By Nako Kellum –
I am from Japan. Interestingly enough, Christians make up less than one percent of the entire Japanese population, yet, according to a recent article, more than 50 percent of Japanese couples chose to have Christian weddings. The reasons for this are unclear. Perhaps it is the atmosphere of the church, or the appeal of the traditional wedding gown to future brides. It should be noted that these Japanese weddings are officiated by Christian pastors, complete with hymns, prayers, and Scripture readings. I have been to a few of these, and I have discovered that there is a hymn that is sung every time. It is, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.”
The hymn itself is not usually associated with weddings here in the United States, so I asked my friend – a professor at a Christian university in Japan – why he thought this hymn is used so often. He said that the hymn is sung often at Christian schools in Japan – what we call “mission schools” – and people are familiar with it.
Mission schools were started by foreign missionaries, and many Japanese send their children to these schools for the excellence in education that the schools provide. My professor friend went on to explain to me that at the university where he works, they sing this hymn at convocation, as well as during graduation. “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” came to Japan a little over a century ago. I think it is a great way to introduce Jesus to people who have no idea who he is.
“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! / Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? / Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.”
Jesus is our friend. Jesus himself said it in John 15:14, “You are my friends.” In my 8 year-old daughter’s words, Jesus is our BFF – our Best Friend Forever. He is the best, the most faithful friend we can ever have. Sometimes we have to be reminded of that.
I went to one of the “mission schools” in Tokyo called Aoyama Gakuin University which was founded by Methodist missionaries in the 19th century. Having been brought up in a Buddhist family, with influences of Shintoism as well, I was not a Christian. I knew about Jesus from my world history classes in high school. In the textbook, Jesus was introduced as the founder of Christianity. I knew about Jesus, but I did not know Jesus.
I knew about God, too.
Actually, I knew about a lot of “gods.” I prayed to and gave offerings to my ancestors, whom we believed achieved a god-like status after death. I went to Shinto shrines, and prayed and gave money to many gods. Shintoism, as you may know, is an indigenous animistic religion of Japan.
During my senior year at university, a Christian friend of mine invited me to a Christmas concert that was sponsored by her campus ministry group. For the first time in my life, I heard the message from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” For the first time in my life, I learned, and I believed, that God, who is the Creator, is real; I learned that I am created by him, that I am loved by him, and that God gave his only Son Jesus for me, so that I can go back to him and live with him forever. It was the best thing I had ever heard! I decided to receive Jesus.
I wanted to know this God, to know Jesus more. I started reading the New Testament Bible that was given to me at the concert. I read through it like I would any other book, but what I found was that Jesus was not like any other “gods” I knew. The gods I knew used to be humans. The gods I prayed to in the Shinto shrines used to be emperors and leaders. (Some of them were not even humans!) My ancestors, whom we thought had achieved a “god-like” status, were merely human beings, just like I am. I never once felt like those gods knew me, or cared for me. They were not personal. I used to try to please my ancestors by giving them food offerings on the household altar. I used to ask for things at the Shinto shrine, like health, or victory at the next archery match, or the ability to do well at school, as if these “gods” were vending machines.
However, Jesus is not like that at all. In fact, he is quite the opposite. He is God, but he became human. He lived among people, healed people, and spoke about amazing things like forgiving one’s enemies. He confronted religious hypocrites, and put his own life on the cross for us. At last, I met a God who is so personal. He loves me and sacrificed himself for me; he is always with me, and I can trust, and count on him. It is difficult to describe, but in the end, I felt like a heavy burden was lifted off of me.
Consequently, I understand how people were confused about who Jesus was, and why the Nicene Creed was written. At that time, there was a pantheon of Roman and Greek gods in the culture, just like there are a plethora of gods in Japan, but none of them were like Jesus. Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” “Through him, all things, including you and me, were made,” and “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” No other “god” did that for you.
So, I started university as a Buddhist, and graduated as a Christian. After graduation, I started working as a flight attendant that spring. But then, I got lost. I had to live close to the airport so I was away from my church and away from my home. Surrounded by new people and immersed in a new job, I did not know what it meant to live as a Christian. I knew that I would live with Jesus forever, but what did it mean to follow Jesus in the here and now?
God was merciful and gave me a Christian co-worker, who took me to her church. I shared with the pastor that I felt like I was lost, and I did not know what it meant to live my life as a Christian. The pastor shared with me Matthew 6:33, “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness.” She explained to me that as a Christian, we needed to live knowing Jesus as our Lord, and not just our Savior. This meant that to be in right relationship with Christ, we had to put our full trust in him, and that full trust was best expressed in obeying him. It was a pretty simple strategy as a new Christian, though it was not an easy way to for me to live daily.
The second half of John 15:14, after Jesus says, “You are my friends,” reads, “if you do what I command you.” When we confess in the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” we are confessing that Jesus is more than our friend, as he is the Lord who has authority over us. “Jesus is Lord” is actually one of the earliest creeds that Christians professed. This was extremely counter-cultural at the time since it was not the Roman emperor whom Christians worshipped and obeyed as “lord.” Instead, they confessed that their first and best loyalty was to Jesus, not the emperor, and this was very dangerous.
Jesus is Lord and “sits at the right hand of the Father.” This means that he is above all “gods,” all rulers, all governments, all churches, all people, all created things … everything we like, love, and cherish. We are called to put ourselves under his authority, and to be loyal to him, and him alone.
During World War II, a faction of the Methodist Church in Japan tried to be loyal to both Jesus and the emperor. They merged with other churches and created one unified Protestant church. One of the reasons was a true desire to be ecumenical, but a darker reason was to cooperate with the government so that the government could better control the Christian churches. The new church pledged that they were Christians and Japanese at the same time. But, they also confessed that their first duty was to be loyal to the Japanese Empire. A small faction of Methodists in the Holiness Movement, however, continued to teach and preach about the Kingdom of God, and how the Lord would come back, and establish his Kingdom on this earth. They claimed that someday Jesus would rule all of the nations of the world, including the Japanese Empire. They were a threat to the empire, so many of the pastors and the leaders were put into prison, and some died there. In fact, one of the leaders put into prison was the founder of the denomination I belonged to in Japan.
My point is this: If Jesus is just our friend, it may not cost us that much, but there is a cost when we choose Jesus as Lord of all, and decide to live under his lordship. The Japanese Empire, as you know, lost the war, and it’s not the Empire any more. The Emperor, who was considered to be divine, renounced his “divinity” after the war. For you see, only the Lord Jesus sits on the throne forever.
Where is your loyalty? We may not have to choose between an emperor and the Lord Jesus, but we have to choose between the “empire of me,” and Jesus, every single day. I know I do. There are certain things I do that the Lord wants me to stop doing, and there are certain things he wants me to do that I do not want to do. As a new Christian, I tried to be obedient to the Lord, and I started learning to listen to him. For example, one of the things I knew the Lord wanted me to do at that time was to quit drinking. As a flight attendant, it was part of the lifestyle. We would arrive at the airport, go to the hotel, clean up, and drink together, so we could relax and sleep better in different time zones. And, we were encouraged to study about wine for work, so I was justifying my drinking as “part of my job.” I am not saying alcohol consumption in and of itself is good or bad, but at that time in my life, I knew the Lord wanted me to quit. I remember while working on a flight from Tokyo to Munich, my co-worker who was studying to be a sommelier was teaching me about wine, which I found very interesting. I remember telling her I did not think I could ever quit drinking. Later, when we arrived in Munich, we went to a well-known beer restaurant. To my surprise, though, I did not order anything to drink. It was not because I thought I should not do so, but because I did not want to do so. I did not want to drink at all! And this was in Germany, where there is plenty of good beer and wine.
If Jesus is just a friend, he would have sat with me at the beer restaurant, drunk with me. But, because he is also my Lord, he knew I needed to quit, and he wanted me to quit. And because he is my Savior, he delivered me from the desire to drink. It was a good thing, because about a year and after this flight, He called me to go to a seminary where drinking was not allowed. He is more than a friend who knows what is best for me, or a friend who shows me the best way to live. Jesus has the power to change my life.
I cherish my human friends. One of my best friends lives in Japan. We have been friends since seventh grade, and thanks to technology, we can talk to each other for free, and we can see each other’s pictures on social media. But for me, there is nothing better than actually seeing her in person and spending time with her when I go back to Japan. I let her know as soon as I get my plane ticket when I am going back, and we spend hours together just talking. For me, Jesus is like this. I want to see him face to face. I know Jesus feels the same way about us. Right now, we cannot be face to face, but someday, he will come back and we will see him face to face.
When I do get to see Jesus, I want him to say to me directly, “I love you, and I know you love me, too, because I know how you lived.” I want to stand in front of him, look him in the eye, and to be able to say without hesitation, “I love you, and I love your lordship.”
The Nicene Creed says, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Our friendship with Jesus will never end. It will only get stronger and deeper as we continue to love him by loving his lordship and submitting to him.
Jesus is more than my friend. He is my everything. He is my all in all.
Nako Kellum is co-pastor in charge at First United Methodist Church of Tarpon Springs in Tarpon Springs, Florida. This article is adapted from her address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Tulsa in November.