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The Rest of the Story: “I Truly Understand that God Shows No Partiality.”

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.'  John 14:25-26  

Peter is struggling. His whole life he’s been taught the importance of maintaining certain traditions in order to be a faithful follower of God. As a result, he had a very hard time understanding the essential nature of Jesus’ mission to spread the love and forgiveness of God throughout the earth. Peter needed a thorough convincing and so God sends him a rather strange vision, a sheet descends from heaven with all kinds of creatures that are forbidden to be eaten. But a voice from heaven commands him to eat. Peter refuses three different times, finally declaring, “By no means Lord for I have never eaten anything unclean.” And the vision evaporates.


But God would not give up on Peter. Right after the vision, visitors arrived asking Peter to come and share the good news with Cornelius, a Roman soldier well respected by the Jews. The Holy Spirit goads Peter into going and that is when his mind is opened, the moment which changes the world and the trajectory of Jesus’ message.


Peter had been won over, so he begins preaching to Cornelius and the gentiles, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality. But in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” 


This is the greatest plot turn in the whole Bible. Until this point, the Bible tells the story of the Israelites and God’s relationship with them. From this point on it moves into the world. In some ways this single event begins what God promised through Abraham, “Through you all the nations will be blessed.


That is the rest of the story we have been exploring this past month. How Christians grow from a few dozen people to over 2 billion today.    


The spread of Christianity in East Asia demonstrates the critical importance of taking Peter’s insight to heart. When those sharing the gospel failed to grasp all the implications of this profound truth, they encountered significant barriers and limited success. But when they embraced the depths of this insight they made (or rather God) made tremendous inroads.

There are three critical factors for spreading the good news we can draw from Peter’s encounter with Cornelius. First, evangelism must center on respect of local people. Second, it should focus more on the person of Jesus than the doctrines of the faith. Third, it should see people through the eyes of God’s love. 

 

RESPECT THE PEOPLE


When Peter realized that God showed no partiality at the same time he suddenly had a genuine respect for Cornelius’ openness to the power and Spirit of God. And I believe he saw him more as a person rather than simply a potential convert.


Sadly, at times Christians saw potential converts as ignorant hapless pagans. Listen to this quote to the introduction of a 1651 translation of the Bible into Malay, used by Dutch and British Protestant evangelizers, “…for the purpose of converting ‘miserable infidels from their gross idolatry’.”


Evangelism failed to take hold in several Asian countries not only when the evangelizers showed such obvious disdain but also when they inserted their own culture into the requirements of the faith.


When evangelizers in China forbade new believers from paying respect to their ancestors the emperor of China responded by banning them from the country. People can smell contempt from a mile away! However, during the Qing dynasty, the Pope had an arrangement with the emperor to allow the Chinese Christians to continue to observe ritual duties towards their ancestors. And gave them access which led to success over time.


One successful missionary endeavor is that of James Hutton Taylor. In the 1800s he renewed the efforts to spread Christianity in China while bringing western medicine. He demonstrated a deep respect for the Chinese culture through his manner of dress and considerable facility with local languages. In fact, today James Hutton Taylor V is still alive and preaching in China.

It turns out the local language is critical not only to demonstrating respect but to giving room for the Holy Spirit. This is seen in the tremendous success of the faith through local translations of the Bible. 


This was the fundamental insight of the Reformation – no longer will the Bible be the province only of the intellectual and religious elite but it would be accessible to all peoples. It is precisely what helped the gospel to spread so effectively in Scotland and it turns out to be the critical for its spread in Korea, the East Asian country with the widest Christian influence.


One of our Brick members shared with me key insights for the spread of Christianity in Korea, that depended upon fully embracing the Korean language of Hangul.


She observed that for 400 years until the 19th century this language was underutilized by missionaries which prevented its spread but:


In 1882 Scottish missionaries published the Korean language Bible and [in ten years], 578,000 Bibles were distributed. The spread of the Bible helped the spread of Hangul. In addition, Methodist missionaries built the education system. The first women's university (Ehwa Women's University) was created by U.S. missionaries … the biggest women's university in the world….


By putting the Bible in the hands of the people no longer did it need to be filtered through the lens of the evangelizers. Instead as people read it for themselves the Holy Spirit was able to work on their hearts directly and the local people were able to become strong Christian leaders in their own right, not having to perpetually rely on the translations of other languages and cultures.

 

THE LENS OF GOD’S LOVE


As Peter explained the gospel to Cornelius, he told him, “…how [Jesus] went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” In reflection, Peter realized the deep love and compassion that Jesus had for all people. He had seen Jesus reach beyond the structures of His religion to give love and respect to a Samaritan woman, to lepers, to tax collectors, to…everyone.


And discovering that God shows no partiality Peter would have seen perhaps more clearly than he ever had before in his life the truth of the passage from Genesis chapter one that every single person is made in the image of God, therefore of infinite worth and value. 

Like with the Ethiopian servant from a few Sundays ago who was moved by the message of radical inclusivity of Christ so too did the Koreans find Jesus compelling. Listen to the insights of this Korean Christian:


I believe that the efforts of missionaries who gave equal opportunities to all people and demonstrated and put into practice the value that each individual, regardless of social position, is a precious being of God, greatly helped in the growth of Christianity in Korea.


In other words, when the missionaries sought not only to give them doctrine, but the love of God in Jesus Christ, and recognize the inherent dignity of all God’s children the message of Jesus swelled in Korea.   

 

FOCUS ON JESUS


After Peter acknowledges that God shows no partiality he proceeds to share with Cornelius the person of Jesus – His love and His sacrifice. Rather than sharing all the doctrines of his religion which were manifold, he focused Christ.


The same is true for the spread of Christianity in East Asia. There is a touching story of a Chinese Christian author Watchman Nee and his wife. He wrote many books and died in 1972 as a result of being in prison for his faith. He was in jail for two decades and his extreme passion eventually swayed his wife into following Jesus’ message.


Listen to his passion:


Realizing the effectiveness of Christ's blood in cleansing my sins and being overwhelmed by such love, I accepted him there. Previously I had laughed at people who had accepted Jesus, but that evening the experience became real for me …As I made my first prayer, I knew joy and peace such as I had never known before. Light seemed to flood the room and I said to the Lord, "Oh, Lord, you have indeed been gracious to me." — Watchman Nee, Watchman Nee's Testimony. 


Mr. Nee saw his particular calling was not to pass on a full religious tradition but to share the message of Jesus.


After my illness, God made it known to me that the primary purpose of His imparting messages to me was not for explaining the Scripture, … All that I have written has one aim, which is that the reader will, in the new creation, give himself wholly to God and become a useful person in His hands.


It is that kind of Jesus-like self-sacrifice that Watchman Nee demonstrated that has moved people in Japan. In some ways, Japan has been the most unreceptive to Christianity, but surprisingly eight of the Japanese prime ministers have been Christian! 


In his novel Silence, Japanese Christian author, Shusaku Endo offers a powerful insight into very heart of Christian love and sacrifice.


He writes a fictional account of the persecution of Christians in seventeenth-century Japan. In order to prove they are not Christians, those who are suspected are required to trample on a fume, a carved likeness of Christ. If they do not trample the image, they will be brutally killed. Those who do trample it in order to save their lives live with deep shame. As the story climaxes, a young Jesuit missionary has been betrayed to the officials, and he is staring at a fumie. The face he sees in the carving is filled with exhaustion and sorrow. As the young missionary continues to stare at the fumie, the voice of Christ speaks to him. With astonishing grace, Christ tells him to trample the image, because to be trampled on is why Christ is there…  Patrick W. T. Johnson


As Christians in today’s world in New York City we can learn a tremendous amount from the story of Christianity in East Asia. It begins with a fundamental truth Peter realized, “God shows no partiality.” This means respecting each person. But at times that has led us in this country to deemphasize Jesus. That instinct grows from our desire to not replicate disdain shown by some Christians throughout history and even in our time. But the witness of the growth of Christianity in places like China and Korea show us that that is fundamentally wrong. What makes Christianity unique and strong is not our doctrine, it’s not our organizational capacity, but it is Jesus Himself.  Amen.

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