“Strength from God”

2 Corinthians 4-5: 1

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture— “I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Corinthians 4-5:1)

Stacey King, the Chicago Bulls basketball team announcer, is known for memorable one liners. When King retired from basketball (he played on a championship Bulls team), he was asked to recall his most memorable game. King answered that his most memorable game was the one in which he and Michael Jordan scored 70 points. “How many did you score?” a reporter asked King, and King answered, “I made a free throw.”

We could think about the Apostle Paul’s confidence in this way. He didn’t use basketball metaphors, but he did use a lot of athletic imagery to describe life, and Paul had a real confidence even when his whole world seemed to be falling apart. What fueled Paul’s energy and resilience, his mission and his life? He felt part of the same mission with Jesus. Paul felt a shared power with Jesus, a presence, and when he went into the world, he needed that, especially since he was going to places like Corinth. Corinth was an urban port city with a bad reputation. It was the place where Paul realized his mission to preach to the Gentiles. The early Christians in Corinth were led by a group that Paul called the “super apostles” who taught that Christians could expect a life of success and bliss. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church served as a corrective to this teaching, illustrated by how much Paul mentions his suffering right alongside his faith. Let us focus on three things that Paul does in this scripture. Firstly, he reframes suffering. Secondly, related to that, he teaches that while the outer body is wasting away, the inner is being renewed. He even refers to this as a light. Thirdly, Paul teaches that this inner light has a communal quality about it.

How did Paul reframe suffering? His connection to Jesus seemed to give him a confidence as he went through the trials of life. He spent most of his time imprisoned, yet he constantly wrote how being broken, beaten, and imprisoned didn’t break his spirit. Instead of teaching that being Christian meant life was free of suffering, Paul, like Jesus, taught that “you will have trials and tribulations.” Pauline theology gives a variety of detailed, systematic treatments of Paul’s belief, but Paul really based his writing more on the life of Jesus than on a belief system. Paul felt connected to Jesus in such a way that the power of the resurrection of Jesus felt very real to him. That is why Paul, at his very worst, still felt like a champion because he knew Jesus was leading the way to victory.

Paul wrote that the inner light shined because of a connection to Jesus. In chapter 4 Paul states that we have treasure in clay pots. Like clay pots, we are prone to being broken, but inside is the greatest treasure of all. This is real life theology, much different than what the super-apostles taught, and we can see why they disagreed with Paul. Would Paul grow the church based on a theology that included suffering as a part of life? They took Paul to trial while he was in Corinth, but eventually the charges against him were dismissed, but we can see the disparity between those two theological approaches. Paul described the life of faith in such practical ways because he knew that there is a lot of suffering in life. In this community we see how much suffering there is. We reach out to it, but we also see it right here and realize no one is immune. The economy is still not strong and people are still losing their  jobs, marriages are falling apart, cancer and sickness seems to be affecting almost every other one of us. Paul realized that life was tough, and he compared his life to the life of Christ to gain perspective.

As the famous French writer Claudel wrote: “Christ did not come to do away with suffering. He did not come to explain it. He came to fill it with his presence.”One of my professors from Princeton Seminary, Donald Capps, wrote a book on pastoral care entitled Reframing. His book describes how the church has the theological task to proclaim that even though circumstances may not change, there is still a way to find hope. That hope is the strength from God even though life seems filled with despair. Finding a new frame of reference and realizing that healing is happening – that a light is still shining- sometimes very deep withinnot only restores hope but brings realization of the powerful presence of God. Is there something in your life that could be reframed from despair to hope? How about simply growing older?

Aging can be discouraging.

I recall the words of my father. He said, do not be afraid of growing old. He said, “Prepare yourself to meet an older person one of these days. For surely you’ll meet him. Down the road ahead, maybe 10, 20, or 30 years away, waiting there for you, you will catch up with that older person. What kind of person will that be? Either he will be a seasoned, soft, gracious fellow, easy to meet, and a joy to know, surrounded by a host of friends, friends who valued his presence so he kept them close. Or, that older person that you might meet some years from now might be a bitter, disillusioned, dried up, cynical old skeptic, sour, friendless, and alone without a good word for anybody. The kind of person you meet depends entirely upon yourself because that person will be yourself. In other words, someday you will be the composite of everything you do, say, and think each day. Each day, and every way, you are becoming more and more like yourself.” That is an amazing statement, but it is certainly true. In so many ways we are looking more like our full selves, thinking more like that complete self, and more than one way, each passing day, becoming more of a finished product. Sometimes I think about how painful aging can be, especially when it brings an illness such as Alzheimer’s. Even the mind may be wasting away, but still, beyond the mind, is the spirit, deep within, a spark that cannot be extinguished.

Once a chaplain in a hospice mentioned this spark when asked how the staff survived with the anticipation of death. How did they respond to that pressure of anticipation as their relationships grew? The chaplain recounted a story that had just happened. A woman was being visited by her son. Their laughter spilled out of her room into the hallway causing nurses who were walking by to smile cheerfully. When the son left, the woman called a nurse into her room and said that she knew she was about to die. The nurse checked her vital signs and realized that the woman was right. She asked the nurse to hold her, and she did, she held her as she passed into eternity. The chaplain said that the nurse took a few days off to think about that, but he knew that she would return, because everyone who worked there knew that working there brought pain, but it also brought realization of a light shining within, and that light could be seen in others, and that was a genuine source of hope.

If you notice Paul’s writing in the scripture, he begins to use the plural “we” as he describes the life of faith. That brings us to Paul’s third point. This light is not reserved for the individual, it is a light that creates and unites a community. I began this sermon talking about attending a high school reunion. In times of reunion, high school, college, or in times of celebration, third graders receiving their Bibles, Youth Sunday, we realize the light of the community. There is a warmth in the fellowship as connections are strengthened. When I graduated from high school, Samuel Freedman, a reporter from the New York Times wrote a story about his principal who was murdered and how he attended the funeral not as a reporter but as a student paying respects. He wrote, “Now and then, a couple of high-school girls would start to cry, crumpling into one another’s arms. And then the photographers and camera crews would descend, shutters snapping from two feet away. One of them, I noticed, managed to shoot with a lit cigarette still in his focusing hand. I remember thinking: This is not journalism; this is stealing souls. But while I could condemn them, I could not disown them, because in a sense they were my blood relations. I had been there, too, in Piscataway, N.J., and Bensenville, Ill., and Newtown, Conn., scavenging for ”good copy” in the aftermath of some catastrophe, wearing a somber, trustworthy face for the interviews, then cresting on adrenalin as I wrote, wondering whether the story would make Page One. Even though I was in Highland Park as a civilian only, the notebook that I had tucked inside my vest pocket out of habit felt more like the microphone taped to an informer’s chest.

But somehow the architecture that otherwise seemed pretentious conferred the correct dignity on this occasion. The high school choir sang, and even from nearby their voices sounded faint and distant, all piping sopranos because teen-age boys think choir is for sissies. Then Austin Gumbs, the principal when I was in school and recently retired as Superintendent of Schools, spoke of lighting the candles of hope and remembrance, and of hanging onto the flame as our tribute to Bill Donahue.

I felt silly carrying a candle three blocks home, cupping my hand to protect the flame. This, after all, is the sort of gesture a detached journalist employs as a folksy detail in an article but secretly considers irremediably corny, or maybe just too intimate. I felt that way until I saw a candle burning on someone’s porch, and two more in the car that drove past as I climbed the front steps of my father’s house, warm wax all over my fingers. I had seen my hometown draw together and give succor in other tragedies, but never on the scale of these few days. An assault on community had been transformed into an affirmation of community. When I explain to friends from other places what happened in my hometown this past week….I always end by telling them about the candles.”

That reporter had experienced his community being transformed from despair into hope. He had experienced the feeling of community as a healing source of God’s love. Paul described humans and the church in that way, to be imperfect, like clay pots, but holding precious treasure within. Even as the outer nature is wasting away, that treasure is being renewed day by day. When our strength comes from God, we shine as lights in the darkness. Let us learn this lesson from Paul and reframe suffering, and take strength from God, so that we, like Paul, can join our lights with others to illuminate the world.