A Letter to the Church of Asia
by the Rev. Dr. Philip Wickeri
Scripture: Revalation 2:1-7
I do not need to remind you that in a little more than two weeks the 10th Assembly of CCA will be opening in Colombo, Sir Lanka. I am sure that you all have a great deal of preparatory work to do, and you may even be impatient about coming here for Wednesday worship, hoping that it will be over quickly so that you you can get back to the "real" work. After all, how productive is a service or worship when there are so many important things to do in the struggle for justice and peace?
The writer of today's text was, I think, well aware of this kind of thinking. He knew that the Christians of Ephesus had been through a great deal and that they were stead-fast in upholding justice and fighting against evil. He praised them for this faithfulness. We can commend in similar terms the faithfulness of many women and men in the Asian ecumenical movement: they are doing good work and are often not adequately recognized; they cannot tolerate the evil doers, many of whom may even be well-respected leaders in the Church and society; they patiently wait for signs of hope for God in a changing Asia; they have grown weary in the struggle for justice; and there is no end and no rest in sight.The work of the Asian ecumenical movement is very important, and it is worth living and dying for. We all know this, but we also know that the forces of evil and oppression are all around us and that the struggle against them will be long and hard.
This is important, but it is not the issue in today's passage. The writer is not speaking about all that has been accomplished and the struggles, that lie ahead but rather about what has been lost in what has gone before. We read:
Something has changed. It is very easy in all of the work for justice and peace and for building the movement that we become angry and embittered and resentful over some of the very people we are supposed to be working with and working for. We forget that the movement is not the Church, and yet it is the Church that we are supposed to be building up. Justice-oriented Christians are motivated by hope for the future; but in this very orientation, they may lose sight of the love which is supposed to bind the Church together. In so doing, they abandon the love they once had for one another. The struggle for justice requires passion, but the passion can consume its own children.
In this situation, it is very easy to assume the posture of the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. Do you remember how resentful he feels over all the attention which is showered on his younger brother who returns to his father's embrace? After all, he has been the ethical one; he has been on the side of justice; he has been hard working. the younger brother has been away having a good time and comes back home only because he has run out of money, and yet, when he returns, he is welcomed by the father. In an instant, the two of them become more or less equal in the eyes of the father. The older son feels that he has lost his position and privilege - he no longer has the epistemological advantage - and so he complains bitterly.
The elder son has fallen from his position of grace, and he does not even realize it. At the end of the story, we do not have any idea whether he is going to go in and celebrate or remain outside and feel resentful. As so many commentators have observed, we do not know which one is, indeed, the prodigal son.
It unfortunately has been part of the history of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) in China that many Christian activists have become like the older brother or like the well-worn Christians in the church in Ephesus. In the 1950s, some of them became so intent on identifying with the people, promoting the revolution and struggling for justice that they lost sight of what Christianity had to offer to society at large. They no longer believed that the Church had its own special function. Some of them wanted to remove from the Bible its more feudal elements, which included the story of the prodigal son. Some of them were so anxious to purge the Church of Western imperialist influences that they persecuted many innocent people, and some of them became so progressive that they left the Church behind, abandoning it all together. In the words of today's passage, by abandoning the love they once had, the lampstand was removed.
Chinese Christians have their own way of interpreting what it means for the Church to be a lampstand. It may not be a theologically profound interpretation, but they see the lampstand as the Church itself.The purpose of the lampstand is to hold the oil or the candle, which is lit and bears the light. The lampstand is the bearer of the light: it has no other function. It describes the Church's very existence, its purpose and its mission. If the lampstand does not bear the light, then God will take it away.
For Chines Christians, this is what happened during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 in the most extreme way possible. For then, there was no Church. When they began meeting again after this time of suffering and turmoil, they turned to the letters to the seven churches of Asia to discover what it was that God was telling them about the task of reconciliation and rebuilding which lay ahead. They saw that central to their understanding was a focus on God as a God of Love. Love is seen by Chinese Christians as God's major attribute - not God's power or omnipotence, but God's vulnerable and sacrificial love. The China Christian Council (CCC) has placed a strong emphasis on building up the Body of Christ, in love, over the last 15 years. It is a task which is only just beginning, and it is informed by the movement of the Spirit.
In the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation, the churches are described as being in different situations and as having different problems. This is an early version of contextualization. Despite the different situations, however, the concluding verses are always the same: "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." It is always important to read the signs of the times and to respond accordingly. This begins by listening, and the listening is informed by understanding how we were called to be Christians in the first place. Let us pray for the Spirit to be with us at the 10th assembly, and let us pray for God's love to bring us together for the important work which lies ahead.
(Ed. note: The following reflection was shared at the weekly worship service of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) on May 24, 1995.)