Sermon Feb. 25, 2018
Covenant. Promise. Faith. Commitment.
Whenever I read the gospel text where Jesus says, “Deny your self, pick up your cross, and follow me”, the martyrs of the first century comes to my mind. Of course, the Roman Empire’s Christian martyrs were not the only martyrs in history, but what we can see in this period is pure madness. They not only bravely stood in front of the lions but actively desired to be martyred; they believed that being brutally martyred was a shortcut to heaven. There is a Christian sacred place in South Korea, where I once visited with my youth group when I was a leader. It is a hill called “decapitation mountain” because a lot of early Korean Christians were decapitated there for professing their faith in Jesus Christ. They were brought one by one and were asked, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” If they said “yes”, off with their heads! The story says, the river flowing under that hill became red from their blood. I find these martyrs both curious and fascinating. We surely can’t understand what it’s like to profess one’s faith during times of religious persecutions.
But it’s not only the martyrs; St. Francis who wrote the prayer about peace was the son of a wealthy merchant. He spent his youth with kids from other wealthy families. Then he abandoned his privileges to pursue deep spirituality. What about Mother Teresa who spent all her life serving the poorest of the poor? Don’t you find it fascinating that some people would actively choose a life of suffering or poverty? But if we take a closer look at the gospel texts, it should not come to us as a surprise. Last Sunday, on the first Sunday of Lent, we learned about the covenantal relationship we have with God. Covenant is like a marriage vow; it’s not only a contract, but a promise that we will stick with each other. Today’s scripture readings further teach us about this covenantal relationship and our response.
In Genesis chapter 17, God makes a covenant with Abraham. What is noticeable in this story is that God changes Abraham and his wife Sarah’s name. Actually, his birth name was Abram and hers was Sarai; Abraham and Sarah were the new names. Abraham’s birth name Abram means “father of height”. After the covenant, God changed his name to Abraham, which means, “father of a multitude”. This is because God promised him a lot of descendants. Sarah’s original name Sarai means “my lady/ princess”. God changed her name to Sarah, which means “mother of nations.” See? She is no longer a spoiled noble lady; she is now the mother of many nations. That’s a significant difference; noble ladies and princesses are weak and spoiled because they don’t have to do anything themselves; someone always serves them.
But mothers are strong and take care of others.
What’s a big deal with names, one might ask. Names determine our identity. I think parents and grandparents spent a lot of time and energy thinking of the names for their babies because their names will follow and define them, and possibly haunt them for the rest of their lives. I remember when I was going through my initial admissions interview with the Untied Church of Canada in Montreal. My supervisor and mentor, the personnel minister of the Ottawa and Montreal Conference introduced me to my panel members like this; “This is Rev. Sun-Young Kim, but she usually goes by Sunny. When you meet her, you’ll understand why she is called Sunny”. From that day on, I started consciously thinking, “I should live up to my name; I should become a little ball of sunshine.” I think this is how name defines us, and why names are important.
When God chooses us and makes a covenant with us, God calls us by name; remember the hymn we sing “I have called you by your name, you are mine.” God calls us by our names, and this is how we know we belong to God. God made a covenant with Abraham and gave him a promise. God gives us a promise too since we are in a covenantal relationship with God. God promised Abraham many descendants. Then what does God promise us Christians, the followers of Jesus? We can learn it from today’s gospel text.
This scene comes right before the transfiguration scene on the mountain. Jesus is telling his disciples for the first time that he will suffer, die, and rise again. The disciples are shocked. They had been waiting for a powerful political messiah, and this guy they have been following tells them that he will be killed? But even so, don’t you think Peter is overreacting and being inappropriate by rebuking his teacher? I think Peter was just so adamant that it should not happen to his teacher. Now it’s time for the teacher to rebuke the disciple. “Get behind me, Satan”, he says. Here’s temptation that comes in the form of a beloved friend and disciple. Jesus was human like any of us; of course, he was temped to run away from his destiny! What follows next is the quintessential Jesus; he is saying, “if you want to follow me, you have to deny your selfish desires and plans, and get ready to suffer all the inconvenience and sacrifices that come with following me.”
Covenant comes with a promise, but we Christians are not promised earthly success or prosperity; rather, we are promised heavenly joy and a sense of fulfillment by choosing God’s kingdom and its values as our life’s priority. Jesus never sugar-coated what we might have to let go and sacrifice to rejoice in God’s kingdom. For the early Christians who were persecuted, it was their life and safety; for us comfortable Christians, it might be letting go of greed and prioritizing living by the kingdom values of love, compassion, and justice.
Now, as the consequence of God’s covenant with us, we were given the promise of eternal life and heavenly joy in exchange for the earthly prosperity and pleasure that we sacrifice. Even if we don’t live in a time of religious persecution, giving up our earthly pleasures and success is not easy. Giving up our control and greed and entrusting our lives in God’s hands is a difficult and uncomfortable thing. That’s why we need faith. Only faith can let us give up control over our lives so that we can live fully and faithfully with God. Like Paul said in Galatians 2:19-20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,[a] who loved me and gave himself for me.”
With complete trust in God, we make a commitment to live as God’s people, and let the Spirit of God guide us. Covenant and promise came from God; faith and commitment are our response to God’s love and call into a meaningful relationship; with God and with each other. There are a lot of ways our commitment to God can be manifested. I have talked a lot about helping the poor, showing solidarity with the marginalized of the society, or speaking out against injustice; but one of the important ways is to be committed to the ministry of the Church to which we belong. If the Church of Jesus Christ is not empowered by its members and supporters, it is difficult for the Church to function as the body of Christ in the world to which God sends us. Not all of us can be professional philanthropists or activists, or even members of our church council, but we can at least support the ministry of our church with our offerings, baking, knitting, or serving as a committee member, greeter, or reader. And we can participate in the decision-making process of our congregation by participating and voting at our Annual General Meetings. I will keep talking about serving our neighbours and social justice issues in the future, but today, let us respond to God’s call into the kingdom by participating in our Annual General Meeting.
Rev. Sunny Kim