A guide in a strange land

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the sermon I preached today at Wesley Methodist Church, Mandalay in Myanmar. I have been out here for nearly two weeks now, helping to train local preachers in Mandalay and Tahan, and meeting local Methodists. It has been a fascinating experience. The text I chose for today was John 14:1-20. The sermon was translated into Burmese.

Brothers and sisters, I bring you greetings in Christ from the Methodist Church in Great Britain and from my congregations in London. It has been a great privilege and delight to spend the last ten days in the beautiful country of Myanmar, as a guest of the Methodist Church. This is my first time in the country and I can assure you that the warmth and generosity of the people I have met are things that I shall treasure forever.

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Preaching with Dr Khwasiama (far left) at Wesley Church, Mandalay

During the vast majority of my time here, I have been very fortunate to have had the company of Dr Khwasiama (the Principal of the Mandalay Theological College). After a long and tiring journey from London, it was his friendly face that welcomed me to Mandalay, and since then he has fulfilled that most important of roles for any traveller: my guide. He has acted as an interpreter, allowing me to speak with people from across the country (as he is doing now!). He has shown me where to go and arranged my itinerary, taking me up to Tahan in the north and even as far as Letpaunchang district near the Indian border. He has introduced me to local customs and culture, explaining things that would otherwise have been incomprehensible to me, such as how to wear a longyi. He has even kindly let me ride behind him on his motorbike – just like a local! In every way, he has been the perfect guide.

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Beautiful Bagan

For the last few days, though, I have been without Dr Khwasiama, who stayed in Mandalay, while I took a few days holiday in beautiful Bagan. I had a wonderful time there and saw some incredible sights but I was very aware that I was suddenly without my guide. There was no one to meet me when I arrived, I did not know exactly where to go and what to do sometimes, and there were many times that I struggled to understand, and to be understood by, local Burmese people.

The situation immediately reminded me of the experience of the apostles as they realised that Jesus was not going to stay with them forever, as we heard in our reading today from John’s gospel. Jesus had been their teacher, friend and their guide for the last three years. He had led them in them itinerant ministry across Judea and Galilee. He had organised them and brought them together as a recognisable group, despite their differences. He had opened their mind to new ideas and concepts, and acted as an interpreter to the strange language of ‘the Kingdom of God’. And now he was going to leave them.

We can hear the concern and desperation in their voices in the passage. Thomas cries out: “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Philip asks for just one more piece of information, one more answer before Jesus goes. In the days after Jesus’ death, and after his ascension, the apostles will desperately miss their guide and will seem lost without him.

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Training local preachers in Mandalay

All of us know such times. Times far, far harder than my enjoyable few days in Bagan. Times when we struggle to know what to do. Struggle to see a way ahead. Struggle to choose the right path for ourselves. We desperately need a guide to show us right from wrong; to show us whom to trust and who not; someone to take us by the hand and lead us through our journey of life.

During my time in Myanmar, I have met many wonderful people working in the Church doing great things: local preachers, ministers and lay people. All of them working tirelessly for the Kingdom of God and their communities. One particular highlight was attending the district youth gathering in Tahan, and seeing so many young people gathering together for worship and fellowship: a great sign for the church’s future. However, I am also aware that the Methodist Church in Myanmar has important decisions to make and difficult challenges to meet. In many cases, they are the same as my church faces in Great Britain. How do we respond to the changing world in which we live – changing societies, changing technologies, changing patterns of work and life? How do we use our scarce resources in our ministry – do we prioritise buildings, training, people? How do we share the good news of Jesus Christ with people who seem to place no value whatsoever on spiritual matters?

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District youth event in Tahan

For all of these questions, both in our personal lives and in the life of our church, we must turn to the three guides which Jesus left to his apostles.

First, we must turn to the words that Jesus bequeathed to his Church, the Bible. In Bagan, like every other tourist destination in the world, you can see travellers clutching books. These are the essential guidebooks (though many are now on people’s phones) telling us what to see, where to stay, where to eat and much more. I remember once losing my guidebook when I was travelling in North Africa and I felt like I had lost my right hand! The Church has been left a much better guidebook, though, in the pages of holy scripture and most importantly of course the gospels. Sometimes, I wish the Bible was as easy to understand as my guidebook, with its clear index and its simple lists, like ‘The top five things to do in Mandalay’. Nevertheless, the scriptures contain so much knowledge, wisdom and experience that its pages are truly a treasure beyond price. The more we read and reflect upon the Bible’s contents, the more we may recognise God’s guiding hand in our lives and in our world. It is vital that as Christians we take every opportunity to read and study the scriptures, so that we may not be led astray by false prophets and guides.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut if we read our books alone, then we may struggle to understand them. While I was in Bagan, I repeatedly came across people trying to make sense of their guidebooks – interpreting maps or directions, for example – and it was only together that we could work out what it was trying to tell us. I also know that I have learned so much when travelling from the tales and experiences of others, who have walked a path before me. That leads me neatly to our second guide.

When Christ left his apostles, he left them not as individuals but as a group, a group that would become his Church. During the local preacher training sessions, we emphasised that Jesus never sent his disciples out singly, one-by-one, but always with at least one companion (Mark 6:7 / Luke 10:1). And from its earliest days, Christianity has been founded not on individuals but groups: congregations, which together make up the Body of Christ on earth. Congregations that, just like the apostles and the first disciples, bring together all kinds of different people with different skills and experiences but who are working for a common purpose. As individuals, we may struggle to understand our scriptures and to discern the will of God, but together we can help lead one another into the truth. We can offer comfort and support, challenge and inspiration. That is why John Wesley was very clear that solitary Christianity is almost impossible, and why Methodism has always emphasised the importance of being part of a connected church: house groups, classes, circuits, districts. And that is why it so important that, even when we find if difficult and frustrating, we need to be active members of our congregations, so that we may guide others and in turn be guided by them.

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Meeting staff members at the Tahan Institute of Theology

Filling and inspiring both the Bible and the Church, though, is the third and most important guide that we possess for our journey through life. This is the guide promised by Jesus to those desperate disciples just before his trial and crucifixion: “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). In a few weeks, we shall be celebrating the great day of Pentecost, when God’s Spirit filled the apostles like a mighty rushing wind. It is that Spirit which turns a simple book into the precious words of eternal life, which is the Bible. It is that same Spirit which fills God’s Church today, and turns a group of ordinary people into a storehouse of wisdom and encouragement. It is that same Spirit which fills our lives too – if we let it – guiding us ever deeper into the eternal mystery of God’s love for each one of us.

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Wesley Church, Mandalay

It is a Spirit that will be the guide we need through every stage of our journey through life. Sometimes it will comfort and reassure us. At other times, it will challenge our deepest-held convictions. And at others, it will lead us to places that we never thought we could possibly go. But through that Spirit, working in scripture, in our Church and in our everyday lives, we may encounter the risen Christ, just as the apostles did so long ago.

So be of good cheer, brothers and sisters, for God has not left us “as orphans” (John 14:18) to wander through the journey of life alone and uncared for. He has left us all with the best and greatest of guides, Jesus Christ, who one day shall lead us all to our eternal home. May you know the presence and power of that guide in your lives and in this church, today and always. Amen.

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Sunset over Bagan

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