I Corinthians 3:10-23
In the 1600’s, Jesuit missionaries in China were allowing converts to take part in Confucian ceremonies honoring their ancestors, when Franciscan missionaries who had just come onto the scene were appalled and declared that they were tolerating idolatry. They objected to the language that was being used to describe God in Mandarin, and to some of the decorations that appeared in the chapels and to the way that the Jesuits were dressing and to the way they let their beards grow so that they looked like traditional Chinese scholars. The Franciscans charged them with twisting Christianity into something that looked less like a great cathedral and more like the set of Seussical the Musical. Eventually the whole business was appealed to the pope, who condemned the practices, which set off the Chinese emperor, who asked what business some barbarian thousands of miles away had telling his subjects what they were or were not allowed to do. The emperor then tossed, or tried to toss, the missionaries out. A few stayed and went underground, but most had to go.
Those people had traveled halfway around the world by ship and by foot to share the gospel. They had struggled to learn languages totally alien to Western ears and then to master the classics of its literature. They had put their hearts into getting to know a land totally foreign to them in order to share with its people the matters closest to their own hearts. Expelled from that country, how could they not have wondered every day for the rest of their lives what had happened to the believers that they had had to leave behind.
“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” [I Corinthians 3:12-13]
As it turned out, that particular group of missionaries had made sure, during the time that they had been there, that they were not themselves the message.
“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” [I Corinthians 3:11]
They had seen to it that the foundation they built on was Christ, and they had concentrated on speaking of him, and showing that faith in him is open to all people. (That was sort of how they had gotten into the tangle with the people who thought the faith always had to look European.) As a result, although they did not know how things would go, when they left the country, the work of which they were a part continued. Although they had concentrated their own efforts on working with influential men, when they left, it was carried on, largely by women, and often women of low standing, at that.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. [I Corinthians 3:10]
Many years later, other Christians, mostly Protestants this time, would return, and find that Christianity had preceded them.
A hallmark of Christianity in China has been the legacy of the so-called “Chinese Rites Controversy”: the house-church gathered around people who simply share the gospel, person-to-person. Many of us remember attempts that the Chinese government made under Mao-tse-tung to wipe out religion of any kind. Nowadays, the focus is on trying to establish official control of the Church by limiting private gatherings for worship and study. A report published last year by the China Aid Association tells how,
“For example, landlords were pressured to terminate lease agreements with church members, church members who had purchased real estate were unable to take possession of them, church leaders were placed under house arrest and church members were evicted—all of which was done to make it impossible for the house church to operate normally so that it would eventually disband. According to the data collected by Shouwang Church, ‘by September 2012, because they persisted in attending outdoor worships services, members of Shouwang Church were detained 1,600 times by either Domestic Security Protection agents in various districts [of Beijing] or in more 90 different police stations across Beijing (for periods of several hours to 48 hours). Sixty people were evicted from their homes and more than 10 people lost their jobs because they attended Shouwang Church’s outdoor worship services or simply because they were Shouwang Church members; others were sent back to their hometowns and some believers were confined to their homes on the weekends.’”
I really wish that we in the West were as conscientious about building on Jesus in ways that enable people to withstand the challenges that our own people face. Ours are completely different from theirs. Ours are not the challenges of standing up to the status quo. Ours are the challenges and temptations of having been the Establishment for so long. (We are not that anymore, by the way.) Like any established group, we are often identified by our formal leaders and when they fail us (whether publicly or privately) – and any human being will fail – the faith itself seems to take a hit. Remember how Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker mishandled money? Remember how Oral Roberts began to show signs of dementia on the air? Remember how Richard Nixon tried to use Billy Graham to give him the appearance of respectability at the depths of the Watergate scandal? What about all the clergy who have abused minors, and those who have covered it up? Don’t forget Paul’s warning to the Corinthians:
“So let no one boast about human leaders.” [I Corinthians 3:21]
Don’t build on the professionals. Build on faith in Christ, and him alone. Don’t build on human traditions, whether that means styles of worship or music or meeting places. Don’t build on specific ways of organization. All of these are means to an end, which is to share Christ. Build on faith in him and him alone. Build with trust that his Spirit is within all his people, everywhere.
“For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” [I Corinthians 3:21-23]
 A good summary of the Jesuit mission to China and the ensuing “Chinese Rites Controversy” is found in Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2009), 706 ff.
 China Aid Association, “2012 Annual Report: Chinese Government Persecution of Christians and Churches in Mainland China” (Midland, Texas: China Aid, USA, 2013), 4. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_YUgSyiG6aIWUpXdWwtWVJWb00/edit