Bible Study no.3: John 18:28-38, 20: 21-22
‘To whom do you bend your knee in times of darkness? Rediscovering God’s faithfulness for prophetic witness in Asia.’
This Asia Mission Conference stands in a long line of conferences on mission going back to the 1910 World Missionary Conference. But why have there been over 100years of Conferences focussed on mission? Is the 19th century focus on mission which inspired the western missionary churches’ missions in Asia still the theological priority for Asian churches today? Have we in Asia made ‘mission’ our god, believing our commitment to social justice, peace and the integrity of creation was the sum total of what it means to give prophetic witness? John’s gospel is clear: our calling is to worship God as the source of our freedom and that ‘all things came into being through God’s Word’ (1:4). John proclaims unequivocally that our worship of the Word is a life and death matter (1:5). So in this Bible study, I also testify to how God’s faithfulness in the life and death struggles of my life and ministry has re-formed me and renewed me as a prophetic witness to the Truth and Life in Asia.
The 1910 Conference had1215 delegates. More than a thousand were from Britain or America, only 170 were from the rest of Europe and there was one from Asia.Yet today, Anglican and Protestant churches in the UK and America are in significant decline. What does the decline of western missionary churches evident today have to say to our conference about the history of mission and ‘the light of life’ in Asia? The greatest personal challenge of my life and ministry was how to trust the light of life when the darkness threatened to take my life. I believe this is where our study will take us if we are being called by the sovereign Word to prophetic witness to the Word’s truth and life.
The darkness spoken of in John 8:12 is revealed in chapter 18 to be the darkness of violence and death, and this is the darkness that encloses Jesus as he stands before Pilate. The darkness solidifies around the religious establishment’s collusion with the pagan Roman Empire (18:28), collusion for the sole purpose of protecting privileges that Jewish leaders had extracted from their conquerors (11:50). The gospel’s silence about the absence of witnesses for Jesus highlights how the forces of darkness isolate Jesus and reveal the depth of his abandonment.
The power of darkness even destabilises Pilot. For a moment, the Roman governor is on trial, and we see how shallow he is (18:38). The only power Pilate has to save his position is to order Jesus’ crucifixion. This final step is only taken after the Jewish leaders abandon their faith and declare allegiance to the pagan Emperor-god. ‘We have no king but the emperor’ (19:15). Their blasphemy seals what they believed was their God-given ‘mission’, to ensure the survival of their religious community. Blinded by their idolatry, they succumb to the worship of the pagan Emperor-god to achieve their religious purpose. They have bought into the self-serving ideology of ‘pax ‘Romana’, believing they can only achieve their mission to maintain their religious community under the ‘peace’ provided by the violence of the pagan Roman Empire.
John 18:28-38 helps us understand the Hebrew tradition of prophetic witness in which Jesus stood. In the face of the religious leaders’ idolatry, Jesus’ stand before Pilate is prophetic. Unlike the religious leaders, Jesus does not bow to the pagan empire and its ideology of peace through violent conquest. He asserts that his mission is not grounded in this world and its politics (18:36), indeed, his life and mission is from God. Prophetic witness begins with resistance to idolatry and the absolute claims of militarism, nationalism, racism and more.
Today, the modern world’s Enlightenment faith in rational reasoning that underpins globalised economies and western powers is raised to the level of idolatry. Pilate’s question ‘what is truth?’ (18:38) is today answered by science and technology: ultimate truth is found in ‘facts’. Perhaps the decline of western churches is the result of their captivity to western culture’s faith in science and growth to secure their status and prosperity? Our Diocese too often feels the burden of this captivity in our relationship with western mission partners. The truth of our common calling to prophetic witness in Christ seems too easily buried beneath western priorities of corporate governance, risk management, fiduciary responsibility, and national foreign policy dictates.
When John juxtaposes walking in darkness with having the light of life, he is witnessing to the truth that life in Christ (8:12) is stronger than the power of death. Yet Jesus is threatened with the most violent form of death, which serves the Empire’s purpose of keeping conquered peoples in the darkness of fear and subservience. After five days in a coma resulting from an assassination attempt on my life, I knew in an intensely personal way the fear that death-dealing violence evokes. I had received massive blows to the forehead, and a powerful machete blow to the leg. The hospital authorities said my chance of survival was 5 per cent. My life was in total darkness. But the gospel of Christ’s light promises to transform the darkness. How?
Only later I learned of the fervent prayer of my pastors, my family and friends, ecumenical colleagues, and partners around the world. The response of JDCSI pastors is unequivocal in their shared belief about what had happened. Many of them testified that a miracle of God’s grace had restored their Bishop to life. Through their prayer, had the darkness which enclosed me been penetrated with the light of life? Christ’s transforming light was not overcome (1:5). I am a witness with John to the hiddenness of Christ’s light at work in prayer, even in what appears to be total darkness.
Like the disciples who gathered in fear of those who used violence to achieve their aims, my mind was in turmoil. A good friend reassured me of my need to rest, and he promised to look into events that surfaced in my troubling memories. It was comforting, just as Jesus’ words to his traumatised followers addressed their fears. ‘Peace be with you’ (20:19). What treasure there is in the transforming light of comfort and peace, given in such acts of solidarity.
Then Jesus showed his disciples his hands and his side (20:20), his wounds from violence and hatred that now reveal the wholeness of resurrected life. My wife Thaya told me one morning I was talking in my sleep. She urged me to tell her what I could remember. With her gentle prompting, I first remembered a motorbike, then the pillion rider, and finally the man behind the rider who tried to stop my car. What grace God has given me that my wife had the courage and strength to listen to the pain-filled fear and hatred that inflicted my wounds, and by her acceptance, begin God’s work of holistic healing.
How shall the church minister justice in this violent and fearful world except that God’s people have the courage and faith to listen and respond compassionately to the wounds inflicted by those who hold onto power for their own security? What do we do in our mission conferences to nurture such courage and strength? Or does the importance of our mission push aside the human cost to those who attend to the wounds of prophetic witness?
Then Jesus spoke a miraculous truth. ’As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit’ (20:21-22). For the disciples, the blessing of Christ’s peace was miracle enough. They had shown themselves to be weak and overwhelmed with fear in betraying their Lord to face alone the death-dealing power of Empire. They hid away in fear and shame at their manifold sins. Yet Jesus had come to them – broken into their fear-filled shame – and blessed them. Then it is as if Jesus says, ‘I too was emptied of my power. I too was defeated and shamed in public. Yet the Father has renewed my life and now I am here to renew your life. Hear my truth. When you know the deepest weakness of your humanity, you may also know the life-giving power of God’s love and acceptance.’ How will we cultivate safe spaces to disclose our vulnerabilities and be renewed to let the Spirit shine through us into the darkness?
The first Sunday after coming home from hospital, I attended our Colombo church. I was invited to greet the congregation, and found myself preaching an extempore sermon on the Psalm for the day. People started to weep for I was suddenly remembering the incident. I remembered my car stopping. I told the driver not to stop. But he did. There were people outside the car and they tried to open my side door, but they couldn’t. So they dragged me through the driver’s side. They were using a small axe to chop me on my forehead. I tried to run, but they attacked me with an iron rod and attacked my leg, and I fell.
The Spirit of truth took me to a painful, terrifying and vulnerable place in my memory that I was unable to go to in my own strength. For the first time since being attacked, I began to connect God’s Word to my context of being the victim of violence. The brutal images that emerged in memory found a place of both acceptance and mercy in the context of scripture. Truthfully proclaimed, God’s Word transforms both preacher and congregation. Yet where do our conferences nurture preaching God’s Word in the midst of the spiritual darkness of our idolatries?
In traditional Jewish belief, only God could forgive sins. Now John’s testimony is that Christ conferred that power on his followers (20:23). When the violence and hatred of the world plunged my life into darkness, God’s Spirit came to me through preaching a text I barely knew and in this act of preaching, all that had been broken within me began to be made new. Forgiveness puts things right with God, neighbour and self. So it is also for our Diocese. We have received from the Holy Spirit the truth that calls us to the ministry of reconciliation in our woundedness and the woundedness of our war-weary nation. It is a joy to have received Singhalese pastors and people into our Diocese, to open new institutions ministering to Singhalese orphans, and to dedicate new churches for Singhalese-speaking congregations.
There is much more I could give thanks for, but my invitation is to direct you to the good news John proclaims about how Christ has come to reform us personally and corporately for prophetic witness to his truth and light. If I did not know the transformation Christ has worked in my life through my encounter with the darkness of our world’s violence and hatred, how could I bear prophetic witness to you, to our Diocese, to our nation? I am convinced that we will only receive the grace to respond to God’s faithfulness to us when we more intentionally confess our weakness and our failures before Christ, and wait on his transforming light to speak God’s Word for our personal and corporate life. Then perhaps we may address in conferences of the Asian church these critical questions I have highlighted in the text. I look forward to sharing your responses to these questions.
The United Church of Christ in the US had, at the time of its formation over 2 million members and now its membership is less than one million. UK Methodism has experienced a membership decline of one-third in the ten years to 2013.Of these, 69 percent are aged 66 or older. In the UK Anglican Church membership has dropped below 1 million people for the first time.