This year is the Year of the Sheep or Ram. In Chinese thought the ram is associated with energy and strength, so we trust that this coming year may be filled with God’s gift of energy and strength for us all. As one gets older these characteristics take on greater importance, but God is gracious and good. He gives us the energy we need day by day for whatever he purposes in our lives. As Christians of course we think immediately of Jesus as the Lamb of God who has sacrificed himself for our sins and who gives us his new life of strength and energy. As his followers we are his sheep and he cares for us and leads us into the green pastures we need.
Yesterday evening the East Asian students at All Nations Christian College laid on a celebratory evening meal in traditional Chinese fashion – even with a humorous lion dance!
They had cooked a superb dinner for the whole college, explained the traditions of Chinese New Year and had a variety of amusing inputs. They were also dressed in traditional costume, so we also dressed up. Elizabeth wore a lovely old red Chinese robe which had belonged to her mother when they worked in China in the early years of the 20th century. I went in a slim grey embroidered robe which had been presented to me by the Indian churches which Elizabeth’s great-grandparents started in Maharashtra back in the 1840s. Altogether a lovely evening. It is such a joy and privilege still to be associated with the college, relating not only to our friends on the staff there but also to the rich variety of students from so many different countries in every continent. The British students too are generally excited at how relevant the cross-cultural training is for multi-ethnic and culturally fast-changing Britain.
A friend of ours is just starting a training course on Church History. The syllabus shocked us, it is so entirely European in its approach. It reminded me of the church history teaching I learned at theological college nearly sixty years ago. It assumes that the church has been entirely European until some brave western missionaries took the Gospel overseas to the other continents. This view stresses the significance of Carey as the pioneer of such outreach.
In our globalised world it is vital that we emphasise also the worldwide spread of the Gospel throughout history. Christianity is not fundamentally a western faith – it has always from its very inception been international. Of course the New Testament stresses how the totally Jewish beginnings quickly widened to include non-Jews in the community of faith. It seems that the apostle Thomas founded the churches in Kerala, India which have developed into the great Mar Thoma churches.
A few years ago I was invited to teach the revival movement in Armenia about Islam to help them in their mission work among Muslims. According to tradition the church there was begun through Jesus’ disciple Nathanael. It was a privilege to visit one church which had been built in 301, only about twenty years before Frumentius began his witness and the start of the church in Ethiopia. Evidence of the church in China dates back to the 600s and reminds us of the tremendous spread of the Gospel through the Persian Nestorians in those early centuries. Their people also followed the Silk Route not only to China, but also starting the church in the Central Asian republics and Afghanistan. They even reached Sumatra in Indonesia.
The Nestorian Stele, created in 781, describes the introduction of Nestorian Christianity to China
In studying European church history it is also helpful to note the struggle with tribal religions in our different countries. It took several centuries to bring all the British tribes fully into the Christian faith. And that is even more true for France and Germany. Scandinavia did not accept the faith of Christ until 1,000 A.D. and the slavic peoples of eastern Europe only received the good news in the second half of the ninth century.
And in our day we witness the tremendous growth of God’s church in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For some years already these churches have become the heart of the Christian faith. They demonstrate a dynamism, vibrant faith and growth which our European churches could well benefit from. How good it is to note how these churches are beginning to gain a vision for mission to our European peoples.
May God grant us in Europe new life and growth in his church! Will it come through our sisters and brothers from overseas?