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.

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