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.

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