Last Sunday, I had the honour to preach at Chungdong First Methodist Church, the birthplace of Korean Protestantism. Established and started in 1885 by the pioneer American missionary Henry Appenzeller, the church has always been a vital meeting point between East and West and a place where the beauty of diversity is celebrated in God's unity. This important feature of the church has gained further prominence when the English Ministry was launched in 1997 and had its first service on June 1 in the historic Bethel Chapel.
I chose as my text, Matthew 27:54-56:
“So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” And many women who followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him, were there looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
Preaching on the theme, “A Chorus of Witnesses,” I shared stories of transformation and Christian witness in the context of Fiji. I included, apart from personal family testimonies of my parents, the story of Hannah Dudley.
I also introduced the congregation to Ratu Elijah Varani:
The centurion in our bible reading for today must have been a respected warrior in his day. Centurions led companies of between sixty to two hundred soldiers. In battle they led from the front, occupying a position at the front right of the century formation. Fighting alongside the legionaries they commanded, they led and inspired their men by example displaying the skill and courage that may have brought them to their rank in the first place.
Yet this warrior, this warlord and his soldiers, were humbled, moved, and forever changed by what they witnessed that day in Jerusalem. His words echoed through the centuries, words uttered by professional soldiers, pagans or gentiles. “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Earlier this year I visited Jeju Island and found myself at the St. Isidore Centre, a wonderful Catholic community merging agriculture and contemplation. They have a special meditation path which has large bronze sculptures portraying the life and ministry of Jesus, including fourteen Stations of the Cross, which depict the Passion of Jesus. The Stations are also known as Via Dolorosa or Via Crucis and originated in pilgrimages to Jerusalem. At the station of Jesus’ death is a striking depiction of the event in our reading today.
The image of the centurion reminded me of the story of another fierce warrior who encountered Jesus. However this warrior was not a Roman centurion. He was a Fijian warrior chief by the name of Ratu Varani.
Varani was the nephew of Namosimalua, chief of Viwa who had converted in 1839 for dubious reasons. Before his conversion Varani, a chief who had adopted this name, which was a Fijian corruption of the word “France” after his capture of a French ship in 1834, was the known as “the human butcher” of Cakobau; a treacherous, bloodthirsty and daring man, who had killed hundreds personally and sent many more to the ovens of Bau for cannibal feasts.
Varani initially approached the missionary, Rev. John Hunt to teach him to read. Hunt gave lessons using passages from the only complete book available in Fijian, St. Matthew’s Gospel.
The significance of some of the passages in the Gospel, especially Matthew Chapter 27 was not lost on Varani, nor was the honesty of Hunt’s prayers.
One day, Varani was found to be sobbing as he read Matthew 27. “Why did Jesus suffer like this?” he asked a Fijian convert who said, “For you, sir.” “For me? Do you mean this?” asked Varani. “Yes sir,” was the reply. “Then I give myself to Jesus,” Varani said.
He sent word to Cakobau of his intent to convert and Cakobau replied that if Varani did, he would kill and eat him. Varani replied that although he feared Cakobau, he feared God more.
On Good Friday, 21 March 1845, Varani made his public profession of faith at the early-morning prayer service. As early as an hour after his conversion, his deadly skills were called upon. He refused. Again and again he was called upon to kill and he kept refusing, even when insulted. When protecting missionaries or converts, he used only defensive measures and whenever possible intervened to prevent the deaths of innocents.
He was a candid and influential preacher. His conversion had had caused mounting anxiety of an upcoming war between Bau and Rewa to erupt into an emotional wave of Christian revival with nearly 100 persons professing faith in the first week alone.
In 1853, Ratu Elijah, as he was known after his baptism, went to Ovalau to quell fighting between the Tui Levuka and rebellious mountain villagers. His unarmed intervention was unsuccessful this time and after surviving an ambush, was attacked and murdered as he rested. (Sources: John Garrett / A. Harold Wood)
Two public professions by two warriors, made on two Good Fridays, separated by culture, context and time – but united in their belief in Jesus as the Son of God.
Varani’s conversion, his transformation from violent aggressor to peaceful protector shows that true, meaningful and lasting positive change is possible. It is possible for a person. It is possible for a community. It is possible for a country.
There are questions we must ask ourselves:
Are we committed to the natural process of transformation – of metamorphosis?” Or do we fear change so much that we accept the status quo?
What can inspire us to have the same surrender of the negative and destructive elements of our personal traits, the traits in our community?
Can we have the courage to remain true to our processes of personal and communal transformation, like Varani, even when we are threatened with violent reprisal?
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”