The witness of a transformed life

5th July 2015Coronation Service

Centenary Church Nuku’alofa

FWCT Conference Theme: “Renewal through evangelism”

Greeting and Introduction

Your Majesties (King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipau’u) it is with great joy that I bring you greetings on behalf of the worldwide Methodist family. We celebrate your coronation with all the Tongan people and pray that God richly blesses you and your people throughout your reign. May I also express my deep gratitude to your Royal Chaplain, the President of the Free Wesleyan Church, Rev Dr ‘Ahio, for inviting me to preach on this historic occasion; opening the Scriptures with you, seeking to hear the Word of God afresh as you begin your reign.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Last year the theme of the Free Wesleyan Church annual Conference was a supplication: Holy Spirit, Renew Our Church. This year the Conference theme gives that desire for renewal a particular focus: Renewal Through Evangelism. I had that theme in mind as I reflected on the Gospel lesson for today: How does the Holy Spirit renew the church? How does the Holy Spirit use evangelists? How does the Holy Spirit renew the church through evangelism?

But first, I want to think about the Gospel According to Mark, and the particular passage that has been set for our meditation today.

Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two…

Background

Mark’s Gospel was probably written in the late 60s AD, a few years after the savage persecution of Christians in Rome by Nero in which both St Peter and St Paul are believed to have been killed, and probably during the uprising against Rome by the Jews in Palestine (but before the destruction of the Temple in the bloody conclusion of that struggle).

At this time, in the late 60s AD, thousands of Jewish men, women and children were crowding into Jerusalem to support the insurgents and form a kind of human shield. But thousands of others were fleeing Palestine, heading to Syria or Lebanon or anywhere that was away from the inevitably brutal end of the independence struggle.

The movement of refugees was swelling the numbers in the Jewish diaspora communities, which attracted the resentment of their neighbours in the pagan cities where they were making their new homes. Along with them came many Jewish Christians too. Practicing Jews who kept the law of Moses and also believed in Jesus, his death and his resurrection, as the fulfilment of all God’s promises to Israel and the whole world. By this time the early church was strongest outside of Palestine and most of the world’s Christians were from pagan backgrounds. There’d always been tension between Jewish and Gentile believers, you’ve only got read Paul’s letters to see that, but it was intensified as largely Gentile churches received an influx of Jewish sisters and brothers. (The multicultural character of the body of Christ has never been easy, but the Holy Spirit just keeps on calling together people who feel they really don’t belong together – just so we can be reconciled in Christ.)
It’s into this kind of time and this kind of church that Mark is retelling the story of Jesus. Forty years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection he’s calling people back to the foundations, the essentials, the core of the vision they shared of God’s mission in the world and their place in it.

Mark 6:1-13

In our lesson for today, we have a really odd combination of stories. It begins with a completely fruitless visit to Jesus’ home town – where his mother and brothers and sisters live, where everyone knows him and saw him grow up. They’re astonished by the way he teaches; to the point of being quite offended by him. He’s amazed at their unbelief; to the point of “only” being able to heal a few sick people while he is there. (The sort of thing that would make an impression anywhere else, but just looked like showing off in his hometown!)
And so in a second, unrelated story, “Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two… So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

In some ways this combination of two very different stories reflects the birth and growth of the earliest church. It began well in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost but, ultimately, Jesus’ own people and homeland were far less receptive to the Gospel than the wider pagan world. So little teams of evangelists had headed off into the Roman world as needs must or as opportunity presented – maybe it was to escape persecution in Palestine, maybe it was as a prisoner of Rome, maybe it was to touch base with new believers they’d heard about in distant foreign cities. There was no grand plan, just an openness to the Spirit’s guidance in whatever opportunities cropped up and hearts full of the wonderful news of Christ’s resurrection. Forty years on, when Mark was writing his Gospel, what had been generally rejected in Jesus’ homeland had now become a worldwide multicultural Christian movement.

But how? How does the Holy Spirit renew the church? How does the Holy Spirit use evangelists? How does the Holy Spirit renew the church through evangelism?

Last Monday I was speaking in Melbourne at a forum on refugees and asylum seekers. As I listened to a woman describe her flight from Iraq with her small children, it occurred to me that Jesus’ instructions to the disciples he sent out described pretty accurately the circumstances of refugees – in Mark’s time and also today: “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ ”

Those first evangelists would have looked like any other refugees in those turbulent times. They weren’t welcome in Jesus’ hometown. They weren’t safe in Jesus’ homeland. They were refugees for the Gospel. They were defenceless, utterly dependant of the hospitality of strangers and vulnerable to the hostility of those who didn’t want them moving into their village or town. As that Iraqi woman said, “We were so vulnerable. Anything could have happened to us. Anything.”

And yet those refugees for the Gospel were at the same time ambassadors of the kingdom of God. “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” They brought with them the precious news of God’s salvation, of reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation.

It’s such a fragile, improbable, mysterious thing the way the Holy Spirit spreads life-giving, world-changing faith in Christ from person to person, region to region, culture to culture, and generation to generation. The people from Jesus’ hometown were right: It’s ridiculous! It’ll never work! You’re much too ordinary to be the bearer of such extraordinary power. And yet, “they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

Renewal through evangelism

And so it is still today. The Holy Spirit is generating incredible vitality and growth in the world church today – often in places where Christians are suffering terribly in situations of war, poverty or persecution. The growth has been so great over so many decades that today most of the world’s Christians live in the global south – in Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific.

How does the Holy Spirit renew the church? How does the Holy Spirit use evangelists? How does the Holy Spirit renew the church through evangelism?

Let me share a couple of examples of the way the Holy Spirit continues to bring renewal through evangelism to the church today.

At the most recent Assembly of the China Christian Council it was reported that the church in China had baptised 2.4 million new Christians in the previous five years. So I thought they might have something to share about evangelism.

I asked Dr Lin Manhong – Dean of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, and Associate General Secretary of the China Christian Council – if she could tell me something about evangelism in China.

She said that, obviously, they couldn’t hold evangelistic rallies or use the sort of methods western Christians – or Tongan Christians – might be used to. In any case, she said, that would be culturally inappropriate in China. But clearly many, many people are becoming Christians in China today. How does that happen?

She said that the primary form of evangelism in China is personal witness – in particular, the witness of a transformed life and of loving the neighbour.

She said, “Chinese people are pragmatic”. They aren’t drawn to Christ by doctrine or intellectual argument but by seeing a transformation in a neighbour’s life. Maybe the sound of fighting in the household next door had stopped. Maybe the family seemed less obsessed with work and more open to each other and their neighbours. Maybe they’d seen some act of unexpected kindness or courage.

“Why are you different ?” They might ask.

“I’ve become a Christian”.

“What’s that?” (Even though there are, officially, 24 million Christians in China and probably double that number in fact they are still a tiny minority.)

“Come and see. Come with me to my church.”

And, Dr Lin said, the Holy Spirit who has transformed one person and is working in the life of the other person may open her heart to the Gospel and transform her life too.

The Chinese are pragmatic people. So are Australians. I get the impression that Tongans are too. We’re not terribly interested in clever arguments or slick marketing on the whole. But seeing a neighbour’s life transformed by Christ would be well worth looking into further. It’s quite legal. It doesn’t offend against Chinese culture. And the witness of transformed lives has been the seed from which has grown the largest church in the world – the largest church in history – in atheist, communist China.

One evening at the recent General Assembly of the Christian Conference of Asia, in Jakarta, a few of the UCA delegates were drinking tea with delegates from Nepal. After a conversation about the earthquake and the great news that their families were all safe, we asked about the church in Nepal.

It’s very much a minority faith in that Hindu nation, and there are significant limitations placed on Christians when it comes to making their presence visible and sharing their witness. The government estimates the number of Christians to be about 500,000 but the Christians are pretty sure they number 2,000,000 or more. Where do they come from? There isn’t a missionary story about their origins, and as far as we know there were almost no Christians there before the late 1950s.

One of the delegates shared his own story with us. He went to India to study engineering. He was Hindu. One of his fellow students in India was Christian. He seemed “different” in a way that drew the attention of my new friend. He shared the gospel with him and invited him to his church. He too became a Christian – and an engineer. When he went back to Nepal to work he shared the gospel with his family. They became Christians too – parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins. They all became Christians. They worshipped together in his house and soon others were joining them too. He became the pastor of this new church – while he continued to work as an engineer. He pointed to two other delegates at the table with us. “They are now pastors too. The first women pastors in our church.” They came to faith through his church and now they have planted and lead new churches themselves.

And there are so many other stories like this from Nepal. Nepalese people going away to study and becoming Christians, then bringing that “holy virus” home. And also Christians among the many foreign workers in Nepal sharing their faith with co-workers in the normal exchanges of friendship. “You seem different? Could I be different too?” In ways that have nothing to do with anyone’s strategic plan, the Holy Spirit has been using this movement of people between countries to call together a brand new church in Nepal – a growing, flourishing church.

And we talked about liturgy, and training pastors, and healing… but mostly we just marvelled again at the evidence of the Spirit gathering the church, the body of Christ “wherever it pleases” (John 3:8).
How does the Holy Spirit renew the church? How does the Holy Spirit use evangelists? How does the Holy Spirit renew the church through evangelism?

What we’re learning from the vitality and growth of the church in the global south is that there is no evangelism more authentic and compelling than the witness of a transformed life. Any transformed life. Your life. My life. So what is it in your life that needs transforming? What is it in you that needs to be healed or tamed or recovered? Are you willing to let Christ transform you through the Spirit? It’s all he wants to do.

Let’s be transformed. Let’s lead our lives, transformed, and we will see the church – and this nation – renewed through the evangelism of our ordinary, transformed lives. It’s the way the Holy Spirit works. It’s the way the Spirit has always renewed the church – through evangelism.

Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two…” 

  

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