A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
May 22, 2016
2 Corinthians 1:1-11
Last week, on Pentecost, we spoke of how God empowers our gifts; of how our gifts become more than they are when the Holy Spirit moves among us and inspires us.
That same “empower” word is in the Greek version of this opening passage to 2 Corinthians. In English, they chose to translate it as “that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction…”
A closer translation would be “we may be empowered to console”.
I love the image of God giving us a little jolt, replacing our batteries, so we’ll be able to go console each other. There are plenty of things God could empower us to do. God chooses to empower us to console, comfort, encourage other people. Gifts given for the benefit of other people.
In both passages is the reminder that our giftedness, and our ability to use our gifts to help others, is something that begins with God.
Last week I also spoke about the dislocating power of the Holy Spirit, the way it takes us places we’d never choose to go. Today’s description is more about God’s power to console, to comfort, to encourage. And Paul repeats the word about 47 thousand times in three verses, just to make sure we hear it. God consoles us. So we can console others. So we can be consoled.
Paul has clearly never heard of the Prosperity Gospel, that idea that if you have faith, good things will happen to you and you will prosper. Paul, instead, knows that life happens, and we live out our faith in the midst of life. The good, the bad, the ugly. And that we will need consoling.
Suffering happens. Trials happen. Faith doesn’t get you a free pass away from suffering. What it does give you is the gift of consolation. “for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.”
It is human nature to want to keep our sufferings and trials to ourselves. The world can be falling down around us, but when someone asks how we’re doing, we often say “fine”.
Sometimes we don’t want to burden others.
Or we think that they don’t really want to have to wade into our mess with us.
Or perhaps we feel ashamed of the trials we’re facing. It seems like the rest of the world has it all figured out while we’re a disaster.
Paul tells the Corinthians, “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…”
The next time you hesitate sharing your bad news with your community, please remember Paul’s words. We do not want you to be unaware. Paul wanted his friends to know what he was going through. And he went through some real trials. He was pretty vulnerable in his description. Here’s a man who preaches of HOPE in Jesus, admitting “for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself”. He acknowledged his lack of hope, and his despair and fear.
And then his despair turned to hope. The depth of his suffering led him to realize that he couldn’t solve his problems on his own. And so he offered it up to God, so “we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted to us through the prayers of many.”
A few weeks ago, Carolyn shared a prayer request, offering gratitude for 6 months of sobriety for her son. I was talking about it with Carolyn this past week, and she has given me permission to talk about it today in the sermon, (She does not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the afflictions they’ve faced.)
At first, when he was struggling with addiction, it was harder to be public with the news, because of the shame and guilt that kept creeping in. But then Carolyn shared the news. And received support. And they realized they weren’t alone. And they heard stories of others who had struggled with addiction. She said she learned that being vulnerable about their own pain allowed others to share their pain without shame. She realized that in receiving consolation, she in turn provided it back to others.
After she shared the good news of sobriety with you a few weeks back, her son started getting cards and notes in the mail from you. Your encouragement and consolation for them continues.
We might get uncomfortable when Paul starts talking about bad news. It exposes our hesitancy to be vulnerable in our own lives. To be empowered with consolation, however, requires vulnerable honesty. How could we offer consolation to people if they don’t tell us that anything is wrong and if they put up all facades to make it appear that all is well?
If we don’t offer the consolation, how can we then receive the gift of it?
We, together, are the body of Christ. And when one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts. When the hurting part pretends all is well, the rest of the body can’t respond to work toward healing.
For Paul, consolation and affliction meet at the cross.
“For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.”
Paul doesn’t say that God causes our suffering so we’ll be able to relate to Jesus, or so we’ll be able to be consoled. Paul just knows that suffering happens, and in the midst of our pain, we recognize our story in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The relationship between our suffering and our consolation is viewed through the cross, and it is a foretaste of our salvation.
Our confirmation class is joining the church this morning. And in a world where lots of people choose not to join a church, I want to lift up their actions in light of this passage.
There are lots of places to find community, to receive help, and to offer consolation. I’ve found great support at my book club, or in civic groups, or with my hiking friends. I hope we will all find community wherever it is to be found.
I also hope we see there is something different about a church community, something about what we do here that is different than the Rotary Club or a yoga class. In a world where we have lots of ways to find community, we choose to gather together and share our consolation, our affliction, as the body of Christ. A body that has known pain and death, and has come through three days in the tomb to experience resurrection and salvation.
Hear Paul’s words again:
God, who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted to us through the prayers of many.
For Paul, relationships with other church people were connected to God’s saving work in his life. The care he received, the prayers people offered on his behalf, the love he was shown in the midst of his suffering—all served to reveal moments of God’s love and provision.
I recognize that no church community gets it right all the time. And some probably don’t even get it right part of the time. I know there are people who have been so badly wounded by institutional religion that they may never seek this kind of consoling community again.
The statistics show that fewer and fewer Americans are members of churches. The numbers of “nones” and “dones” are rising every year.
“Nones are those who are religiously unaffiliated with any particular faith tradition, though many are interested in spirituality. Dones are those who have maintained their religious identity (many of them are Christian), but have left established, institutional religious settings like churches.”
61% of ‘dones’ still believe in God and many consider spirituality to be important.
People still need consolation. They still need support for their afflictions. Many of them just haven’t received it in church.
And so, as people empowered by God to be consolers, knowing that many people may never enter the doors of this building, do we just decide to care for the people here?
Many churches do that.
Many other churches, including you, have started to look beyond the building, to recognize that while a lot of church happens here, God is empowering us to console people we have yet to meet. How can we build relationships beyond these walls that will allow for consolation?
We are serving the church at an interesting moment in history. Many of the structures and practices of our past are going away. Some people just see that as “the death of the church”.
We, however, recognize it as the ending of structures and practices that just don’t serve the needs of the church any more. The church isn’t dying. The church is the Body of Christ, who we know to be resurrected from the dead. The God we serve, who created the earth out of nothing, is not threatened by changing church structures. We can let go of the anxiety that “the church is dying”.
It does call us to recognize the need to be empowered to console in new ways. And the creativity and flexibility required for navigating those changes can be exhausting, which is why I’m grateful it is God empowered.
One of the reasons we’re engaging in a building project is to have better space for us to use in worship and fellowship. But another, big reason for the project is so we can invite the neighborhood into our space in new ways.
As Paul says:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”
I am so grateful for the consolation of this particular branch of the Body of Christ. While an uncertain future and changing church structures could be overwhelming and even paralyzing, the way you care for each other, and for people beyond these walls, is a sign of God’s empowerment and God’s own consolation. The world is waiting with anticipation to see how God empowers you next. Thanks be to God. Amen.