Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Get a Whiff of You

2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6

Daniel Harrell

Whenever I return from traveling overseas—like from the trip to Mozambique I described a couple of weeks ago—among the many things that strike me as odd once I step back onto American soil is how nothing smells. What with emission standards, sanitized garbage bags, deodorizing soaps, scented clothing, diaper genies and disinfected everything else; you rarely get a whiff of anything that really reeks. This is clearly deliberate. The fragrance market designed to mask offensive smells rakes in around $11 billion annually. Antibacterial products add another $16 billion.

Our national obsession with sanitation has even found its way into church worship. In the interest of good hygiene, my parents’ church in North Carolina uses a bulk-ordered communion service comprised of hundreds of single serving, pre-filled, pre-consecrated, dual action communion cups, each with a dime-sized, tasteless communion wafer and a sip of diluted grape juice packaged together in one sanitary, ready to use, two-part, plastic cup. You pick up one as you enter the church and when it comes time to partake, you peel back the top layer and retrieve the wafer and then a second peel gets you to the juice. A pop-top Eucharist. The body and blood of Christ hermetically sealed for you.

Maybe the use of single-serving communion containers is all about hygiene—they’re always popular in flu season. Or maybe its more a matter of efficiency—ready-to-use-and-dispose communion elements can help make sure that you still get out of church in an hour on communion Sundays—always popular during football season. However, I wonder if maybe some folks just prefer not to be reminded about what bread and wine signify. A hermetically sealed communion cup helps to mask the implied stench of death that the Eucharist recalls. The cross was a horribly nasty business. All the more reason not to be reminded how Jesus said that following him demanded we take up crosses too. There is plenty about the gospel that commends itself to belief: assurances of eternal life, forgiven sin and unconditional love and a caring community. But then there are those other parts: the pursuit of holiness, being unashamed of your faith, forgiving unrepentant offenders, selflessly serving needy people, losing your lifestyle, loving your enemies, hardship and trouble.

We’re three weeks into a sermon series from 2 Corinthians. Paul led off chapter 1 by praising God “who comforts us in all our troubles.” The troubles Paul meant, you’ll remember, are specifically those kinds of troubles and suffering that inevitably come when you get serious about taking up your cross. Of course, Paul promises God’s comfort for our troubles, but what Paul means by comfort is not the alleviation of suffering as much as its endurance. Basically, it’s the capacity to go out and suffer more.

Many of you have responded favorably to these sermons thus far—for which I am thankful. However it does make me wonder how much suffering for Jesus is actually going on. That’s because if you have ever put yourself out there for the gospel—whether through selflessly serving needy people, take a stand for righteousness, or forgiving an unrepentant offender—only to have your serving rejected, your integrity scoffed or your forgiveness scorned; then you know how much taking up a cross for Jesus stinks and how the last thing you want to hear is that you need to go out and take it up some more.

“But thanks be to God anyway!” Paul sings in this morning’s passage from 2 Corinthians, “In Christ He always leads us in triumphal procession!” This only makes matters worse. I don’t know about you, but when I feel like my faith is bringing me nothing but trouble, the last thing I need is some glad happy Bible verse that reads as if my troubles don’t exist.

Thankfully, 2 Corinthians 2:14 is not one of those verses. When Paul writes that “God leads us in triumph,” he employs a specific term denoting ancient Roman victory parades put on to celebrate military conquests. The entire populace would turn out whenever one of these lavish parades marched down main street, replete with lyres and cymbals, decorated soldiers and senate dignitaries, gold-laden floats decked out with the spoils of battle, toga-clad beauty queens waving to the crowd. Yet also in queue marched captured generals and armies, chained prisoners of war humiliated into spectacles of utter defeat. At the parade’s conclusion these same prisoners would be disgracefully executed. Recognizing this to be the verb’s meaning, we’re struck with the awkward realization that Paul places himself as the object of the verb, and not its subject. Rather than sharing in the triumph, Paul is suffering the humiliation of a death-bound captive prisoner.

Realizing this, the influential 16th century reformer, John Calvin, argued against a literal interpretation, insisting that the verb be understood as Paul’s sharing in the triumph rather than suffering the humiliation. It’s an interpretation the King James Bible still records with verse 14 giving thanks to God who “always causeth us to triumph in Christ.” But that’s not right. God does not cause us to triumph in Christ as much as God causes Christ to triumph over us. Jesus takes us prisoner. He makes us spectacles of utter defeat, binding us as captives to himself—and Paul thanks God for it. He thanks God for leading him and his sinful self to death everyday so that Christ’s triumph might be made evident—a triumph which Paul goes on to describe as “the fragrance of knowing God.”

It’s an apt analogy, especially once you realize that the word translated fragrance is actually just the plain Greek word for odor. It’s that quality of something that affects your mind and forces action. And as we all know, few things affect your mind and force action like odor. It’s why the gas company laces odorless natural gas with the foul stench of tertiary butyl mercaptan. Now they could have picked some sweeter scent—say pumpkin spice or fresh garden fresh lilac—but such scents only lull us into relaxing and breathing deeply, not something you want to do in the presence of a natural gas leak. So instead, the gas industry offends our senses with this fetid reek so to get you up and get you out of your house. It’s a stench that saves your life.

The same with the gospel. Hardship and humiliation for Christ’s sake—the marks of genuine obedience and faith—still smell like hardship and humiliation. They smell bad. But to those who are being saved, Paul writes, these are the perfumes of life.

However to Paul’s detractors in Corinth, the whole thing smelled fishy. What kind of twisted religion boasts of humiliation and weakness? What genuine apostle suffers so miserably? What sort of Savior saves by getting executed on a cross? What kind of grace comes from disgrace? They had a point. And they practically had the Corinthians convinced. You get the sense by the end of verse 16 that Paul himself might have wondered what he’d stepped in. “Who is sufficient for these things?” he asks, “Who can preach this stuff?”

Certainly not his detractors. Verse 17: “We are not peddlers of the gospel trying to sell you some sanitized, pop-top Jesus,” Paul writes. On the contrary, “in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity.” We tell the stinking truth. “Does this sound like we’re patting ourselves on the back, insisting on our own credentials, asserting our own authority?” No, Paul writes, “in Christ we speak as persons sent from God.” “Are we like others, who need letters of recommendation, or who ask you to write such letters on their behalf?” No again, Paul goes on in chapter 3. Letters of recommendation, then as now, are only for those who lack personal credibility. If the gospel’s purpose is to reconcile sinners to God, then all the Corinthians needed to verify Paul’s credibility as a minister of that gospel was a good look in the mirror. “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation,” verse 2, “written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.”

To the nose Paul adds the eye. If it looks like a Christian and smells like a Christian, it must be a Christian. Christians show by their lives, verse 3, that they are scratch and sniff “letters from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” We reek with the supernatural gas that is the Holy Spirit. Humiliated and afflicted, Christians exhibit humility and have compassion on the afflicted. As prisoners taken captive by Christ, Christians speak of the freedom of obedience. As offenders forgiven by God, Christians forgive the offensive people who’ve hurt them—looking foolish in the eyes of the world with a foolishness that marks them as belonging to Jesus.

Preparing for my mission trip to mosquito and parasite-infested Mozambique for Christ’s sake—a trip for which I was not totally enthused—I to get a couple of passport photos for my visa. The clerk in the photo shop asked where I was headed, so I told him. As one of the poorest countries on the planet, Mozambique is a travel hot spot only in terms of Fahrenheit, so it came as little surprise that the clerk impulsively blurted out, “What the hell are you going there for!?” Trained as a pastor to recognize such questions as opportunities for the gospel, I politely replied with the gospel truth: “I’m going to visit missionaries.” He couldn’t tell if I was serious. But he decided not to chance it. “Well, that’s a heck of a nice thing to be doing,” he said, though with a hint of derision. He pegged me for a Jesus freak. He thought I was nuts.

Nuts and freaks like members of this church who’ve been heading down to Stillwater prison once a month for the past thirty years to provide a worship service for inmates. I was told this week how other members have served as mentors to those inmates once they got out, helping them to get back on their feet, some in remarkable ways. Or nuts and freaks like others who give valuable time out of busy schedules to help at food shelves, or mentor students in North Minneapolis, or work among the homeless there. Or like the mother I was told about whose son was murdered by another teenager only to then visit her son’s murderer in prison, manage by grace to forgive him, and then go on to befriend him and with him help others to forgive likewise.

A heck of a nice thing to do. Freak.

I remember trying to start a homeless outreach group in Boston. Instead of trying to coax street people into the church, my thought was to get out onto the streets, build relationships and feed the poor—basic Christian stuff. A heck of a nice thing to do, but seriously? Hanging out with homeless people on the streets at night? Are you crazy? I decided to bring up this resistance to my idea in a couple of sermons and see if I couldn’t shame at least a few people into signing up anyway. I’m here to report that guilt still works. I got about 25 people to join in an effort that is still going on.

However, just as guilt might not be the best motivator, it turns out that providing food and clothing for people on the streets may not be the best way to help. I was reading this week about a fairly recent idea known as “Housing First” or rapid re-housing, that has achieved notable reductions in chronic homelessness. In places like Denver, Seattle, Cambridge, Salt Lake City and elsewhere, housing first has accounted decreases of up to 42% in homeless street populations. The way it works is that rather than funneling government money into shelter and food services, this same money is used to rent apartments that are given to homeless people. You walk up to a homeless person and say, “This is the key to an apartment. If you come with me right now I am going to give it to you, and you are going to have that apartment.” Though the program has worked and proven economical too, it has its drawbacks, the most obvious being that it is morally offensive.

As MIT’s Malcolm Gladwell observed, “Thousands of people … no doubt live day to day, work two or three jobs, and are eminently deserving of a helping hand—and no one offers them the key to a new apartment. Yet that’s just what the guy screaming obscenities and swigging cheap vodka gets. When the welfare mom’s time on public assistance runs out, we cut her off. Yet when the homeless man passes out on the sidewalk, you give him an apartment?”

He has a point. Giving out free apartments to the most undeserving is outrageous. It is morally offensive and extremely unfair—which may be why it works. And which may be Housing First sounds suspiciously like the gospel.

Think about it: From God’s vantage point, who are human sinners but an ungrateful lot of chronic indigents who’ve opted for all kinds of cheap vodka, swearing obscenities when life gets complicated before giving up and passing out? With no place to call home, at the end of our ropes with no hope of redeeming ourselves, up walks Jesus who in effect says, “I am the key to a new apartment. If you follow me right now I am going to give it to you.”

No wonder Paul’s detractors, and so many others, find the gospel so hard to believe. Imagine strolling over to some guy panhandling in North Minneapolis and dropping a set of keys into his cup and saying, “Hey buddy, there’s an apartment down in Edina with your name on it. Enjoy.” I’m sure he’d believe you. He’d probably tell you what you could do with your keys. Which was precisely the response Paul was getting as he dropped keys in the Corinthians’ cups— the only difference was that the Corinthians’ cups still had coffee in them. Paul had the audacity to treat these law-abiding citizens as if they were impoverished, drunken, street people! How dare he presume that they needed Jesus! Did he not realize they were already good Christians?

Paul plays with a lot of language here in chapter 3, much of it from the Old Testament. He contrasts “tablets of stone,” an allusion to the Ten Commandments, with “tablets of the heart,” a reference to the prophet Ezekiel. He mentions the “new covenant” which comes from Jeremiah. He mentions a “letter that kills” in verse 6, which is sometimes translated as “letter of the law.” Distinct from Paul’s earlier “letter of recommendation,” this “letter of the law” is his code for “successful religious performance.” It’s what Jesus, when chiding the Pharisees, described as “practicing your piety before other people in order to be praised by them.” This is a danger for sincere Christians still. Successful obedience can warp into personal pride turning people initially humbled by grace into people who didn’t need grace anymore. For that small group working among the homeless in Boston, it was easy to feel all righteous about what good Christians we were for helping poor people, smugly looking down on fellow believers who obviously lacked our true faith.

Knowing this danger, Paul never claims any sufficiency or competency in himself. He writes in verse 5 how any competency and sufficiency for the work of the gospel comes from God alone. As far as Paul himself goes, he sees himself as always as a cross-bound captive prisoner of the gospel, led to death daily so that Christ’s triumph might be made evident—a triumph which Paul describes as “the fragrance of knowing God.” Unworthy to do what God calls him to do—but enabled by the Spirit to do it anyway—Paul stinks up the place with the grace of God. Humiliated and afflicted, Christians exhibit humility and have compassion on the afflicted. As prisoners taken captive by Christ, Christians speak of the freedom of obedience. As offenders forgiven by God, Christians forgive the offensive people who’ve hurt them—looking foolish in the eyes of the world with a foolishness that marks them as belonging to Jesus, and with a smell that reeks of the Holy Spirit. May we always smell so sweet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Love Unnaturally

2 Corinthians 2:5-11

by Daniel Harrell

“If we are afflicted,” Paul wrote in chapter 1 verse 6, “it is for your consolation and salvation, …which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.” There is a solidarity in suffering that binds us not only to Christ but to the body of Christ. Paul welcomes hardship for Jesus’ sake as a means whereby the church is strengthened. Such hardship not only sets us apart as an authentic body of believers, it energizes us to live lives of redemptive obedience and service together, eager and able to make an impact in our communities and in our world. Remember from last Sunday, this consolation is not comfort as we typically understand it, but better translated as encouragement or boldness. Rather than the alleviation of suffering, Christ’s comfort is the power to endure it. Basically it is the capacity to go out and suffer some more.

If ever you have put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel, for the sake of mercy and righteousness and suffered for doing so, then you know this power. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famed Lutheran pastor who led a resistance movement against Hitler and died doing it, once wrote, “It is good to learn early enough that suffering and God are not a contradiction but a unity, for the idea that God himself is suffering has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think God is nearer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this way gives peace and a strong and courageous heart.”

Paul continues on this suffering theme in 2 Corinthians 2, by applying it to the less lethal but no less arduous arena of forgiveness; an arena where suffering for the gospel is likewise demanded. We’re not exactly sure what happened here, but apparently somebody in the Corinthian church slandered Paul and his work and the church did nothing about it. Now Paul was not looking for the church to defend him; what bothered Paul was how the church couldn’t see that because the body of Christ is just that—a body—an attack against one part affected the whole. Verse 5: “I am not exaggerating to say that if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not so much to me as to all of you.”

Evidently the Corinthian church got that message and censured the offender sufficiently (verse 6); so that now Paul writes in verse 7 how forgiveness is in order “so that the offender may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” There is a sorrow for sin, a genuine remorse, that stimulates repentance and faith, but that same sorrow when allowed to wallow can harden into resistance to faith, as well as into self-justifying resentment. Therefore Paul insists that church discipline always have reconciliation as its goal rather than punishment; inclusion rather than exclusion. Granted, the whole concept of church discipline seems somewhat outmoded in our day, especially given how being a part of a church body has become mostly a consumer-driven endeavor. As the saying goes, every church is just one bad sermon away from losing half its members—funny if it wasn’t so true. If people aren’t willing to put up with bad sermons, no way they’ll put up with being disciplined. Accountability and responsibility are fine things until somebody actually calls you on the carpet.

Aside from guilt junkies, the only people who ever go for church discipline tend to be those most eager to dole it out. They’re the types for whom forgiveness and reconciliation come off as travesties of justice, as slaps on the wrists, as permissive winks of the eye. “How can you get serious about following Christ if you’re always getting let off the hook for messing up? Jesus said that if your hand causes you to sin cut it off!” Which is true, except that Jesus meant cut off your own hand, not somebody else’s. As far as others go, Jesus’ severe parable of the unmerciful servant applies. Though forgiven a huge debt by his master, the unmerciful servant refused to forgive the comparably meager debt of another. Upon hearing this, the master turned his unmerciful servant over to the jailers to be tortured. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you,” Jesus warned, “unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Likewise Paul urges the Corinthians to “reaffirm their love” for the disciplined offender. “This is why I wrote,” verse 9, “to test you and know that you are obedient in everything;” by which Paul meant obedient in forgiveness and reconciliation too.

Now it may be that the last thing you need to hear is another sermon on forgiveness. Another round of how it’s your Christian responsibility to be the doormat and let those people who’ve hurt you wipe off their dirt off on your back. Suffering is hard enough. Do you have to forgive it too? How about some justice for the victim for a change? A little righteous anger? Some serious condemnation. How ‘bout we go back to John the Baptist? Call a viper a viper and rain down some unquenchable fire! Tell the truth and demand something be done to right the wrong! Jesus did that. So did Paul. Forgiveness may be harder to do than condemnation, but that doesn’t mean you should never condemn.

And yet, when you stop and think about it, forgiveness really isn’t harder than condemnation. That’s because forgiveness is condemnation. We may typically associate the words “I forgive you” with kindness and leniency, but actually forgiveness is much more about blame and accusation. Imagine the following scenario. You’re greeting a new visitor here at Colonial Church. You walk over to this new person standing out in the Common, someone whom you’ve never set eyes on before in your life, and you stretch out your hand and say hello. But rather than the customary response of “nice to meet you,” this visitor replies “I forgive you.” Now taking for granted that you’re not a person with some citywide reputation for being a total jerk, imagine your surprised response: “What do you mean you forgive me? What have I done? What are you accusing me of?” It’s an affront! And it is. To forgive is to blame.

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf acknowledges how for victims, the problem with forgiveness is that it feels too much like disregarding the offense, too much like acting as if it didn’t happen. How can you treat your offender as if they are not responsible? You can’t. And forgiveness does not demand that you do. Instead, Volf writes that when we forgive, we accuse, “and in doing so we affirm the rightful claims of justice.” Forgiveness is condemnation. But it is not only condemnation. Forgiveness extends past condemnation to the “generous release of genuine debt.” Forgiveness acknowledges the wrong but then refuses to press charges.

Several years ago I was out riding my bike and pedaled through this rotary in Boston—a roundabout as you call them here. I was careful to signal my intentions the whole way knowing how maniacal rotaries can be—not to mention Boston drivers. Nevertheless, this huge Buick, figuring that she could accelerate around me, impatiently swerved in front of me to take her exit, misjudged and hit me. The impact threw me from my bike onto the asphalt, breaking my helmet in two. Gratefully, aside from a few bruises, bent spokes and a headache, no other damage was done. The Buick screeched to a halt, its driver jumped out, ran over to me; and then to my shock, started berating me for hitting her! She said I could have killed her. I’m like, lady, who’s driving the car and who’s on the bicycle? Someone who witnessed the collision called 911. The ambulance and police arrived. Seeing my broken helmet, the EMTs instinctively threw me onto a backboard and stabilized me with neck braces and rushed me off to the hospital for observation. The crazy lady was still shouting and gesticulating at me even as we sped away. I couldn’t believe it.

As I lay strapped and monitored in the hospital bed, a State Trooper appeared by my bedside. Witnesses had attested to my right of way. The trooper told me that the driver was at fault and that now I had to decide what action to take. I was not seriously injured; but I was furious at the driver’s mercilessness. I thought of her refusal to even acknowledge our equal right to the road. I angrily remembered her screaming at me and giving me the finger and calling me every name in the book. I vengefully thought, “she needs to learn a lesson.” I’d seen the ads for personal injury lawyers on TV. I had the law on my side. The State Trooper said, “it’s your decision sir.” My decision.

If only the driver had shown a bit of concern for my condition. If only a hint of remorse. That would make obedience to Jesus easier here. But instead she showed no concern, no remorse, no repentance, making the burden of forgiveness unbearable. This was not right. This was not fair. I did not deserve this. So why should I bear it? Because to forgive is what it means to be a follower of Christ. Back in one of those John the Baptist sermons I made the point that repentance, while a precondition for receiving forgiveness, is never the precondition for offering forgiveness. Reconciliation may be a two-way street, but forgiveness runs in one direction. It rises up out of the bitterness and out of the pain, while the hurt throbs and the head aches. Christian forgiveness is unfair and unjust and undeserved—which is why the Bible calls it grace. Grace for the unrepentant is not an optional side dish in the Christian way of life. It’s the heart of the thing, the main entrée, the center of the gospel—a gospel for which Jesus says we must suffer.

However we do not suffer alone. Forgiveness is borne not of our own strength but out of the power and the right of Christ who himself died for us while we were yet unrepentant. It is Christ’s suffering for us that makes our suffering possible; it is Christ’s forgiveness which becomes our own forgiving. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Likewise with forgiveness, “it is no longer I who forgive, but Christ who lives in me.” Jesus in us forgives us and forgives through us, and that is how we can forgive. And that is how I decided not to press charges.

Martin Luther, in his 1520 Treatise on Christian Liberty, put it this way: “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out for pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as Christ to my neighbor [and to my enemy], just as Christ offered himself to me.”

“Anyone whom you forgive I also forgive,” Paul concludes in verse 10, “And what I have forgiven, I forgive in the presence of Christ for your sake.” This language carries Judgment Day overtones. Just as our forgiveness embodies Christ’s saving mercy, so withholding forgiveness threatens our salvation. The parable of the unmerciful servant applies. “I forgive in the presence of Christ for your sake,” Paul writes, “so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” Satan entices you to hold tight to your grudge. But Jesus allows you to let your grudges go. To forgive is what it means to be a follower of Christ.

There’s a vegan café in San Francisco you may have heard about that’s as interested in their customers’ self-esteem as in their stomachs. It’s is called Café Gratitude and their menu forces the practice of self-love. You want a Caesar salad? Then you have to ask for “I Am Dazzling,” because that’s what the Caesar salad is called. Want the pesto pizza? That’s called “I Am Sensational!” The mocha latte? “I Am Marvelous.” If that’s not enough, when your meal arrives, the wait staff reads the whole thing back: “Who’s Dazzling?” “Who’s Sensational?” “Who’s Marvelous?” “That’d be me!” you say. “I’m Marvelous!” “You are Marvelous!” the then waitress responds as she sets down your dish. “You are Sensational!” Reportedly it’s been enough to turn even the most cynical skeptics into true believers. One customer said she was overcome with tears. Another gushed how this is the way the world ought to be. A third said she felt so empowered she would now live her life with gratitude!

You know, if the San Francisco self-indulgent spouts crowd can come up with “Café Gratitude,” shouldn’t the people of Jesus Christ at least be able to come up with something like “Grace Church”? Why not force one another into the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation by renaming our menus? Instead of Wednesday Night Live or Such and Such Committee, we could quote Martin Luther and call it “Unworthy and Condemned People Mercifully Loved and Forgiven by God.” Or instead of the Church Council or Koinonia Groups, how about “Undeserving Losers On Whom God Has Lavished All The Riches Of Righteousness!” And that way when someone says, “Who’s the undeserving loser on whom God has lavished all the riches of righteousness!” You could say, “Me! I am! I’m the undeserving loser on whom God has lavished all the riches of righteousness?” And everyone could then respond, “You are! You are the undeserving loser on whom God has lavished all the riches of righteousness!” Who knows, maybe by being so overwhelmed by God’s grace it’d become easier to lavish that same grace onto our enemies and overwhelm them too. Luther writes that rather than waiting for repentance, we should load our enemies so full of mercy that they can’t help but repent.

Grace and forgiveness are not side dishes on the Christian menu of life. They’re the main entrées, the center of the gospel—bon appétit.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Get Comfortable

2 Corinthians 1:3-11

by Daniel Harrell

In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul describes “the affliction he experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” Exactly what Paul suffered is uncertain, but it is certain that he suffered it due to his commitment to Jesus. Christians still suffer for their faith in parts of Asia, in the Middle East and elsewhere too. Not so much in ever-tolerant postmodern America. Here, if you can muster the courage to admit you’re a serious Christian in the first place, you’re liable to be met with little more than a politely dismissive, “OK then, whatever works for you.” For the most part, Christians in America remain pretty adverse to suffering even socially for Jesus—this despite the New Testament’s assertion that to suffer indelibly marks you as an authentic follower of Christ.

I know, what a downer way to kick off Celebration Sunday at Colonial Church. “Preacher as Party Pooper.” But really, what are we celebrating? Read through the New Testament and you’ll find that most often Christians celebrated their hardships—troubles experienced solely because they decided to follow Jesus. “Rejoice and be glad when people revile you and persecute you and falsely utter all kinds of evil against you on my account,” Jesus said.

I’m starting a sermon series today from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, a follow-up, obviously, to 1 Corinthians which ended by arranging for a visit from Paul’s associate, Timothy to the Corinthian church. That visit was so disastrous that Paul had to rearrange his own plans and go to Corinth himself. That made matters worse, forcing Paul to leave for Ephesus from which he wrote a rather “severe letter” of rebuke to the Corinthians that has since been lost. Thankfully, the Corinthians reacted positively to Paul’s rebuke, which led him to write 2 Corinthians 1-9. However, this positive regard was sabotaged by a meddling faction who falsely accused Paul of not being a genuine apostle, insisting that he lacked the credentials—credentials such as magnetic presence, eloquent speaking skills, authoritative persuasiveness and visionary foresight; not to mention the ability to pull off a few signs and wonders. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians 10-13 in response to this critique, countering that genuine apostolic identity derives not from charismatic strength, but from weakness, a weakness exemplified in suffering.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul begins, “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction.” These are welcome verses. If we have to suffer we want a God who soothes us. Except that the kind of suffering Paul has in mind is the kind of suffering God causes too—namely—the suffering we suffer whenever we get serious about our faith. Paul refers to it as the sufferings of Christ, by which he means suffering for Christ and all things righteous. This wasn’t anything they hadn’t heard before. As we read last Sunday, the crucified Jesus said plainly: “If you’re going to follow me you will take up a cross too.” Get serious about being salt and light in the world, about mission and justice and righteousness and ethics; get serious about helping the least and the lost and about exposing the works of darkness and evil—and you will suffer for it.

Interestingly, it can also work the other way around. Suffering can make you serious. New York Times columnist David Brooks opined this week how the crash of the American economy appears to be bringing about a significant values shift. Social norms are changing. The oversized now looks slightly ridiculous. Savings rates are climbing and smart advertisers emphasize small-town restraint and respectability. The Tea Party movement is militantly bourgeois. In the coming years of slow growth, people are bound to seek noneconomic ways to find meaning. One of the interesting figures in this recalibration effort, Brooks observes, is a young Southern Baptist mega-minister named David Platt. He’s written a book entitled Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. In it, Platt critiques how his own tradition has managed to create “a nice, middle-class American Jesus who doesn’t mind materialism and who would never call us to give away everything we have. A Jesus who would never expect us to forsake our closest relationships so that he receives all our affection. A Jesus who is fine with nominal devotion that does not infringe on our comforts because, after all, he loves us just the way we are. A Jesus who wants to be balanced, who want us to avoid dangerous extremes and who, for that matter, wants us to avoid danger altogether. A Jesus who brings comfort and prosperity as we live out our Christian spin on the American dream. To gather in church to sing and to worship such a Jesus is not to worship the Jesus of the Bible. We’re really just worshipping ourselves.”

The antidote? Nothing novel. Platt writes that Christians need to read their Bibles more. Pray more. Share their faith. Live simply. He suggests you cap your lifestyle for a year as if you made $50,000 and give everything else away. Being the new minister, I’m not sure I’d take it that far. A Princeton University study this week reported that the amount of money necessary to buy happiness is $75K. After $75K, according to the study, more money has no measurable effect on day-to-day contentment—it’s just more stuff in your basement. Of course Jesus never cared so much about anybody’s basement—or anybody’s happiness per se. Paul either. The word happiness never shows up in the entire New Testament. The same goes for security and safety too. Platt writes that Christians will often say things like, “‘the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.’ We think, ‘If it’s dangerous, God must not be in it.’” But what’s so safe about selling your possessions and giving your money to the poor, or loving your enemies, or losing your life to find it? Søren Kierkegaard was right last week, “Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand the Bible because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.” And we know that the minute we act accordingly, it’s going to hurt. Who needs that?

Maybe we do. The irony, Paul writes, is that it’s in our suffering for Christ where we experience the consolation of Christ. You lose your life to find it. Crucifixion brings on resurrection. “If we are being afflicted,” Paul writes in verse 6, “it is for consolation and salvation; And because we are consoled, you will also be consoled, as you patiently suffer like we do.” There is a solidarity in suffering that binds us not only to Christ but to the body of Christ. Paul welcomes it as a means whereby the church is strengthened. Hardship not only sets us apart as an authentic body of believers, it energizes us to live lives of redemptive obedience and service together, eager and able to make an impact in our communities. We see it over and over again in the stunning growth and revolutionary influence of persecuted churches worldwide.

“Our hope for you is unshaken,” verse 7, “for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our consolation,” that is, the sufferings and comfort of Christ. Actually, comfort or consolation might be better translated here as encouragement or even boldness. Such comfort should not be confused with the comfort that alleviates personal anxiety or stress due to unforeseen circumstances. Nor is it the comfort that allays grief or heals illness. It’s not the comfort of grace that forgives the distress we bring on ourselves or cause others due to our sin—though the Bible speaks of all of these as comfort. No, here in 2 Corinthians, the kind of consolation Paul particularly has in mind is not the alleviation of suffering as much as its endurance. It’s the capacity to go out and suffer some more. I know, it sounds twisted and to some even sadistic, but chances are that if you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel, for the sake of righteousness and mercy and goodness—if you’ve ever done the right thing despite the cost—then you’ve experienced that power, that spiritual juice, that joy of obedience that energizes you to put yourself out there and do it again.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Are you kidding me? I can’t give anymore. My life is swallowing me up as it is. I’m spent. You’re crazy. I came to church for this? Who hired this guy?” I hear you. But have you ever considered that perhaps such depletion might be God opening you up to finally experience genuine, even radical dependence on Him? “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,” verse 8, “of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we figured we were dead. But [and here it is] this happened to make us rely not on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” What God did in Christ He continues to do through Christ with uncompromising power. Verse 10: “He has rescued us from such a deadly peril, and he will rescue us. On him we have staked our hope that he will rescue us again and again (note the ongoing endurance), as you help us by your prayers.” In a day when the existence of suffering is typically put forward as a reason for not believing in God; note that for Paul hardship and its consolation validates God’s fidelity. As far as Paul was concerned, if we don’t suffer for Jesus we’re not being faithful to Jesus and our critics have a right to question our genuineness.

David Platt’s own faith adjustment happened, as it does for so many, after time spent overseas on a mission trip. His journey took him to those parts of Asia and north Africa where to be Christian remains hazardous to your health—and where the church is growing exponentially as a result—without, he is quick to add, sound systems, cushioned pews, entertainment or air-conditioning. I’ve not traveled to those troubled areas yet, but I have made it to a number of others, most recently Mozambique and Malawi a few years back where church is little more than believers and their Bibles. While there, we heard how dismal poverty continues to wrack southern Africa and is itself a leading contributor to the ongoing HIV/AIDS plight since so many poor women must sell sex to feed their children. The Malawian church has finally begun to address both AIDS and poverty in ways that it hadn’t before due to the shame and immorality associated with AIDS and due to a preference to avoid rural areas where poverty is rampant. Encouraging results are encouraging them to do more, to deepen their involvement as God’s people despite the difficulties.

Dawn and I also visited Mozambique, the poorest country in Africa where friends of ours have been translating the Old Testament for the past 20 years. Dawn was enthusiastic about the trip, having spent a good chunk of her own life growing up in Angola where her parents were missionaries. I on the other hand, because I like my Christianity to be comfortable, prefer to send other people instead of going myself. Being something of a whiner, I get stressed about the unpredictability and inconvenience of third world travel. I worried about getting malaria and dreaded the forecast tropical heat, knowing that I’d be unable to sleep since there wouldn’t be any air conditioning. I’m not a great sleeper anyway and thoughts of spending two insominiatic weeks in mosquito-infested Mozambique was not a cross I cared to bear. Couldn’t we just send a care package? But of course that made me feel guilty. Here I was whining about a little two week visit when our friends had been there 20 years. This past week they were teaching translation teams amidst food riots in the capital. They had their luggage stolen too.

So OK, OK. I would go, though as I expected, how we were going to get into Mozambique itself was still up for grabs on the day we departed. Our friends hoped that there might be a plane available to fly us in to their area, but they said we wouldn’t know until we got there. Great. Of course we went anyway and when we arrived in the Malawi, sure enough there was no plane for Mozambique but instead two Mozambican strangers who spoke no English, beckoned us to join them in this rickety truck gesturing that they were the ones to haul us across the border. So sure, why not, we got in their truck. It started to rain buckets. Then it got pitch dark. The roads were unlit and eventually washed out. Their wiper blades didn’t work. What was typically a four hour trip over bad roads turned into a nine hour trip over horrific roads with no certainty on our part as to whether this was what we were supposed to be doing anyway. And I had to go to the bathroom. All of my worries were coming to fruition. All I needed was a mosquito to bite me or for some renegade band of carjackers (not an uncommon occurrence) to pull up behind us. Yet after saying a prayer and figuring that for better or worse it was all in God’s hands since there was nothing we could do about it anyway, I fell asleep. Paul was right. There is something about having to depend on God that brings on sweet, undeniable comfort.

Comfort that led to a great trip. Comfort that leads to thankfulness. What began with praise in verse 3 completes with gratitude in verse 11: “Many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.” Share in the sufferings and consolation of Christ and you’re united to a body of Christ; a cast of saints throughout history and around the world who can honestly testify that the best life is the hard life devoted Jesus and the gospel, a life that endures by having to depend on God and in that dependence discovers the sweetest contentment. “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties that I suffer for Christ,” Paul will later write, “For when I am weak, that’s when I’m strong.” And that’s what we celebrate.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Church Fathers K: Soren Kierkegaard

Mark 8:27-38
by Daniel Harrell

If existentialism is that philosophical theory which emphasizes the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent acting in accordance with their own determination, then my existentialist act during my first visit to the Minnesota State Fair was to freely eat fried cheese curds, a corn dog, caramel popcorn, Tom’s Tiny Donuts, Sweet Sarah’s Chocolate Chip Cookies and then chase it all down with a high dose of hot sauce on a Jamaican jerk chicken pastry—on a stick. Had I been a younger man all of this would have been followed by a trip to the midway for a ride on the vertigo-inducing, gastro-upheaving Zipper. Instead I rode the Ferris Wheel.

My mention of existentialism is due to this morning’s sermon matter: the life and thought of Søren Kierkegaard, the ascribed father of Christian existentialism. My foray into Kierkegaardian thought represents the latest installment of a thirteen-year sermon series on the church fathers, those influential personalities of Christian history who by faith and practice have shaped what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. While many back in Boston are pleased that this long-running series still has legs, I didn’t want to wear out my welcome here in Minneapolis too soon. So rather than my usual month of church fathers sermons, I’m only doing two, with this second on a Sunday when none of you are supposed to be here anyway.

My labeling this a “church fathers” series is something of a misnomer since I’ve included both mothers as well as others who lived after the fifth century AD, the customary cut-off mark for the church father designation. There are so many important and influential people in Christian history, and I’ve chosen to tackle them a letter at a time, this year starting with the letter K. If I calculate correctly, I should get to Z just in time to retire. Three weeks ago we looked at the life and writing of Thomas a Kempis—specifically his classic work The Imitation of Christ. Coincidentally, this morning’s look at Søren Kierkegaard is also about the imitating Christ—specifically its challenges. After detecting how too many fellow philosophers tried to make the Christian life easier, Kierkegaard subsequently dedicated himself to making it harder (which he did in part by publishing only in Danish). Focusing as he can on the despair of failure, I pull out Kierkegaard out whenever I’m having a bad day—just to make sure I milk it for everything it’s worth.

Kierkegaard was born in 1813 into a strict Lutheran home—which may explain a lot. He studied ten years to become a minister, but never made it into the pulpit due to an intense and nagging sense of uncertainty and melancholy that drove his entire career. “Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And If I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I want to see him.” Kierkegaard’s uncertainty did not prevent him from falling in love, but it did keep him from tying the knot. He fell head over heels for a woman named Regine Olsen, but soon broke off their engagement once his doubts got the better of him. This decision haunted him for the rest of his life—thankfully—since so much of his output derived from the despair he experienced over abandoning true love. His first book was a justification of the break-up, entitled Either/Or which set forth the basic tenet of his philosophy: everybody has to make choices among the options present before them. “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” “Our life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.

In contrast to the reigning emphasis on “idealism” in his day, Kierkegaard stressed existence which he argued to be real, painful and more important than any idea. “Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth,” he wrote, “look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended” as ideal. Though disposed toward despair, Kierkegaard nevertheless saw the hard reality of life as an invitation to faith. Faith for Kierkegaard was based on neither doctrinal conviction nor positive feelings, but on a passionate commitment to Christ in the face of uncertainty; a risk of belief that demands denial of self.

Such self-denial brings us to this morning’s climactic verses from Mark’s gospel—a baseline for Kierkegaardian faith. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Your answer invites a commitment but to commit demands that you do something about it. “It is so hard to believe,” Kierkegaard said, “because it is so hard to obey.”

In Mark 8, the ever-impulsive apostle Simon Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, which in Matthew’s gospel made the crowd go wild. Delighted, Jesus renamed Simon “the Rock” and gave him the keys to heaven. But here in Mark, Jesus tells Peter to keep quiet, concerned on the one hand, that people’s Messianic ideals will derail the necessary realities of his mission. On the other hand, tradition holds that Mark was Peter’s right hand man. Maybe Peter insisted that Mark leave out Jesus’ congratulatory remarks given how bad Peter’s own idealizations were going to mess things up in the next few verses.

Peter finally realizes Jesus as Christ the King, only to have Jesus specify how being king meant being crowned with thorns and strung up to die. Such news did not sit well. It would be like a franchise quarterback announcing that he let the opposing team run up the score. Or like the candidate you supported pushing the opposing party’s legislation instead. Or like the acclaimed war hero giving up without a fight. How can Israel be saved if its Savior surrenders? Peter pulls Jesus aside to straighten him out. He tells him to knock off the death talk. He’s scaring the other disciples—this despite Jesus saying that he would “rise again in three days.” Not that it mattered. Real messiahs don’t rise from the dead—real messiahs don’t die in the first place.

Jesus covers his ears and tells Peter to get out of his face. Worse, he calls Peter Satan! Satan? Here you were thinking yourself to be Jesus’ BFF. Just trying to help. And this is how Jesus thanks you? But for Jesus, Peter’s words swept him back to the desert where the devil first tried to divert him from the cross and onto the path of power, celebrity and fame. “Isn’t this how any normal superstar Messiah would do it? C’mon, you can control the weather, walk on water and make dinner appear out of thin air! The armies of heaven are at your beckon call! Why limit your power, especially with all that’s wrong in the world?” Satan had a point and Jesus was tempted by it—and he was tempted by Peter here. Speaking as much to himself as to Peter, Jesus says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Bad enough that Jesus would have to take up a cross to save the world. Worse, he says that to follow him means you have to take up a cross too. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Devoted to make the Christian life easier, many will interpret “bearing a cross” as putting up with life’s troubles: not yelling at obnoxious drivers in traffic, being polite to rude relatives, or ignoring others’ annoying habits. But if these are the crosses I have to bear, none of them seem to be so much about denying myself as about fixing other people, which has nothing to do with crosses.

“The matter is quite simple,” Kierkegaard wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

For most of the early church fathers and most Christians, “taking up a cross” meant being strung up on one too. And yet for most Christians in America taking up a cross is more like taking up cross-country skiing. In theory it can kill you, I guess, but you’d have to be a real doofus. Mostly, nobody cares. Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m relieved most days that being a Christian in America means that I’m generally considered irrelevant and harmless. I mean I could live in Pakistan where police opened fire on a Christian worship service last year. Or in China, where authorities recently overran a mountainside prayer meeting of elderly believers. Or in Indonesia, where three children’s workers were detained for running a Christian camp. Or in Saudi Arabia, where two Indian Christian workers remain imprisoned on charges of sharing their faith. Or in Afghanistan where the 10 Christian aid workers were murdered last month.

Ironically, whenever I read about persecuted Christians, it’s always with a request to pray for their rescue or relief. Ironic since throughout church history, the church grows whenever it gets persecuted. And the church gets persecuted because it gets serious about following Jesus: publicly imitating his countercultural commandments to pursue peace and justice, fight for the poor, love enemies, speak truth and refuse to worship the idols of prosperity. Jesus wasn’t saying that you have to die to follow him; but rather, following him could get you killed.

As bad as that sounds, the alternative is worse. Verse 38: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.” Most people conclude that Jesus was talking about hell here. Yet notice that Jesus says nothing about anybody going to hell here. He’s not addressing unbelievers but his own disciples; believers who are embarrassed about what they believe. The picture is one of Jesus showing up with the angels and opening wide the door to heaven for you to enter. Overwhelmed by God’s grace, Jesus leans over and whispers, “I am so ashamed of you.” What a lousy way to spend eternity.

A more Biblical picture is that of Peter again, this time talking to the resurrected Jesus on the beach, after all the suffering and dying Jesus said would happen was done. Jesus gets straight to the point: “Simon (reverting to Peter’s pre-Rocky name), do you really love me?” Jesus asks it three times, obviously to match the three times Peter was ashamed of Jesus and denied him when Jesus needed him most. Peter replies, “Lord you know I love you,” the third time with deep despair, no doubt recalling his own shameful behavior. Jesus responds, “feed my lambs.” In other words, “show me.”

You may have heard of author and activist Shane Claibrne, whose own Kierkegaardian encounter with the Bible led him to wonder where the people lived who asked the question: “What if Jesus really meant the stuff he said? Where are the people who really believe?” His search led him to pick up the phone and call Mother Theresa. He describes bugging nuns to get her number, and then dialing it expecting a nice receptionist to answer, only to have Momma T pick up the phone herself. He told her he wanted to come to Calcutta and work with her among the poor. She said come on. So he did. He went on to describe the remarkable experience that was, and how it led to his returning to find his own Calcutta in North Philadelphia where he now lives in simple community with a group of other Christians among the poor, serving them with the best they have, since to serve the least is to serve Jesus himself. Many ask about all that he has given up to do what he does, to which he quickly replies that following Jesus has never been about all that he’s given up, but about all that he’s found. “And I have found so much,” he said.

Framed in this fashion, to “deny yourself” is not to deprive yourself, but to give yourself to God by giving yourself to others with love. Kierkegaard wrote that, “Love… is precisely recognizable by the fact that it finds something lovable in everyone and therefore is able to love everyone …” “We love because God first loved us,” the Bible teaches. “God so loved us that he gave his only begotten Son.” Because God gave everything to us who deserve nothing, he rightly demands that we give our all to him. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” Do this and you effectively give all that you have to God. Yet Kierkegaard concluded that because God who demands everything from us needs nothing from us, everything you have freed up for God is now freed up for your neighbor! Loving God (who is easy to love) is what makes loving your neighbor (which was hard) possible because now you have so much love to give.

To love your neighbor is to love actual people in your life, not imaginary conceptualizations of how you believe or might wish these people should be. Such love is not childish infatuation, fond indulgence or doting permissiveness. Instead real love earnestly fights against imperfections and overcomes faults as Christ has done in his love for us. “Christian love is not high, ethereal, heavenly love,” Kierkegaard wrote, “but love descended from heaven to earth. It humbles itself, as did Christ, in order to love the people we see just as we see them.” May we love like that. Amen.

May Kierkegaard’s prayer be our own: “You have loved us first, O God, alas! We speak of it in terms of history as if You have only loved us first but a single time, rather than that without ceasing. You have loved us first every time and every day and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You - You are the first - You have loved us first; if I rise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You in prayer, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first. When I withdraw from the distractions of the day and turn my soul toward You, You are the first and thus forever.”