The Kingdom of God Is a Matter of Eating and Drinking Together

Bernard Wong 

Associate Professor (Theological Studies)
Associate Dean

 


Some people say that church fellowship is a place for eating and drinking. They even jokingly point out that if you take the Chinese character component “mouth” (口)around the first Chinese character of “fellowship”(团契), and put it next to its second character, you will get a new Chinese word(专喫), which literally means “expertise in eating”. Then fellowship in Chinese would mean a group that is specialized in eating. This statement seems to insinuate that Christian fellowship is just a place for socializing, and there is nothing spiritual about it. However, in the “Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia” I participated in recent years, the organizers emphasized that we must eat and drink together. This annual gathering brings together Christians from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the United States to explore the topic of reconciliation. Unlike other meetings, this Forum is not only about exchanging biblical and theological ideas, but also about journeying together as companions towards reconciliation. There fore, participants must worship together, live together, eat and drink together during the six-day Forum.
 

Walking on the long road to reconciliation

Any mention of reconciliation in Northeast Asia must deal with the history of Japanese invasion during World War II. Although this tragic history took place more than 70 years ago and most of the perpetrators and victims have passed away, the old wounds and painful memories have yet to be healed. And today, with many countries advocating xenophobic nationalism, people of Mainland China, Japan and South Korea—even the younger generation—are still living with deep contradictions and prejudices against one another. Besides, I learned in the Forum that divisions along political fault lines and between generations are not unique to Hong Kong, but is a common phenomenon in every society. Under this context, the Forum does not only serve to heal the scars of the past, but more importantly, to let Christ’s reconciliation dispel today’s barriers and hatred among all.

The Forum was initiated by the Center for Reconciliation of Duke Divinity School in the US. A “Word made flesh” methodology was developed based on God’s work of creation and redemption. Participants were led onto a journey of reconciliation together. This methodology emphasizes how the reconciliation work of Christ can be manifested in various contexts while addressing the intellectual, emotional, and volitional needs of humans. Above all, the spirit of reconciliation is nurtured.

The journey begins with the declaration that all who are in Christ are a “new creation”:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19, ESV)

This is a declaration based on faith, acknowledging that all broken relationships — between God and humans, and between human beings — have been reconciled in Christ. This spiritual reality should then shape our thoughts and actions. Since reconciliation is the work of Christ, we cannot simply assume that problems can be solved by human endeavors such as enemies sitting down to negotiate, perpetuators saying sorry, or victims offering forgiveness. Reconciliation is founded upon the grace of Christ, not efforts of sinners. But before Christ comes a second time, God is still waiting for the world to repent voluntarily. People still have the freedom to sin and hurt others. Therefore, the second step of the journey–Lament–is to acknowledge and confront the injustices and harms of the world. This step avoids the pitfall of reducing reconciliation to superficial harmony. Nevertheless, no matter how dark the world is, Christ’s new creation can still bring about transformations—perhaps a contrite heart, perhaps a promise to forgive, perhaps a compensation for damage, or perhaps a desire for reconciliation. These are the marks of “Hope” — the third step of the journey, reminding us that the goodness still remains with humanity. The last step of the journey of reconciliation is “Spirituality for the long haul”. It affirms that Christians are called to be “children of peace”, journeying together on the pilgrimage toward reconciliation, while affirming the spiritual reality of the new creation. As we continue to lament the suffering of the world, we strive to live out the signs of hope at the same time.

Lamenting and walking together in grief

Along this journey of reconciliation, “Lament” is the step that is the most neglected. Lament is not simply knowledge or skill; saying “Don’t be sad” or “I feel for you” is quite often inadequate when we try to comfort someone in pain. The Forum arranges a day of pilgrimage where participants are invited to hear the stories of those who suffer.

One year, the Forum took place in Jeju, Korea. We visited the Jeju 4.3 Peace Park, where the tragic history of the island was memorialized. In 1948, the South Korean government violently suppressed the people on Jeju Island due to ideological conflicts. Nearly thirty thousand innocent villagers were massacred and hundreds of villages were burned down. The tour guide of our group at the Peace Park was the daughter of one of the victims. As I listened to her story, I was shocked by the reality of injustice and suffering; everything seemed to have happened before our eyes! There, in the middle of the Peace Park stood a sculpture. It captured the moment when a mother holding her baby was shot by soldiers while fleeing from their pursuit. She was on her knees, holding tight her child, while life was draining away from her. We all stood in silence in front of the statue. The air froze around us. The roar of gunfire intertwining with the mother’s desperate wailing seemed to be ringing in my ears. Yet sufferings like these in the entire human history all weigh down on the Cross, where the Son of God endured agony in body, soul, and spirit to accomplish God’s work of reconciliation. Christians, who are called to be peacemakers, therefore cannot evade the reality of suffering and must weep with those who weep along our journey of reconciliation.

In the spirit of “weeping with those who weep,” the Forum encourages participants to listen to each other’s stories, to put themselves in others’ shoes, and to lament with one another. The worships and meals we had together prepared us for even deeper sharing. In the fallen world, no one is a flawless victim, and no one is a total sinner. Everyone is hurt by sin, and is at the same time a sinner. Lament connects everyone together, so not only the victims were to tell their stories but also the “perpetrators”. In our desire to listen to one another, we acknowledge that each one is a dignified person created in the image of God and saved by Christ. While the most immediate reaction to injustice is anger and hatred, lament reminds us that our deeper feeling is in fact sorrow. While anger and hatred provoke division, sorrow brings people together.

In a worship service at the Forum, I was deeply moved as we grieved together. The worship leader invited the Chinese participants to kneel in front of the altar and asked the Japanese participants to lay their hands on us and pray for us. A Japanese pastors prayed, “Father, have mercy on me! If I were a young person during World War II, I think I would have killed these Chinese people... Have mercy on me, a wretched sinner. Forgive our sins!” We could not hold back our tears and mourned deeply for the atrocities of the past. I knelt before the cross, grieving that we were all ensnared by sin. The Spirit moved me to pray, “Lord, am I not also a sinner? If I were a Japanese at that time, I think... I would have done the same! Father, have mercy on us all!” Reconciliation in Christ is not about forgetting the past or putting aside justice, but about having people mourn together in the face of injustice. It is in lamenting together that we see a glimpse of hope in the darkness of the world.

The Japanese pastor who prayed at the worship became friends with many Chinese people because of the Forum. Two years ago, he started a prayer meeting among Japanese Christians to pray for Hong Kong regularly, to remember our wounds and to pray for justice. Reconciliation in Christ is not merely about admitting wrong and offering forgiveness, but is more importantly about communion and praying together for the kingdom of God. These are signs of hope on the journey of reconciliation. However, in the unjust and fallen world, lament and hope are the two sides of the same coin; there is no hope of reconciliation without entering into the grief of those who suffer. If we try to enforce immediate reconciliation by avoiding lament and shutting our ears to those who suffer, only superficial harmony will result. But doing so is a betrayal of Christ, who paid the heavy price of reconciliation for humanity.

During the Last Supper Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:25, ESV) Then he walked the path of suffering to accomplish reconciliation. We are called to follow his footsteps. Today, our world is overwhelmed by injustice and trauma. Anger and hatred occupy the hearts of many. As we look forward to the day when we drink from the fruit of the new vine, let us walk together on the road of reconciliation. Let us eat and drink with others, listen to each other, and share with one another our sorrow. In fact, the simple gesture that people of different political stances can eat and drink together, recognizing each other as dignified persons created in the image of God, listening to each other’s stories and mourning together, is itself a manifestation of the power of reconciliation in Christ, as well as a sign of hope. After all, the kingdom of God is really about eating and drinking together.

 

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