Meet the 103 year-old preacher who still has a sharp message

(Photo: WCC / Peter Williams)Evening prayer, sermon by Rev. Bang Ji Il of the Presbyterian Church of Korea at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Busan, South Korea on November 6, 2013.

BUSAN, South Korea - A Presbyterian minister who is still preaching at age 103 has a message for the modern Church: Don't confuse cultural religion with faith in Christ.

"In recent years, there have been many religious cultural performances conducted by the churches. Because it is a cultural performance or event there is not much of the Gospel that is presented.

"This cannot be called a proclamation of the Gospel," South Korean Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Bang Ji Il, said at evening prayer on November 6 during the 10th World Council of Churches Assembly in South Korea's second city.

"When we, as the people saved in Christ by God's grace place the Gospel at the heart of our individual lives, as well as the foundation of all our gatherings as Christ's Church, we can enjoy and experience the blessings of the power of the Gospel, the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our midst."

(Photo: Ecumenical News / Peter Kenny)Japanese occupation of Korea enacted by Korean actors on stage at the Myung Sung Presbyterian Church in Seoul on November 2, 2013.

Rev. Bang has had personal experience of what most people would more rightly call, the history of the 20th century.

The biggest challenge facing the Church, Bang says with wisdom of multi-generational ministry, was the danger of reducing Christianity to a "cultural performance" by a blessing culture and missing Christ.

Bang's personal story, entwined with his family history makes him a living icon of the story of Christianity in Asia generally and in Korea in particular.

His life and ministry, stretching as it does across all but the first 10 years of the 20th century and the first decade of this one, takes in all the foundational experiences that have shaped the modern world, especially the Asian world.

"I can remember the Japanese invading and the oppression and discrimination against the Church. I can remember my parents praying at home for release and independence," Bang said in an interview with Ecumenical News.

From the Japanese invasion of his homeland, to the communist revolution in China while he was a missionary there, to the Korean War and the resultant division of a nation and the aftermath of abject poverty, 100,000 orphans and the national grief of at least 1.2 million war dead; he has seen it all.

And some of them:


There has been post-Korean War reconstruction, the flowering of the Korean Church and the technological revolution: he has experienced it at firsthand.

For him, through, it all has been the guiding point of Christian faith that made it all meaningful.

Maybe that is not surprising either given his family history, as his grandfather father was the very first person to convert to Christianity in Korea over a century ago.

His father was one of the first theologically trained Ministers in the first Presbyterian mission college in Korea. Two his father's brothers were also pastors and his aunt was married to one!

According to the family story his grandfather was ostracized from his village of 250 people near Pyongyang (the current day capital of North Korea) after his conversion, and he was not allowed to work or own land. After pleading his case one farmer eventually let him use a field "full of stones."

He promised to give half his harvest back to the farmer as a thanks offering.

By his own hands he turned that stony ground into a productive field. And produced a harvest, half of which he gave away. He did the same thing for many years.

In a story redolent with images of Jesus' own parable of the sower, the witness of the man spread far and wide and helped lead to a growing Christian community there.

Rev. Bang's own ministry, after ordination in 1937, included similar tests of faith.


Again, like his father before him, he was a missionary into China for 10 years.

He recalls how the newly installed Communist party members would come to his home, hounding him about his faith. Never letting up, he said they were determined to convert him.

One memory is of the soldiers ripping the rice paper pages from his Bible and using it to make cigarettes. Inwardly, he said they "used to make me angry, but I didn't care as I used to think of them breathing in God's word with the smoke."

With such longevity in personal ministry there comes a kind of poignancy in the elasticity of faith stretched across time.

For instance, he had led a Monday night Bible study every week for the past 60 years.

He recently gave it up because he was too busy, but would like to reactivate it again.

When asked for a Bible verses that has giddied his long ministry, he said there were many.

But, as quick as lightening he was quoting by heart the book of Isaiah 43:1: "But now thus says the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passes through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee."

Such longevity in an abiding belief reflects persistence and patience in faith not known to most of us.


To put it all into context he has known the names of the people who have shaped a century: from Roosevelt to Obama, Churchill to Emperor Hirohito, from Stalin to Chaing Kai-shek to the "family Kim" who have ruled North Korea like a concentration camp for as long as Rev. Bang's Monday night Bible studies.

And he persists with his message: Christ is not our creation; we do not think him into existence. "He has come to us as a gift of God. Our task is but to accept."

This, he says, is a challenge to our notion of Christianity being "a cultural performance," which is the issue most challenging the Church.

Then he says something that maybe only a 103 year old man could say with such heightened conviction: "As for me I am as good as dead, but I am still alive in Christ."

But, he is not dead by a long shot: he still prays and preaches.

One of his most recent preaching occasions was before some 4,000 people attending the World Council of Churches Assembly in Busan.

And his message?

"I believe that this 10th Assembly of the WCC will be a gathering that clearly reveals the power of the Gospel under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, became human and came into our midst to give us true peace," he preached.

"This self-emptying gift of incarnation is a greater proclamation of God's love and grace, even greater than that of creation itself."

And one of his latest prayers? It was for the interviewer, as we finished this interview, just prior to that sermon. Amen.

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