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Author: Ji Zhang

This is adapted from a sermon delivered by UnitingWorld’s Rev Dr Ji Zhang in April 2017 after returning from the 15th General Assembly of GKI-TP in West Papua (-Ed).

Reading

Romans 8:1-2, 6-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to Gods law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Reflection

The Romans reading is a part last week’s lectionary. I have been avoiding this passage and preached on more “juicy” Gospel readings. After hearing a feminist critique of Christian theology’s treatment of the body, I could not look at the passage same again. This year, having traveled to Papua recently, I have a different insight.

The passage is a part of Paul’s debate of Law and Grace. The Law can be traced to the time of Moses. In the Old Testament books, human behavior and community organisation are defined and written down, and then passed on from generation to generation. In the New Testament, we know Jesus has simplified all laws down to two commandments: to love God, and to love neighbours.

We also know that Paul took the Gospel from Jerusalem all the way to the Romans. On this journey towards a new identity, he discovered a contradiction. Paul tells his Christian community there is a conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. The connecting point for today’s reading is in the early passage where Paul talks about his struggle. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). This is not just a problem for Paul, but also an existential struggle of all Christians.

By talking about his struggle, Paul names a common problem – “I do what I do not want” (7:17). Like Reinhold Niebuhr once said: Human beings are self-contradictory beings.

Recently I attended the 15th General Assembly of the Papuan Church. Our partner church GKI-TP gathered 5000 people from different parts of the church that has a membership of 1 million. I remember vividly a re-enactment of Gospel arriving in the land over 150 years ago. Church members dressed in traditional cloth to represent their past lives, practicing tribal law and using ‘black magic’ on their enemies. When the Gospel came, it appeared as light in the darkness; people took the old clothes off, and put on the new clothes – representing a new life in Christ.

However, the culture of tribal war still lingers. We see a similar situation in Papua New Guinea.  People are always ready to go into battle, and use conflict to resolve difference. These conflicts always cost lives, but never bring peace.

The theme of the GKI-TP General Assembly was “May your kingdom come, on earth as well as in heaven”. After a courageous message from preacher Rev Dr Rumbwas, I spoke on the behalf of the UCA and made this point: “When we listen to God, we are able to listen to each other”.

Our partner church was in a time of major change. The spirit of God chooses this vulnerable time to reshape it. Despite imperfect nature of the process, the church has grown as it receives migrants; but in the transmigration program some of the newcomers have taken the lands and businesses of indigenous Papuans. The church has elected a new Synod leadership team, and by doing this the Assembly has turned a volatile leadership conflict, into and opportunity for peace – not just in the leadership, but in the culture of the whole church.

“You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” This passage is real in the life of Papuan church.

From this experience I read Paul’s writing again, and realise that Paul is doing contextual theology. We know his people believed in the Hellenistic worldview, the Body-Soul dualism. In the Neo-Platonic world, the physical is inferior whereas the spiritual is transcendental. Plato once described our desires are like horses pulling in different directions whereas the soul is like the charioteer who wants the wagon to move in one direction.

But here, two key words indicate Paul has different ideas: Kata sarka – meaning ‘after the flesh,’ and Kata pneuma – ‘after the Spirit’. Notice Paul did not use the word ‘psych’ i.e. “the Soul”, but the Spirit, which is the Spirit of God.

Is Paul accepting the Hellenistic thinking: the body bad, the spirit good? No. He is encouraging unity, not duality. By speaking the language of the Romans, he inserts two new ideas: Zwh – Zoe – meaning ‘life’, and Oikei – ‘making its home’. This is the same root word for World Council of Churches  – which means ‘becoming a household.’

Paul further uses the word – ‘making its home’ – to stage his key argument about God. God’s life and peace are making home in our lives, more importantly making home in our bodily life. This is a new union between the flesh and the spirit. This indwelling nature of God speaks the beauty of Christian life. I have seen this partaking nature of God among our partners where the Spirit is transforming communities.

So, what does this mean for us today?

We struggle with many things. Yet God is graciously making home in our lives. It calls us not to go after the world of desire, instead to go after the Spirit of life and peace. Desire separates people, but peace unifies us across racial, national and religious divides.

In this season of Lent, we remember the recent Cyclone in QLD, the transition in the Papuan church, the famine in South Sudan, and the millions of people displaced by wars the Middle East. We also remember God is making home in the lives of these people. UnitingWorld’s Lent Event fundraising appeal supports our partners in Africa, India, PNG, and China. The way we support them is by showing how God of peace and justice is making home in the lives of the faithful.

The Church is the Body of Christ. The church is not just aiming for survival, but making an impact through witness and action. By working together we begin to understand Paul’s writing. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you”.

May we live and act according to the Spirit this Easter.

And may we share the same hope of our partners in Papua:

May your kingdom come, on earth as well as in heaven”.

Amen.

Rev Dr Ji Zhang
Manager of Church Partnerships, Asia
UnitingWorld

July 6, 2016

Heavy rain around China’s Yangtze river basin has left 128 people dead and scores missing, Chinese media says, with more damage feared from a typhoon expected to land this week. Our partner church, the China Christian Council (CCC) has today requested prayers during this disaster. In response, Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) President Stuart McMillan has written a pastoral letter to the CCC and called on the UCA to pray for those affected by the floods. Below is the letter from the CCC Department of Social Services, translated into English.

May love manifest among the people although the floods are ruthless. We appeal to sisters and brothers to pray in intercession for people affected by the nationwide floods in China.

Image via Wuhu TV

Since this year’s major flood period began, the overall amount of rainfall has increased rapidly. Starting from June 30th, the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze River received heavy rains, affecting Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, and the eastern part of the southwest regions of China. In Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Guizhou, Henan, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang provinces, hundreds of rivers have passed their alert water levels.

At the National Flood Prevention press conference of July 3rd, the State Flood Prevention Headquarters and Ministry of Water Resources reported that 26 provinces and 1,192 counties in China, together with 2,942,000 hectare crops, had been hit by the floods, with 3,282,000 people being affected, with 148,000 people being evacuated in emergency. So far 186 people are confirmed dead and 45 people are missing. The floods have caused the direct economic loss over 50.6 billion RMB. It is expected that in next three days the water levels of the main streams from Lianghua Pond to Datong River, Dongting Lake, and Boyang Lake will pass their alert water lines. The water level of Tai Lake will continue to rise as well.

Image via Wuhu TV

Let love manifest among the people, although the floods are ruthless. During this period of emergency, we seek support and cooperation from different sectors of the society and the Church. This year the CCC & TSPM will pay close attention to the disaster caused by these nationwide floods, and will make the appropriate response accordingly. Hereby we appeal to all churches and church members to be mindful of the disaster and pray for the affected regions and the people. May we all pray that the floods subside and the shared love is manifested through this time of emergency.

The request to pray was translated by Rev Zhao Chengyi, a PhD candidate from the CCC who is currently studying at Centre for Theology and Ministry in Melbourne.

 

Please pray for our partners the CCC and the people affected by this terrible disaster.
You may wish to use this prayer:

God of compassion, You are the source of all comfort and care.

Today we pray for the people in China,

for the lives that have been devastated by rain and flood.

Bring them safety and comfort,

Protect their homes and belongings,

Sustain them with care and love, we pray.

 

May our prayers strengthen the weak,

Keep the spread of disease within the limits of God’s compassion.

We pray for all members of the Chinese church,

As they support their brothers and sisters in this time of needs.

 

May our prayer strengthen the rescue workers and forces,

have mercy on them.

We pray for the local communities

as they feed the hungry and care for the homeless.

Give them your enduring care.

 

We pray that the peace of the Lord be with our partner church.

That our response to their suffering be compassionate.

May the Lord give comfort to all the peoples in suffering,

and our solidarity give them support in their needs.

For we ask it in Jesus name,

Amen. 

The Prayer of Intercession is written by Rev Dr Ji Zhang, Manager Church Partnerships – Asia.

Read More

Read the prayer request and prayer in full (including Chinese)

UCA President Stuart McMillan’s pastoral letter to the CCC

ABC: China floods leave more than 120 dead, scores missing, state media says

In front of Shanxi Christian Council office there is a park reconstructed on the top of the Tang dynasty city wall. The moderator Rev Wang pointed to the place below and said “This was the Western Gate”. In 635 the Prime Minister Fang travelled from the imperial court to this gate (today about 45 minutes driving) to receive the Patriarch from the Church of the East. The journey to the East reversed the direction of the Silk Road, and the missionary work was the result of two generations of Persian traders who lived in China. This story was recorded on the Nestorian Stele in Xian Stele Forrest Museum.

Theologically the church does not have a mission, but the mission of God calls the church into being. “Missio Dei ≥ Mission ad gentes + Missio inter gentes” – this is the formula that attempts to summarise the first introduction of Christianity to China.

According to the Record of Major Meetings of Tang Dynasty, a royal decree was issued in 638: “The Dao has no perpetual name; the Sage-hood has no unchanging form. Let [the Nestorians] have the access to establish this religion, so that many lives can be brought across [the ocean of suffering]”. In the period of 649-683, the Church grew quickly through interfaith dialogue with Buddhism and Daoism. The inscription says: “The religion was spread over ten administration zones, the country enjoyed prosperity and peace. The [Christian] Temples occupied close to a hundred cities, whilst households were enriched by the blessings of the Luminous [Christian] faith”.

Protestant missionaries came 1200 years after the Persians. Derived from the China Inland Mission in the late 1870’s, today Shanxi Christian Council has a large footprint in the remote west. Its theological education prepares leaders for 5 provinces covering a vast geography along the Silk Road to Xingjiang Autonomous Region. Xian was the capital of 13 dynasties. Most of the old buildings in Xian have various degrees of heritage protection, including some church buildings. The General Secretary shared with us their challenge to reclaim and redevelop church buildings. Contrary to coastal synods, here they were under resourced. A few years ago the synod was offered a free rental for a floor in the office building that the government purchased so the synod could move out of a basement.

The top priority is to equip enough leaders to sustain the growth in the west. Currently the college can only offer a 4-year diploma program, because some students only had middle school education. The synod has three approaches to capacity building: a) upgrade accreditation from diploma to degree, b) expand lay and continue education, c) construct a new college with 350 residents and redevelop the old college into a social service centre. Being a UCA president from the laity, Stuart resonated with their focus to equip the laity, and encouraged the UnitingWorld program to include this province.

The key to resolve the antithesis between mission to the gentiles and mission with gentiles is contextual theology. Xian is culturally diverse and religiously plural. During the Tang period, there was an innate openness to various cultures, even the Nestorian monks were invited by the Foreign Minister to take roles of diplomacy. Mission was done through a two-century long dialogue with Buddhism and Daoist in a Confucian society as a minority.

This non-Christendom context was a common interest between the moderator and the president. In Xian it is the 5000-year written history and the capital of 13 dynasties. In Australia’s Northern Territory it is the 40,000 years old indigenous culture from the land. Although the two cultures have never met, the task of contextual theology is the same: Gospel with Culture. In this light, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution is a contextual theology in the making. Two leaders exchanged the idea to have a joint conference in Xian on Theology and Culture.

The large need to equip the laity was not fully conceptualised until we attended the service on Sunday. The church was built in 1919 by British Baptist Church with a capacity for 500 people. Now it has a membership of 13,000. Because of its heritage overlay, the church built a 3-floor building next to the sanctuary for extra worship space. There were 5 services on Sunday, and we were at the 3rd of 5 Sunday services. On our arrival, we saw the 2nd service was overflowing – with people standing near the gate.

Stuart shared with the congregation about the UCA/CCC partnership, and social service training in Shandong. On a number of occasions his speech was either echoed or interrupted by a loud response of “Amen”. The lay preacher gave a well-researched and delivered sermon on child-parents relationships based on OT scriptures of God’s promise over future generations. She was a retired engineer, and this was her third sermon after completing lay education. When the congregation recited the Lord Prayer in one voice, we all felt the Spirit’s presence among the faithful. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they should see God”.

Our big surprise was visiting a church-run HIV clinic. We were shown two videos about the ministry by the laity, a number of elderly people from a small Christian gathering place. They wanted to care for the people suffering from HIV AIDS among migrant workers; they wanted to care for them regardless of their sexual orientation – to be loved by God. The staff showed us a city map marked with places where gay groups and sex workers gathered. The clinic went through a difficult journey to be accepted by the church and the society.

Today this clinic has been licensed by the local government. It is supported by the CCC national office, recognised by the central government, and partly funded by Bill Gates Foundation. They have gathered hundreds of volunteers from nearby universities to engage HIV awareness programs and advocacy for caring migrant workers who have sacrificed their youth for urban development. The powerful ministry of the laity has manifested again in the social margins. The work is not based on doctrinal correctness, but compassion-driven praxis. Sometimes the ministry is a pastoral visit to gay communities, sometimes is to participate in a burial service for the deceased – the unwanted, lost, and forgotten.

When we visited the Nestorian Stele in Xian Stele Forrest Museum, one sentence in the inscription began to speak to us. Between 635 and 781, every year the Christians would gather in four places. “[They] prepared various [charity] works on the Pentecost Day. When the hungry came, they fed them; when the cold came, they clothed them. The sick were treated so [they could] get up; the dead were buried, and so [they were] laid to rest”.

The Mission of God is bigger than mission to the gentiles. In mission with the gentile, the horizon of God’s mission begins to open and brings the common interest of life between the secular and the sacred into focus. It is the Incarnation of God’s life in the world, regardless of the church’s capacity to conceptualise its fullness in theology. On this journey we have seen the work of the Spirit. The Church has been, and is, working hard – to capture the Spirit of life, by which the people of God have been captured.

Prayer for the People in the Land of Papua

There is no place where you cannot reach,
God who made the heavens and the earth.

There is no journey which you have not travelled,
God who is with us, Jesus the Christ.

There are no people beyond your care,
God who is the Spirit, the Comforter.

Stay with the people in Papua now, with your love and kindness;
Lighten their darkness with your consolation and blessing.

When their voices and resources are taken away,
it is to the governments that they have turned with their questions

When their dignity and freedom are endangered,
It is to God and friends in Christ that they have turned for reassurance and comfort.

We pray for
eyes that are open to see what Jesus sees,
ears that are open to truly hear,
hearts that are open to love as Christ loved,
and lives that respond to our neighbour’s crying.

Today, we pray for ourselves
and all those with power to pray and help,
the local and national governments in Indonesia,
the companies that extract resources from the land
our partner the Evangelical Christian Church in the Land of Papua.
Let them walk together within God’s goodness,
act justly, relieve suffering, sustain life and rebuild the communities.

Hear our prayers this day
for we pray in the name of Jesus
whose arms were outstretched on the Cross
to embrace all people.
Amen.

This prayer was written in response to recent correspondence with the Evangelical Christian Church in the Land of Papua (Gereja Kristen Injili Di Tanah Papua ‘GKI-TP’) on political tensions in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

(Rewritten by Rev Dr Ji Zhang, Manager Church Partnerships – Asia. The prayer is adapted from Dorothy McRae-McMahon, Prayers for Life’s Particular Moments, p.99)

China is an ageing society. Currently 200 million people are over 60 years old, a figure that will double in the next 20 years. Yet half of the elderly are empty nesters – living without children or family – and this is a problem in the Confucian culture where “getting old means being cared for by the young 老有所养”. This has always been a moral code, but it is now not so easy to live out. If the church could look after the elderly, particularly offering care for the dying, then the church’s desire to grow also has a social purpose.

When the UCA delegation arrived about midnight in Jinan, the Moderator and his team were waiting at the station. We were told our operational team, sent ahead to carry out training in Aged Care, had performed exceptionally well. The training had gathered 100 ministers and managers from 85 Aged Care facilities in 22 provinces. The conference room was on the 17th floor of the biggest non-government publishing company in China. The CEO, Mr Zhang Quan, became a Christian 11 years ago, and he attributed his success to God’s blessings. He has committed himself to Christian business practices and supporting care for the elderly. The company edited the training materials in both languages and printed the papers in a 40-page book.

IMG_4454“End of Life Care” is a special skill to prepare the elderly for life’s good ending. At the training, we realised that UnitingCare has a reservoir of knowledge gained over half a century. Derived from ministry of the laity, the UCA agency has become the largest social service provider in Australia, serving 1 in 8 Australians. Here at Shandong, they put a powerful idea into people’s minds. Dying is not just about death, but also life. To care for the dying is about celebrating life. All skills are built on this ethic and hope.

What then is life beyond death? Death is the end of physical life, but also marks a new beginning in our relationship with God. The hope of passing this life into God’s eternal care is rooted in our faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. It points to homecoming of Christ returning to the eternal life of God. There is nothing outside of this life of God the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. A Christian death can be a powerful witness, calling people to this homecoming – singing the doxology to praise God.

At the end of the training, the Moderator took the stage to thank the UCA team for the extraordinary contribution of the UnitingCare team. He put forward a 3-way partnership: the CCC national leadership, UnitingCare training, and his synod resources and business sponsorship. His vision also included social service as a part of theological education in order to prepare future leadership to be service-ready. The company also committed to continue sponsorship. As all participants received their certificates, two national directors Lin and Rob thanked them.

“Our UnitingCare team have done the training twice, because God’s love has reached many people through your care”. The President Stuart then blessed the participants – “We love neighbours because God loved us first”.

The meeting in Beijing has been a highlight of this trip. The State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) is located in the palace where the last Emperor Fu Yi was born. We were given a private tour through the Emperor’s residence. Our meeting room was his office, a 350 year-old timber building in the classic imperial style. Walking through the complex, we also began to understand this ministry within the State Council. The role of SARA is to develop policy based on the constitution of religious freedom and establish regulations for religious activities. In China there are five historical religions: Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. SARA has its own foreign ministry department responsible for foreign exchanges with religious organisations.

The meeting was a formal diplomatic exchange. The General Director Dr Xiao Hong and the UCA President took the seats in the front, whereas all representatives were seated on two sides. Compared to the first meeting in 2013, this was a relaxed conversation. After two leaders exchanged views of the UCA-CCC partnership, a nurse was invited to share the story of healing through social media WeChat. The director was moved, and she said “I have seen many overseas groups. You are the first group to have put talk into action.”

Dr Andrew Glenn also spoke theological education. He spoke about Prof Lin’s exceptional Cato Lecture at the Assembly, two conferences in China and Australia, and the good progress of the first CCC PhD candidate studying at CTM.

The Vice Minister Mr Jiang hosted a private lunch. He took particular interest in two Chinese speaking nurses and asked about their experience in Australia. He recognised the merit of 3-way partnership: the CCC national leadership, the UCA intellectual property, and the local synod and business sponsorship. He encouraged the UCA to “spread the training to different parts of China”. At the lunch, the President issued his invitation to the minister for a future visit to Australia, with the UCA to organise meetings with Australian government and ecumenical churches. The UnitingCare team presented a quilt made by the elderly – average age 83 – for the elderly in China. The minister instructed the staff to put this unique gift in the VIP room.

A week ago, the operation team came to China and faced a challenge. Now they received recognition from the highest authority in China. More than a single success, they have demonstrated a bottom-up approach to shaping social service. Just before boarding the flight for Xian, another reflection took place. The partnership model in China could answer the challenges in Australia. Facing radical funding cuts from the federal government, UnitingCare could invite business sponsorship; this external contribution would be managed by synod level UnitingCare agencies.

Zhuangzi once opened his philosophy book by telling a story. In his dream, he became a giant bird flying over his village and travelled to a different place. Why does philosophy start with a dream? It is very simple: to free oneself from the weight of assumptions.

UW derived from the church’s mission to the margins, and our Reformed Theology is based on the assumption of mission to gentiles. But this week, we saw a different approach. Mission to the gentiles is accompanied by mission with gentiles. This is not a radical idea; UnitingCare and UnitingWorld have been working with the secular government for receiving funds and delivering services. The theological question, however, is thought provoking. Who can give birth to two seemingly opposite missions?

“When friends come from afar, how could one not be happy?”

This Confucian saying captures the spirit of the third meeting between two presidents, one from the Australian Uniting Church, the other from the China Christian Council.

Chaired by Gen Sec Rev Kan, a team of 10 people from the CCC shared various ministries. The UCA President opened his conversation by reflecting the concept of Guanxi – relationship from the perspective of Trinitarian life, God’s relationship with the Creation, and Christ’s relationship with us.

“We are here to continue our relationship”, the President said.

For the ancient Chinese, a myriad of things derived from the interplay of two dynamic forces, Yin and Yang. Today the relationship between our two churches is underlined by a sharing – not only of joys, but also challenges – within the universal Body of Christ.

At the meeting three national leaders, Rob Floyd, Lin Hatfield-Dodds, and Andrew Glenn reflected two arms of this relationship: theological education and social service. Since 2010, there have been 7+7 mutual exchanges supported by the UW relational platform. In 2013, we jointly held a historic conference on Theology of Unity. In response to the ageing society we see in both countries, UnitingCare conducted two training conferences for 200 people. These two arms of engagement can be summarised as “unity in theology” and “unity in praxis”.

In 1984 when Bishop K. H. Ting visited WCC in Australia he requested a meeting with the UCA leaders. When he was asked why, he replied: “I have read your Basis of Union. We have a lot to learn from the Uniting Church in Australia about a theology of unity”. Stuart recalled this story in Rev Prof Andrew Dutney’s book. Indeed it has taken 30 years for us to recapture Bishop Ting’s foresight. Within this relationship, there is a core value overlapping two identities, namely God’s reconciliation in Christ Jesus. “Inner virtue enables outer ruling”. Our doing derives from our being.

Travelling to Nanjing was comfortable and quick. The 300km section is a part of 1400km railway built during the Global Financial Crisis. It took 3.5 years to complete and cost trillions of RMB. Although the tickets would never pay for the construction (A$30 to Nanjing), the network is designed to create a “same-city-effect”. It takes about the same time to Nanjing (65mins) as from one side of Shanghai to the other. The railway links an economic zone with a radius of 350km, and tax income pays for further development. China has a 16,000km high-speed railway network, and it will reach 30,000km by 2020.

In Nanjing we visited the Mausoleum of Dr Sun Yatsen(1866-1925). On the gate, there were two characters 博爱 – unbound love. When the last dynasty collapsed under the colonial powers, Dr Sun started the revolution in 1911 to replace the imperial system with a state of Republic. Married to a Methodist, one of three sisters of Song, he combined Christian love with Confucian morality and used the unbound love to heal the wondered nation. His “Three-People Principles 三民主义” – People’s Governance, People Livelihood, People’s Authority – replaced the idea of Son of Heaven, and moved politics from the One to the many. The job of a government is to “Serve Everyone Under Heaven 天下为公”. Forever he rests under the cosmic potency: “The Heaven and the Earth is set upright by Qi 天地正气”.

In the first week of Pentecost we came to Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. After a successful theological conference in 2013, we visited once again to speak about the practical implications of unity. Four speakers took the stage before 200 students. They spoke about their fields of leadership and also formulated four questions for further discussion.

  1. The relationship between God and people enables the UCA to journey with the First Peoples. “How do you enable this God-people relationship to flourish in your context?”
  2.  The story of UnitingCare is a bottom-up unity from the laity. “How do you identify the painful needs in the society and empower the congregation to respond to the brokenness of this world?”
  3.  UCA international relationships derive from an outgoing spirit of unity to form specific relationships with our neighbours in Asia and the Pacific. “If you were a future leader, how do you shape unity in relationship with Asian church neighbours?”
  4. The UCA is going through major change and requires ministers to facilitate these shifts. “How do you become a facilitator of spirit filled change in our locations?”

These questions invited students to form discussion groups. After 10 minutes of animated discussion, each group was invited to present their findings. The speakers were very surprised and encouraged by the answers: thoughtful, articulate, and targeted.

This week’s lectionary teaches us a biblical lesson: The Spirit’s renewal = God’s movement + people’s correspondence. Here among the students, it is evident that the Spirit is renewing the church. Where is God in all of these? God is moving in the margins. Missio Dei has called the church into being. We have been invited to participate in, and contribute to, people’s correspondence.

Taishan 泰山

Rev Ji Zhang continues the story of the UnitingWorld and Uniting Care Australia journey to China to engage with the Chinese Church, share training and further the partnership between our two communities.

“A thousand mile journey begins with simple steps”.

In rural areas, we began to encounter two virtues of this Chinese saying: simplicity and persistence.

A group of elderly people aged between 78 and 98 were singing a welcome song as we entered their facility. We were not strangers to them; this is the third visit we’ve made in the last two years. Stepping forward, we held their hands, saying “Nihao” (Hello – literary means “You are good” in Chinese). The UCA nurses quickly went into a room with female caretakers, and Geoff and I were left outside to talk to the ministers from the provincial church and the local government. When a dozen women came out of the room, they pronounced: “It worked. She is healed.”

They were speaking about a joint medical process that has been happening over the last few weeks. During our first visit, the UCA nurses were asked about how to care for those permanently in bed, and how to treat damaged skin caused by the body’s own pressure. This encounter deeply moved the UCA nurses. When they returned to Australia, they used WeChat (a popular social media app) to discuss best practice treatment. In the case of this woman, the size of the wound was big, and infection began, but the caretakers did not have medical training. Wesley Mission Brisbane came up with the simplest method – warm water – to clean the area, and then cover the wound with cream. With frequent turning to increase circulation, the body healed itself.

This story is a testimony. Community-to-community connection can be simple and effective. Through the internet, Wesley Mission Brisbane has helped the bed-ridden elderly in this remote facility. Moreover there is happiness on the face of the residents here when they received the gift made by hand by the elderly back in Brisbane.

This exchange is also learning for us, and capacity building for our staff. The CEO Geoff remarked, “They have taught us about passion and faith. I believe more of our facilities would be interested to form a sister-relationship with elderly homes in China”.

In Chinese there are 5 mountains named after 5 Phases (Gold, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth) according to the Daoist theory of change. The Eastern Mountain Tai is home to the northern school called Comprehensive Teachings. To reach the temple 1500m above, the team took the cable car up and walked in the rain. For one thousand years, this mountain has been a place of pilgrimage and the summit has been the location of imperial worship and sacrifice to mark the beginning of a new dynasty. This is the place where the rising sun is first observed. On the day we visited, however, the mountain masked its image with its own mystery.

At the foot of the mountain we visited a local church built in1900 by American North Presbyterian Church. Rev Fu started his role in 2005, and built the congregation from 350 to a membership of 2000. What is the secret of this growth? Rev Fu attributes it to the witness of believers. Here evangelism is done through church members. Each year the church publishes about 40,000 introduction materials about Christian faith and the Gospel teachings. The members then take the material to their family members and friends in communities and villages. Each Christmas they will distribute most of them, inviting believers to share fellowship and witness. On Wednesday, the first choir will practice. Thursday, the ministers run a bible study, book-by-book and chapter-by-chapter. On Friday, the fellowship of young men takes place in evening. On Saturday, volunteers clean the church for Sunday and the second choir will practice.

The harvest is plenty, but the labourers are few. They put together limited human resources in the central church, and from here they travel to 52 gathering places for pastoral visits and delivering communion. These gathering places have membership ranging from 20 to 200. The method of feeding the flock is also simple – equipping the laity.

The training centre was an Anglican Church school built in 1876. It has been occupied by a local school until 2007. Due to lack of repair, the local government viewed its structure as too dangerous to be restored. The decision was made to demolish it. A group of elderly women from the church came to live in the damaged building. They lived on the ground floor but could see the sky above them. The church engaged a process of negotiation between 2007 and 2009. Eventually, the government agreed to accept the church’s proposal: return the property to the church, and the church would restore the site. Now this building has been enlisted as a provincial heritage building, and is permanently protected.

In a room upstairs, we met the training class. 40 lay people gathered here for 7 months. They have left their families behind, work behind, and live here as a community. The courses cover the bases of biblical and theological teachings, and pastoral care. When they return to those 52 gathering places, their job has one purpose only: feed the sheep. Throughout the year, the 5-people ministry team will visit and support them.

We shared together, and we prayed together. Before our departure, they blessed us with their singing: “The Lord bless you and keep you, and the Lord has his face to shine upon you…”

Links between the thriving Christian Church in China and the Uniting Church in Australia are growing. This week, an expert team of Aged Care Specialists from Uniting Care Australia are visiting China to prepare for and deliver a second conference on Aged Care, while next week a UCA delegation led by National President Stuart McMillan arrives to continue dialogue about partnership that will include theological training, people exchange and support for social services.

 Reverend Ji Zhang, from UnitingWorld, is travelling with the two teams and writes a fascinating account from Shanghai.

The first part of the UCA delegation has arrived in Shanghai. They are the expert-team from Wesley Mission Brisbane, led by its CEO Geoff Baktin. Shanghai is an amazing city with many surprises. It started as a small county a few centuries ago and was regarded as the Paris of the East before 1949 – attracting many foreigners to come and do business in China. The real change is in the last 25 years; the area of Pu Dong (East of the River) grew from farmland to a city that shares half of Shanghai’s 30 million population.

We’ve been travelling on a 35 km freeway – above ground – linking the airport and the CBD. This freeway was built within 2.5 years. The speed and scale of China’s economic transformation is evident in this city. Yet the city is well-organised through its extensive public transport, including a 300km railway network underground. On the news, Disney started its first month private opening, a test run for the public opening in June.

The rise of the Chinese church is a part of this big story of transformation. We are on a journey to discover this narrative as we travel to the North.  Traveling at speeds of 306km/h, the high-speed train takes us to a regional town with a population of 100,000. Here we meet the church minister and his team. As we walked into the church complex, we see first hand what we’ve been told: “He and his wife have built the church and its social service from ground-up”.

In 2004, the church was built first. Now it has been extended to hold its 4000 membership. At the time they had no experts, so they designed, built, and fitted everything by their own hands. As a part of the transition from a rural community to urban living, one of the main issues they face is the role and responsibility of a family. Children are expected to look after the elderly, but the One-Child policy and migration have forever changed this social code. So the church started an aged care centre in 2009. Today they have 112 beds, look after the elderly with 22 care takers and 48 volunteers; the oldest person is 98 years of age.

Having an aged care centre was only the beginning. In the following years, the church developed a childcare for 178 children, looking after 19 orphans and neglected children. They have created a model similar to Australian aged care facilities, namely a household model of institutional care. The social bond to hold all people together is a combination of Confucian values of care for the elderly and Christian love of neighbours.

What surprised us all was that they achieved all this by donation alone.

Geoff told the minister Xu: “To develop this complex within 12 years is a remarkable achievement.”

Indeed, the development includes four wings of the church complex, and funding for all the care facilities. The inner drive for this transformation story can be put as simply as “faith enabled witness and service”.

We met a 91 year-old man. He was diagnosed as having only 3 months to live when he was sent to the centre. He had no family members to look after him, so the church became his home. When he came he could not stand, could not walk. After 1 month in care, he could get off the bed and stand; now he walks miles each day in the courtyard.

In the evening, we were invited to the church service where 500 people gathered for the daily evening service. The church has 3 services each Sunday, prayer services every morning and devotion services every night. As we greeted the audience from the stage, we began to understand what makes the transformation a reality. It is the gospel that has set people free. Their changed lives became a natural witness to others who seek belonging in the church. More than 600 people were baptised last year. Their natural expression of faith is not only witness but also service.

Theology has been understood as “Faith Seeking Understanding”, from the cognitive mind to social action. Here we have seen “Faith Seeking Hope”. We are inspired by their faith enabled service, and this public discourse is calling us to reflect theologically – from praxis to understanding.

Ji will continue to update us on this fascinating journey as the team delivers their training on Aged Care with the Chinese Church and Mr McMillan meets with the Chinese leadership.  The aim of the visit is to continue to build the partnership between our two churches – sharing knowledge, skills and inspiration for our post-denominational churches.  

You can find out about our partnership and how to support the growing Chinese church by reading more here.

A group of West Papuan students have formally joined the Uniting Church as they become members-in-association.

They come from various parts of Papua and West Papua provinces in Indonesia, and currently attend St John’s College in Darwin. The congregation at Philadelphia Indonesian Uniting Church in Karama welcomed the students as a part of their growing community. They have also provided pastoral care to the young people away from home.

This has been a long pastoral journey for Rev Dr Tony Floyd, who as the former national director of Multicultural and Cross-culture Ministry, has mentored the congregation over the last 6 months. He has been building and nurturing new relationships and encouraging the growing multiculturalism within the Indonesian-speaking congregation. On this joyful occasion, the students stood before the church, and sang with the wonderful voices of their homeland, Papua.

Rev Thresi Mauboy welcomed the new members into the life of UCA, and blessed the congregation as the Moderator of the Northern Synod.

Taken from UnitingWorld and the UCA Assembly’s staff worship on Tuesday 16 Feb

By Rev Dr Ji Zhang, UnitingWorld’s Manager, Church Partnership –Asia

 Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

The passage above is located in the passion narrative of Jesus in Luke’s gospel. In the early passage, we read the story of the Fig Tree. It is the story about a tree no longer bearing fruit. It needs to be cut down, but the farmer wants to give it another year, another chance to revive it back to life. This story symbolises the judgment of God.

Then in Luke 13:11-13 we read another story, the healing of the crippled woman. After 18 years of suffering, she has finally gained strength to stand up and walk.  Confidence returns to her too.

When we read the stories together, we begin to see a pattern. On the one hand, it is the external journey of Jesus confronting authority – even the King. On the other hand, it is his internal journey in which Jesus becomes increasingly obedient to God’s calling – leading him to his journey to the Cross.

Our reading today begins with a warning from the Pharisees. “Herod wants to kill you”. Herod is the King, and his desire to kill Jesus was disclosed at the time of Jesus’ birth. He wants to kill Jesus, and his will is based not on any real threat, but his inert fear.

Jesus replied to the Pharisees: “Tell that fox, I am casting out demons and performing cures today, and tomorrow, and on the third day I will finish my work”. This saying about his three-day work points to the future of his passion: death and resurrection in three days. The work that Jesus wants to do is more than healing of the sick; he wants to cast out demons in that culture, perform cures in that kingdom of fear governed by Herod.

When I read this passage, three words kept emerging in my mind: “Let Them Stay”. In the last few weeks, churches in Australia have begun to evoke an ancient tradition called Sanctuary. “Let Them Stay” is about letting love surround people who are living in fear.

In the second week of Lent, the biblical teaching shows us a paradox. On the one hand, the external journey unfolds a discourse in which Jesus confronts the authorities and speaks of the kingdom of God arriving. On the other hand, his internal journey goes deeper and deeper into the realm of obedience. In the public discourse of “Let Them Stay” we see this paradox. The external confrontation is against the fear of refugees in Australia by offering the church as a place of protection and home. Internally we as Christians also weigh the risk of such action with our discipleship, and follow the commandment to love our neighbours.

In 1989, I came to Australia with one suitcase, U$110 in my pocket, and a half year visa in my passport. It took me 6 years to convince the immigration department to recognise me, and a whole group of us, as refugees. I understand what it is to be in need and how difficult is to live in fear and uncertainty. The cost for me was high – I did not see my family for 11 years.

My own experience in Australia tells me that there was a pair of invisible hands trying to push me away. “When will you go home?” people in factories and my church and the university asked me. Those pushing hands, even though invisible, centrainly felt, pushing me away.

How different were these moments compared with my experience in America? In my first month in Boston, the Dean of Students came to ask me: “Do you want to stay?”

In 2008, I visited Port Arthur in Tasmania. Even in such a beautiful place, I felt so wrong. The pristine beauty had been used to lock people up in isolation. The stone buildings, the burnt church, the green land, and the blue sea – to me it seemed a restless place. There are restless souls here, and they are still crying out for justice, or perhaps for what must sometimes have been a disproportionate punishment.

Looking back to that experience, I felt, as if those restless souls were still haunting this culture today. As if, this country would require an exorcism. But one thing is certain – we need to lay this restlessness to rest – in peace.

 “Let Them Stay” is such an act. It turns “when do you go home?” into “do you want to stay?” The three-word phrase is a defence for powerless people. It calls people into action to surround these people with love. As Jesus put it; “I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”.

The three-word phrase internally cuts right into the soul of this young nation. Externally it performs a healing in the form of driving out people’s fear. They form a shape of “X”, and this is the symbol of our Lenten journey.

Lift high this cross, because it roots out a sin “Go back to where you come from”. Lift high this cross, because it cases out the demon that is inflicting power over the powerless. Lift high this cross, because it shines a light into everyone’s heart with love. Lift high this cross, because it opens a window for us to see the truth. Suffering is not overcome by power. The answer to suffering is compassion and love.

There is a danger ahead. We know that. Luke’s gospel tells us: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jesus inner strength for overcoming the external danger was obedience. Indeed, this Christological paradox reaches to the climax on the cross. On the cross, Jesus did not save himself nor did he free himself from humiliation. On the cross, his obedience becomes total surrender – Let God be God.

Fellow Christians, this is our Lenten paradox. We engage the external journey of truth telling against the self-fulfilling prophecy of this government. Meanwhile we count the cost of discipleship. The passion narrative of Jesus unfolds into his obedience to God’s calling, and in that calling we let God be God.

Last week we marked our head with ashes. Today we mark this “X” on our hearts. We pray Luke’s ancient prayer with anticipation. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”.

Amen.

Luke 13:31-35

 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”