A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 20th January 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 49:1-6 and I Thessalonians 5:12-18.
Since the middle of the 19th century, there were small circles of Christian leaders who pioneered the concern about the unity of the Church, notably the leaders of the Oxford Movement and many women groups in Europe and N. America. But it was not until 1968 that the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity which started to promote the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity every year on January 18 to 25, to pick a theme as well as to prepare special material for use in local churches all over the world.
HKCC for decades sponsors an open communion and fellowship breakfast for church representatives, organize seminars, and prayer meetings during the week and the exchange of pulpits on Unity Sunday. It also prepares or translates material for local churches to use during the week as well as for Sunday services.
All these endeavours help promote better understanding between Christians and especially church leaders. For a lot of hostilities were due to misunderstanding and ignorance.
About 15 years ago I received a phone call from the Orthodox Church who have just begun to work in Hong Kong. They tried to organize a course on Christian worship. It would consist of 4 seminars: respectively about the Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican and the Free Church traditions. They wanted to put an advertisement in the Christian Weekly, but to no avail. Later I found out that the staff of the Weekly (and perhaps the conservative church leaders behind the scene) did not know anything about the Orthodox Church. They thought the Church was not “Christian” but rather a sect like the Mormors. How sad! You know, if there are any deviations from the origins of Christianity, it would be the conservative Christians; and also ourselves at KUC!
The situation is actually much better now than when I was growing up. One of my earliest sermons preached was at St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church in Shek Kip Mei in 1967. Twenty years ago, I was invited to concelebrate a wedding at St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church on Prince Edward Road. But there is still a very long way for us Protestants to get to know some of our roots from Roman Catholism and the very rich Orthodox tradition.
The Christian Church began in Jerusalem 10 days after the ascension of Jesus Christ. There was only one Church. It was a movement and the life as recorded in Acts chapters 2 and 3 was simple: “Each day with one heart, they went to the Temple… they shared their food gladly and generously… they praised God.” However, soon it expanded and grew very rapidly. Churches were built all over the Greco-Roman world. There were both Jews and non-Jews in those churches. So there was the dispute whether Christians should follow the first Jewish Christians and be circumcized as well as to follow other Jewish laws and customs. The first church council ever held as recorded in Acts 15 pleaded for tolerance and inclusiveness.
As the Christian Church developed, “follow the leaders” game followed. Some said they belonged to Cephas and some to Paul; other claimed they belonged Apollos and yet others to Christ… (I Cor. 1:12). Apostle Paul had tried to hold the divisive Church at the time together. All Christians should look only to Christ he said. There was only one Christ who suffered and was crucified on the cross for all humanity. Paul also used the analogy of a human body to describe the Church. The Church has members from diversified cultural backgrounds, but in Christ they all belong together; just as a body has many parts: legs, hands, ears, eyes etc. Also, just as each part of the body is useful, every member within the Church is essential. (c.f. I Cor. 12:12-30 and Rom. 12:3-8).
The first serious split within the Christian Church happened in 1086 A.D. when the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople took the extreme action of mutual excommunication. But in reality, the split between the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East happened long before the 11th Century. The Western Latin Church and the Eastern Byzantine Church were two very different churches in culture and language as well as in ecclesiastical rites and order.
The second serious schism happened in the 16th century. The Church of England broke away from Rome over the struggle for supremacy; and the German and Swiss reformers broke away from Rome over doctrinal controversies.
The post-reformation gave rise to denominations. There were the Anglicans and the Episcopalians; the Lutherans and the Presbyterians; the Congregationalists; the Anabaptists which gave rise to the Baptist, the Alliance and the Evangel Churches. The Methodists are an offshoot of the Anglicans, etc. etc.
By one count in Hong Kong to-day there are more than 40 different denominations and about 1200 plus local congregations in the Protestant and Anglican arm of Christianity. In Hong Kong the Lutheran family alone has 7 different groups: the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Tsung Tsun Church related to the Basel Mission, the Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Synod, the Rhenish Church, the Hong Kong and Macau Lutheran Church… I was told some would not talk to the others. They even refuse to pray together. How very sad!
A handful of church leaders with visions for long have realized that the Church Universal divided was contrary to Christ teaching that the Church should be One. They have also concluded that only a Church united would help the common witness of God’s love and justice in the increasingly chaotic and violent world, while a church divided would only engage in doing their own things, rather than addressing important issues of the day; worse still would engage in mutual attacks. Consequently, since the beginning of the 20th century, there were many attempts to work towards the Unity of the Church, at least on a national or regional level. Prime examples included United Church of Canada and the Church of Christ in China in the 1920s. The Church of South India (CSI) established in 1947 went one step further. For the CSI, besides free churches it also involved the Anglicans. The Church of North India, and the Church of Ghana established in 1960s basically followed the C.S.I. model.
One of the major purposes of the modern day ecumenical movement was to promote church Unity – perhaps not so much organic unity of the church, but rather churches working together. “Joint Action For Mission” was their famous motto.
Following the zenith of colonization by the Western powers in the 19th century, missionary societies flocked to Asia and Africa to work. As a result there were fierce competitions in the mission fields. The mission conference in Edinburgh in 1910 and its aftermath established the principle of parity. In a word, churches which followed this principle agreed that they should try to work not in the same area or region. For example in South China, Fukien Province was mainly the mission field of the Reformed Church in America; while the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. mainly worked in Canton. So the first phase of the Ecumenical Movement was a movement about churches throughout the world praying together and working together. It was to avoid a repeat of what Jesus Christ warned in his farewell discourse with his disciples that “those who share the same table lifted up their heels against each other (Jn 13:18 quoting Ps 41:9). This prediction was not only about Jesus’ betrayal by his own disciples; but also his followers over the centuries who engaged in fierce competitions and worse still mutual attacks.
The contemporary Ecumenical Movement aims much more than the Unity within one Church. True to its name, ecumenical or “OIKOUMENE” – the whole inhibited earth, it advocates especially the reconciliation of the humankind; and indeed the Unity with God and God’s entire creation.
The history of the Christian Church is a history of 2,000 years of constant splits and schism. In a way, it was unavoidable because of its rapid expansion ever since the beginning. Even as early as the end of the third century, churches were established all over Europe, Northern part of Africa, Middle East and by one report as far as India. There were certainly very different cultures, customs and languages in these vast areas. It was true that the first vital schism between the Western Church and the Eastern Church as well as the second important Schism within the Western Church were due to serious theological differences. However, if we look deeper, we can conclude that almost all schisms since were due to the fact that people have put God aside. Churches have become merely human “fellowship” or “families” rather than God’s Church or God’s servants on earth.
In the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, our attention invariably is on the macro level. We pray for the Church Universal, forgetting that the unity within our own local church is just as important. Over the past four decades working in Hong Kong, I have seen many times quarrels in a local church over very trivial matters rather than issues of life and death. These quarrels sometimes even ended up with certain members leaving the church and started their own. These incidents in local churches invariably began with a kind of dogmatism: “This is the way I see things. I am right and you are wrong”. Dominance and rigidity play a key part in all this. Worse still, we often think that we have to insist our way because we have to defend God. But brothers and sisters, God does not need us to defend. We need to be reminded constantly that God is the God of all creation. God’s creation is so huge, diversified and complex that we need to learn how to embrace and appreciate it. There is only one and only one road towards Church unity and the unity of the humankind: All Christians and Churches must turn to God (Te Deum) in utter humility like John the Baptist and absolute obedience like Mary, the Holy mother. Church unity is a reality. Only that we intentionally or unintentionally cover it up because of our self-centeredness.
The theme for this year’s Unity week is “Pray Without Ceasing”.
It is often said that the end of the path we take is the beginning of God’s way. This world is in dire need. So do we, the Church, and us individually. We need to once again be serious about how to be in full communion with God again. Prayer is the key. When we pray, we give up our self-centeredness and thus will be able to reunite with God.
Secondly, Prayer also helps us to focus our actions in the right direction. It is often said that prayer is the action before our action. Just look at Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. Jesus was about to be arrested and be put on a cross, to suffer and die in the most humiliating way. “His soul was extremely sorrowful” (Mk 14:35). Thus he prayed to God, “Abba, Father, for you everything is possible. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it.” (Mk 14:36// Mt. 26:39// Lk 22:44). After Jesus had prayed aguishly and earnestly, he decided to go God’s way!
At this moment in the Unity Sunday, it is most appropriate that we pray not only for Church Unity, the Unity of humankind, but especially about our unity with God.
Let us pray:
O God of peace, who through your son Jesus Christ set forth one faith for the salvation of humankind: Send your grace and blessing to all Christians who are striving to draw nearer to you and to each other, in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace. Grant us penitence for our divisiveness; wisdom to know the truth; courage to do your will; love which will break down the barriers of pride, prejudice and hate; and an unwavering loyalty to you. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 6th January 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 60:1-7 and Matthew 2:1-18.
The entire Western Church which owes its origins to the Latin Church follows the Gregorian calendar. According to it, Christmas is fixed on the 25th of December every year. However, to the Eastern Orthodox or the Byzantine Church, since it follows the Julian Calendar, it celebrates Christmas on the 6th of January.
The Roman Catholic Church and all Protestant Churches that I am familiar with, KUC included, follow the Western tradition. So our 12 days of Christmas fall between December 25 to January 5.
To-day is the second Sunday after Christmas. Since it is January 6, so it also marks the beginning of the season of Epiphany. The Greek word “epiphaneia” literally means “to manifest” or “to show forth”. The tradition was that baby Jesus was born a Jew. Yet Jesus was not only the Jewish Messiah, He is the Saviour of all humankind. So the Jews who had received the good news of Jesus’ birth were charged with the responsibility to show forth this good news to the gentile world. It is precisely because of this the Latin Church in the fourth century simulated Epiphany with the three wise men from the East who came to Bethlehem to worship the holy infant and then to relate this good news to the non-Jewish world.
The Nativity scene we were shown or taught was really a fusion of two very different traditions. Luke’s account (Lk 2:1-20) told us it was only the shepherds – the simple folks in those days – who were told by the angels about the good news of Jesus’ birth and they were the first bunch of people and perhaps the only to come to the manger to praise God. But the account in Matthew (Mt 2:1-12) told only the story about the visit of the wisemen from the East or the Gentile world. They believed baby Jesus was to be the future King. So they took the trouble to come from afar and offered expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Our Sunday School led us to believe the two happened at the same time: the shepherds came first to worship baby Jesus. This is to be followed by the “three kings from the Orient”.
We also were led to believe the birth of Jesus brought joy and peace to this world. It is mainly because most churches decided to read only Mt. 2:1-12, i.e. the visit of the Magi; and not the merciless killings ordered by Herod – the King of Judea in Mt. 2:13-18 which is an integral part of the story regarding the birth of Jesus. A great many parents were wailing and loud lamentation for the loss of their children as a result of Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary were forced to bring their baby Jesus to flee Egypt in order to escape Herod’s massacre.
So the birth of Jesus was not really that peaceful and joyful. It uncovered in no uncertain terms the human nature of self-centeredness and greed. People are obsessed with how to become more powerful. The people already in powerful positions invariably would try their best to hold on their power; and even devise ways to increase their power. Along the way, they would not hesitate to get rid of the people who might threaten their positions.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so says Lord Acton. Three weeks ago we read from the Gospels about how Herod, not King Herod, but one of the King’s nephews who became the Governor of Galilee, put Jesus’ forerunner. John the Baptist into prison and eventually beheaded him. This Herod, the King of Judea, was afraid that when Jesus grew up, Jesus might threaten his kingship. Since the wise men did not come back to tell him where was baby Jesus, “he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.” (Mt 2:16). What a great tragedy!
Human pride and jealousy are the major causes of all-evil. We are all very familiar with the Second Fall story in Genesis – Cain killed his brother Abel because of jealousy and hate.
Jesus Christ came precisely because he wanted to save people from this kind of self-destruction. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room for the family in the inn. The people who visited baby Jesus were the shepherds, the common folks at the time. Jesus grew up as a carpenter’s son. During his ministry of three years, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus “went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity” (9:35 c.f. 4:23). Eventually, he was put on a cross to die. It must be the most humiliating and painful way to die. Throughout his life, Jesus lived a life of utter humility. Apostle Paul was most impressed by Jesus’ humility. According to Paul, it was Jesus’ humility which changed the human destiny. This was what Paul said, “One man’s offence brought condemnation to all humanity and one man’s good or humble act has brought justification to life to all humanity. Just as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience are many to be made upright.” (Rom 5:18-19).
To-day people, Christians included, tend to put a great deal of icing and trimmings on Christmas. We go to Christmas parties, exchange gifts, sing beautiful Christmas carols… As a result we fail to see the real meaning of Christmas.
When we look around, our world is pretty much the same as the one 2,000 years ago. Wars and armed conflicts, hatred and self-deceit take place in every corner of the world: the incessant wars and terrorist acts in Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan… tribal wars in many parts of Africa… Senseless killings take place beyond the war zones. They happen in Australia, in Germany, in the campuses in U.S.A., and even in our city.
A former colleague of mine reported about her recent fact finding mission in the Philippines regarding the countless extra-judicial executions of human rights activists, journalists and priests. It was horrid. Not too long ago, I myself was in Mysot, a Thai-Myanmar border town and got some first hand information about the plight of the refugees especially the ill-treatment of many women and children. While more and more people in this world are getting richer and richer, there are even more people who have fallen into the trap of abject poverty. Millions of people like our African brothers are displaced.
This world is in Chaos. The human disorder as described in Genesis 3-11 never ceased. It continues up to this day. As a matter of fact these chaotic situations have become even more complex and intensified. Human beings have gone astray. We have turned against God and are separated from God.
What is the meaning of Christmas in this disorderly world? How is Jesus’ birth affect us?
Every Christmas reminds us and confronts us with utter harsh realities. But at the same time we must not forget that God is still our God. God still cares! He cares enough to come into this world, suffered and died for us so that we have the possibility to reunite with God and be once again in God’s created order as described in Genesis 1 and 2.
Order in the midst of disorder. Perhaps this is the message of Christmas.
About 35 years ago, a friend of mine gave me a Christmas gift. It was a record entitled, “Silent Night and the 8 o’clock CBS evening news”. While the anchor person gave us the headline news, mostly about the U.S. war in Vietnam, the background music was Franz Gruber’s” “Stille Nacht, heilege Nacht” or “Silent Night, Holy Night”. As I listened to it, it gave me a deep impression about what Paul said, “the Peace of God which passes all understanding…” (Phil 4:7) was present.
Yes, in every Christmas we face the same harsh realities. Bethlehem where Jesus was born has no peace. Our world is far from a safe and secure place to live. This is mainly due to the fact that we do not care for each other as God has commanded us to do. Robert Kennedy, a former U.S. Senator (1964-68), better known as President John F. Kennedy’s brother and attorney general once said,
“What we need is not division, is not hatred, is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a sense of justice towards those who suffer.”
We have to look beyond the harsh realities we face day in and day out in this world. Only in this shall we find and experience God’s love.
Some 15 years ago, I was on a plane back to Hong Kong from Osaka, Japan. It rained very, very hard. Sitting on that JAL plane, I worried whether the plane could take off at all. However very soon it did. After a while it flew through the rainstorm and the clouds, the plane was in the blue sky.
This is always true with our life. The sad fact is that we often allow many things to block us so that we would not be able to experience God’s love, much less to be in full communion with Him.
But through the message of Christmas we know God has come to us. Emmanuel, God is with us.
Just like the shepherds and the wise men, God has called us to be His messengers, to proclaim the message of hope:
“Arise, Shine; for your light has come
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold darkness shall cover the earth
And thick darkness the people;
But the Lord will arise upon you
And His glory will be seen upon you.”
(Is 60:1-2, NRSV)
We, the church, are a community of God’s faithful. As such we are God’s servants in the world.
Year in and year out, in every Christmas, God has summoned or even pleaded with us to be peace-makers. The peace we strive for is not only the peace between nations, between races, between people who follow different religions and ideologies; not only the peace with our loved ones and within our hearts; but in particular our peace with God. It is in assuming this awesome task that we may and can see and experience God’s love.
To-day is also the first Sunday in 2008. It is the beginning of a New Year. We do not know what is in store for each and every one of us in the year ahead. It may be a custom for many of us to make a wish on New Year day; to renew our minds and our hearts. But whatever we do let us not build our wish and our hope on shaky grounds. Just remember the golden verse we cited throughout the past Advent season which is taken from the last verse of Isaiah 40:
“Those who trust in the Lord
Shall renew their strength,
They shall mount up with wings like eagles;
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.”
Have a wonder-filled New Year. God’s blessings be richly upon you and your loved ones throughout 2008.