Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, February 11, 2013


 (Sermon delivered by Fred Vergara at the induction and institution of the Rev. William Bulson as rector of St. Alban’s Parish in Tokyo, Japan 2/9/2013 by the Rt. Rev. Andrew Ohata, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Tokyo, Nippon Sei Kokai). 

I first heard this from Dean Ian Markham of Virginia Theological Seminary (which I just embellish), but a story is told of a large asteroid hurtling down to planet earth. It would take only a week before the devastating impact would take place. It would mean the end of the world. So as world leaders and geopoliticians pondered on what last words they can say to their peoples, clergy leaders also compared notes on what biblical text they would preach on the last day of their lives.

The Pentecostal preacher said, “I will preach on Acts 1:3, ‘And you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Wow, that is a great text because we may have the power to stop the end of the world. The Baptist preacher said, “I will preach on John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”  Well, that is a great text, for in light of impending death, we must give the hope of the resurrection. The Roman Catholic preacher said, “I will preach on Matthew 16:18, which says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Well, that is also a great text, because it underscores the point that the Church was built upon the foundation of Jesus and the apostles.

All ears are now tuned to the Anglican priest. What choice text is he going to preach on? Without much ado, the Anglican said, “I will have to preach from the lectionary.”
Today is the induction of my good friend, William Bulson, as the new rector of St. Alban’s Parish in Tokyo and I wanted to preach on Isaiah 6:8 where Isaiah heard the voice of God, saying, “Whom shall we send and who will go for us?” And Isaiah’s response being, “Here I am Lord, send me.”
But I am an incorrigible Anglican and so is William---so is Bishop Andrew Oohata---and we are all preachers from the book, the Anglican Prayer Book. So forget about Isaiah 6:8--- I will have to preach from the lectionery. 

Lectionary: “Martyrs of Japan” (Gal 2:19-20; Mark 8:34-38)
And the lectionary readings today are in reference to the “martyrs of Japan.” I learned from today’s bulletin that Bishop Andrew is a “celebrated comedian” and it seems to me there is a bit of divine humor here,  that William’s induction coincides with the commemoration of these 26 martyrs, who on February 5, 1597 were executed  by crucifixion. They were six European Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese laymen including three young boys. They were raised on crosses and then pierced through with spears and samurai.
There were many more martyrs during the era of the Shogun in the 17th century when Christianity was banned in Japan. Japanese Christians showed extraordinary courage and accepted martyrdom as witness to their faith. Many of them were executed in the most painful ways imaginable, in order to try to frighten the other Christians, into apostatizing. 

“They were crucified, decapitated, flayed alive, dismembered, stoned, poisoned with hellish toxins, impaled, forcibly drowned or abandoned in ocean depths, boiled in oil, burned alive, tossed into an active volcano, or — what was considered the most painful of all — hung by the ankles in a pit with weights hanging from one's upper jaw, so that for three days they would be both excruciatingly distended and gradually asphyxiated.” (Fr. Roger Landry - December 12, 2008, Wikipedia)

Now, this is not really a pleasant story to tell during an induction ceremony but maybe there are some important lessons we learn from this history. Let me share at least three:
William knows that I am a three-point preacher. One time, I was asked by a youth member, ‘Father, why do you always have three points in your sermon? And I replied, Three reasons: first, I am a Trinitarian; second, I am a third child is my family; third, survey says that the most that people remember are three points.” My old bishop once told me, “there are three things you lose when you grow old; the first is your hair, the second is your memory, the third? I can’t remember.” 

The best three points sermon was done by John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded the Methodist Church and it was about money. Wesley said, “First point, we must earn as much money as we can,” and all Anglicans said, Amen.” Second point, “we must save as much money as we can.” And all Anglicans said, “Amen.” Third, point, Wesley said, “We must give as much money as we can.” And all Anglicans prayed, “Lord, have mercy.”

Okay, now I remember: Three Lessons we learn on martyrdom:

First lesson: The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
We are here today because the Christians before us have given their lives as a supreme offering. The martyrs of Japan were followers of Jesus who understood the cost of discipleship. They literally obeyed the words of Jesus "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Their deeds shall not perish in our memory.

Second Lesson: The Christian witness is a witness to the crucified Christ.
Kanzo Kitamori was the first Japanese theologian who expressed the experience of the Japanese people as the “theology of the pain of God.” Kitamori used the Japanese word, “itami” to describe the pain of God from the experience of the Japanese, especially after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kitamori was the teacher of my own teacher, Kosuke Koyama. Koyama differentiated between a crusading mind and a crucified mind in relation to the history of Christianization in Asia. 

The crusading mind comes to Asia as a conquering spirit, as a colonizing spirit, as an imperialistic spirit of the Western culture and civilization. It tells of the coming of Portuguese and Spanish Catholicism in the form of the Cross and the Sword. It tells of the coming of German, Dutch and British Protestantism as Western superiority and a “teacher-complex.” It tells of American Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in form of individualism, televangelism and prosperity theology. 

The crusading mind came to Asia not to listen but to conquer; not to learn but only to teach; not to unite but to divide.  The crusading mind is a "superiority complex" and a "teacher complex." Christianity, according to Koyama, has not gained much headway in Japan and Asia, because it came from the crusading mind. Christians “crusaded” against Asians.

In contrast to the crusading mind is the crucified mind. The crucified mind comes in humility, patience, suffering and grace. Koyama and Kitamori believed that it is not the crusading mind but the crucified mind that will be risen in Asia and in Japan. 

Third Lesson: Christianity is not a tourist but a pilgrim.  
Koyama said a tourist rushes but a pilgrim walks. A pilgrim walks with God and walks with God’s people. God walked in the history of Israel wandering in the wilderness. Koyama estimated God walking with Israel for forty years in the desert of Sinai and concluded that the speed of God is approximately “three-mile an hour.” It is a slow speed because it is an inner speed, a spiritual speed, a speed of love.

God’s walk with God’s people finally came to a full-stop in the person of Jesus Christ’s God’s only Son, when he totally stopped on the cross. God-in-Christ was nailed on the Cross as a substitute for us.The cross of Christ can be interpreted in so many ways, but the one truth that stands out, is that Christ won the victory for us, by accepting defeat. Dying on the cross, Christ opened the way of peace, the way of truth, the way to the Father, the way to everlasting life.

Bill, please stand up... William, my brother, God in Christ Jesus, has called you here in Tokyo, not necessarily to become a martyr (you may breathe a sigh of relief) for that was already done by Jesus and by the martyrs of Japan. But God has called you to become a fellow pilgrim of the Japanese people, particularly with the Diocese of Tokyo and more particularly by the parish of St. Albans. You will learn how to walk with them, in their history, in their struggle, in their destiny. Walk with them gently, walk with them slowly, first to listen and only then to teach, teach with patience and teach with humility.

It is not the crusading spirit that will rule your words and action but the crucified spirit. It is the crucified spirit that will rise, that will give new life and hope. Because Jesus died for us and rose again, you and your people, God’s People,  can face tomorrow. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


(Sermon of the Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Tokyo, Japan. 02.10.2013)

Texts: Exodus 34:29-35; 1 Corinthians 12: 27-13:13Luke 9:28-36 (and 1st Kings 18)

We live in a world of diversity. The cities of the world are fast becoming global communities. Peoples of various races, tongues, cultures and religions live as neighbors in a global village. In New York City where I live, there are as many as 200 languages spoken within a three-mile radius. When I ride in the subway train, I am in dialogue with people from races, cultures, religions and ideologies.

Here in Tokyo, there is a clear predominance of Japanese in the subways, but from time to time, I would notice some Europeans and other Asians. Maybe they are expatriates, maybe they are tourists, maybe they are migrant workers. As the city grows into the 21st century, and as migration and tourism continue, Tokyo may also one day become a multiracial and multicultural city. How are we to live together as community? How are we to understand our differences, our uniqueness and be able to embrace our diversity in harmony and peace?

A story is told of an extra-terrestrial bird that came from outer space and landed in Queens, the most diverse district in New York City. The first ones to catch the bird were the Native Americans, and they worshipped the bird. Then it flew to the Anglo-European-Americans, and they studied the bird. Then it flew to the Black or African-Americans and they sang and danced around the bird; then it flew to the Hispanic or Latino-Americans and they celebrated and had a fiesta around the bird. Finally it went to the Asian-Americans and they cooked the bird.

The Gospel this morning, which we often called as the Transfiguration Story, presents to us three personalities: Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Which of them shall become the role model of people living in a world of diversity? Which of them would truly be able to embrace diversity and transcend the boundary of races, cultures and religions?

It is interesting to note that Moses lived to be 120 years old. The story of his life can be divided into three chapters of 40 years. Chapter I: “Moses Thought He Was a Somebody.” He thought he was a prince, son of the queen of Egypt. Chapter II: “Moses Found Out He Was a Nobody.” He found out he was a slave, son of a Hebrew woman. Chapter III: “Moses Realized What God Can Do to a Nobody.” God called him out from the burning bush and gave him the power to liberate his people from their bondage in Egypt. He led his people to cross the Red Sea, gave them the Law, then wandered in the desert of Sinai and finally showed them the Promised Land, the “land of milk and honey.”

The story of Moses, written in the Book of Exodus, is oftentimes used and hailed as a story of liberation of oppressed peoples. The Latin American liberation theology, for instance, is an adaptation of the stories of the struggle of oppressed peoples seeking economic, social and political liberation. But on closer look, the Exodus Story is actually a story of a wandering people in search of a land, which finally, by God’s help they were able to find. The problem is, in the land that God showed them, there were already people living there. So the story of Moses’ liberation which Moses began would find its fulfillment in Joshua who crossed the River Jordan and would conquer the land from the Philistines. In that succeeding story of invasion and conquests, there will be winners and losers. From the perspective of Israelites today, Moses (and Joshua) were heroes; but from the perspective of the Palestinians, Moses (and Joshua) were terrorists and invaders. 

This context is similar to the history of the United States: from the perspective of the Puritan pilgrims and the first Anglo-European (cowboys), Exodus is a story of possessing the land. But from the perspective of the Native Americans (Indians), Exodus is a story of losing their lands.

ELIJAH. Elijah is reckoned as a great man of prayer. He was a miracle worker. He was able to multiply bread and olive oil. When he prayed that there would be no rain, the heavens obeyed and withheld the rain. When he prayed that there would be rain, the heavens released the waters. Elijah was a great prophet who could touch the heart of God and could the power of the Almighty by the waving of his cloak and the strength of his faith.

But there was something extreme about Elijah and it was about his overzealousness. On Mount Carmel, Elijah dueled with the false prophets of Baal. Baal was the god of fertility in the land of Canaan. Ahab was the king of Israel who married Jezebel, a wicked woman from the perspective of Elijah. Queen Jezebel persecuted the prophets of God and employed hundreds of Baal prophets. This enraged Elijah, who prophesied against Ahab and Jezebel and challenged Israel for “limping in two opinions.” Finally, he challenged the Baal prophets to a spiritual duel, on who can solve the drought and bring back the rain. In that contest at Mount Carmel, Elijah won.

It would have ended the story but Elijah did not stop there. He ordered Israel to have all the prophets of Baal killed. “Let no one them escape,” he commanded.  After that massacre, Elijah ran for his own life because Jezebel promised to retaliate. He hid in the cave, expecting God would come and congratulate him. But there was no applause and there was no patting on the back. God was not in the earthquake, God was not in the wind, and God was not in the fire. Instead, God was in the still small voice. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” This was the same Voice who asked Adam when he sinned, “Adam, where are you?” This was the same Voice who asked Cain when he killed his brother, “Cain, where is thy brother?”

JESUS. Moses and Elijah were great heroes of the faith but they cannot become models for living in a community of diversity. Only Jesus can. The Bible tells us that Jesus achieved reconciliation by way of the Cross. The Cross of Jesus symbolizes two dimensions: the vertical and horizontal. It talks about love of God and love of neighbor. The vertical love of God is penultimate; and the horizontal love of neighbor is unconditional. 

The model of living in diverse community is Jesus Christ. He has broken the walls of division that separate us from one another. Man or woman, slave or free, black or white, rich or poor, straight or gay. God in Christ accepted us. As a Sunday School song says, “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world; Black and yellow, brown and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” 

The grace of God offered by Christ is free, but it is not cheap. It cost the life of Jesus and demands that we follow His example in offering our lives in love and service to one another. Yes, Jesus accepts our diversity and expects us to do the same. He is the Prince of Peace who embraces us through the Cross of Calvary.  Christ embraced us unconditionally; let us embrace one another also. Amen.