He fed the hungry. He walked on the water… He did all this because he cared for the little ones, especially those who suffered. Moreover, he did all this to show that God’s works and power might be revealed (Jn. 9:4). As Mark described all this so tellingly “With mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (10:27). Is this the Gospel or the good news we all want and need to hear?
Thirdly, Jesus came only to be nailed on a cross to die. This selfless act did not only reconcile the humankind to God. Jesus’ sacrificial love has redeemed people from harmatia, the fallout from God. This very act of Jesus has changed the course of history.
This is also the mystery of the Christian Faith. Jesus came as the Incarnate God – God became flesh in and through Jesus Christ. All his life Jesus embodied the Word of God. God’s Word or the Kerygma constitutes the core of the Christian Gospel.
Finally, from the four Gospels, we learn that Jesus came to live a life in full communion with God. “The Father and I are one”, so claimed Jesus as recorded in John 10:30. Because of this communion, Jesus was full of power. He was able to teach like no learned Jewish rabbi could. He was able to perform miracles. Both the Gospels of Mark and Luke recorded how a woman suffering from hemorrhages was healed. She dared not asked but only timidly touched Jesus’ clothes. Immediately, She was healed. But during her touch, Jesus felt that power had gone out from him. (Mk 5:30; Lk 8:46). In a way Jesus did not do anything. But the fact that he was in full communion with God, he had all the power he needed.
Jesus was in full communion with God. He was obedient to God even to the very end when he had to be crucified. This was Jesus’ prayer as recorded in all the Synoptic Gospels, “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.” (Mt 26:39; Mk 14:36; and Lk 22:42; N.J.B.).
Because Jesus was in full communion with God, he had God’s power and authority to do signs and to teach. An important mark of being in full communion with God is Jesus’ absolute obedience to God and utter humility. Apostle Paul later described this as total renunciation of one self or Kenosis in his most famous Christological Hymn found in Phil 2:6-11.
We, and in that regard the whole Church, often ask what should we do? I often wonder whether this is the right question to ask. The question we, the Church, really should ask constantly is: How can we be in communion with God through Jesus Christ? When we are in communion with God, all things will fall into place. We no longer have to worry about what we should do or not do.
Despite we live in a very secularized world, where materialism abound, more and more people join the Church. To many their primary concern is personal salvation. They firmly believe when they believe Jesus, Jesus can save them (whatever that means). To others, to be a Christian is to have a personal relationship with Christ. All these are good, but not quite enough. We need to ask what is the implication after we have built up a personal relationship with Jesus? Are we willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus?
Furthermore, the Church is more than a group of individual Christians gathering together. The Church is a corporate body. It is the Body of Christ, so insists Paul.
One of my hobbies is to watch a soccer game from time to time. For years, my favourite team is Arsenal. Arsenal does not have any world-class players, especial now Tierre Henry has gone to Barcelona. But Arsenal always plays beautiful soccer. It plays as a team rather than eleven soccer stars. Likewise, the Church should act as a body. It is the body of Christ.
As a matter of fact, Jesus had taken pains to build up his disciples as one single body. This was how he concentrated to do when he brought his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. Of all the teachings as recorded in the Central Section of Mark, i.e. 8:27-10:52, two stand out. One was about who was the greatest among the 12 disciples (9:33-37)? The other was about the request of high positions when Jesus was in final glory (10:35-45). Both met with the same answer from Jesus: “Whoever wants to be the first he must make himself the last of all and servant of all” (9:35); “anyone who wants to become great among you must be the servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be slave to all.” (10:44).
In the Body of Christ, not everyone is equal but they are all God’s servants (or “dulos”). The whole body exists for one purpose and one purpose only, i.e. to serve God and God’s entire creation.
Over the forty odd years in the Christian ministry, I have seen countless disputes in local churches. Some of these became quarrels of such magnitude that they eventually split. Some of these resulted in some members left the Church entirely. As I reflected on these different situations, without any exception, they were caused by a very few members who insist their idea was the right one and that the whole church should follow his/her way of doing things. In other words, all of them, without any exception, failed to realize what the Church was all about. All members of the Church are servants rather than masters. Jesus Christ is the only master or head of the Church.
In Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples as found in John 13-16, Jesus gave them the allegory of the True Vine (15:1-10). Jesus is the vine and all his followers are the branches. Every branch is linked and nurtured by the vine. Only then can the branches bear fruits. In Romans 12 and I Cor. 12 which we read this morning, Paul used the analogy of a body to describe the Body of Christ or the Church. In this body, there are many parts but all the parts are equally important.
Likewise, the Church consists of members of different nationalities; cultures, political and economic backgrounds. We have different gifts. But we belong to the same Body. No matter how small or trivial we are, we are all equally important and useful in the eye of Jesus.
The Early Church consists of both Jews and Non-Jews. But they accepted each other. This was the spirit of the first ever church council held in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 15. Soon, as a result of the missionary efforts of Paul and other disciples, churches were established in Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, … Rome. In less than 300 years, Christian Churches were all over Europe, North Africa, West Asia and even India. Following its rapid expansion, the Church simultaneously underwent many cultural transformations, from Jewish, to Greek, to Roman, to Anglo-Saxon… and finally to us in Asia in the 19th century. The Church is now very diversified in culture and history; second to none on this planet earth. In terms of confessional backgrounds, there are the liturgical Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican or the Episcopalian Church. There are the Word-centred Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church and the Congregational Church. There are the spiritual fellowship centred Methodist Church, Baptist, Alliance and Evangel Churches as well as the Pentecostal Church. Of course there are also the Salvation Army and the Friends or the Quakers. All these are vital parts of the Christian Church. I am always saddened to hear many Baptists still think the Roman Catholics are the heretics and some Roman Catholics consider other Protestants Christians not members of Christ’s Church. In this pluralistic world, we need to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
KUC is an international, interdenominational and ecumenical church. This is a tremendous gift of God. Let us be extremely humble and manifest or use this gift to the full.
In the beginning of the farewell discourse, Jesus taught his disciples about humility or humble service by washing his disciples’ feet one by one. This was highly unusual in those days. Only slaves washed the feet of their masters or friends of their masters. But Jesus did just that. The intention was clear. Jesus wanted to teach his disciples by example about humility. The Body of Christ can be maintained if and only if every member is humble and be willing to submit his/her will to Christ.
In the same occasion, Jesus also warned his disciples about the worst thing which could happen to the body was betrayal (Jn 13:18-20). Jesus warned, “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me” (13:18, a direct quote from Ps 41:9).
Indeed in the course of the history of the Church, the most tragic thing which has happened was when facing extreme difficulties or persecutions by totalitarian authorities, in order to safe one’s own skin, members attacked each other. This has happened in almost every country in Eastern Europe. This has happened time and again in China during the endless political movements between 1950s-1970s. This mutual attack was by far the poorest witness to Christ’s love. That explained why in his high priestly prayer before Jesus bid farewell to his disciples, he prayed for the unity of their disciples and gave them the commandment of Love.
The Church as the body of Christ is the extension of the work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the head of this body. He directs and sustains the whole body. Jesus especially cared for the little ones (Mt 25). He dared to confront the powers which oppressed the little ones (c.f. the 15 controversial stories of Mark). All churches throughout the world, KUC included, must pursue these two points diligently. Only when churches do this would they be worthy to be the Body of Christ.
The Church As God’s New Creation
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 9th September 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 8 and II Corinthians 5:11-21.
Christian faith affirms that the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob is both the historic and universal God. This only God is also our personal God. It is this God who calls us into existence. Our God is the origin of everything. This is why the first book of the Hebrew Bible which is also the Old Testament of our Bible is called Genesis. Genesis literally means the origins or the beginnings.
God is the Creator, so asserts our foreparents of thousands of years. All of us are part of His Creation. Chapter 1 verse 1 of Genesis reads, “In the beginning, when God began to create…”. This implies that God’s creation did not end with what has been expressed in the first two chapters of Genesis. Rather God continues to create, redeems and sustains throughout the course of history.
By far human beings are the most important part of God’s creation. God created human beings even in His image. So every person has God’s likeness.
Let us look at the two accounts regarding to God’s creation. The first one is found in Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a. This is generally known as the later Priestly or “P” account. The “P” account described God’s creation stage by stage carefully. When everything was ready God then created human beings. The second or the “J” account is found in Genesis 2:4b-24. This earlier “J” or Jehovah account chose to concentrate to narrate how God created human beings in details. The rest of God’s creation seemed to be less important comparatively.
Despite the vast differences of these two creation accounts, there is one thing in common. The centre of God’s entire creation was human beings. As I pointed out earlier the “P” account even asserted that human beings bear the image of God (or Imago Dei). As God is the Creator (in capital letter), human beings are also creators (in small letter).
The Psalm we chose to read this morning, Psalm 8, the 4th stanza reads: “You have made a human being less than a god, You have crown him with glory and beauty, make him Lord of the works of your hands, put all things under his feet.” (vv. 5-6 NJB).
The purpose of this psalm is to glorify God about His creation rather than human beings. But as God’s most precious creation, human beings though very small and frail yet everyone is made less than a god (In some versions, “God has elevated everyone to be an angel”). He or she is the lord of God’s creation (c.f. Gen 1:26-28). This lies the mystery of the Dignity of human beings. The dignity of human beings rests in our humble acceptance that we are God’s children, and not self-made. Genuine dignity and absolute humility go hand in hand. Only in utter humility, the dignity of humankind can be realized.
My wife and I were in Alaska this summer, spending quite a bit of time looking at numerous magnificent glaciers. All these glaciers have a history of tens and thousands of years. Compared with them, I felt once again how tiny human beings really are. Yet oftentimes, consciously or unconsciously, we want to be much bigger than what we actually are. We want to control things. In so doing we push God aside. We do not only want to be the god of our life, but also the god of other people as well. Let us go back to the creation stories as found in Genesis 1-11.
Genesis 1-2 contains two separate accounts of God’s creation. This is to be followed mainly by four accounts of human sin or the fall of human beings. They are called “fall stories” because human beings out of their own free will fell outside God’s will. Genesis 3 told the story of Adam and Eve who ate the forbidden fruit. Genesis 4 was about Cain killed his brother Abel because of jealousy. Genesis 6-9 – the flood story was about the corruption of humanity: “the human wickedness was great on earth and that his heart contrived nothing but wicked schemes all day long…” (6:5). Finally Genesis 11 told the story of the Tower of Babel. All these four stories have one thing in common. People disobeyed what God had commanded. In the Adam and Eve story, God told them to eat everything except the fruit of the tree in the centre of the garden. In the Cain and Abel Story, Cain violated Abel’s life. The violation of another person’s life is the violation of God because every person bears the image of God. We have no right to take away the precious life of another person. Yet Cain did just that. When God asked Cain where was his brother Abel, Cain answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9). This is a rhetorical question. We all know the answer. Cain especially forgot that God had commanded human beings to take care of each other (c.f. Genesis 2:15).
In the flood story, human beings should know better that as God’s co-creators, they were supposed to do good, rather than evil. Yet the people at the time did the opposite. They did all the wicked things. All day long they contrived evil plans!
Finally in the Tower of Babel story, human beings wanted to challenge God, “come let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top reaching heaven. Let us make a name for ourselves…” (11:4). They did not want to honour God’s name any more!
Generally speaking, these four stories are known as the Fall stories. Human beings did not live within the bounds of God’s will. The Greek word for sin is “harmatia”, which means we miss the target. God wants us to be dignified human beings. Yet we overshoot: we want to be God. Other times we undershoot: we deny ourselves and do not want to live in dignity.
As a result of this fall or disobedience, human beings are alienated not only from God, but from the whole of God’s creation, which includes Nature, people and our own self.
Let us go back to the first Fall story. After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Adam discovered that he was naked and was ashamed of himself. By implication, Adam was separated from his own being. He no longer knew who he was. He was ashamed of himself. He could not accept himself. Adam was also alienated from his wife Eve. He blamed Eve for asking him to eat the forbidden fruit. Then Eve blamed the snake for tempting her. The snake was a part of the natural world. Thus, as a result of the human disobedience and alienation from God, they experienced total alienation, from nature, from other people, and even from themselves.
I have pointed out to you time and again that the central message of the Old Testament is like this, God commanded, “I shall be your God and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23; 31:27, 32; Eze. 34:24, 31, etc, etc.) and that God is the only God (Ex. 20:3; Deut. 4:35; Hos. 13:4 etc.).
The fundamental sin of human beings is that we do not want to acknowledge that God is Holy (Hos. 11:9); He is the Only God and we are His people.
Superficially, there is nothing wrong that people go their own way, and seek for their own interests. God loves them just as much. But deep down, a life disconnected with God – the ground of our being or the reason of our existence is distorted.
The Prophet Isaiah of the 6th Century B.C.E. had foretold the following:
“We had all gone astray like sheep, each taking his own way and Yahweh brought the acts of rebellion of all of us to bear on him.” (Is. 53:6)
This prophecy was about the coming of the Messiah or the Saviour. It was fulfilled with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God loves the human kind so much so that He came to us through incarnation in the person of Jesus. Jesus Christ came to show us what an abundant life, the life which God aimed to give to all of us, is all about.
Apostle Paul described Jesus Christ as the Second Adam in Romans 5:12-21.
Adam, the first man, was the representative of all people who rebelled against God, thus causing human beings separated from God. Jesus Christ as the Second Adam or the new man came to live a life of unity with God. Jesus’ absolute obedience to God, even unto his death has brought justification for all humanity. Thus Jesus could claim that “I have come so that people may have life and have it to the full.” (Jn 10:10). An obedient life is a life in full communion with God, and thus obedient only to God’s will.
When we live a life in communion with God through Christ, we can and will live a life in unity with God’s entire creation, that is in unity with Nature and with all human beings. It means we can appreciate and treasure Nature as well as love and accept all people, disrespect their race, culture and religions; disregard their political and economic backgrounds.
As Paul pointed out: this is God’s new creation (II Cor 5:17). This new creation is God’s Church. I must hastily point out that this new creation or the Church is in no way superior to the people who are outside the Church.
As Paul pointed out so poignantly, we are all sinners (Rom. 3:11). But by God’s grace we are the forgiven sinners. So as the Church we need to be humble. The Church needs to turn back constantly, from self-righteousness to be under God’s justice.
The motto for the II Vatican Council which took place between 1962-1964 was aggioramento. Pope John XXIII had summoned his conservative Church to update. He knew the world had changed a great deal since the last council about 100 years ago. So should the Church if it meant to serve the world relevantly.
But in reality there is much more to it. Ontologically, the Church needs to renew itself incessantly so that it will not stray away from God.
When the two Presbyterian Churches in America joined together in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), they chose the slogan for the new Church, “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda”: the Church renewed, ever renewing.
God’s Church is God’s New Creation. It sees things from new and wider horizons. We as this Church dare to look at our self with new light. Despite our inadequacies caused by our sinful nature, we dare to affirm we are God’s precious children. So we dare to confront the powers and principalities who cause endless miseries to the little ones in our midst. Yes, this world is full of calamities – such as senseless killings in Palestine, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur (the list can go on and on). They also happen in our doorsteps as well. Then there are incessant natural disasters. We as the Church need to hear the cry of the suffering people all over the world. We also need to hear the cry of Nature as a result of our callous depletion of its forests; our excessive emission of all kinds of toxic gases; our selfish overuse of the land, water, etc.
Humanity seems to be facing a hopeless future. The Church as the New Creation of God does not and should never pretend it has all the answers. But neither must it be indifferent. We the Church have to do our very best all the time. Hopefully the little we do can reconnect people to God, which eventually is the answer to the future of humankind. Although we may not know from time to time what is the right thing to do, we must not quit trying. We do our best and surrender it to God believing God is still in charge.
Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
The Church Belongs to God
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 2nd September 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Deuteronomy 4:32-40 and Mark 12:28-34.
My heart is always on the future of the Church. Practically all my life has been devoted to the renewal of the Church. It is my conviction that the future of the Church lies with the renewal of local churches. For local churches are the basic units or the most concrete expressions of the Church. So after 35 years in the Christian ministry, I decided to retire from any salaried jobs and devote my energy and time to work with local church pastors as well as seminarians.
In working with local church pastors, for the past seven years, I heard incessantly all kinds of complaints. Most of the complaints have to do with the dominance of the lay leaders of their churches. They believed that they were tightly controlled by the elders or deacons or council members of their church and were not given enough space and time to develop their ministry. From what I heard, most of the local church pastors are in hopeless situations. All that remains for them to do is to make all efforts to keep their jobs. But please be assured that the complaints are also from the other direction – their pastors are lazy, too self-centred, keener to develop their own interests than to care for the needs of their congregation members… From all this, I have come to the conclusion that both sides have to share the blame. However the ministers, however their parishoners and vice versa.
But, I believe there is a more deep-seated problem in all this. Simply put: ministers and their parishoners do not share a common understanding about the body which they all belong. In other words, both ministers and laity alike fail to grasp what the Christian Church is all about.
In a way all of us do have some kind of idea about the Church. The problem is whatever our idea of the Church, it is both shallow and narrow. The root problem is that our image of the Church is simply inadequate?
In the winter of 1970, I was in the west-side of Chicago to observe how the Ecumenical Institute was at work in a slum area.
In those days, the west-side of Chicago probably was the poorest and deserted area in the city of Chicago. Most of the residents in that area were racially minority people. The school drop-out rate, the crime rate, the unemployment rate were all very high. Prices of the goods in its stores were exceptionally high. Many residents or to be precise street sleepers resorted to alcohol and drugs. According to one study, the fundamental problem of the people in the area was that most of them had the “victim image”. They believed the city as well as the nation have abandoned them. There was nothing they could do to improve on their situation. So the Ecumenical Institute at the time resolved to enhance the self-image of the residents especially of the youth as the top priority.
Likewise in order to renew the Church, we need to start from the basis, that is, to rediscover what is the Church? We should consider to build an ecclesiology which is broad and rooted in the bases of the Christian faith as our highest priority. Therefore, I suggest in the month of September, we explore together the identity, nature and purpose of the Church in my sermons.
To begin with, the English word “Church” comes from the German word “Kirche”. The word Kirche has its roots from the Greek word Kuriakos or kuriakon, which liberally means that which belongs to the Lord (Kurios). So the Christian Church belongs to God. It is God’s Church. How wrong we are when we say the Church as our church! Sadly, churches all over the world have become merely human institutions.
In the Hebrew Bible or our Old Testament, the equivalent word for Church is Qâhâl. It means an assembly of people for a military, religious or any other purpose. But in the Bible it refers specifically to a group of people or individuals chosen by God for a specific purpose. For instance, God chose Abraham to be a blessing to the nations; God chose Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, the land of slavery and bondage; chose the Levites to be priests to serve in God’s altar; chose David to be a King to serve God’s commandments (I Kings 11:34); chose the Prophets to be the ministers of God’s Word (therefore oftentimes the prophets started their oracles by saying, “The Lord says…”); chose the Israelite people as God’s chosen so as to be a light to all nations or to bring justice to all corners of the world (c.f. the servant songs in II Isaiah). So these were the beginnings of the Christian Church. God chose people to join the Church for a particular purpose. Do we have this sense of God’s calling?
In the Greek Bible, qâhâl is translated as “ecclesia”. Ecclesia or the church appeared 112 times in our New Testament altogether: about 100 times in the Pauline letters, the Acts of Apostles and Revelation. Surprisingly it never appears in Mark, Luke, John, II Timothy, Titus, I Peter, II Peter, The First and Second Letters of John as well as Jude. In the Synoptic Gospels, it only appears in Matthew (once in 16:18 and twice in 18:17). But please be assured that it does not mean that “church” is not important in those books.
According to Paul Minear, my New Testament professor at Yale, there are about 100 ideas, concepts or images pointing to “Church” in the New Testament, such as the body of Christ, Christ’s servants, stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God (I Cor. 4:1), ambassadors of Christ (II Cor 5:20), to name just a few. In I Peter 2:9 alone there are four: “a chosen race, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, a people to be a personal possession to sing praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (NJB).
When we take time to study these 98 images of the Church carefully, we will find despite their rich and diversified meanings, there is one striking commonality, namely they are all theo-centred and not homo or human centred. The Church is of God, for God and by God. To put it in another way, the Church belongs to God. Inspired and guided by God, the Church participates in God’s activities in this world.
According to records, the earliest Christian Church, i.e. a Jewish community gathered by the Holy Spirit concentrated to do only two things: praised God and shared the faith as taught by Jesus Christ (c.f. Acts 2:42-47).
Soon, because of extremely rapid expansion, churches were already established throughout most of Europe, Middle and Near East, Northern Africa as well as India by the end of the 4th century. Leaders of the Church decided to organize: deacons were established (Acts 6:1-6); leaders of elders were also initiated (I Tim 3:1-13) and rigid doctrines were introduced (this explains why there were so many church councils in the first three centuries). Increasingly the Church had become institutionalized and hierarchical.
In this kind of situation, God was pushed above (That is why sometimes we address God as our father in heaven). God has become no more than a figure head. In other words God was only the God in name. The Pope and his curia, bishops and their priests in reality had become the authority of the Church. They are the Church. The Church belonged to them. In the Medieval Europe, Grand Cathedrals were built one after another. These big cathedrals were nominally for God’s glory; but in real terms they intended to show the power of the Bishop. A Cathedral is a bishop’s church, because it contains the cathedra or the bishop’s chair. The bishop’s chair is generally known as the bishop’s throne.
My wife and I took a cruise to Alaska in July. We had an opportunity to visit a small Russia town called Sikta. In the centre of this small town is a small Russian Orthodox Church of more than 150 years old. It is decorated very elaborately, full of precious icons. In the middle of the congregation, there is a beautiful chair, covered with red silk and with four golden legs. It is labeled clearly that it is the Bishop’s throne.
Immediately it brought me back the memories of the power and dominance of the Medieval Church in Europe. In those days the hierarchy was the Church. They were so influential that they actually dominated the political, economic and cultural scene in Europe. Historically, those 1,000 years, i.e. from about 500 to 1,500 A.D., were labeled as the Dark Ages.
Then came the Church Reformation in the 16th century. Church reformers like Martin Luther, Huldriech Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin etc. besides criticized the corrupt practice of the church hierarchy at the time, they also advocated one very important point: the Absolute Sovereignty of God. In other words, God must be put back as the centre of the Church and of the world. The Church belongs to God.
In order to tone down the importance of the church hierarchy, the reformers also advocated two other important points. First, the Church was not defined by the hierarchy. Rather it was defined by its functions: where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments rightly administered, there is the church. Second, the church is not synonymous with the hierarchy. The church is composed of all believers. Some reformers went even further by advocating “Priesthood of all believers”.
What the reformers of the 16th century tried to enlighten us was what the church should be. The church is composed of all believers. Believers gather together with only one purpose, to lift their hearts to God (Te Deum). The church is not and should never be a pure human organization, directed by a few persons with their own agenda.
It has been 500 years since the Reformation of the Church initiated by Martin Luther’s 95 theses posted on the door of the castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. A great deal of things have happened in the world and also within the Church. In a way the forces of Securization of the 20th century have broken down many authoritarian hurdles. Definitely on the whole the Church is now less clergy-centred. But still we have to honestly ask ourselves: is the Church God-centred or pretty much constituted according to the wishes and interests, likes and dislikes of our members.
If the Church has any future, it must undergo a Second Radical Reformation. We must try our best to put God back in centre stage. The Church belong to God. It is God’s Church before it is our church.
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