Grace Presbyterian Church
November 17, 2019 (Joint Worship ServIce of GPC and Gainesville Korean Presbyterian Church)
My years at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia coincided with the last years Syngman Rhee spent there. Rhee was the widely respected religious leader who, after having to flee North Korea at the outbreak of the Korean War, became among other things a Christian educator pastor, a mission director for the United Presbyterian Church, a leader in the National Council of Churches, and a moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in 2000. He had spent a number of years at Union before retiring, but still frequently found his way into the life and work of the school. After his death in 2015 the seminary established the Syngman Rhee Global Mission Center for Christian Education in his honor.
My main memories of him come from two chapels in which he participated while I was there. Preaching at one service, he somehow made his way in his message to the song from the movie version of The Sound of Music, “Something Good”, when Julie Andrews and a soundtrack singer dubbed in for Christopher Plummer sang:
Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth (or childhood), I must’ve done something good
As he continued, the moment quickly became a giant sing-a-long, as the whole chapel – seminary students and faculty, visitors from a local Korean congregation, everybody – was singing along. When it was done, Syngman Rhee added a comment that was perfect for a seminary congregation: “Great song. But bad theology!”
The other moment came from a moment in the service of the Lord’s Supper. He began the observance of the sacrament with a common Invitation to the Table, found in PC(USA)’s Book of Common Worship, which opens:
Friends, this is the joyful feast of the people of God!
They will come from east and west, and from north and south,
And sit at table in the kingdom of God.
Again, it was a common liturgical formula; I had probably heard it dozens of times by this point in my seminary career. But it was different, at least for me, this time.
He began the prayer, in his deliberate and precise English. All was normal, you might say, until he came to say “They will come from east and west, and from north and south…” He paused, and said again, even more deliberately, “North … and South…”
If you were connected to Union at all, you knew Syngman Rhee and his background. It might have been something that happened every time he led the Lord’s Supper, for all that I know, but for those of us who hadn’t heard that moment before, never had those words – North … and South – resonated quite so powerfully as when spoken by this man who knew from hard first-hand experience what it meant for North and South to be separated, unable to come to the table together.
The oft-repeated and theologically correct assertion that we are all one in Christ should never be allowed to cloud our recognition that we come to the table of communion, or the table of feasting and fellowship as we will after this service, with vastly different experiences of the world, or to forget how our faith is driven and challenged by those different experiences of the world. It would be extremely arrogant of me to expect a Christian, even a fellow Presbyterian, to have exactly the same faith experience as me when that person has come from a situation such as that which produced Syngman Rhee. Open warfare between north and south in this country was more than a hundred and fifty years ago, not merely sixty-six years. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, yes, but that faith speaks many different languages and lives and learns many different stories.
For all of that, it seems like the Lord likes it that way. Indeed, today’s reading from Acts almost seems to suggest that God deliberately made it happen that way.
The Philip who appears in today’s reading was not the disciple by that name, rather, he was one of the seven “deacons” who were appointed earlier in Acts when the size and diversity of the emerging Christian community in Jerusalem was getting too large for the disciples to handle. In one of the most dismissive-sounding verses in all of scripture, Acts 6:2 records that the disciples wanted the community to choose seven from among themselves because “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables.” One of those seven chosen was Stephen, who became the first Christian martyr in chapter 7, and another was this Philip, who was among the many Christians scattered due to the wave of persecution that broke out after Stephen’s death. He had ended up in Samaria, that rival region in which Jesus had broken all sorts of taboos by speaking with a woman at a well. Philip had proclaimed the good news there and many had believed, so many that the disciples sent Peter and John to look into what was going on.
In the end, the Lord gave Philip an odd set of instructions: to go south, out into a wilderness, and wait by a particular road. Strange and unsafe as that must have sounded, Philip did so, and sure enough a big fancy chariot came by. Its passenger was a high court official to a queen of the “Ethiopians” (at that time a term for pretty much all of sub-Saharan Africa, including but not limited to the region of modern-day Ethiopia, a region that represented the known boundaries of the world as far as many in the first century Mediterranean basin knew). The Lord tells Philip to go up to the chariot, and he does.
It turns out this Ethiopian treasurer was reading from Isaiah, a passage at its most basic about someone unjustly killed. When the illustrious traveler asks who this might be, Philip’s mind says, “unjustly killed? I know who that sounds like!”, and he proceeds to tell the story of Jesus. By the time the chariot comes to an unlikely water source, the Ethiopian is all ready to get baptized, and Philip does the job. The Ethiopian heads home rejoicing, while Philip “found himself” at a town called Azotus, where he kept on preaching. We never hear of the Ethiopian again.
On the other hand, one of the earliest places for Christianity to take root, outside of the Mediterranean basin where most of Acts takes place, was that region of sub-Saharan Africa in and around modern-day Ethiopia. Hmm. Christianity has been in Ethiopia about seven times as long as the United States has existed. And the Lord sure seems to have done a lot of intervening to get that to happen. Also, none of the original twelve apostles was involved. On the other hand, Philip, one of those commissioned to “wait on tables,” turned out to be a key messenger in fulfilling Acts 1:8 – “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (emphasis mine).
Our Ethiopian treasurer, as far as we know, took his newly-found faith home with him, and became a seed, maybe one of many, of what has been one of the most enduring Christian traditions on earth.
The Christian church in Europe for centuries, and in the United States as well, has had a bad habit of assuming that a Christian church, no matter where it might be planted, was somehow not “real” unless it looked at least somehow like or somehow did the same things or sang the same songs or preached the same way as the church “back home.” The good and right urge to proclaim the good news to all the world often got mixed up with the less salutary urge to reproduce and replicate the same church in this new place as was back in the home country. We weren’t always good at letting the Spirit do its work, we here in this country.
Now the situation is different. The rapidly shrinking church in Europe really doesn’t have much claim to tell the church anywhere else in the world how to do anything, and the church in this country is now at a point where it should probably do a lot more listening and maybe less telling. We need to listen to a church that knows what it is to be in a state of war for nearly seventy years across a common border; we need to listen to a church, like that in the Philippines, that has seen some of the world’s largest and deadliest typhoons roar across its territory again and again and again on a planet gone completely out of whack; to a church like that in Cuba and numerous other countries, finding a way to survive and keep worshiping under the rule of a hostile dictatorship; we need to listen to the whole church and remember that we are not the whole church.
We need to listen, because it is God’s doing and God’s desire, apparently, that the church be this way – a crazy quilt of nations and peoples flung across the world, with all the different languages and all the different songs and all the different prayers in the service and foods at the table of fellowship. When missionaries and doctors and witnesses of all types spread across country and world, it is the Spirit leading and fulfilling that vision of the whole of humanity in all its messy and confusing glory.
And our job is to enjoy it and glorify God for it, to celebrate and give thanks to the God who gives salvation to all without regard to the borders and barriers we create.
It was sixty years ago that the scholar and hymn writer Erik Routley wrote of the need to re-cast the relationship of the European-American church and the church in South America, Africa, and Asia as one of partnership rather than paternalistic missionary endeavor. The need for this re-conception remains as strong as ever. Our two churches stand as partners in the work of proclaiming the Lord’s name; one church does not lord it over the other. The more quickly we learn the street really does run both ways, the sooner our witness will grow.
For partnership in faith and witness, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #839, Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!; #625, O Lord My God (How Great Thou Art); #383, Dream On, Dream On; #103, Come Now, O Prince of Peace (O-So-So)
 Erik Routley, Ecumenical Hymnody. London: Independent Press. 1959. 1st ed. Contains the substance of an address which was given to the Council of British Missionary Societies at Edinburgh House on 2nd November 1956.