Sunday, September 21, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles, week 2



Invisible Strength
2 Corinthians 4: 7-18
September 21, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church, Greetings from Corinth!

As you can tell from your Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote to us in Corinth more than once. Since he founded our congregation, he had a close but difficult relationship with us. You can see from the map that Corinth is a major city between Athens and Sparta, on the Isthmus of Corinth. Our city was a large and bustling place, with ports on both the east and the west. We were a city of wealth and luxury, known for our temple to Aphrodite, and for our contribution to classical architecture called “Corinthian order.”

Romans, Greeks, and Jews lived in this populous city. When the Apostle Paul came to Corinth, in about 51 AD, he stayed for a year and a half, founding our churches and teaching us about the Lord Jesus Christ. After he wrote this letter, the one you call “The Second Epistle to the Corinthians,” he did return to our city. It was there that he wrote his Epistle to the Romans.

Paul had a lot to say to us, and sometimes he was very unhappy with us. You might say our congregation had some issues. We tended to get knocked off course pretty easily, following other teachers who seemed more flashy or more powerful than Paul. He called them “Super Apostles” but it wasn’t because he admired them.

But Paul loved us, and he wrote to us several times, sometimes in sorrow and sometimes more like an angry father. He wanted us to truly know and experience the light of God’s glory, that blinding light that struck him down on the road to Damascus, that light that shone in his heart – the light of the good news of Jesus Christ. That’s the treasure he talks about in this part of the second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4, verses seven to eighteen.

7 But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. 8 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. 9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. 10 We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. 11 We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.13 We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: I had faith, and so I spoke.[a] We also have faith, and so we also speak. 14 We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. 15 All these things are for your benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory. 16 So we aren’t depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. 17 Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. 18 We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.


Do you recall the first time something shattered, in your world? I don’t mean figuratively.

I mean something literally broke into pieces, beyond repair.
I have a vivid memory from my early childhood, with my brother John, in the dining room of our house. It was an old house, with high ceilings, wooden fretwork across the doorways, and pocket doors between the dining and living rooms. And there was a plate rail in that dining room, a high shelf on which Mother displayed her antique plates. I think I was about four years old. We were playing with John’s bouncy ball. I say we were playing, but it was mostly John, who was showing me how high the ball could bounce. Mother came in from the kitchen and told us to stop, to go outside before something got broken. “I won’t break anything,” John assured her. Mother was back within minutes, when she heard the sound of one of her antique china plates hitting the floor.

I remember that I was momentarily paralyzed -- in that moment when the ball bounced up and hit the plate, and as it fell, in slow motion, knocked to the floor. It was intact, as it fell, … it would be okay, it won’t break, it won’t break, please God don’t let it break… and then it was in a thousand pieces.

There was no repairing it. Mother had tears in her voice as she scolded John. “I told you not to play with that ball in the house… I told you something would get broken…” You know the speech. You could make it with me. This is why we can’t have nice things!

It was the first time I remember seeing something shatter.
But certainly not the last.

The Apostle Paul is making a somewhat similar speech in this letter to the church in Corinth. They are not, of course, six year old boys playing ball in the dining room. They are grown people, these early Christians, Paul’s spiritual children. And they are breaking his heart, moving him to tears.

For starters, they have apparently grown tired of this gospel Paul preaches. They’d rather not suffer, thanks anyway. They’d prefer a teacher who is more positive, more uplifting. All this talk of the cross, of Christ and him crucified, of suffering and pain.

Persecution? No thank you, we have other plans.
We want to be part of the church that promises prosperity, and we like these fancy preachers in their Armani suits and private jets. They promise us that if we are faithful enough, and if we support them well enough, our lives will be better. We will get what we want. Suffering is for the weak.

We like them better than you, Paul, with your bandy-legs and your suffering, with your “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” all that “I am crucified with Christ.” We don’t want to launch out in ships to preach the gospel to the world. We want our ships coming in to harbor, loaded with blessings like new and better jobs and houses and cars and money and success. If the last are going to be first, we’d like for that to start now.

Part of Paul’s letter is meant to correct this error in the people. We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, let’s talk about Paul’s very understandable defense of his ministry. Ministers identify with this letter – we get it. We’ve stood at the door of the church, with someone shaking our hand, saying, “Sorry I missed last week, but I watched Joel Osteen on TV. He just inspires me like nobody else can.... So watching Joel Osteen on TV - that’s just as good as coming here, right?" 
No, even better – he is so inspiring. Unlike me.

Or this, “I watched that Creflo Dollar on television and he preached for 40 minutes without a single note! He was SO wonderful – telling about all the blessings God has for us. Maybe someday you can preach that well.” 
Yeah, maybe.

My ego wants to squeeze a little harder on that handshake and say, “Um, yeah, pay me a few million more and I’ll preach for forty minutes without notes AND WITH A LIGHT SHOW!”

Even worse is this comment: “I just LOVE that Mark Driscoll. He preaches doctrine STRAIGHT FROM THE BIBLE.” Because, yeah, I’m preaching here from….Reader’s Digest. This is where I should offer a disclaimer saying these three guys are men of God, and I’m not criticizing them. Don’t hold your breath.

But the point is not TV preachers – the point is this insidious teaching that leads people away from two truths that Paul is addressing in his letter.

The first truth: things break.
The second: sometimes broken things cannot be put back together again.

Things break. Sometimes, our lives shatter, smashed into a million little pieces, and there is no way to prevent that. Of course, sometimes things break because we are careless, or mean, or simply because we’ve made bad choices. And other times, everything just falls apart, and there is no calling it back, no do-overs.

We are clay vessels, fragile, common clay, easily broken.
Sometimes broken things cannot be put back together again.
Sometimes life is shattered by tragedy … grief … loss.
Our lives can be taken over by illness … depression…disaster.
It isn’t just a randomly bouncing ball shattering a plate. It seems like the universe conspires against us. And for those who don’t believe, or those who have given up on belief, this affirms their basic convictions. They may conclude that life is random, suffering has no meaning, and quite simply, life is horrible and then you die. They may conclude that God cannot exist, for what God would permit – or worse, inflict – such suffering on people? If God really is a loving God, why would we have such misery in our lives?

We are experiencing all kinds of trouble. We are confused. We are harassed. We are knocked down. Or, in the language of the New Revised Standard Bible, we are afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. We are handed over unto death! Not just Christ, and him crucified, but YOU, ME, handed over to be crucified, to be tormented, and unjustly convicted, and mocked. Maybe none of us have been literally nailed to a cross, but nobody escapes suffering in this life – nobody.

But we have this treasure, in these clay jars. It’s our super power, our invisible strength.
It is “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”
It is a brilliant and blinding light, this light that shines through the cracks in these broken clay pots. The light shines from the face of Jesus Christ, whose death is like our death, but whose life is at work in us, even in the face of terrible suffering. Because of him, we can make meaning of our pain. Maybe not when we are in the midst of it – probably not then. But certainly as we take up our suffering, as we touch our pain and reach out to others to support them in their suffering, we begin to find meaning.

In our suffering, in our afflictions, we more deeply understand our happiness. We come to a place of deeper compassion for the struggles of others. We learn life lessons, profound truths about ourselves and the world, the truths that can set us free. We learn the true depth of grace, that unfathomable, mysterious gift from God that comes to us in the most amazing and unexpected times and places. In our suffering, we find the path to creativity, to change, to new life.[1]

Ultimately, we learn that life lesson that will continue to inform our faith in times of trouble and times of joy: what is essential is invisible to the eye. What is essential – our faith, Christ living in us-- is the unseen.

Our invisible strength cannot be seen, except in the ways we live – lives of grace, gratitude and glory. When that light of Jesus Christ shines through us, even if it is just through the cracks in clay vessels, it is impossible to miss!

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. We are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

Our invisible strength demonstrates itself in our daily lives as we reach out a hand to those who struggle, as we respond to tragedies, both personal and global, as we offer grace and forgiveness to others – friends and enemies alike, as we live in gratitude for God’s eternal love and mercy, as we give glory to God in Jesus Christ, who calls us to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. That’s our invisible strength. 

Amen.


[1] Mehrtens, Sue. “The Gift of Suffering,” Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences http://jungiancenter.org/essay/gift-suffering

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