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First Person: Shocked by Jesus


Philip and Julie Bender are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in partnership with China Educational Exchange. They worship together with a congregation of about 200 that meets in 1,000 seat theatre in Chongqing, China. Philip invited a student (not pictured) who had never been to church, to join them for worship. “My hope and prayer is that the seeds sown during her first visit to a church, and through our follow-up conversations and ongoing friendship, might take root and grow,” writes Philip

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July 19, 2005
-by Philip Bender

Chongqing, China — When Li first heard the foot washing story in the Gospel of John, her shock was similar to Peter’s when his feet were washed by Jesus. “How can he do this!” she exclaimed.

Li (not her real name) is a young doctor studying English at Chongqing University of Medical Sciences in the large commercial centre of Chongqing, China. In my work with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner, China Educational Exchange, I teach Li and 28 of her medical colleagues in an Advanced English Program.

Neither Li nor her classmates have had exposure to Christian beliefs or the church. Growing up, they were taught that religion is for ignorant or superstitious people. But in my English classes last fall, these students sometimes asked insightful questions about Christianity.

Two weeks after Christmas, Li expressed interest in going with my wife Julie and me to the large Chinese church in Chongqing we attend. “I have never been to a church before,” she cautioned. We invited Li to join us.

The congregation meets in a 1,000-seat movie theatre. Though the crowd of 200 seemed sparse in this cavernous room, Li was surprised at how many had come.

Since I do not speak Chinese, Li translated for me, and for the first time since coming to China in July 2004 I was able to understand a church service.

The theme was Christian Service, and for his scripture text the preacher read the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John 13. As Li was translating, she suddenly blurted out: “How can he do this? His students should feel apologetic!” She had caught the scandal of Jesus’ action, just as Peter did, when he protested, “Lord, you will never wash my feet!”

To illustrate Christian service, the preacher then told a story of how he and some friends had taken a quilt to a poor school where students had to sit on cold stone benches during the winter. Li was impressed by the social concern these Christians were showing.

After the worship service, I asked Li how she felt about her first visit to a church. “It opened a whole new world for me,” she reflected. “I am not familiar with it.” Sensitive to how her peers would look upon her if they knew she had gone to church, she added, “Please don’t tell anyone I went with you.”

Li said she would be open to further conversation about the foot washing story, and I met with her a few days later to talk about it. She continued to be puzzled how such a great man could perform such a humiliating action, and how his disciples could accept it. When I suggested that Jesus’ gesture might be comparable to her Chinese or North American English teachers washing her classmates’ feet, she replied that she could never conceive of such a thing happening in her culture, which exalts teachers.

I later learned that foot washing has a place in traditional Chinese culture. People wash their feet at night, because they believe it will help them sleep. And occasionally a younger person will wash the feet of an elder to assist them or as a sign of respect. But people of senior social status do not normally wash the feet of younger people.

In our chat Li also voiced questions about other biblical stories—the creation, the Ten Commandments, and “a story about a boat in a flood.” We agreed to talk about them sometime.

Because it is against the law in China for Westerners to proselytize, our ministry is largely one of presence. But sometimes we have appropriate opportunities to speak about Christ, especially when students like Li ask questions.

Though Li has not yet become a believer in Jesus, my hope and prayer is that the seeds sown during her first visit to a church, and through our follow-up conversations and ongoing friendship, might take root and grow.

I also would like to feel afresh the shock of some of the Bible’s familiar stories, like Li did when she first heard of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and exclaimed, “How can he do this? His students should feel apologetic!”