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Sermons

Rules of the Household

July 4, 2004, 9:00 am
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20;

Why are you a believer?" she asked. The question came from Zhang Wenping, our interpreter from the People's Republic of China's Institute of Foreign Relations. Wenping is twenty-eight, has a B.A. in economics, her Master's degree in Foreign Relations, is fluent in French and English as well as her native Mandarin, was just recently married and has been a life-long atheist, the only child of atheists. Hers was a genuine question from a young woman who is very much Chinese and part of the emerging middle class of what is being called "the New China." We were driving back from our hour-long meeting with Vice Premier Hui Liangyu, who is responsible for overseeing all religious affairs in the People's Republic of China.1 Wenping had been translating for us earlier that morning as we spoke with Minister Ye Xianowen at the State Association for Religious Affairs, pressing for increased religious freedom in China--one of the reasons for our visit. She had translated our conversations with members of the Academy for the Study of Social Science, where each of the five official religions recognized in China is studied by scholars trained in the finest universities in the world. One of our discussions with them was the emerging search for what they called "spiritual values," among secular Chinese. Wenping was taking notes as we discussed the changes coming to Chinese culture as affluence makes its way across the land. Was the emerging prosperity having an impact on the time-honored Chinese values of family, friends, country and peace? She heard Vice-Premier Hui acknowledge that these traditional values were being challenged by an emerging middle class interested primarily in itself. Now, back in our limo, driving to the hotel, Wenping, a thorough-going materialist, was asking why I was what the Chinese call "a believer"--someone who believes in God and that there is more to life than the material world and physical realities we all encounter in daily life.

Why are you a believer? I began by explaining that the monotheistic concept of God is much different than the Buddhist or Taoist notion of deity and that we Christians believe that the power behind all reality and at the center of all being is personal and seeks a relationship with each human being, valuing each one of us as a parent loves a child--the Chinese are devoted to their children, they understand such love. I explained that Christians believe God loved the world so much, and wants a relationship with us so much, that God became human in Jesus. I am a believer because I have experienced the reality of God in my life and Jesus' call to follow him. I said it made life more than things or even ideas and gave life new meaning and power. How would you have answered Wenping's question?

Cobb Mixter, our American special assistant from the Council on Foreign Relations here in New York, had been listening in and translating into Chinese some of the theological concepts central to monotheism that were so foreign to Wenping, as an atheist operating out of her Confusian ethical framework. Later that evening, Cobb asked to explore the conversation further, taking up Wenping's question in a slightly different way. Acknowledging that he had been reared as a "Chreaster Christian"--attending only on Christmas and Easter, and then only sporadically--he asked the question more existentially: "What does it mean for you to have faith?" "Faith," I said, "is about more than believing something about God. It is more than believing things about Jesus, or even accepting Jesus' ethical teachings. Faith has to do with trusting God in every circumstance of life, attempting to live life in cooperation with the divine will, experiencing God's power and purpose in life as you do so." As I answered him, my mind kept coming back to this morning's lessons, Jesus' words to his disciples as he sent them out into the world on his behalf, and the Apostle Paul's instructions to the Christians in Galatia, laying down the rules for life in the household of faith.

Bear one another's burdens, test your own work, carry your own load, do not grow weary in doing what is right and work for the good of all. These could easily be slogans of the People's revolution in China, for they are ethics the Chinese certainly value, but find slipping away as affluence comes to their revolution. For the apostle Paul, who is bringing to a conclusion this letter in which he has been arguing against self-justifying attempts to live by the Jewish law, these standards are the product of a life filled with the power of Christ, a life given over to what he calls "the law of Christ"2--living out of the grace and love of God as members of God's new creation, bearing Christ's power for healing and peace to all who will receive it.

This is what Jesus sends the seventy out to do in today's gospel lesson. This is the second such commissioning of followers in Luke's gospel. The first, just a chapter earlier, is the appointment of the twelve apostles, as Jesus sends them forth to heal the sick and proclaim the reign of God.3 In today's lesson, Jesus commissions a much larger group of his disciples.4 Scholars tell us that the number seventy here is less arithmetic than symbolic, and speaks of completeness or wholeness. In other words, this is a universal commissioning offered to everyone who follows Jesus, the number seventy being symbolic for the whole.5 Jesus is commissioning the whole church to heal and proclaim God's reign.

Did you notice the ground rules: go in pairs? Evangelism is not a solo act, or the Christian life a singular voyage.6 Mission is always a team effort. Second, welcome the hospitality you receive and let that be enough. And when you do not receive a hospitable response, do not be discouraged. Keep moving, there are other folk waiting and willing to hear and receive this word. Heal the sick and make peace--this is the task to which you and I are commissioned.

The disciples come back from their first missionary journey astounded at what has happened around them. Even the devils have been subject to them in Jesus' name. "Yes," said Jesus, "so it is." For the devil has fallen from heaven. He no longer has power to accuse us before the throne of God. However, he says faith does not rejoice in the fact that the spirits are subject to it, but rather that one's name is written in heaven. Put another way, you and I don't need to be preoccupied with success, only faithfulness. We can leave the matter of success to God. Ours is to announce the presence of God's reign; God's is to bring it into being and fullness in and through us and our work.

Christians in China were forced to cut their ties to Western support and authority in 1949 at the revolution. Since then, Roman Catholics and Protestants alike have been seeking the common ground while maintaining their differences,7 learning not only to work together cooperatively in support of one another's rights, but also as a positive force in contemporary Chinese culture, bearing one another's burdens, working for the good of all, healing the sick and working for peace. We saw dramatic illustrations of the Chinese churches' own response to Jesus' commissioning and the fulfillment of God's promise among them as they have sought to be faithful to the rules of the household. The pastor of the Community Church in Shanghai reported on some three-hundred baptisms each spring and fall, with the priest at the Roman Catholic Cathedral citing similar numbers.

What are your means of evangelism?" I asked. "How are you proclaiming the gospel to a culture that prides itself on egalitarianism, mutual respect between women and men, and a social ethic that, at least on the face of it, is essentially that of the Christian Church?"8

We teach the illiterate to read by using the Bible," came the answer. "We visit old people who are lonely. We bring them food as well as companionship. The doctors and nurses in our congregation stay behind on Sundays to see people who are sick and cannot afford to go to the hospital, or we buy health care cards and give them to those who are in need of hospital care. We have programs for the young people who are confused and afraid that, with the rapid progress, they are being left behind. We invite them to come to church and learn about following Jesus."

Those are," I responded, "all very old ways of doing evangelism." "Yes," they laughed, "and they work." What does it mean to be an evangelist? It means being a bearer of good news, bringing healing to the sick, release to the captive and hope to the poor. And always, in and with those programs, is the good news of God's love for each one of us and the word that God's power exists in this life for those who will embrace and live into it.

This is the church's story in China. They have known hardship. During the chaos of Mao's Cultural Revolution, their places of worship were ransacked, if not destroyed. Worship was suspended for almost fifteen years. Pastors and lay leaders, along with other intellectuals and professionals, were moved to the countryside to be "re-educated" in the fields or factories. Those who were Christian went and, in the field and in the factory, they bore witness to the power of God to give strength to the weary and hope to the downcast. Doing so, they earned the respect of their fellow workers, armed with nothing but the knowledge that God was not abandoning them and would somehow use even this hardship to serve God's purposes. And so it was, when the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976, many who had served side by side in the fields and factories asked for permission to come to worship, and later to be baptized. They had seen firsthand the power of God to heal and make peace in places where there simply was no peace.

Meeting with the President of the China Christian Council, I spoke of this congregation's historic relationship with China, which had to be left behind in 1949 so that the church in China could come of age and be a full partner in the gospel. Sensitive to that and the need of Christians in China to be free of even the appearance of any foreign influence or control, I asked how it was that you and I might be in partnership with them? Rev. Cao responded, "You can pray for us, as we pray for you." Think of that, Chinese Christians praying for us! "And," she continued, "you can join us in working for world peace." The first is easy, the second is no small task. It will take all of us doing it, confident that, as we do, God is at work. Remember, the devils in life are subject to us in Jesus' name.

The church we saw in China is thriving. It is still very much a minority, the smallest of the four recognized religious groups in the country, but the one that is growing the fastest. They have learned the rules of the household: evangelism is not a solo enterprise, but the work of all God's people, and they have learned that, as they give themselves to the rules, God blesses their work and is present to bring in the harvest. So may it be for us as well.

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

  1. Though the communist regime is officially atheist, and ninety percent of China’s citizens are atheist, like every communist country, it has an integrated ministry of religious affairs at every level of government all the way from the top at the Central Committee down through the Provinces to local government.
  2. Galatians 6:2.
  3. Luke 9:1-6.
  4. The titles "apostle" and "disciple" may at first appear as a distinction without a difference, but are based upon the Greek noun for each. Apostle comes from the Greek verb apostelo which means "to be sent with a commission." Disciple comes from mathaino, which means "to learn, find out or discover, as in learning by experience." Generally the noun apostle is used to designate the inner circle of the twelve Jesus first called as disciples in Luke 5:1-11; 27-32, and later sent forth in Luke 9:1-6. A disciple is anyone who follows Jesus. In this lesson, seventy of Jesus’ disciples (some translations use cite seventy-two) are commissioned as were the earlier twelve. At his ascension (Luke 24:44-53), Jesus names the disciples "witnesses" of all that they have seen in him and promises the Spirit to empower them to that task, which is not reported by Luke until his second volume (Luke 2:1-47). Consequently, all disciples are ultimately also equipped to be apostles.
  5. Fred B. Craddock suggests that this may be Luke’s allusion to the seventy nations reported in Genesis 10 (seventy-two in the Greek translation of Genesis 10), or Moses’ selection of seventy elders to be his co-workers (Numbers 11:16-25), and is primarily an anticipation of the mission to the nations and the day of Pentecost (Preaching Through the Christian Year—C, (Valley Forge: PA Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 327. In religious symbolism, the number seven is the compound of the earth number four and the spiritual number 3, multiplied by 10, the number for wholeness and completion.
  6. Marion Soards, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, After Pentecost 1, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, p. 69.
  7. The phrase "Seek the common ground while maintaining distinctions" is the motto of the Protestant Three Self Church, but also describes the dynamics between each of the religious communities that are recognized in China: Buddhist, Taoist, Islam, Catholic and Protestant.
  8. The late James I. McCord, then President of Princeton Theological Seminary, was fond of saying Marxism is simply Christianity without Christ. The problem, of course, is it also has a flawed anthropology and does not account for humankind's instinctive habit of self-service at the expense of others, i.e., a doctrine of sin.

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