Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

The Challenge of Unity

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 28 January 2018Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

Today Kowloon Union Church observes the culmination of the 'Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.' This prayer movement was started by two American Episcopalians as the Church Unity Octave in 1908, with a commitment to the reunion of the Anglican Communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Later, these two American Episcopalians did become Catholics. Through the 110 year-history of this prayer movement, however, the understandings of unity have evolved – i.e. from a wish for a return to the “one fold” of Christianity, to accepting each other as brother/sister despite the different congregations or denominations that Christians may belong to. Perhaps we can borrow a popular slogan to describe it: "unity without uniformity and diversity without fragmentation.”

I titled this sermon, “The Challenge of Unity” because the prayer of Christ Jesus, “that they may be one” (John 17:21) is still a challenging responsibility for those who follow him. Two of the lectionary readings today provide some lessons on unity.

The first lesson, from Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with a man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28), is that unity is very much related to wholeness and integrity, or inner unity.  The man with an unclean spirit is an image of a person in need of wholeness. In our time, it is difficult to imagine what being possessed by an “unclean spirit” is like. Our knowledge of spirit possession probably comes from movies on exorcism. But this man with an “unclean spirit” could symbolize anyone of us – when we are very disturbed, full of negative or unhappy thoughts about oneself and others around us, when we do not see any more hope or meaning in life or the world, etc.

Last week, a 19-year old Chinese Medicine student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong committed suicide. He had told his family on Monday that he got unsatisfactory exam results. Then on Tuesday, he fell to his death from a dormitory on campus. I wonder where the pressure to pass exams comes from. Or, is it an inability to deal with failure, to see failure so negatively?

We can easily have an “unclean spirit” within us in this very stressful and highly competitive society. In order for the man with an “unclean spirit” to be whole, he had to recognize that there was someone bigger than himself who could help. Christ Jesus, the Holy One of God, then rebuked, silenced and exorcised the unclean spirit. Jesus also demonstrated what wholeness and integrity mean – he taught with authority, he also acted with authority. Words and actions going together mean wholeness and integrity.

Whenever we think of Christian unity, or plain unity for that matter, we immediately think of how we can be in harmony with other Christians, other denominations or congregations, other communities. But this story talks about the inner unity within a person. The man with an unclean spirit can be anyone of us who may be feeling alienated not only from others, but even from ourselves.

In his book, The Courage to Teach, the renowned educator and author, Parker Palmer, describes two of his friends. Alan taught from a united (undivided) self, while Eric taught from a divided self. Alan, the teacher with a united self, honored his humble beginnings and wove his experiences (good and bad; happy and sad) into his teaching. By teaching who he was as he taught his subjects/courses, he became more human (more “real”) to his students and colleagues. Eric, the teacher with a divided self, was engaged in a civil war with his past and with his experiences (especially those he considered bad). Eric projected that inner warfare in his teaching and relationship with his students and colleagues. Palmer says: “The divided self will always distance itself from others, and may even try to destroy them, to defend its fragile identity.”

There are many signs of the divided self: inability to cope with rejection or defeat; anger and bitterness because of one’s poor background or lack of opportunity; you can add to the list. Perhaps, the great movie, “The Greatest Showman,” especially the song, “Never Enough,” captures what it is like to long for more than what one really needs. Many of you must have heard of Jack Ma, one of the world’s famous and richest entrepreneurs. In several interviews, he spoke about failing a college entrance exam three times. He said he was rejected by Harvard University 10 times. Giving up college, he said he tried applying for jobs. He was rejected in 30 different job applications, including with the police force and the KFC! I think Jack Ma kept his wholeness and integrity as a person by embracing rejection as an invitation to work harder, to find other ways, and to be creative.

Here at Kowloon Union Church, we have people who come from all walks of life. Each of us has our own stories of brokenness; each of us longs for wholeness and integrity. Perhaps, the exorcism/help we need would be safe spaces for self-reflection and for unburdening to each other in order to recover and reclaim our wholeness and integrity. Only when we are whole individually can we work better for the wholeness of the wider community.

The second lesson (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) is that unity within the community is related to tempering our freedom with love. The Corinthian Christians were asking Paul to respond to a practical issue: whether it was okay to eat food that had been offered to the pagan idols. This question may sound odd to us in our time and context today. But it was a real issue for the Corinthian Christians. Paul’s reply was very straightforward: for those who believe in the one God, no idol really exists. Moreover, it is not food that brings people close to God. However, it would be better not to become a stumbling block to the new/young Christians who might be offended by one’s freedom of eating food offered to pagan idols.

Instead of dwelling on the eating of food offered to idols, I have heard some preachers apply the text to alcohol drinking or playing poker. In Asia, it could be playing majong or other forms of gambling. For people whose conversion to Christianity means a clean cut from these so-called vices, to see someone who has been a Christian freely exercise their freedom to do these things even in moderation, could be offensive, a stumbling block in their growth in faith. 

I remember one interfaith program of the Christian Conference of Asia. We had Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, including monks, and Christians as participants. In the spirit of interfaith cooperation, we took turns in leading the worship/prayer each day. On the day that the Buddhists led, they had a ritual where the monk blessed pieces of string which we were to tie around each other’s wrist. Two of our Christian participants from a predominantly Buddhist country refused to take part in that ritual for they believed that doing so would be compromising their faith, and they could be reprimanded by their elders. We respected their decision but we also assured them that sharing with one another was part of our effort at interfaith relation.

During one gathering of the Congress of Asian Theologians which I organized, I had one guest speaker from Indonesia, a Muslim theologian. I thought I was being helpful to him during meal time, when I warned him of dishes that had pork. After the third warning, he gently said to me: “Sister Hope, we are excused if we did not know what was in it.”             

I think it is not simply taking the food, alcohol, or engaging in gambling that may cause division in the community. Rather it is the theological understanding behind those actions. In our church community, it could be our varied theological views, different ideological orientations, or our long-held traditions. Some of us have had some opportunities for further training that we may become impatient with those whose beliefs or ideas are so different from ours. Some of us may be privileged to have new experiences, new realizations about life and relationships and we may feel rejected if those are not honored or accepted.

Paul’s advice remains relevant: knowledge/freedom puffs up, but love builds up. The exercise of our freedom in Christ must be tempered with love. Freedom (or knowledge) puffs up. It puffs up the ego of the one who claims to have more knowledge and understanding about God or anything. It puffs up the ego so that one would think they know better than others. But love builds up (vs. 1) – it builds up the community in a way that it understands where each one is coming from, and it would not insist on its own way.

Kowloon Union Church is known to have progressive ecumenical ideas, and to have commitments for the marginalized in society. It is also welcoming and affirming of all kinds of people. For this we have to continue to reflect on how we can let love build us up, rather than letting our ideas and commitments puff us up. We would hope that the exercise of our knowledge and commitment will be tempered with love. We would also hope that our words and actions will show the wholeness and integrity that Christ Jesus demonstrated in his life and ministry. May it be so.

Dear God, help each one of us, as we deal with the challenge of our inner, individual unity, and our quest for wholeness and integrity. As we try to work on our wider unity as a community, inspire us to let love build us up. Amen.      

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, January 28, 2018

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