Sunday, June 10, 2018

Do Not Lose Heart (Sermon)

“Do Not Lose Heart”
2Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians takes us inside the apostle’s deep grief and anxiety clouding his relationship with the congregation at Corinth. It’s not clear exactly what happened, but it is clear that during a previous visit, Paul encountered some strong opposition. Someone in the congregation questioned his authority, or his sincerity, or his faith, or all of the above. Stung by the criticism, Paul cancels a return trip to Corinth.
         “I made up my mind,” he says, “not to make you another painful visit…For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” (2Cor. 2:1, 4)
         Throughout this letter, Paul defends himself and his teaching. He also tries to demonstrate a new-found humility – in himself, in the Church, and in humankind in general. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” he says, “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.” (2Cor. 4:7-9)
         Suffering is not punishment for wrongdoing. Suffering is simply a given, and it can’t be avoided by trying to act upright and holy. Paul knows this not only because he has experienced such suffering as a follower of Jesus, but because he inflicted it on so many people before his conversion on the Damascus Road.
I don’t know about you, but Paul’s struggle is familiar ground to me. As both an agent and bearer of suffering, I appreciate Paul’s example of trying to allow God to transform suffering into a witness to the power of resurrection. “For while we live,” he says, “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.” (2Cor. 4:11) With his next breath, Paul writes the words of today’s text.
13But 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, 14because 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. 15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. 16So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because 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.
5For 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. (NRSV)
         It seems to me that an embattled Paul writes these words to himself as much as he does to the Corinthians. He’s encouraging them, and himself, and now us to look beyond all that seems apparent, all that seems obvious and immutable about the human condition. Beneath everything that appears to be falling apart, says Paul, God is building a new heaven and a new earth. Beneath everything that is dying, God is bringing forth new life. Don’t look at what can be seen, he says. All of that is temporary. Look at what cannot be seen. That’s where we encounter the eternal. So, do not lose heart.
Philosophical jargon can be a greased pig. It’s hard to grab hold of. On the other hand, Paul can’t make it too obvious because he’s trying to describe the paradox of living “in the world but not of the world.” His language calls us to wrestle with the complexities of inhabiting the kingdom of God while living in a world plagued by things like war, cancer, poverty, natural disasters, and by the absolute fact that as long as human beings have the capacity to form their own opinions, no two people will ever agree on everything. The unyielding immediacy of such realities can diminish our faith in God, our hope for the future, and our love for neighbor. In 2Corinthians, Paul is trying hard not to lose his own faith, hope, and love.
The gospel encourages us to hold onto those gifts by declaring that God is as present and real in the middle of all our chaos as God is present and real in times of gladness and peace. To realize that truth requires us to learn to open our hearts to the possibility of seeing and experiencing something eternal, holy, and joyful in the midst of the temporal, the mundane, and the painful. It’s a matter of posturing our hearts toward holiness.
In his commentary on this passage, Mark Barger Elliott includes this little parable:
         A follower once asked his teacher, Where can I find God?
         Right here, the teacher said.
         Then why can’t I see God?
         Because you don’t look.
         But what should I look for?
         Nothing, the teacher said. Just look.
         But at what?
         At whatever your eyes see.
         But do I have to look in a special kind of way?
         No, said the teacher, the ordinary way will do.
         But don’t I always look the ordinary way?
         No, you don’t.
         Why not?
         Because, the teacher said, to look, you have to be present, right here. And most of the time you’re somewhere else.1
         The teacher seeks to be thoroughly present in a broken and challenging world because he trusts that it is possible to see all things through God’s eyes of grace. Through those eyes, one can, on occasion anyway, get glimpses of what and how Jesus sees. We can see God not as something other and out there, but something indwelling, something eternally at hand and available. Through Jesus’ eyes we begin to catch glimpses of the holiness of our humanity, and that of both friends and enemies.
         So, do not lose heart. Even when we feel consumed with despair, threatened by things that feel devilish and destructive, God, through those very experiences, is renewing us. That’s how resurrection works. As the redeeming power in the universe, resurrection strengthens us to be present here and now, in the midst of the conflict and chaos, trusting that the ever-present God is in human suffering, transforming it into a means of grace “as it extends to more and more people,” and so that it “may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
That doesn’t mean that we turn away from suffering saying that “everything has a reason.” Not at all. We enter the suffering around us as Jesus did. We enter it with compassion so that we might witness to God’s resurrecting love in and for all the world.
         The nineteenth century English writer Emily Brontë plays with this truth in a poem entitled “No Coward Soul Is Mine.” Because Paul shared the same bold confidence of Brontë’s words, the poem sounds like something the apostle might have written…if he’d had a few creative writing classes.
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere,
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty ever-present Deity,
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I – Undying Life – have power in Thee.

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love,
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.

Though earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every Existence would exist in thee.

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void,
Since thou art Being and Breath,
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

1From Mark Barger Elliott’s article on Homiletical Perspective in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume 3). Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 115.
2Emily Brontë, “No Coward Soul Is Mine.” From Passion and Peace: The Poetry of Uplift for all Occasions. Compiled by Diane Tucker. Wood Lake Publishing, 2017. p. 281.