Monday, July 28, 2008

Bible Study Group: Gospel & Persecution

Yesterday’s Bible Study group was huge. There were 12 of them! I have always prefer to have a small group of about 5-6, or 8 the most, because I think a smaller group is better for discussion and sharing.

And what’s worst is that the topic was on the persecution faced by the nascent church as recorded in Acts 5. You might ask, “why worst?”

First, the group’s age is 19-20. Second, most of them are from decent middle-class families. Third, all of them are urbanized Christians which is without material lacking.

Hence I was rather helpless to think of a way to connect the situation of the 1st century troubled church to this group of 21st century cosmopolitan youths! How to connect?!?

I couldn’t bridge the gap.

So, as the Cantonese proverb goes “Tin Tit Lok Lei Tong Pei Kham” (when the heavens fell down, just treat it as a blanket), I went ahead and asked the group to read the Acts 5 passage. Then we turned to the questionnaires which were handed out to us.

Question 1, “what does 2 Timothy 3.12 teach about persecution?”

After hearing that question myself, I went, “Oh no, why the question is referring to 2 Timothy?! I thought this is on Acts 5??”. Bringing in another different passage doesn’t help!

Hence, while maintaining my cool, I asked the group to read the 2 Timothy passage and what do they think about “persecution”.

At that time, I was very sceptical, “how could a 19 year-old, middle-class, urbanized Christian relates to a 1st century religious-socio-political persecution?”

I was glad that Han Siang broke the silence. He said that in NS, there are peers who would laugh at your being a Christian. I looked at him and smile and thought to myself, “at least there is someone responding.”

Then I shared a personal experience how my non-believing friend ridicule my belief. Then I told them that that kind of ‘persecution’ is only very mild compared to what the early Christians had to go through. Then the group went silent. “Shit,” I nervously whispered to myself, “I must have said something wrong!”

So, in haste, I directed the group to the next question: What does the phrase “the words of this life” refer too? (vv.20-21).

“Oh no, how am I going to facilitate this question interestingly and relevantly to these people?”, my mind puzzled. I really wonder how would the group respond to it. So I quickly picked someone to answer. He said “’the words of this life’ is the eternal word of God”. And I went, “er……….”

Silent loomed the circle. So, again in haste, I moved the group to the next question: What action did the apostles take with these ‘words’? (vv.25-26)

As the question was being read, I observed the members and can’t help but to notice that everyone has this sign on their forehead, “I should be at home playing PS3 now”.

At that point, I felt as if I had gone deeper into the mud hole because in order to answer this question, we have to assume that we know what the ‘words’ means in the first place. Then, again, I quickly picked Chia Leng to answer it while I tried to squeeze my brain to come out with something that will interest the group.

She answered, by alluding to the stated passage, ”The apostles preach it.” And at that moment, I naturally asked the whole group, “What then was the gospel that the apostles were preaching?”

As the question was being uttered from my lips, I knew that this is it. This is where the Holy Spirit might stir these people’s heart in interest.

“You all talk about the ‘gospel’ all this while, but do you know what is it? What is this gospel that keep you coming to church, do good, loving your neighbours as yourselves?” I asked.

I pushed the group to respond. I picked randomly for their opinion. Some said that the gospel is “salvation”, some said that it is “good news”, some said that it is “hope”, and so on. And I told the group that all of their understanding of the gospel is secondary. What I was asking is the primary meaning of the “gospel”.

“What is the gospel that you all have been believing in and living by?”, I asked provocatively again. I wanted to let the question sink into their soul, prick their conscience, and stir their passion.

Now the group started to be intrigued. They were silent and looked puzzled at first. Then they looked challenged. Then they started to inquire what then is the gospel if it is not all that had been said.

With gladness, I shared, ”the word gospel is not identical with how we understand it today. When the word “gospel” was used, it is just a normal term referring to a kind of good news. In the ancient time, whenever a city is being conquered by Rome, the envoy or messenger will go around cities to proclaim the “gospel”. And their gospel is a proclamation of victory of the Romans over the conquered land.”

“In other words, whenever you receive the gospel in that time, you have to subject to the Roman ruler and pay your taxes to them. Hence when the gospel writers use the word “gospel”, they were subverting the political powers of their time. So, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the proclamation of Jesus’ victory over the conquered world, where all authority in heavens and on earth are given to him.”

“And because of that, whenever the apostles were preaching the gospel of Jesus, they were being persecuted. For their proclamation is a public subversion to the existing religious and political powers of their time. That was why the early Christians were being imprisoned, flogged, and persecuted. And all those secondary meaning such as hope, salvation etc comes underneath this good news.” All the N.T Wright's stuffs.

The group was then able to understand why the early church went through what they went through. And the group realize how subversive the gospel is even in today’s world. When I asked them for any further questions or comments or remarks, Han Yi said insightfully, “that means, in the first place, the gospel of Jesus is not a private religion like the one that we thought it is. The gospel is a public subversive declaration of Jesus being the authority of the entire world, even in today’s world.” And I can’t help but to say, “Amen”.

Then I realized that the way to connect the group with the persecution experienced by the early Christians is not by drawing similarity between them, but by pointing to the often-overlooked primary meaning of the gospel which has been almost lost among ourselves today.

And it is only through our understanding of the powerful, subversive, and courageous proclamation of the gospel that we realize why did the early churches were persecuted. And such understanding comes with a question: Are we able to proclaim such message today? If so, how?

I believe these questions are significant to be explored. But, for the time being, we should allow the gospel to sink into us; judge, examine, provoke, and challenge us, so that when we answer these questions, we do it meaningfully. To paraphrase Rowan Williams, when we approach the gospel, we are confronted by a decisive No, and an everlasting Yes.


Kar Yong said...

Well done!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi KY,

Thank you for the encouragement and affirmation :)