Guest commentary by Luke Choi
When the congregation of Korean Central Presbyterian Church (KCPC) in Brecksville, Ohio, a beautiful suburb south of Cleveland, dedicated its new building nearly 30 years ago, the members couldn’t quite imagine the growth that would someday cause a serious parking shortage. Today, even with a team of expert parking attendant volunteers pulling off a spatial engineering marvel that allows for generous overfill of the capacity of their modest 120-vehicle lot every Sunday, an army of people – including pastors, elders, deacons, choir members, worship leaders, kitchen volunteers and just about anyone who arrives early to serve and lead – is still asked to park across the street from the church at the commercial office complex, to leave more space for others. To some, such protocol may seem a bit puzzling and perhaps even disconcerting. Why demand sacrifices from ones who are already contributing so much? If anyone should deserve more convenient parking, shouldn’t it be these Christian exemplars who so dutifully serve and give? Shouldn’t there be some small fringe benefits for such sacrifice and commitment?
I believe, in a way, that’s what James and John were asking when they requested to each sit at Jesus’ right and left in his glory (Mark 10:35-45). They were saying, “We left everything to be your disciples, Jesus, and we think we deserve something for that.” Picking up on their sense of entitlement (from which any good deed may be only a step away), Jesus responded with a question, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
In the Scriptural context the “cup” (poterion) is generally a metaphor for life experience that God hands out to humans. Also, the image of “cup” has a rich biblical tradition as a symbol of suffering, testing, rejection, judgment, and even violent death, as it plays a prominent role in the Passion. Moreover, the “baptism” metaphor, when used in parallel with the “cup” metaphor, commonly denotes suffering. So, in short, James and John were being asked if they’d be willing to bear the kind of suffering that Jesus was later to bear.
Their answer was a resounding yes. Then Jesus not only agreed with them, but even vouched for them that they would, indeed, drink the cup that he would drink and be baptized with the baptism that he would be baptized with – according to Acts 12:2, James became a martyr at the hands of Herod Agrippa, and John, of course, ended up suffering greatly for Christ. So, then, it again begs the question: Don’t they deserve some sort of recognition or benefit especially in view of their future suffering?
But, to their disappointment, Jesus’ final answer was, “Sorry, boys, that is not for me to decide,” followed by the real downer, “By the way, not only you’ll suffer for me, but you should also be slaves to all as well. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” What is so extraordinary about our God is that God came to us in Jesus, provided all kinds of service to us (including teaching, healing, feeding), yet did not demand to be treated like God. God did not demand comfort, recognition or benefit. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Jesus gave his life for us, so that we may live. He truly served and gave everything at his disposal. Yet, there is absolutely nothing about us that merited his services, let alone his precious life. That is why we believe what we believe, for such grace of unwarranted, extravagant serving and giving has the power to transform people’s lives.
It is this kind of all-out, going-the-extra-mile dedication that has come to define the ideal life of faith for many Korean Protestants. There is a popular hangeul term among Korean Christians called heon-shin (헌신), which expresses such devotion, commitment and sacrifice all rolled into one. It is what every devout Christian is expected to do in Korean churches. It is what drives some Korean-American pastors or elders to get a second mortgage to raise the money needed for the church building fund. It is what motivates so many at Korean Central Presbyterian Church of Houston to attend the daily dawn worship services (with services held twice a day during Holy Week), in addition to one of the three Sunday services and the midweek Wednesday evening service, plus be involved with small group devotions and other prayer gatherings scattered throughout the week. It is what impassions the 2,000-plus members of Praise Presbyterian Church in Somerset, New Jersey, to set aside 30 percent of their multimillion-dollar annual budget for local and world missions every year, even through the lean, parsimonious times of a building campaign. It is, I believe, why out of more than 7,000 Asian-American ethnic churches in the U.S., 4,000 happen to be Korean.
The Korean Presbyterian Church of Metro Detroit even came up with a list of recommended resolutions for its members titled “My 2016 Heon-Shin” in its 2016 member directory. Listed in the series of five “I resolve to” statements are faithful Sunday attendance (only in case of sickness or inescapable isolation should one miss Sunday worship – when out of town, one should find a church at which to worship); committing to daily QT (quiet time) for a faithful walk with the Lord (making a effort to attend at least one dawn worship service per week); finding at least one area of ministry in which to serve; faithful tithing; and active engagement in evangelism (namely, committing to prayers for someone for whom God puts a burden in one’s heart to share the gospel). Now, from a non-Korean perspective, this may come across as somewhat over-the-top and dogmatic if not tactlessly imperious and imposing, yet, in the view of sincere, deferential, and devout Korean Christians, it is not seen as such (i.e., that which targets the vulnerable to profit an institution), but rather as a soul-enriching, faith-building spiritual challenge, as it is truly intended and which they’d willingly and gladly accept.
Almost every single Korean-American Presbyterian church, or any Korean church for that matter, focuses on three things: local and world missions; worship (the Word and prayer); and discipleship. No surprisingly, the manifestations of heon-shin can be seen in all three for many of our Korean-American churches, especially those experiencing vibrancy and growth, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the field of missions.
Besides building churches in Cambodia and the Philippines (and organizing multiple short-term mission trips and supporting an array of missionaries and mission projects abroad), United Presbyterian Church of Seattle (which is located in Edmonds, Washington) is involved with biweekly evangelism – focused on homeless shelter ministry, sharing the gospel and feeding 400-500 at a time. Korean Central Presbyterian Church of Houston plans a whopping seven to eight short-term mission trips every year to Central and South America, as well as to India and Africa, with eager participants numbering 150 to 200.
Most Korean-American Presbyterian churches prepare their short-term missions with countless hours of prayer, including the non-stop prayer chain by the congregation throughout the duration of the trip. They typically organize an extensive array of ministries to assist the resident mission co-workers and the local population, ranging from children’s Vacation Bible School and street evangelism and evening praise and worship gatherings to beauty/hygiene services (such as providing haircuts) and vision/dental/medical service and building projects (such as churches, schools and houses). In between their busy, exhausting activities, the mission team members can be usually found amongst the locals enjoying the sports, food and fellowship. Most mission participants give up their precious vacation time or temporarily close down their businesses to make the long trip. Many of them, on top of their traveling costs and labor, donate additional offerings and goods (e.g., medicine, clothes, shoes). These are people who literally pay to serve others, and they do so with utter joy and enthusiasm all because of their love for Jesus Christ and their passion for the gospel.
Indeed, when it comes right down to it, Bong Kee Huh (pastor of Praise Presbyterian Church), Jae Ho Yee (pastor of Korean Central Presbyterian Church of Houston), Philip Jang (pastor of United Presbyterian Church of Seattle), and Seung Won Yu (pastor of Korean Presbyterian Church of Metro Detroit) – the pastors of some of the most thriving congregations in the PC(USA) – all keenly agree that their missional objective is not the service in and of itself, but sharing the gospel. Evangelism is always the clear priority.
In turn, the people from those communities respond to such over-the-top serving and giving. They respond to love and passion for Christ. They send their kids to the VBS. Heartfelt fellowships occur. People flock to the evening worship gatherings. When the members of the mission team lay their hands on the sick, healing takes place. Fervent prayers go on for hours. People give their lives to Christ like a scene out of the early churches during the apostolic age. Lives are saved and transformed.
Koreans are actually no strangers to such experience. Joan Huyser-Honig wrote, “Horace Underwood, the first Presbyterian missionary to Korea, described his first decade of work there as ‘like a fairy tale’ or a ‘chapter from the Acts of the Apostles.’” Horace Underwood selflessly gave and served. Koreans have witnessed and learned from the early Presbyterian missionaries like Underwood how sacrificial giving and serving (i.e., heon-shin) can change the lives of people.
Jesus selflessly served and gave, so that we may be saved and changed, and by keeping his example others may follow. I guess there is a fringe benefit to heon-shin after all, for in some small ways we get to experience Jesus – his transforming power – when we drink the cup that he drank and be baptized with the baptism that he was baptized with. Someone should have told James and John.
LUKE CHOI is a pastor from the Presbytery of the Western Reserve and is serving as an assistant stated clerk of the General Assembly and the manager for Korean-speaking councils support.