Just in case you think I don’t post about faith or my work at Emmanuel here anymore, I thought I’d post my notes for the talk I’m giving at Church this morning. Be interesting to see how this one goes…
I feel like I’ve been telling you the same story for about a year now. Honestly, sometimes it seems really frustrating to me that you still don’t get it, that you keep going off after other, shiny, more exciting sounding stuff. In case you’ve forgotten the message that you’ve been given, it goes a little something like this:
- ‘No matter how many promises God has made, they are yes in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 1). Spirit is the deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
- ‘Struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.’ (2 Corinthians 4)
- ‘If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven’ (2 Corinthians 5).
- God fashions us for this purpose. Spirit guarantees deposit. We live by faith, not by sight. We make it our goal to please God.
- Don’t receive God’s grace in vain. Now is the time of God’s favour (2 Corinthians 6)
- 2 Corinthians 7 – the justification continues (we have wronged no one; my joy knows no bounds. Paul is confident because of the deposit of the Spirit).
- 2 Corinthians 8 Joy and generosity in the midst of extreme trials. “See that you excel in this grace of giving’
- 2 Corinthians 9 – whoever sows generously will also reap generously. God loves a cheerful giver
- 2 Corinthians 10 – I appeal to you, don’t make me be bold. We don’t live by the standards of this world. Our weapons have divine power to demolish strongholds against the knowledge of God, to make every thought obedient to Christ. You are judging by appearances.
- 2 Corinthians 11 – Justification reaches fever pitch. Paul has put himself in danger in virtually every area of life for the sake of the gospel, and yet the Corinthian church are moving away from the gospel in Paul’s eyes. “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”
Obviously, this is for effect. How could I ever be frustrated with you lovely people?! I did this to try and build up to the message Paul gives about the grace of God in our reading from 2 Corinthians 12 today. Sometimes the lectionary can do us great favours in giving us snapshots of scripture to get our teeth into. The trouble with that is that, often, as in this case, Paul has been building his case for eleven chapters before he gets to the reading we have today. As they say, context is everything. I’d really encourage you to take some time this week to read 2 Corinthians from the start and see what you make of it. I listened to an audio bible version read by David Suchet. I’d recommend that version if you feel like you’re too busy to sit still for 12 chapters!
It’s easy to think, when we get to the famous ‘thorn in the flesh, messenger from Satan’ part of this passage that we’re to be very British about it. You know the sort of thing, ‘stiff upper lip me old bean’. This isn’t what Paul’s saying. He’s prayed to God many times for it to be removed (the three is probably figurative) and, finding that it hasn’t been, he has instead had this powerful word from God
‘My Grace is sufficient for you’.
Stop and let that wash over you a little bit. It’s a huge sentence. First of all, whose grace are we talking about? It’s not Haydon’s grace, or yours, which is enough for us. It’s God’s. God who is the maker, giver, and provider of an unending, never running out, well of grace. It’s his grace.
Next, we have ‘is’. This is a firm statement. God does not say that he might do enough for us, sometimes, if we say the right words in the right order, or if we know the secret handshake. With the word ‘is’, we can have confidence that it does not change, it will not fail.
And what about sufficient? Sufficient means enough. It doesn’t just mean enough by the skin of its teeth, the tips of its fingers or even its fingernails, it means comfortably enough. This grace is plenty. It is more than enough. We have no more need. Everything is taken care of and supplied.
Now, I’m very aware that many of us live in situations day by day where it feels like we do not have sufficient. Whether it’s through issues of health, finance, food or drink, companionship, or if it’s through looking at the world around us and head-shakingly wondering ‘what the hell is going on?’ (this is allowed) it can quite often seem like the thorn in the flesh has more power than the God I’m talking about. It can seem like all our attention goes in to dealing with the issues the thorn gives to us, or supporting others who are affected by troubles in their own lives, or even just to watch the world continuing along and feeling powerless to help, but Paul had to learn, just as we do, that thorns, difficulties, suffering, are part of life, but still, perhaps even all the more, when we come to the end of ourselves, we are forced to look to God, to rely on God, to trust God. This doesn’t magic our problems away. Most of us in the room this morning can testify that it often seems that to put your trust in God seems to lead to an increase in pressure, difficulty, pain and suffering. This faith life is not for the faint of heart! But here it is: Jesus suffered for us, that we might have hope, freedom and life to the full. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, we heard that we carry round in our bodies the death of Jesus, but that if the tent (the body) we currently live in dies, we have an eternal building which God is preparing for us. This is fancy spiritual language, and no-one knows the complete answer to what this means but here is my best attempt:
Our bodies, our earthly lives, can fail, they can be tough. This is something of an understatement. Recently I gave Margaret a book called My Donkey Body (I think she’s just about forgiven me) by a minister, Michael Wenham, who is journeying with God through terminal illness.
As his body continues to let him down, he has to learn and relearn what it means to follow and honour Jesus, day by day. One thing that becomes clear from writing Michael’s fantastic writing is that bitterness can completely destroy any possibility for hope. We’re about to lift up our prayers of intercession. As we pray, we’ll be praying for the Church, for the world, praying for those we know who are sick and struggling in body, mind and spirit. We’ll also be praying for ourselves. Sometimes God does miraculous healings, situations change just like that. At others, the greater miracle is that he removes the burden of bitterness from us, sometimes when it has been there for a very long time. Are you holding onto bitterness against God, another person, or against yourself?
Later on, we’ll come to Communion.
As I retell the story of the night before Jesus died, as we enter into it together, I’d encourage you to think about what he went through. We know he died on a cross, an excruciating death. We also know that he was a man, who was betrayed by his friends. He had set his face towards Jerusalem. He knew that his time was coming. It would have been easy, understandable even, that as he broke bread and blessed wine, told us to do the same to remember him, he might have been bitter, afraid, confused. We do God a disservice when we make him too serene, too zen. This was a painful, deeply serious thing Jesus was doing. He asked God to take what was coming from him, but finished with ‘yet not my will but yours’. Paul did the same, but came to the conclusion that the grace of God was enough for him, rather than his own strength. Will we have the courage to let go of ourselves, our own resources, our own need to be ‘enough’ and truly let God take his place again on the throne of our lives?