A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 24th August 2008 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 86 and Luke 24:44-49.
The Synoptics, namely the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew and Luke all end with Jesus’ commission to his disciples. The tone was the same: Go, to the world; but the contents varied. In Mark, it was proclaiming the Gospel (16:15); in Matthew, the emphasis was on teaching: “Make disciples… teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.” (28:19); in Luke, it was to be witnesses to Christ suffering and resurrection (24:47).
The disciples of Jesus are all witnesses. In fact, in Biblical times, God’s servants were all witnesses to God’s mighty acts of love (c.f. Jn 5:39). For example, in this morning’s reading of Psalm 86, the Psalmists even when they were in times of trial, were witnessing to God’s care:
“But you, Lord God of tenderness and mercy,
slow to anger, rich in faithful love and loyalty,
turn to me and pity me.” (86:15)
John the Baptist, the forerunner or pioneer for Jesus’ ministry, the preacher who baptised Jesus, was the first Christian witness. In fact, in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist played a crucial role in introducing Jesus to the Early Church. The Synoptic Gospels emphasized on the style of this witness: John preached saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down to untie… I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8; c.f. Mt 3:11-12; Lk 3:16-18).
All this brings out the crucial element of a witness: utter humility. John spared no efforts to point to Jesus. Perhaps, this is one of the most greatest blocks or obstacles in our life. All of us are obsessed about our “greatness” in life. Even Jesus’ disciples on their way to Jerusalem – where Jesus was to be crucified – engaged in a fierce dispute about who among them was the greatest (Mk 9:33-37; Mt 18:1-5 and Lk 9:46-48).
Both Mark and Matthew recorded the story about the request of two of Jesus’ closest disciples, John and James. On the road to Jerusalem, they asked Jesus to grant them to sit one at Jesus’ right hand and the other at his left in the Kingdom of Glory. (Mk 10:35-45 and Mt 20:20-28). In a way it was a fair request. John and James had given up their job and their family to follow Jesus. It was legitimate to ask something in return.
However, Jesus did not oblige the request of John and James. But instead Jesus used the occasion to teach his disciples the real meaning of discipleship,
“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:42-45; Mt 20:25-28; c.f. Lk 22:25-27). In fact earlier on, during the disciples;’ debate on who was the greatest, Jesus had taught them the same, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mk 9:35; Lk 9:48b and Mt 23:11).
James and John could not leap over the idea of being the last, being the servant or slave for God and God’s people. Could we? How often do we put ourselves before others; how often do we think of how to lord over or how to rule other people?
Over the past 42 years of ministry in the Church, I have done a great deal of training, both clergy and the laity. In fact, I was reckoned as a specialist in training. In my experience in working with groups, the most difficult part is to assist members to realize the importance of serving others in a comprehensive way. The word I coined is “De-Business”. People are far more important than “business”, programs and projects. We are here to serve people, to enable people to grow rather than to achieve certain numerical or quantitative goals.
To be a witness is to be a person of no self-importance. The main task of a witness is to point to something or someone. A witness is just like a sign-post, enabling people to find their direction.
John the Baptist introduced or showed us the true Saviour Jesus Christ. He was the preacher, and not the content of a preacher!
Coming back to Jesus’ commandment to his disciples: Be witnesses to Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. It was Jesus’ crucifixion and the resurrection which changed the course of history and the destiny of the humankind.
This is the core of the Christian witness. Jesus Christ had brought forth a new perspective of life for us. While all of us are prone to climb the social ladder, the higher the better; Jesus went down and became a dulos or a slave. We think the purpose of our life is to grab whatever we can, status, connections, power, fame, wealth… etc. Jesus renounced everything he had, even to be with God in the highest.
The fundamental problem of human beings is that we fail to be obedient to God – we do not treasure the life of our brothers and sisters. Oftentimes we do not even care about our own God-given life. Through absolute obedience to God even unto his death, Jesus was able to restore full humanness.
Jesus did not have to suffer. Nonetheless, for our sake, he suffered. This vicarious or representational suffering greatly broadens our life horizons. It gives us new meaning and new strength when facing grief and pain.
We are called to be witnesses to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. In order to be effective witnesses, we must first of all learn to Listen.
We must learn to listen to the voices of the underprileged and the disfranchized as well as the weak and the young. The two Chief Executives and most of their ministers in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong have done rather poorly in the last 11 years mainly because both Tung Chee Hwa and Donald Tsang listened only to the voices of the rich and the powerful.
In the Biblical times, we learn that God often responded to the cries of the oppressed and the downtrodden. It is also an established fact that God often spoke through a great many people, not just the Hebrew sages in ancient times and “Church” leaders or Christians in contemporary times. I believe God speak through Buddhists, Muslims and even people who follow no living faith.
In recent months, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has been in the limelight. This is what he said,
“Never give up
No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country
is spent developing the mind
instead of the heart
Not just to your friends
but to everyone
Work for peace
in your heart and in the world
Work for peace
and I say again
Never give up
No matter what is happening
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up.”
Is this very enlightening?
The second lesson we have to learn is to Be Present.
The Church to-day on the whole, the Church in Hong Kong in particular are very eager to do things – to launch various types of projects: build schools, social centres, church buildings; organize evangelistic meetings, mass rallies, training courses. No, the most urgent task for the Christian Church now is not to do, but to BE.
The people who changed history in the last century were not doers; but instead they were all witnesses. Mahatma Gandhi said I would not eat another bite until India had a new day – the British rulers left and that India became a united country standing on its own feet. India got its independence in 1947. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for almost 27 years because of his belief in Anti-Apartheid in South Africa. He was set free in 1992 and elected President of the Freed South Africa in 1994. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 years between 1989-2008 because she said NO to the military junta in Myanmar. I believe a brighter future for Myanmar will come within the next several years. Because of the courage of these witnesses –– their quest for peace and justice in their own country and beyond, they were able to gather crowds of followers and eventually bring forth a new day.
KUC is a witnessing community. We may not be able to do great things. But we can lit a candle of hope and offer a prayer for peace and justice every day. We may not be able to change much in a dark room. But we can turn on a dim light in the dark room so that people may be able to see things a bit clearer.
Solidarity through our presence is what this world desperately needs. In the 1980’s when concerned people in Hong Kong gathered to fight for direct election in the legislature beginning from 1988, many mass rallies were held in Ko Shan Theatre and Victoria Park in the course of 4 years. I was present in everyone of them and offered my support. I was told since there was no other church leader willing to participate, organizers highly treasured my “Christian presence” (as I was the General Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council at the time). One time I arrived a bit late, the organizer of the rally, Szeto Wah, a veteran democratic leader in the 1980s and 1990s was concerned and asked my colleagues, where was Rev. Kwok?
Shortly after the changeover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty in July 1997, the Provisional Legislative Council revoked 5 labour laws. Lee Cheuk Yan, a prominent unionist went on hunger strike at the Star Ferry Concourse. I went to sit with him and pray with him. The scene was captured by SCMP with a big photo of me standing and Lee sitting with our hands clasped. I highly treasured this picture and used it as a symbol of Christian presence in many of my classes. Fr. Franco Mella whom many of you know always made his presence felt among strikers.
It is not easy to be witnesses. Witnesses often have to pay a dear price. Gandhi lost his life. Mandella was in solitary confinement for 27 years and Suu Kyi lost her freedom for almost two decades. In fact, the word witness came from the Greek word marturia. Marturia shares the same root as martyr. Witnesses oftentimes have to decide to be martyrs. Indeed the Early Church was built with the blood of numerous martyrs.
On June 6, 1964, I was in Indianapolis, Indiana, transitting and had a wait for five hours for the next Greyhound bus to take me to a summer camp. Accidentally, I found a movie theatre showing “The Longest Day”, a movie about the counter attack of the allied forces by trying to recapture the French Normandy. It took place exactly 20 years ago on June 6, 1944 (the date itself bears significant meaning). One of the scenes I saw was when a group of marines who tried hard to land on one of the beaches. In front of them were a four-foot high barb-wired fence. Further behind were the machine gun fire from the Germans. So the first group of marines ran to the fence as quickly as possible and used their bodies to crush the barb-wire so that whoever followed them could run for cover beyond the fence faster. This personal sacrifice of the frontline marines remains a very vivid image in my mind whenever I think of a witness for Christ. A Christian witness has to pay a price so that people have a better future.
So KUC is a witnessing community. Always remember this: Individually, we are witnesses to Christ. We must try to live a Christ-like life, that is, a willingness to share our life with all those in need. Corporately, acting as a body, we lift a sign of Hope and Peace especially in this seeming hopeless world and where there is no peace.
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.