2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 – Do Not Lose Heart

It is written: “I believed; therefore, I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (New International Version)

We all face seasons and circumstances that stretch our faith and press the limits of what we can handle.

We have no promise from Scripture we will avoid trouble. 

Instead, Jesus promises his followers there will be adversity and stressful predicaments. 

The pressures of life can sometimes be so overwhelming, we might lapse into losing heart, either by chiding ourselves for the adversity and wishing things were different, or blaming others for our troubles, and believing that if they would just get their act together, all would be well with my soul. 

The ancient Corinthian Church had a bevy of relational issues and problems. Some they created themselves. Some came from other people. Other issues arose simply by living in a fallen world, surrounded by the effects of ever-present sinful crud. 

Yet, no matter the source or nature of the problem, the Corinthians needed a point of focus to direct their troubled hearts. They needed to be reminded of the grace they possessed in Jesus Christ.

Faith is a gift given by God. It is planted in the heart of the believer so that, over time, it will nurture, grow, and bear spiritual fruit. Out of that belief arises speaking words of hope and love that embrace the work of God in the life of the believer. The Apostle Paul said elsewhere to the Roman Church: 

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. (Romans 10:9-10, NLT)

Christ’s resurrection from death is both a spiritual and a physical reality. If we believe this truth in our hearts, we will be raised both spiritually and physically. Faith in Christ gives shape to the hope that, although we might be experiencing the effects of mortality and the fall of humanity, we are, at the same time, being spiritually renewed day by day. 

The very same afflictions causing our bodies to degenerate and challenging our spirits, are the same means to achieving a glorious, resurrected existence. There cannot be the glory of spiritual and bodily resurrection without a shameful death. Jesus absorbed the shame of the world’s violent ways onto himself so that we might be raised with him. 

However, this does not mean we will never experience difficulty in this present life. In fact, daily spiritual renewal can and does happen through adverse circumstances. There must be suffering before glory, both for Jesus and for us. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell is not an inoculation from trouble. Because it is the troubles of this life which teach us to trust in God, as well as weaning us from everything we previously trusted to deal with those troubles.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust in me.”

Jesus (John 14:1, NIV)

So, we need to fix our gaze firmly on the unseen reality of faith and hope. All we see with our physical eyes is temporary. All that is unseen is eternal, especially and namely, God. Therefore, it is imperative we traffic in building heavenly treasure, learning to deal with the intangible and unseen dimensions of life.

We are to allow the physical to serve as a sign and seal of the spiritual realities they represent.

For example, Christians come to the Lord’s Table so that the tangible elements of bread and cup will bolster and fortify our faith with the grace that points to the intangible. The Table is to accomplish for us a spiritual renewal of lifting us up by God’s Spirit and joining us with Jesus. This union with Christ can never be taken away from us, even in death, because we have an eternal building from God which makes this present life look like a camping trip.

When I think of a person who is outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly being renewed, I think of Joni Eareckson Tada. She has been a paraplegic for fifty years, after an accident as a teenager in which she dove into shallow water and broke her neck. Afterwards, lying in a hospital for months unable to move, she had completely lost heart to the point of being suicidal. 

Joni could not even kill herself since she could not physically move. Finally, in her darkest moment, she cried to God with what she says was the most significant prayer she ever prayed: “Lord, if I can’t die, show me how to live.” And God did. Joni’s faith is as strong and robust as anyone’s, despite her infirmity and handicaps. She has learned to embrace her troubles as the means of growing her faith.

The path to accept, cope, and transcend our troubles and afflictions begins with acknowledging them. They only have power over us for ill if we ignore them or put up a false front to hide them. The Apostle Paul was open with the Corinthians about his life: 

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NRSV) 

Paul faced whippings, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, hunger, poverty, danger, and trouble, not to mention the stress of caring for fledgling churches. Through it all, Paul was transparent, and named his troubles so he could apply the poultice of God’s grace to his afflictions. 

It is our brokenness – not having it all together – which shows the grace of God to others.

Paul consistently described his life and ministry in apparent paradoxes: strength in weakness; glory through shame; life through death; riches through poverty. 

Although we experience the fallen nature of the world, God bends each situation toward divine purposes so that what seems to be our downfall becomes the means to our spiritual renewal.

Therefore, we do not lose heart. 

Holy Scripture encourages us not to give up because of hardship, since those very same troubles are the divine implements used to form us into solid followers of Jesus.

We need some stress. Just like a violin needing its strings adjusted to the right pressure, God will tune us with the right amount of stress we need to produce beautiful melodious music. God is the musician, and we are the instrument, not the other way around. 

We are to interpret our stress as God tuning us for good purposes. The pressure we experience becomes the means of glorious music in daily spiritual renewal for the life of the world.

Believers are being renewed daily into a valuable work of God. The stress and trouble we experience is very real and sometimes quite hard. Yet, we have the hope God will bend each circumstance for good purposes so that, even though we seem to be wasting away on the outside, on the inside those experiences are renewing us. 

When this present life is over, it is not the end; it is just the beginning.

God Almighty, you reign supreme, including over our stress and pressure in this present life. You have brought us in safety to this day. So, preserve us according to your mighty power, so that we might not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity. In all the situations of life, whether good or bad, direct us to the fulfilling of your purposes through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Acts 2:36-42 – From Sorrow to Salvation

Baptism by American artist Ivey Hayes (1948-2012)

“Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (NIV)

Imagine we are all standing around in a huge modern-day lobby, ready to listen to Peter. We understand big events like this must be well-organized, so everyone is getting a name tag.  But the name tags are given to us with not only our first names; they also include our hidden guilt and shame.  People walk up to the registration table. “Name?” “Bob.”  “What are you ashamed of, Bob?”  “I stole some money from my boss once, and he never found out.” The person takes a marker and writes, Bill: Embezzler. 

Next person: “Name?” “Jill.” “Jill, what are you guilty of?” “I deliberately slandered a group of people. I said things that were not true about them because I did not like them.” So, the person writes on Jill’s nametag, Jill: Slanderer. “Name?” “George.” “What kind of guilt and shame are you carrying?” “I’ve been coveting my neighbor’s Corvette… and his wife.” George: Coveter. Person after person comes. 

Then, up to the table comes Jesus. “What is your shame, Jesus?” Well, in truth, none. So, Jesus starts walking down the line. He comes to Bob and says, “Bob, give me your name tag,” and puts it on himself. “Jill, give me your name tag.” He puts it on himself. “George, give me your name tag.” It goes on himself.

Soon Jesus is covered with name tags and a bunch of icky shame and awful guilt. Apart from Jesus, we cannot take the name tags off because we cannot shed the labels of who we really are. Christ bore the cross covered with all our guilt and shame attached to him. It was all crucified with him.

When the people of the Apostle Peter’s day understood who Jesus was and what he had done for them, they were deeply troubled in their spirits and their souls were horribly upset. They were cut to the heart with the things they had done which sent Christ to the cross. The crowd’s remorse was so deep and profound that they were beside themselves with spiritual pain and asked Peter,

“What shall we do!?”

Peter called them to “repent and be baptized.” To repent is to have a complete change of mind and heart; it is to express a courageous naming of shame, guilt, and sin. Repentance, then, leads to a 180 degree turn of direction to our lives. Repentance is realizing what we have become, and seeing it is not a good place to be.

Sometimes we lack awareness of how serious our situation really is and how at risk we really are. It may be hard to imagine our offense is bad enough to crucify Jesus. Perhaps we have self-justified our morsels of gossip or our lack of attention to the poor, only choosing to see our hard work and sincere efforts to do good.

For others, the problem with repentance runs deeper, having been raised in a legalistic environment. These folks lug around a guilt-laden backpack that would bend the knees of a mule. And most of the guilt, they realize, is neurotic—not based on any real transgression.  Every bad thought and each failure of faith is obsessed over to the point that they cannot shake the pangs of constant shame.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is near. In the name of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness, healing, and new life. If today there is a realization of being in a bad place in your life, whatever that place is, the cross of Christ addresses the deepest needs of your life. What shall we do?  Repent and be baptized.

Repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Spirit are all linked together in today’s New Testament lesson. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise of forgiveness in Jesus; it visually shows us that God washes away our guilt and shame in the name of Jesus.

Baptism is a different kind of nametag, identifying that we belong to God. One who repents and embraces new life in Jesus Christ de-thrones all other competing lords and identifies as a beloved child of God.

The result of that ancient mass repentance and baptism was that three-thousand people were added to a small church of one-hundred-twenty persons! Since repentance leads to action, the new believers went to work devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and orienting their lives completely around Jesus through their constant fellowship together.

Allow me to be a bit more specific about what repentance looks like and does not look like. The prayers of the mildly repentant sound something like this:

“Easy-going God: We have occasionally had some minor errors of judgment, but they’re not really our fault. Due to forces beyond our control, we have sometimes failed to act in accordance with our own best interests. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could. We are glad to say that we’re doing okay, perhaps even slightly above average. Be your own sweet Self with those who know they are not perfect. Grant us that we may continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect. And we ask all these things according to the unlimited tolerances which we have a right to expect from you. Amen.”

I like eggs.  I eat them nearly every day.  Fresh eggs are the best.  Sometimes I make an omelet, with, of course, bacon, green pepper, and cheese.  When I am making my omelet, if I crack open a rotten egg, I do not go ahead and mix it in with the others in the hope that the other good eggs will overwhelm the rotten one.

Grace can only be grace when we have a true realization of our guilt and shame. Grace is radical. It throws out the rotten omelet altogether and makes a new one so incredibly delicious that we never want to go back to the old way of making them. And it is for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.

Godly sorrow, like the kind in today’s story, leads to repentance. In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he called them out and insisted they turn from their old way of life.  In his second letter, he followed up with this: 

I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.

Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.

And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. And that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter. (2 Corinthians 7:8-11, MSG)

There are (many) times we need to feel awful before we feel wonderful – awful concerning how much we have hidden our shame and never let it see the purifying light of the gospel – but wonderful of how over-the-top good grace really is, once we have exposed the guilt and let Jesus replace it with God’s mercy.

O merciful God, we bring long-held grudges and recent grievances, and we chew them over, even at the foot of your cross. We tiptoe around chasms of misunderstanding, we pick our way anxiously among stumbling-blocks of language and culture, and blame each other for every misstep, even while singing of your Spirit. We tremble to name the troubles we see in the Church and the world, for fear of our own sins finding us out, for fear that we will become easy targets for everyone’s hostility. Have pity on us, for our hands are not strong enough and our hearts are not big enough to hold all together in love. We beg you to come to us, foolish as we are, downcast and despairing. We beg you to send us a breath of your Spirit with the perfume of resurrection and hope, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Amen.