Wednesday, 14 December 2016

A brother I never knew

So it is with Christ… we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 26

I read a couple of days ago about a Chinese Christian who had died in prison.

Nothing particularly new there, you might think. No indeed. But the news item struck me forcibly, because his name was Peng Ming, and over the last two years I have sent him occasional cards and letters, and prayed systematically for him.

I knew about him through a Christian organisation that lobbies for persecuted Christians (and others) in many parts of the world. It encourages us in the western world to make contact with people like Peng Ming in order to let them know that they are not forgotten.

He will never read my short note; I wrote it on November 28 and he died, it seems, on November 29. I don’t even know if earlier messages ever reached him; who knows what Chinese prison authorities do with prisoners’ mail?

But in a strange sort of way I feel that I almost knew him – even though my background, my upbringing, my language, just about everything about me in fact, are totally different from his.

Paul tells us that “we are all baptised by one Spirit into one body”. That truth immediately connects me, in England, with Peng Ming, in China. And with every other person too on the face of the earth who believes in the name of Jesus. This blog I write: it doesn’t get that many “hits” – but just in the last week or so there have been visits from Oman, from Ireland, from France, from Canada; even, in the more distant past, from Venezuela, from Russia, from Nigeria (and… yes, from China).

And so, a question: how wide is your understanding of that word “church”?

I am afraid that for many of us it means little more than the building we go to on Sundays, and the people we meet there. But this is hopelessly inadequate. The church is the world-wide body of Christ, and all who belong to it are brothers and sisters. Talk to any missionary you meet (they know far more about this than I do!) and they will tell you of the massive privilege they feel in actually working among, worshipping with, and laughing and crying with fellow-believers from the four corners of the earth.

And the church extends across time as well as place. I know, for example, that the old hymns from centuries gone by are well out of fashion now in many churches, but I still love to sing some of them.

There was a man called Bianco da Siena, about whom I know next to nothing (except that he died around 1400). He wrote a favourite of mine: “Come down, O love divine,/ Seek thou this soul of mine.” Translated in the nineteenth century, it contains the beautiful words: “Let holy charity/ Mine outward vesture be,/ And lowliness become mine inner clothing…” Archaic language perhaps – but isn’t that a prayer we can still pray today?

Bianco da Siena’s life will have been as remote from mine as Peng Ming’s; yet he too is a brother in Christ. We still need his voice and his testimony, along with the witness of the untold millions who have gone before us down through two thousand years. This is what is called, in the ancient creeds of the church, “the communion of saints” (yes, every Christian is a “saint”!). God forgive us if we let our perception of the church become so shrivelled, so parochial, so limited!

A little later in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes on to say that, if one part of that body suffers, “every part suffers with it.

Well, it would be ridiculous for me to claim to have suffered much with Peng Ming, but I certainly feel it was a privilege to know about him, and to try and do something, however tiny, to extend the hand of Christian friendship. The fact is that those of us who know virtually nothing about suffering for Jesus’ sake are in a small minority when set against the backdrop of the world-wide, centuries-spanning body of Jesus.

So why not take another look at John’s great vision in Revelation 7:9 – the “great multitude that no-one could count… standing before the throne”? That’s you, and me, and the whole universal church of Jesus Christ, God’s crucified, risen and ascended Son, who will one day return in glory.

Let’s lift up our eyes beyond our little local church, however important that certainly is, for we all need one another.

And why not visit the website of an organisation such as I have mentioned to get your vision widened, your prayers informed, your heart stirred – and your hands working?

Lord God, thank you for your universal church, the body of Christ, spanning all the centuries and stretching across all the continents. Help me to be more worthy to be part of it, until that day when I stand in that countless crowd before the throne of the Lamb. Amen.

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