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Partnership that Transforms Our Understanding of Mission: A Case Study from Acts

Written by: Robinson, Dick    Posted on: 03/06/2007

Category: Ministries


Partnership that Transforms Our Understanding of Mission: A Case Study from Acts

Introduction

God is sovereign. He reigns victorious over the all the earth. He alone is Lord. The church is missionary. That is its calling. The church is called out of the world in order to be sent back into the world. It is to be not of the world, so that it can be in the world as the change-agent. Those are Jesus’ words, recorded in John’s missionary text.1 The church is invited by the Holy Spirit to send apostolic teams comprised of its best and its brightest to change the world.

This is partnership. I will not try to define partnership; I am not at all sure what it is. I only know everybody engaged in missional activity today is using the word. I suspect we mean rather different things. Rather I want to tell three stories, one recent, one ancient, one in process. In the telling, I hope we can begin to see some things about partnership that will transform our understanding of mission. The first is about China; for the second we will revisit Antioch; the last is about the church I serve. At Elmbrook we are simply trying to learn about God, who he is for us, what he wants to do in us, and how he wants to work through us to make a global impact.

What I will suggest here is that mission, strategic mission, is a partnership between a sovereign God, a missionary church, and an apostolic team.

Allow me to begin with a disclaimer. I am neither an academic theologian nor a professional missiologist. I am not a New Testament scholar nor a cross-cultural missionary, neither sociologist nor statitician. I am simply a pastor, a practitioner of God’s call to be a shepherd to his people in one particular location in the U.S. My abiding passion is the church, wherever it is to be found, and a deep desire that it be found where it now is not.

The church in China

Imagine, if you will, a mission consultation in China in the middle of the last century.2 World War II is over. The Japanese occupation is ended. Foreign mission leaders and Chinese church leaders gather. Missionaries of the modern era have been in China for 150 years. The national church numbers perhaps five hundred thousand, generously a million. The purpose of this gathering? To strategize for church growth – still a word of the missiological future – in China for the remaining half-century.

Prayer teams, working groups and draft committees are formed. Papers are presented, histories reviewed, objectives listed, strategies planned, assignments delegated. At the end of the week participants are presented with an impressive strategic plan to evangelize China by the end of the century.

Apart from one ancient, wizened pastor at the back of the large conference hall, the participants are self-congratulatory. The old pastor stands to his feet, addressing the crowd. Heads turn, necks crane, ears strain to hear his thin voice. “All of what we have said is good,” he begins, “but maybe not so much will come of it. I think instead we should pray for the success of the People’s Revolution, for the installation of a government that is atheist and suppresses religion. That we should expect missionaries to be expelled, churches closed, pastors arrested, Bibles banned. That only out of adversity will the seeds of the gospel, rooted and watered in China’s soil, sprout and grow and burst into bloom.”

The conference is fiction. Everything else is fact. On October 1, 1949, the leader of the People’s Revolution, Mao Zedong announced the People’s Republic of China. Within a year, ten thousand Christian missionaries, Catholics and Protestants alike, were expelled from China.3 During the Cultural Revolution and subsequent troubles, lasting from 1966 to 1976, churches were closed across the country; by 1970 there was not a single functioning Three Self church.4 Their doors had been padlocked, pastors imprisoned at hard labor, Bibles burned. Christianity, according to an official document printed in 1976, no longer existed in China; God was dead.

Or was he? In the final decades of the last century, as China opened to the outside world, news began to seep out of the remarkable resurrection of the church in China. Today China’s non-Catholic Christians are found in three, sometimes overlapping movements.

The officially sanctioned, registered church, existing under the governmental authority of the Religious Affairs Bureau, is known as the TSPM, or Three Self Patriotic Movement, and the China Christian Council.5 On Easter Sunday morning, 2005, I attended one of three services at the TSPM Moore Memorial Church, on People’s Square in Shanghai, listening rapturously to the pealing of church bells calling people to worship, as more than two thousand in each service thronged the standing room only, balconied sanctuary to join in singing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” The message, given by a young woman graduate of Nanjing Seminary was decidedly evangelical. The CCC prints and distributes three million Bibles a year on state-owned presses in Nanjing; they contract with organizations in Hong Kong and Macau to print and import additional Bibles to meet the growing demand. On a recent trip into China, accompanied by a young Chinese woman as our guide and translator, my colleague and I carried a few religious books to give to those we would meet. The two of us sailed through customs, our guide, however, was asked about the books she carried in her small bag. “They are just religious books,” she told the agent. “Oh,” he replied, “you can go, as long as they are not political material.”6

The unregistered house-church movement, comprised of some five or six church “families”, each numbering between six and fourteen million adherents following now-aging charismatic pastor-preachers, emerged almost as if from underground following the persecution of the Cultural Revolution and the government’s subsequent struggle with an emergent faith that belied the material dogma of religion’s disappearance.7 “House church” refers, of course, to the origins of these movements in the hidden secrecy of private homes during the waves of persecution, especially after 1966. Today a house church might be found on a hillside or at the edge of town, six stories high with a bold, blood-red cross for a steeple and a thousand worshipers gathered on Sunday morning. Numbers vary widely; most conservative China watchers suggest 60 million in unregistered churches across China; others place the figures at upwards of 80 million.

The Third Church in China is comprised of the rapid influx of tens of thousands of young urban professionals, artists and writers, dancers and movie stars, intellectuals and students, the literati of 21st century China. Many of these attend TSPM churches on the weekends, house-church Bible studies during the week, and gather for conversation in the coffee shops of Beijing, Shanghai and the other burgeoning mega-cities of China.

Today’s China, which itself – through the house church movement – stands poised to join the global mission force, is perhaps the most vivid illustration for us at the beginning of the 21st century of the sometimes, surprising sovereignty of God. “I will build my church,” Jesus declared to his disciples, “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). I used to picture this as the church as a fortress, with death and the devil as a battering ram pounding against the community’s gates. More recently I have begun to think of it as the defeated principalities and powers struggling to keep the world imprisoned, against a church powerfully and irrepressibly advancing, shattering all the strongholds of Satan. God is the victorious king and the good news of his victory is being announced. God is a missionary God; mission is his initiative. Such we learn in China.
The church at Antioch

It could reasonably be argued today, as Patrick Johnstone does, that the tiny, island, city-state of Singapore is the most active missionary church in the world.8 He quotes statistics – more than a decade old now – showing that Singapore sends 1.44 missionaries per congregation, compared to number two Norway at 0.71, with the U.S. sixth on the list at 0.15. Johnstone remarks that only in Singapore have Protestant churches sent out more missionaries than there are congregations.9

The number of missionaries sent from Singapore since 1993 has continued to rise steadily. Not long ago I was sitting alongside a riverbed in Tajikistan crunching eight-inch long, deep-fried trout, whole, head to tail – when you get past the eyes it’s no big deal – talking with a young Singaporean missionary teaching ESL. She was the first missionary I had met from Singapore; when I expressed surprise she remarked that the goal of Singapore’s evangelical churches is to be known as the Antioch of the 21st century.

Why Antioch? I suggest that the church that was formed in Antioch – by unnamed disciples on an unplanned mission, preaching an uncommon message to an unusual audience, resulting in an unexpected church that forever changed the world – is the paradigmatic impact church. The disciples were called “Christians” first at Antioch. There was something about them – something about their witness to this One called the Christ – that made the city take notice. Antioch is the New Testament’s prime example of what the church should be, and it was pre-eminently a missionary church.

There is no epistle of Paul to the church at Antioch. Antioch is, rather, the Holy Spirit’s letter to churches even today who want to witness to God’s saving work in the world through Jesus. The book of the Acts of the Apostles is a missionary manual. It begins with a missionary mandate: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The structure of the book is clear: chapters 1 through 7 find the witnesses in Jerusalem; from chapters 8 through through 12 they are scattered through Judea and Samaria; chapter 13 shows them leaving for the ends of the earth. Chapter 11, beginning at verse 19, and the first few verses of chapter 13, form the cultural and geographical bridge that is built at Antioch.

The question then, is this: What marks a missionary church? How does a church serve as a bridge between the kingdom of God and a world that is without God and without hope? What is it that characterizes a church with a global impact?

We know the story. Stephen is brought up on sedition charges in Jerusalem; the Sanhedrin hears the case as he makes a Spirit-ed defense. His presentation of the good news is not well received, however, and Stephen pays for the truth with his life. Jesus’ followers are scattered. Some of them make their way to Antioch, preaching gospel, but only to Jews. Others, however, speak to whoever will listen, the Lord works through their message with power, and great numbers – the words are used three times in the text – of Greeks come to faith.

For great numbers of non-Jews to become followers of Christ was not on Jerusalem’s agenda; they send an investigator to Antioch, presumably to put things right. Fortunately, they chose Barnabas, Uncle Encouragement, the one man whose glass was never half-empty. His faith and positive attitude allowed him to see outside the boxes of usual expectations, to commend this fledgling new work of the Spirit of God. Barnabas saw the potential, rather than the problems, at Antioch.
Antioch reveals to us at least seven marks of an impact church.
1. An impact church is a gospel church.

The message of the church, Luke reminds us, is gospel. Gospel is simply the announcement, through word and by deed, that Jesus Christ is Lord over all of life. It is a kingdom message, proclaiming the victory and reign of the rightful king. Few of the biblical writers say it better than Isaiah:

“How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.”10

As if on a cinematic screen we see through Isaiah’s words the city of God, Zion, under siege, surrounded by the enemy encampment, rubble in the streets and watchmen posted outside the gates, forward observers to warn of encroachment. Those on the watchtowers see them first: runners coming across the distant hills. The watchmen hear and echo the messengers’ cries: Victory has been won, Zion’s king has defeated the enemy. Her residents can scarcely believe it, they still see only the tents and siege works of the enemy surrounding them, but the crumbling walls and rubble pick up and sing out the good news, so that it is impossible to miss the message.11

We will think more in our next session about transforming our understanding of gospel; for now it is enough to note the strong link between gospel and Jesus the Lord. Five times in as many verses Luke links “the good news” that formed the foundation of this emerging Antioch church to “the Lord” who was preached and received: v. 20 – “telling them the good news about the Lord;” v. 21 – (two times), “the Lord’s hand was with them;” and again, “a great number believed and turned to the Lord;” v. 23 – “he…encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts;” finally v. 24 – “a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”

Few theologians have given as much service to evangelicals’ understanding of both Jesus and Paul in their historical, social and political, as well as religious and spiritual contexts as has N.T. Wright.12 Wright is careful to demonstrate that Rome, along with Israel’s previous political oppressors, was at best only the penultimate enemy of God’s people; the principal enemy was the dark power known as Satan, the accuser.13 Nevertheless, theology did not then – in the first century – and cannot now – in the twenty-first – be divorced from political realities. Walls of separation between church and state are modern constructs, born of Enlightenment ideologies, foreign to the thought-forms of the first century and the Bible.14

Paul’s theology is, in Wright’s words, “counter-imperial.” To declare that Jesus is Lord, the messiah – meaning the one who is anointed as king, and Savior is to say that “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.”15 This does not negate political order and national rulers, rather it insists that all political order is subject and subservient to God as Creator, to Jesus as the Lord to whom every knee will bow.

If Antioch is to missiologically impact those of us in the Western world generally, and in these United States of America specifically, we must remember our earthly citizenship – after all, the apostle Paul clearly appealed to his Roman rights – and recognize that we represent currently the world’s only super-power. We need to see with clarity how the rest of the world perceives the American empire. We must wrestle with the impositions our economic and democratic ideologies make on others in other nations and cultures. The good news we tell is good news about the Lord of heaven and earth; it is the risen, reigning Lord’s hand we want with us.
2. An impact church is a teaching church.

For all of his optimism, the expanding workload in Antioch soon wore on Barnabas. He needed help, and he remembered introducing a brilliant biblical scholar, recently come to faith in Christ, to the wary Jerusalem church.16 He remembered that, when Saul’s life was threatened the disciples sent him off to Tarsus, and so now Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Saul, to persuade him to come to Antioch and together open a theological training center. Not only were great numbers coming to Christ, now great numbers were learning the truths of Scripture and faith.

The Great Commission as recorded by Matthew, and used as the impetus for so many modern calls to missionary life, is not to go and evangelize the nations, but as Jesus’ disciples are going – as one of my colleagues puts it – to disciplize the nations.17 Baptizing people, initiating them into the body of Christ, teaching obedience to the teaching of Christ. Discipleship is the discipline of learning. Being a follower of Christ is a thorough going venture: it impacts our being, making us a new creation in Christ; it offers us a new community to which we belong, as we are brought into the people of God; it reorients our beliefs, as we subscribe to a radically God-centered world view; it transforms our behavior, as we learn to live out the ethics of the kingdom. We must jettison old patterns of thinking and acquire new habits of thought.

There is an overwhelming disparity in the global church between the theological resources of the West and those available to the South. It seems to have taken us by surprise to discover that the majority church in the world is found outside of the long-dominant strongholds of Europe and North America. Researchers and scholars like David Barrett, Philip Jenkins and Andrew Walls are alerting us to the profound shifts in global Christianity. Whereas at the beginning of the twentieth century 85% of Christians lived in Europe and North America, a scant one hundred years later the balances had turned. Today somewhat less that 40% percent are found in the Western world; the dominance of Asia, Africa and Latin America is exploding almost exponentially, and will almost certainly increase in the decades ahead.

Yet while evangelism (in the narrowest sense of that word) has exploded the population of the kingdom of God, discipleship (again in the narrowest sense of this word) has lagged far behind. It does not require in-depth statistical research to recognize that while the West is now the junior partner numerically, we are far stronger in terms of the availability of theological resources: formally trained pastors, Christian publishing houses, theological libraries, graduate school seminaries, multiples of Bible translations and biblical commentaries. I have nearly 8,000 books in my personal library; my colleague in the Democratic Republic of Congo will be fortunate to have a handful, and they will not be in either his mother tongue or his cultural thought-forms. Is it any wonder that in addition to the failures of colonialism and the poverty of leadership in Congo, beyond the economic exploitation of the vast resources of that country by neighbors and multi-national corporations alike, the church, planted there for one hundred years, has failed to stem the tide of violence or the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS? (As an aside, I manifestly will not subscribe to the dictum that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep; implying that in America it is somewhat deeper. We wade incautiously in our own cultural shallows.)

Our understanding of the mission of the church, particularly from the West, needs to be transformed. We must continue to send long-term, cross-cultural, incarnational missionaries across global frontiers, but the work they do needs to be done hand-in-hand with the church that already exists there, if it does. We need to give generously of the excessive endowments to the educational programs of our Christian universities and seminaries to upgrade the facilities, enhance the libraries and subsidize the faculties of Christian institutions in the South. It is disgraceful to hear of tens and tens of millions of dollars funding Christian graduate programs in U.S. schools, which then entice the brightest minds of the Southern church to abandon the very churches and peoples that desperately need their leadership and vision.

Mission is about teaching and training. But it must be done in ways that are wise and sensitive to the worldviews and the cultural distinctives of the Southern world. We must not uncritically transplant our own curricula and degree programs, nurtured through a thousand years of European, Reformation and Enlightenment thinking, into the heart of another culture. The body there will eventually reject these as foreign matter infecting its life-systems. It should not surprise us that mission to the Gentile world came from the church at Antioch rather than from Jerusalem. Cultural forces were at work.
3. An impact church is a giving church.

Prophets from Jerusalem came to Antioch. One stood up, presumably during a time of gathered worship, and predicted a famine that would spread across the Empire. He was a true prophet; disaster struck and the famine arrived, hitting the poverty-stricken Judean province hard, affecting those most marginalized and poor, among them the Christians in Jerusalem. Antioch stepped into the hunger gap.

Luke’s text tells us that the Antioch disciples, “each according to his ability, decided to provide help” (11:29). They sent their gift to the elders of the church in Jerusalem, with Saul and Barnabas acting as their agents of mercy. Antioch held together, without argument or apology, compassion for the needy and passion for the lost. They understood human beings whole.

It seems quite possible that the church learned the lessons of giving from their teacher, Barnabas. Earlier in Acts, Luke reports the generous open-handedness of the believers in Jerusalem, who brought their gifts from the sale of lands or houses, presenting them to the apostles, distributing them to anyone who was in need. He reports that Barnabas was one of these grace-full givers, selling his field, making the proceeds available to the needy.

The lesson was not lost on Saul, either, who would devote a substantial portion of his missionary travels and the energy of his apostolic team to a collection for the saints in Jerusalem. He described it as ministry, spiritual service, Gentiles sharing material blessings on a par with Jews sharing spiritual blessings.18

What can we learn about giving from this account? First, it was built into the foundation of the church’s life. It was planned and deliberate, care was taken with the offering. Antioch’s giving was both individual – “each…decided” – and corporate, sending “their gift” – note the singular – with Barnabas and Saul. It was through the church to the church, unlike so much of our direct mail solicitation from para-church organizations. Giving at Antioch was according to each person’s ability. Later, as Paul encouraged the Corinthians to join the other Gentile churches in giving for the needs of Jerusalem, he held up the Macedonian churches, who gave far beyond their ability, as an example of excellence in giving.19

This is a difficult area. Sometimes the suggestion is made that the West needs to avoid getting into financial arrangements with the Southern church, there are just too many pitfalls. And there surely are. But Paul spends a great deal of his missionary work dealing with finances. Money matters in missions. And the problems are not one-sided, as the title of an excellent book notes: Missions & Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem.20 Certainly there are those recipients of well-intentioned Western largesse who will abuse and mismanage – according to our standards of financial ethics – funds sent to them. But this is true of everyone, everywhere. Church leaders in America are sometimes caught misusing funds. And the low esteem accorded to tele-evangelists pleading for pledges simply underscores the point. It is no mistake that Western Christians spend more on annual audits, $810 million, than we do on sending workers into missions each year.21 We do not trust ourselves; we hold far too tightly to what we have.

Perhaps part of the solution is to place a value on the gifts the Southern churches can give to us, reciprocity in ministry, as Paul wrote to the Romans. It will be difficult to assess, but what kind of cash-value, sort of a spiritual economics, could we place on spontaneous trust in and dependence on God, a rich life of prayer, spiritual exuberance and joy in worship? By any reasonable standard the Western church is rich in capital, the Southern church rich in faith. We need each other.
4. An impact church is a healing church.

Humanity is deeply divided. We fracture along fault lines that run through the very core of our existence: racial, ethnic, social, class and religious lines. This was no less true of the earliest Christian community we read about in Acts, the church in Jerusalem. Diaspora Jews – as Luke describes them: “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven”22 – had come to the city for the Feast of Pentecost. Many of them, hearing Peter’s message about Jesus had come to a newfound faith and become part of the church.23

But there was a problem. As we saw above, the early church was practicing the grace of sharing resources with those in need. But disparity in distribution for their widows existed between the allocations for those from Jerusalem and those from the diaspora nations.24 The immediate impasse was solved, but the underlying problem persisted. It surfaced again at Antioch, when some of the scattered disciples found themselves in this cosmopolitan city and began to preach, but only to Jews.25

Paul the apostle tells us that God reconciled “us to himself through Christ,” and so has given to us the message and the ministry of reconciliation.26 He taught that the barriers that divide humanity have been broken in Christ, through whom we are all reconciled to God.27 We have seldom learned this lesson well, but those Antioch Christians did. When they learned of an impending humanitarian crisis in Judea, they sent disaster relief, to the very people who had refused them the gospel to begin with. It was a courageously generous act of healing.

We see the healing of the nations in the leadership of the church as well. Acts 13 lists some of the leaders at Antioch: “Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch), and Saul” (v. 1). It is a roll-call of human differences. We have met Barnabas already, a Levite from Cyprus with a priestly lineage. Simeon was called Niger, probably due his skin color, most likely a black African. Lucius was from the north of Africa in Libya. Luke’s description of Manaen probably means that he was either a foster brother or an intimate childhood friend of Herod, now king; Manaen’s background was in the royal court. Saul was, in his own words, “a Hebrew of Hebrews.”28 Other significant figures from the early church found themselves at Antioch: John Mark from Jerusalem, in whose mother’s home the disciples were said to have gathered following the resurrection; Peter, a Galilean fisherman who enjoyed his recently discovered freedom for table fellowship with Gentiles;29 Matthew wrote his most Jewish of gospels at Antioch, according to some early church traditions; they also suggest that this city was home to Luke the physician and companion of Paul. At Antioch, while differences were not obliterated for these Christians, they no longer mattered. What counted was their new creation, in Christ.

Evangelicals have rightly insisted on the proclamation of justification. At times, however, we have left the impression by our gospel preaching that salvation is only justification by faith, instead of the Reformers’ doctrine of justification by faith alone. We forget what John Stott has taken pains to remind us, that justification is simply one image of salvation. A full-orbed picture includes images of propitiation, drawn from religious shrines; redemption, taken from the marketplace; and reconciliation, from the personal relationships of family life; as well as justification, with its imagery of laws and courts, trial judges and advocates. We have too-often ignored the rich, personal and cosmic New Testament themes of reconciliation.

At Antioch, as in Jerusalem, reconciliation could only be achieved through “a miracle of God’s grace and power,” due to “the mutual bitterness and contempt which Jews and Gentiles felt for each other….”30 In societies oriented to family, clan and community, salvation understood as reconciliation through Christ, vertically to God and horizontally to one another, might have helped prevent one of the most violent genocides of the twentieth century in the most Christianized country in the world, the tiny African nation of Rwanda. The terrors of darkness are still unleashed in the heart of Africa, as in Congo, the country of my birth, where nearly four million have died in a decade of continental plunder, civil war and tribal conflict.
5. An impact church is a leadership-developing church.

We have already noted the leaders of the church at Antioch. Luke describes them as “prophets and teachers.”31 Barnabas and Saul taught the church for the first year of its life, doubtless others among the leaders were developed locally, still others came as transplants from Jerusalem and Judea. Prophets played an important role in the life of the first century church, since it had no developed canonical writings other than the Jewish scriptures.32

The work of identifying, equipping and unleashing leaders in the church is a first-order work. It was needed almost immediately in Jerusalem (Acts 6); we see the necessity of sound leadership at Antioch (Acts 11, 13); Paul charges Timothy to appoint leaders for the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 3). Numerous examples of leadership in the New Testament churches are found throughout the epistles, including both men and women.

Leaders of God’s people are marked by four characteristics: First, God-shaped leaders remember their call, coming often through the recognition of the corporate body, sometimes publicly, at other times personally. Second, God-shaped leaders understand the cost of the task of leading, often the price of setting aside other good and necessary activities to take on leadership responsibilities. Third, God-shaped leaders must acquire the varied competencies of leadership, especially the competencies of prayer, knowledge of the Word and its application to life, and the ability to discern the ways of God in the world, both in the lives of individuals and of nations. But above all, fourth, God-shaped leaders are men and women of character, marked by integrity of heart.

As we noted above, Luke says that when Barnabas came to Antioch, he “saw the evidence of the grace of God…[and] was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.”33 Barnabas’ curriculum vitae was a living document of integrity. What he was in himself he inspired in others. When Paul refused to take John Mark on his second missionary journey, Barnabas took Mark with him and invested his life in his young relative.34 Years later, in prison in Rome, cold and lonely, deserted and isolated, Paul wrote Timothy and asked him to bring Mark, as he was helpful to Paul.35

In our Western world we admire competency; we are problem solvers, we appreciate the ability to get things done. So we train leaders to impart knowledge: in the church we appropriately teach leaders the Bible, counseling techniques, church administration, organization, ministry skills, the wor

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