The elderly woman sat across the squared tables from me, eating her rice and dried seaweed. She was the oldest person among the dozen in the room, by far. Bob and Sue, the American retirees from Florida, were the next oldest, and everyone else seemed to be younger than 40.
My wife and I enjoyed conversation with Pastor Minoru Enoki, whose family was strikingly similar to ours, and with various other members of the Japanese Full Gospel Church of Banff, Canada, but my eyes kept coming back to the elderly woman across the tables.
I had vague knowledge that Christianity had never had a historically firm nor numerous presence in Japan, and so I imagined that most of the followers of Jesus around me were first or second generation believers. It turned out that many had deeper roots than that, but what of the elderly woman? Surely there was a story of how she came to be there. It might even be a good one, or a truly Good one.
I indicated my curiosity to another member, and she eagerly ushered me over.
“She understands English, so you can just talk to her. Toyo, this is Dan, an American pastor. He wanted to meet you.”
The story was easily forthcoming.
Toyo had lived in the area for some years, and had been a practicing Buddhist all her life. One of the church members had somehow managed to persuade her to come to a Bible study once, then twice, then consistently. And over two to three years, the people of that Bible study had shared meal after meal, Bible lesson after Bible lesson, and built a friendship. While Toyo was glad for the relationships and the community, she was still very much a Buddhist.
However, she gradually became convinced that the love she was experiencing was not only genuine, but a reflection of God’s love for her, and after 70 years a Buddhist, she became a Christian. First generation believers are not always who we might think!
As Toyo closed her story, her voice intensified and she gripped my hand. “You see, it was not that I chose God. I was Buddhist all my life. God chose me. God chose me!”
That morning before church, on the drive to Banff, my wife and I had read this:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, NIV)
I could end the post here and we’d have a fine testimony story. But there’s another side
of what that Sunday encounter meant. To understand it, I need to start with Revelation 7:9:
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
This multitude is just one more ring of worshippers around the throne of Jesus. Earlier in Revelation, we meet the beings of other circles: four mysterious “living creatures,” 24 elders, thousands upon thousands of angels, and every creature in heaven and on earth.
I am often deeply delighted when I meet more members of the multitude, though I especially enjoy meeting those who seem to come toward Christ from a very different set of circumstances or a different culture than my own. When traveling, I often seek out difference among my brothers and sisters in Christ. We could have attended the Presbyterian Church that Sunday, or the English-speaking full gospel congregation, and then Pastor Minoru wouldn’t have had to make the extra effort to translate his message. Then again, it wasn’t the Christians-like-me who were singing songs about Jesus along Banff Ave in the snow on Friday when we walked by.
Experiencing the breadth of the Christian family brings us a step closer to Revelation 7:9.
It’s like this.
If you and some others are doing a group activity and form a circle around a center point, it’s simple geometry that if each member of the group takes a step toward the center, you will simultaneously be moving closer to one another. (Admittedly, most groups fail basic geometry in these scenarios, but even if the shape is amoeboid, my point stands.)
Now think again of the geometry of heaven: circles gathered around circles, all focused on Christ at the center. If, in those moments of worship in heaven or here below, we find ourselves drawing closer to Christ, we will also be drawing closer to others, and to the multitude of the many nations.
So it is that I get a foretaste of heaven when I intentionally associate with believers of the many nations and they with me, a believer of one peculiar nation. When they serve me rice with egg-flavored topping in Christ’s name, we move toward each other. When I try to sing in Japanese with them, we are together moving toward heaven.
But I have don’t have to go to the Japanese Full Gospel Church of Banff to experience this movement. My own church is reaching ahead for that part of heaven, and, one-by-one, we are making progress. There are thousands of other North American congregations also that have committed to make extra efforts to draw near to those different than their dominant group. They all add to the movement of the nations toward Christ.
So why wait until heaven? Why wait for trips to far-away places? Why not see the uncountable multitude now, counting each person and each relationship one by one, to the praise of His glorious grace?