A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on June 10, 2012.
Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:1
Mark Twain was making a train trip. He didn’t want to carry his brief case with him so he asked a baggage handler if he thought the briefcase was strong enough to be checked and placed in the baggage department.
The baggage handler shrugged, took Twain’s case, and promptly hurled it to the pavement. “That sir,” he said, “is what she’ll get in Philadelphia.” Then he picked the case up again and struck it five or six times against the side of the train car. “And that is what she’ll get in Chicago.”
Finally, he threw the case again to the ground and stomped on it vigorously until the author’s books and papers spilled out, saying “That’s what she’ll get in Sioux City.” As Twain watched in disbelief, the man held out his now mangled case and said, “If you are going any further than Sioux City, I’d suggest you carry it yourself.”
I wonder if anybody here feels like Mark Twain’s briefcase. You could certainly understand why the Apostle Paul might. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul reflects on the ways he had been slammed and stomped on for the sake of the gospel. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches (vv. 24-28).
“Other than that,” Paul adds, “ministry has been a piece of cake.” Just kidding!
So what would prompt a man like Paul, who had all the advantages of a gold-plated Jewish education, to subject himself to such suffering? And how does he keep going? You’d think by now Paul would be saying, “This ministry gig isn’t what I bargained for. I knew it would be hard, but this is ridiculous! Surely God will let out of my contract.”
But in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul displays a remarkable inner strength. We are afflicted in every way, he writes, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. The greater the pressure the stronger Paul lives.
And we wonder, “Where does this kind of inner strength come from? Is Paul made of sterner stuff than most, or is there some other explanation? And if there is, how can we live strong when life slams us down and stomps all over us?”
As Paul responds to critics and reflects on his ministry, he offers us much food for thought regarding inner strength. No less than Paul, the first and foremost missionary and church planter in history, had his share of critics. If Paul was responding to an honest-to-goodness call from God, his critics wondered why was he encountering so many challenges? Didn’t Paul’s suffering indicate he was out of step with God’s will?
And then there were Paul’s flaws. Paul himself admits that he suffers from a certain thorn in the flesh that hinders his effectiveness. He never identifies this flaw, and scholars have had a field day guessing what the flaw is, speculating among other things that Paul may have stuttered, not exactly a helpful attribute for a public speaker. Despite Paul’s fervent prayers for healing, God never removes this thorn, and Paul struggles with it throughout his life.
Maybe you know how Paul feels. You have your own version of a thorn in the flesh—poor health, a failing marriage, a chronic loneliness, or a hard-to-control addiction. Meanwhile, despite your best efforts, suffering seems to be your lot, and life seems to be one, long uphill climb.
What does Paul have to say to people like you? That God’s power is never clearer or more compelling that when it works through our limitations and suffering.
Paul does not pretend he is flawless…far from it. Using the “editorial we” he writes, We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power (to do ministry) belongs to God and does not belong to us.
In that day, it was not unusual for people to store items of great worth in cheap clay jars and pots. Wine, silver, and even priceless books were hidden in clay pots to preserve their value and protect them from thieves. The more weathered the pot, the better the hiding place, since no one would suspect a cracked pot could hold precious treasure.
The amazing thing about God, says Paul, is that he entrusts the treasure of his gospel to the clay, cracked pots of our lives. Once Thomas Merton, the great Catholic mystic and devotional writer, ended a brutally honest entry in his journal this way: “I am content (O Lord) that these pages show me to be what I am—noisy, full of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, you live there!”
Paul is saying God not only lives in his clay jar, his ruined house—he does some of his best work there! But what about the suffering in Paul’s life? Isn’t that unwarranted? No, says Paul. Not when you consider that Paul’s suffering helps him embody what theologians like Robert Mulholland call the “cruciform life,” a life modeled after Christ crucified.
We are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies…So death is at work in us, but life in you.
When Paul committed himself to Christ, he placed himself on a collision course with a Roman Empire that had a very strong presence in ancient Corinth. Jesus had the audacity to say that the kingdom of God ranked supreme over the empire of Rome, and that God rather than Caesar was our Lord. Paul suffered, and suffered mightily for preaching this same gospel.
When Paul speaks of the death of Jesus at work in his life, he uses the Greek word from which we get our English word “necrosis”. Paul says his persecution is so brutal that he should have already died several times over, and he surmises that his dying, necrotic life will eventually end. But that’s okay, because the power of the resurrected Christ is also at work in him, and where death is concerned Paul will have the last laugh.
In fact, it is Paul’s first-hand, experience with the Risen Christ that empowers Paul to keep on keeping on. We speak, writes Paul, 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.
Remember, it was the Risen Lord who met that Jewish executioner named Saul on the road to Damascus and literally stopped him in his tracks. From that day on, Saul became Paul, and the Risen Christ sparked a process of transformation that turned an executioner of Christians into a planter of Christian churches. Paul hadn’t just heard about the resurrection of Jesus. He knew the Risen Christ, and he was willing to look death squarely in the face and keep going because he knew another resurrection was coming, one that would include him and all other Christ-followers.
It wasn’t unusual in those days for Stoic sages to write down lengthy lists of trials and tribulations they had endured. But what separates Paul from those sages is that his source of strength wasn’t a philosophy or brand of temperment. It was a relationship with the Risen Christ, a relationship that carried him through thick and thin, a relationship available to anyone willing to follow Jesus.
But the other thing that stands out about Paul is how he stewarded his suffering for the benefit of others. Everything, Paul says, to the Corinthians is for, your sake. In his book, The Clown in the Belfry, one of our most insightful Christian writers named Frederick Buechner tells of a painful childhood experience he suffered. Buechner’s father was a heavy drinker. His mother often turned to Frederick, even as a child, to sympathize with her and help her in her struggles with his father.
One night Buechner’s dad had been drinking, and decided he wanted to go for a drive. Buechner’s mother refused to give him the car keys. Instead, she took the keys upstairs and handed them to Frederick, telling him to keep those keys from his father. Frederick clenched his little fist around those keys and thrust his fist under the pillow. Then he pulled the covers over his head. A minute later his father came into the room, drunk and begging for his keys. Imagine the sadness of this scene: a drunk father sitting on the edge of the bed begging his little boy for his car keys. Buechner’s mother screamed at his dad and ridiculed him for humiliating himself in front of his son. But his dad just kept on begging.
Years later Frederick Buechner read that story aloud to a group at a retreat. After the reading, a man named Howard Butts approached Buechner. “You had a great deal of pain in your life,” said Butts, “and you have been a good steward of it.” Buechner was struck by those words because like most of us, he had always connected the word “steward” to money. He hadn’t realized we can manage and share our pain in such a way that it becomes a platform of ministry to others.
So how are you stewarding your pain and suffering? Do you use it as a way to gain sympathy and attention for yourself? As an excuse to never think of anybody but yourself? Or are you stewarding your suffering for others, leveraging your pain for ministry? You know, nobody understands an alcoholic better than a fellow recovering alcoholic. And nobody can support a victim of sexual abuse more effectively than a fellow victim who is on the journey of healing.
But wait a minute! Is Paul saying a faithful Christian will never feel depressed or discouraged? I’m so glad you asked because that is a heresy that floats about the Christian world. You see, Paul admits in the first chapter of 2 Corinthians that he once became so beaten down that he despaired of life itself. And Jesus had his own dark night of the soul when he felt God-forsaken on the cross.
Nevertheless, says Paul, we do not lose heart. Why not? Is Paul’s situation, or the situation of the Corinthian Christians improving? Are the Romans about to roll out the red carpet for those who follow Christ rather than Caesar?
Hardly. Rather, says Paul, though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. Sure, my body is slowly wearing out, says Paul. But let me tell you what’s growing stronger and more resilient by the day. It’s the part of me you can’t see, the part that’s far more real than what you can see. It’s my soul.
Hundreds of years earlier, the author of Psalm 138, probably King David, voices a similar sentiment. David certainly had his moments of glory. But he also spent lots of time walking in the midst of trouble, down deep in the valley of the shadow of death. Yet David knew God to be a God of steadfast love and faithfulness, a God he could trust. Because God always delivered David from pain and suffering? Hardly. On the day I called, you answered me…writes David. By decreasing my stress? No. By improving my lot? No.
Rather you increased the strength of my soul. You gave me the kind of inner strength that won’t crack, won’t snap, even under great pressure. You gave me the capacity to live strong.
Furthermore, we have something David didn’t have to cheer us on—a full appreciation of heaven. David only had glimmers of life after death. But Jesus gives us through his resurrection a fabulous foretaste of glory divine. We can live like there is a tomorrow, because there will be. When the earthly tents of our bodies collapse, we’ll be entering a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Not sure there is a heaven? Let me offer a proof of heaven I’ve only recently discerned. And that’s the proof of a transforming soul, a soul being renewed day by day. I’ve concluded that people are so resistant to change—myself included—that the only thing powerful enough to create lasting change and transitions is the Spirit of the Risen Christ.
That’s why I’m confident Paul knows what he’s talking about. I’ve seen more transformation in myself and our church than I ever thought possible. And I have concluded that a transforming, renewing soul is living proof that Jesus is alive and heaven is real!
So live strong, my friends, Live strong.