Sorok is a small island located at the southwestern corner of the Korean Peninsula.
In Korean, “Sorok” means little deer. Like its beautiful name, the island has a tranquil beauty. But its history is stained with blood and tears. Thousands of lepers were segregated there from society, enforced to work, starved, and ill-treated from 1916 until 1963. They lived like prisoners. And even their children were taken from them because back then, people thought all leprosy was infectious. They could see their children once in a while only from a certain distance. So in the past, people called this island, “the hell on the earth.” Even after 1963, lepers have been discouraged from leaving the island to this day. It’s mainly because they need further rehabilitation. Or being abandoned by their family, many of them have no home to return after their recovery.
Needless to say, in the past, nobody dared to go there to help the lepers. Around 1960, however, two special volunteers came to Sorok Island. They were two nuns from Austria who were only in their twenties: Sister Marianne Stöger and Sister Margaritha Pissarek.
In order to help the lepers there, they studied nursing and were especially trained to treat leprosy. Since then, they had served lepers and lived with them not just for a year or two, but for forty-five years until they left the island in their seventies. For all those years, they shared life and love with lepers selflessly as volunteers without any payment. On the island, everyone knew them. They were called Big Granma and Small Granma.
But their lifelong dedication hasn’t been introduced to the public, because they didn’t want their work to be known by others. When they left the island, they didn’t let anybody know. There was no farewell party. They suddenly left just with one suitcase.
In a documentary, Sister Marianne tells her story about how she made up her mind to go to Sorok Island. It was Ascension Sunday. She was listening to a missionary preach. Using the words in the scripture reading, he said, “Stop looking up toward heaven, but go and be a witness of Jesus Christ.” She received this message as the one Jesus himself gave her. So she decided to go and be his witness in Sorok Island. And she did follow this command of Jesus for her lifetime.
We are keeping today as the Ascension of the Lord Sunday. And we are reflecting on the same scripture readings that changed Sister Marianne’s whole life. The readings are the very last ten verses of the Gospel of Luke and the very first eleven verses of the Acts of the Apostles. As you may know already, it is widely accepted that the same author wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts. Both books are addressed to a person whose name is Theophilus and have all the same structure, interests, and style. In today’s readings, we see how Luke concludes Jesus’ story at the end of his Gospel and starts a story about early Christians’ lives in Acts. And we can find Jesus’ ascension is the bridge that connects two stories in the Gospel of Luke and Acts.
Indeed, Luke repeats the narrative in both books. Why? It’s simply because the story is so important. It delivers the final words, the final commands of Jesus. What are they? Let us read them together. “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48-49). “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Here, what is the common thread in those two versions of Jesus’s final words? In short, Jesus commands the disciples to be his witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Be my witness in the power of the Holy Spirit.” While saying this, Jesus was lifted up. Gazing up toward heaven, the disciples heard, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Be a witness of Jesus. Don’t just stand looking up toward heaven, but go. Go even to the end of the earth, even to Sorok Island in the Far East, to the lepers. Go and be his witness. Following this command, the two young nuns dedicated their whole life to the least and to the lost. They truly witnessed Jesus by loving others like themselves, by serving others like Jesus.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, how much do we simply follow this command of Jesus? Sometimes we feel like it’s very complicated to do ministry or live a Christian life. We say, “There are many rules,” “I need to keep this,” “I shouldn’t do that.” But I hope you remember today, the final command of Jesus to us is just three words, “Be my witness.” Our foremost practice is nothing but simple following and simple dedication. Why does it seem hard to do ministry and hard to be a real Christian today? Is it because we look up to heaven too much? Is it because we expect heaven’s glory to be realized right here right now? Is it because we don’t look down and look around while watching above?
As you know, I got ordained last Sunday. It was a service filled with blessings and gratitude. Certainly, it’s one of the unforgettable days in my life. But after the ordination service, I became a little bit serious. I came to ponder over the meaning of ordination, my life, and myself as an Ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. How should I live from now on? How should I become a better minister and a better follower of Christ? With these big and lofty questions, I opened up the Bible and read today’s lectionary readings. Then, I recalled the story of the two nuns, and especially, Sister Marianne’s testimony. Something deeply hit my heart. Before thinking of drawing a grand vision for ministry and myself, as one Christian, what I should do is to “Stop looking up toward heaven, but go and be a witness of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.” God called me not because God wants me to develop tactics or skills for ministry, but because God wants to do God’s work, because God wants me to be a witness. And you are here, called by God, to be the same God’s witness in your life too. Amen? Simple following, simple dedication, simple, but not easy. That’s where we need to start.
Would you be willing to be a witness of Jesus with me? Then, let’s get down to the groundwork of sharing the good news and sharing the redeeming love that we have seen, felt, known, and experienced in Jesus Christ. Let’s not look up toward heaven, but let’s look down and humbly serve others like ourselves and love others like Jesus. Let us be his witnesses. Amen.