One Body in Christ
Happy Anniversary St Andrew’s! Even if this is not a milestone date for your congregation, it holds meaning for you. Anniversaries are like birthdays, where we can focus on ourselves or we can share the occasion with friends – and who wants to celebrate alone? So it is a pleasure to be here, in this corner of the Garden of Eden that you call home!
I have been asked to share some stories of the work that the Presbyterian Church in Canada is doing globally, through International Ministries where I work. It is always a pleasure to tell my stories of mission and ministry.
But first, let us hear a word from God. Throughout the latter part of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus underscores the importance of Christian community. Last week, in the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus addresses Peter’s question of how often he was to forgive someone who had sinned against him. And the answer was seven times seven, or in some translations: seventy times seven. Essentially, there is no limit to forgiveness. Jesus seemed to be saying, forgiveness is a way of life that never ends. Forgiveness was the beginning of restoring right relationships.
In today’s reading, Jesus is speaking with his disciples and he clearly states that their faith is not a private matter, it is not something they can go off by themselves and enjoy, all alone under a tree. Their life in Christ is a community affair, something that happens when two or three are gathered together in his name. And that is when he promises to be in their midst, and not when they are off by themselves, feeling holy.
Congregations often use the metaphor of family to describe our relationship with each other. Jesus appears to be doing that here also: “if your brother or sister sins against you, confront the fault, more than once if necessary. Bring others with you, but work at it. Right relationships are too important. Jesus emphasizes that in the household of God, doing everything in our power to restore broken relationship with another, is not a choice, but a requirement.
People matter – that is what I take from this parable. But as always in parables, there is a twist! In this story, Jesus seems less interested in who is right and who is wrong, than he is in getting the family back together again.
Even if a family member refuses to listen, numerous times, that does not let us off the hook. We are not to pretend that nothing is happening.
The end result of restoring the relationship is his goal for us.
Right relationships matter. People matter. And not just with people who are like us. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he reinforces that we are one body in Christ, in spite of differences. “We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” Paul says.
In International ministries, we stay connected with partner churches and organizations around the world. While fewer people work as international mission staff, we continue to support people who share their abilities and learn about the richness of other cultures.
Through international travel and the miracles of internet, our world is smaller. But it can also feel quite weird. Watching the news can produce fear and deep sadness. Missile tests; ferocious hurricanes and earthquakes, and the tactics of genocide visited upon children, pregnant women and the elderly – all of this reinforces how different our lives are from so many others. But are the victims all really so different from us?
Let me tell you a story from Nepal, a remote and relatively isolated country of mountains.
From the moment of their arrival in Nepal in February 2017, the Bauman family has received an outpouring of hospitality – first during their six-week language orientation in Kathmandu, the capital, and now on the compound of the United Mission Hospital in Tansen.
For two years, the Baumans – Nick, Becky, and their four children Silas, Selema, Freda, and Dorothy – will live in this ancient town in the scenic hills of western Nepal. Nick is serving as a general surgeon providing surgical services and teaching post-graduate students enrolled in the Medical Doctorate in General Practice. Becky is an occupational therapist, but she has a newborn daughter, Dorothy (Dot), so she has been building relationships with the community around them and caring for the family.
In Canada Nick and Becky felt God’s call to set aside the life they had been leading to accept life as it would be given to them in this two-year mission appointment. As Nick said, “Our faith community has always stressed the importance of mission, particularly the sense that our lives are not our own, but are gifts, and that we are entrusted by God to be stewards of this gift.” Now in Nepal, Nick and Becky are acutely aware of their dependency on God and the people God is surrounding them with at work and at home. This includes the support of many new friends and colleagues. The United Mission to Nepal (UMN) – is a Christian international non-governmental organization –with whom the Presbyterian Church in Canada has had a partnership for many decades. UMN has always been a united mission of people from many parts of the world joined together in the name of Christ to serve Nepal, alongside Nepali colleagues. Its aim is not to “own” the work, but to train Nepali people and build the capacity of Nepali organizations. Today UMN works with and through more than 50 local partners.
The Christian population in Nepal is small, but is the fastest growing according to the World Christian Database which tracks global trends in Christianity. They represent 1.5% of the population of 28 million people,. The Constitution of Nepal protects freedom of religion but explicitly forbids proselytizing. Recently, the government of Nepal is flexing its muscles to some degree against Christians, although nothing too serious yet. The presence of folk like the Baumans is a way of sharing our common humanity and for those who are Christian, our common faith.
Let us travel to Japan, where the Presbyterian Church in Canada connects with a longtime partner, the Korean Christian Church in Japan (KCCJ). Recently, Koreans and other minorities, have witnessed increased discrimination, threats of violence and racism in Japanese society. This is not a new challenge for them. As a tiny minority in Japan, and with a difficult history of occupation, Koreans have experienced ongoing discrimination and harassment for decades. In the 1980’s a PCC missionary couple, Jack and Beth McIntosh, played a prominent role in contesting the compulsory fingerprinting laws of all Korean residents in Japan, laws that treated them like they were criminals. However, with Japan’s more nationalist government, the hatred and its expressions have intensified. Attacks against Korean school children and public incitement of violence have caused alarm. The leadership of the KCCJ is not deterred from its commitment to struggle against xenophobia. The leadership had a vision: of an inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, free of hate speech. In April of this year, their dream of a Centre for Minority Issues and Mission opened. Through Presbyterians Sharing, our church and the United Church of Canada are supporting David McIntosh, the son of Jack and Beth, as co-director of the new Center. Having grown up in Japan and being completely bilingual and bi-cultural, David is uniquely placed to work alongside Korean colleagues, as they engage churches from around the world in promoting just and inclusive communities.
David is currently in Canada, visiting United and Presbyterian churches and sharing this story. The hard work of creating a broad based coalition with Japanese churches and other progressive groups within Japan and around the world, has just begun. This strategy has been successful before and it will be successful again, because we who are partners in Christ, share the vision of building God’s just realm.
A final story:
One of the ways in which the Presbyterian Church supports international partners is through Leadership Development grants. These grants support people from our partner churches and agencies, to study and enhance their skills in ways that will benefit the work in which they are involved. Often it is theological studies, but increasingly it can be in Accounting or medical studies, benefiting a Church administration or a mission hospital.
A librarian in Lebanon might seem an unlikely mission partner. But Liza Titizian, a librarian at the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, Lebanon, brings extraordinary skills and life experiences to this place.
Liza is a Syrian-Armenian woman with a degree in Christian Education from NEST. With a desire for more education, Liza enrolled in the MA Master of Divinity program. She is also writing a thesis, the final step towards a Master in Library Science. Liza has been a victim of the war in Syria and her family was displaced twice; their home was attacked and looted. As a registered student, Liza can legally live in Lebanon and NEST has provided a safe and supportive Christian community. It has also enabled her to develop her many gifts.
NEST was established in 1932, built on a history of evangelical or protestant as we say, theological education. Today, the region is turbulent, where more than one and a half million Syrian refugees have registered with the UNHCR. The Lebanese government also struggles with sectarian violence, while trying to protect human rights, peace and security in its religiously diverse society. In this context, NEST has made a choice: rather than being side-lined into silence, it seeks to be a center for interaction and formation of Christian theology, furthering the role of the church in society.
As a Syrian woman, fluent in four languages, Liza is a great asset for a library that contains 60,000 volumes, including 293 rare manuscripts. She loves working with books, giving guidance to students, and making it possible for researchers to access the resources they seek. Liza describes libraries as “everyone's university regardless of their intellectual background.”
Partnering with NEST and Liza might seem risky to us in view of the violence and oppression of the region. But in communication about the need to develop leadership skills through theological education, Dr. George Sabra, the President of NEST, wrote, “we at NEST want to invest in our library and plan for the future because, like the prophet Jeremiah, we believe that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’.” Furthermore, Dr. Sabra said, “we cannot on our own remain and fulfill our mission without the support of the world-wide church, especially the church and the Christians in the West.” That my friends, is us.
When Jesus was speaking with his disciples, he made this clear. Their life in Christ was a community affair, happening when they were gathered together. Jesus promised to be in their midst, and among us too, when we reach out to the community.
As a church we are part of Christ’s worldwide community – in Nepal, Japan and in Syria and Lebanon. Through contributions to Presbyterians Sharing, you are giving life to the words: “we who are many, are one body in Christ and individually we are members, one of another.” Praise be to God.