With God’s grace, we can endure

Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA

by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, June 6, 2021

Proper 5, year B: 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15;

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1  Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Today’s readings raise a number of different issues, so the wise preacher has to pick from among them for a focus. I would like to focus on God’s grace when Christians face challenging times. These are timeless themes, of course, but I think they are a helpful reminder to us in our own times about keeping our focus and our fidelity in Christ. With God’s grace, we can endure any hardship.

The Old Testament reading in many ways relates to this. The tribes of Israel were settled in the promised land, but they wanted a king like the other nations around them—a leader who would fight for them. There may be benefits to having a king, but God boils down the situation to its fundamental flaw: They rejected God as their king and instead demanded an earthly king. For some reason, living with God as our king is hard for us, and we want more earthly sources of security. So, Israel got themselves a king, and within two generations, the kings started to abuse the people just as Samuel had warned them. And the tribes of Israel were again divided, until infidelity to God destroyed both Judah in the south and the tribes in the north. When they chased after their own desires, they suffered loss. But when they relied on God’s grace, they flourished once again, even in the face of hardship.

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians addresses the question of enduring hardship more directly. Today we get back to reading through Second Corinthians in our weekend services in a series that we started before Lent (and paused for Lent and Easter seasons). So, we’re kind of in the middle of the letter already. Let me read parts of the chapter that come before today’s reading and show how they lead into the earlier verses in today’s lesson. Paul addresses some of the hardships that he and his colleagues in ministry have faced, and he encourages the Corinthians to persevere in the faith and also not lose heart.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart… by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God… For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.

You see how this works? Through Paul’s suffering, Christ shines more brightly, because the focus is not on Paul, but on Jesus.

So death is at work in us, but life in you. But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture– “I believed, and so I spoke”– we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. (2 Corinthians 4:1-16).

Paul was willing to accept suffering in his ministry if it would allow the focus to be on Jesus. And as the focus is on Jesus, God’s grace extends to more and more people. As God’s grace extends to more and more people, thanksgiving increases—people discover the joy of God’s generous kindness. And they also give glory to God. This is how God’s blessings abound in the world: not through attention to us and our good works, but by attention to God’s grace and power at work in people’s lives.

Jesus called his followers his brothers and sisters and mother. He draws us closer to him and helps us find new life in him that is the true life worth living. In that life, our hardships and challenges lose their power. That is the transformation that Paul found, and the kind of vitality that he urges us to embrace. And when we do, we find God’s grace and power greater than any hardship.

In our day, we’re not used to being arrested for our faith. We no longer face the lions in the Colosseum. And yet Christians do face sacrifices to endure in the faith and follow Jesus. Certainly, today there is deadly persecution of Christians in Sudan and Nigeria, where churches are burned and children are captured and clergy and laity are shot. And yet, the church in Nigeria and Sudan is growing and thriving, bearing witness to the grace of God and thanksgiving increases.

Even in this country sixty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. learned to endure suffering—not so that he could fight his opponents, but so that he could show love and justice to his opponents, and to call them to reconciliation. In showing Jesus’ sacrificial love and grace to sinners, Christians bring new life to the world. And we find this new life stronger than any hardship we face.

What are our hardships here, north of Atlanta? What persecution do we face to be faithful to Jesus where we are? Traffic? Maybe a missed baseball game on a Sunday morning? Over the years in the churches I’ve served, I’ve seen a number of hardships become stumbling blocks for devotion. In my first church as a priest, a perceived snub from someone scheduling readers left a couple refusing to attend church for years. A missed phone call did it for someone else. Being asked to give money was the last straw for another. Or people move along because they don’t like the hymns or the emphasis on newcomers, or someone else was chosen for leadership. Or perhaps they had to endure an argument, or someone disagreed with their politics. I wonder what our hardships would sound like to Christians in northern Nigeria.

Part of what we face is the tendency to look at churches like a buffet of services from which to choose. We look for the church that we want, the church that serves us, the church that makes us feel good and satisfies our needs. Our priority becomes finding the church that pleases me. So where in those priorities is God?

If God calls someone to a particular church, then by all means, follow God’s call. But if your loyalty to a church depends on how it serves you, then your priorities are misplaced. What if, instead, we asked the questions “How does this church serve God? How might I be called to serve God here? How can I be more faithful to God where I am, even if things aren’t always the way I want them? If I face challenges here (and surely we all will face challenges no matter what church we join), how can I let God’s grace outweigh my own disappointment?

If we focus on ourselves and our own desires, then the church will never thrive, nor should it. However, when we focus on God and God’s grace, then God’s power will be at work in the church, changing lives, increasing thanksgiving and welcoming more and more to discover the joy of a life in Christ!

I’ve heard the story of a parish in Chicago, I think it was. It was a small, struggling urban church, declining over the years. The rector invited people to join him in considering ways to live by a set of Christian disciplines. We call this a “rule of life,” especially when people share these disciplines together. These were disciplines of prayer together, study together, worshipping God and serving God together.

This was no new gimmick of church development, this was simply a deep and abiding commitment to intentional Christian living, not only on Sundays, but every day, putting God first, even when that priority was costly. Over time, this core group deepened in their life in Christ, and they could see God’s power at work in their lives. They shared the joy of these discoveries, and soon this life together spread so that, as Paul wrote, God’s grace extended to more and more people, and thanksgiving increased.

Their devotion to each other was not a matter of convenience, nor of demand. Their devotion came from their shared experience of God. Their joy in Christ led them to want to share that grace with others. So, as they believed, so they spoke and acted, and they watched others find joy in Jesus—not because of their strength as a club, but because of God’s power working in them and through them. And their hardships as a parish became secondary to God’s grace in their lives.

This past year and a half or so has been hard on us. We’ve been disconnected from each other, from our fellowship, from even our sacraments. Church has not been what we’ve wanted, an yearn for the comforts of a familiar and stable experience in this place. These are sacrifices and hardships indeed.

But where faithful souls have continued to pursue God and serve God creatively, and to reach out to others with his grace, this church has thrived. People faced zoom fatigue and the long lent without consuming the Eucharist and without singing together. Others found creative ways to still feed the hungry and house the homeless and study the Bible together and pray together. And new people who were hungry for God found those faithful souls—online and in person. And when they did, they found people still thrilled with God’s blessing even in the midst of hardship. And in that hardship, it was not St. Peter & St. Paul that shined—it was Jesus himself that shined far brighter than we could ever accomplish! And with Christ at the center, thanksgiving increased!

With God’s grace, we can endure any hardship. God is glorified more and more, and grace and joy increases.

Now glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the church, and in Christ Jesus our Lord.