Ministry through Trials
Rev. Felicity O’Brien
St Christopher’s Tawa 3 March 2013
2 Cor 1:3-11, 2 Cor 6:1-10
You may be a little surprised that for today’s reading we used the Message version. I often find Paul’s thought patterns a bit difficult to untangle, rather like kite string, and this version has a simplicity about it that makes it so much clearer.
I’m going to open up how trials are part of our lives, then look at Paul’s advice to Corinth and to us about dealing with them. We’ll look at the relationship with God we need to sustain us, and at some of the opposition we may encounter.
We are not promised an easy life as Christians. Do you know, one of the beauties of the Anglican church, is that we have this season called Lent, where we can focus on the hard things of life. When I was in the Pentecostal church, every week seemed like a rejoicing, resurrection Sunday! “It’s all good!” seemed to be the motto. And that’s great, if things are going well. But sometimes it just isn’t all good. We just can’t get the enthusiasm for rejoicing without stopping to think about the bad stuff.
If we’re going to be real as Christians, real with our God who loves us though thick and thin, there is no problem thinking about the bad times. The verses we just heard read from the Message version give us a hint about how to find the positive in the bad times – so we can come alongside others who are going through stuff.
I have come to realize that one of the most useful bits of experience I have in pastoral care, is that of having gone through a marriage separation. Now at the time it wasn’t easy. There were money problems, issues to do with custody, problems with the other family – if you’ve been there or supported someone going through it you’ll know how draining it can be.
But when I’ve been involved in Pop-in, and a young mum who seems unsure of herself, mentions a word about shared custody, I have been able to say, oh yes, I remember those days. It’s hard isn’t it. And then the barriers between me and the other woman, who was usually much younger than me, are broken down, and she knows that I understand a little about her journey. This is an example of what Paul is suggesting – that our sufferings and experiences can help others.
One objection people thinking about God and faith have is: If God loves us so much why is there so much suffering in the world? Philip Yancey has written an excellent book called “Where is God when it Hurts?” which I commend to you if you are grappling with some of these issues.
There is a yearning almost, that belief in God should take it all away, and make life better. This makes a good ‘out’ for those who are looking for an excuse not to accept the reality of God. But it is a good question, and it’s not a new one. Paul is reminding the people of Corinth that he himself has gone through a really inclusive list of everything that could possibly go wrong in the ancient world, short – just – of death. But he doesn’t blame God for allowing it. He accepts that it’s just the way it is.
I have an elderly neighbour whose body is starting to not work so well. When I ask him how he feels about it, he says, ‘well, that’s the way it goes, isn’t it’. It’s is ‘creed’ if you like. He knows that bad stuff happens and there’s no point casting blame on anyone or even on God for it. Our culture seems to want to blame someone whenever something goes wrong, but that’s not what Paul is trying to say.
He’s telling us that in spite of all the hardship, all the sorrow, all the pain, that God is real, God is there, and will give us the strength to get through. He tells us not to accept God’s grace in vain. Not to give up at the first hurdle, or the second, and so on. Yes, there will be trouble. That’s life. But in the words of that other Pentecostal phrase, ‘God is good” ‘All the time’. This is a very challenging statement in the midst of human suffering, and I saw a news report recently where Barack Obama was visiting a strife-torn country –, and he said to a little boy, God is good, to which the child replied, ‘all the time’.
It struck me as incongruous, almost indecent, to hear this in the setting, but when I thought about it, it sums up the whole of Paul’s point – that in spite of what may befall us, through own fault or not, that God is good. Life is bad and good and wonderful and terrible, but through all of it God is good.
You probably know the poem Footprints in the Sand. But you may not know that it was written by a young girl called Mary Stevenson, who wrote it in her early teens. She was born in 1922, and lost her mother when she was 6. Her father struggled to raise the family of 8 children, and Mary knew much hardship. She copied out this poem and gave it to people to encourage them, only years later thinking about establishing copyright for it. She knew Jesus had carried her though the hardest times, and wanted other people to know it too. God’s encouragement, companionship, is always with us. Paul teaches this in his letter, and has other tools for us too.
These are some of the tools Paul describes to help us cope with life –
with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love;
This is a really big list of virtues to contemplate. We could have a week’s study on each of them! In some ways these lists are a bit overwhelming, a bit hard to live up to, but then Paul adds “with the power of God” This is what makes it happen –we’re not trying to be pure or gentle or holy in our own strength, but with God’s Holy Spirit flowing through us. This is what I keep telling myself as I try and get the kids through breakfast and out the door on one of ‘those’ mornings, when there’s no milk, the dishes haven’t been done, the bread is frozen, socks have gone missing, notices need signing…
It gets easier by practicing. Paul is telling the Corinthians, and us, to rely on God through everything, that you will get through. Each time I manage to get the kids off to school without a major tantrum – and that’s just from me – I am training myself to rely on God, to go to God first for help. This may mean praying before the difficult bits, just as Paul commends to us, before that meeting that’s going to be difficult, during the meeting, and afterwards too. God is interested in all the parts of our lives, and rather than just talking to God when things are great, we can and should talk to God through all the trials. If it becomes a habit it’s so much easier to pick up the conversation.
When I call my sister in Christchurch, we can pick up where we left off last time. The closeness between us means that we don’t need to explain the situation, our shared history makes our relationship rich, and we can talk about the most trivial things for hours. And hours. Talking to God can be like that too. The shared relationship becomes richer as we share more. God can remind us of what has happened in the past, funny things we may have forgotten.
The last three verses of the reading are in pairs, where Paul is contrasting the circumstances for holding fast to faith in God – When we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honoured; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, but rumoured to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handout, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.
There are no exceptions in God’s kingdom. There are no times when we can’t rely on the Holy Spirit to help us and accompany us on our path.
-In honour and dishonour – one of my children asked me the other day if I would visit them if they were in jail for murder. I was a bit concerned about why they were asking this, but I had no hesitation in answering that of course I would. God is with us through honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute– that challenges us to be there for each other in good times and bad. Sometimes human hurt can cause us to turn away from family members who have disgraced us, but God will never turn away from us.
Paul mentions the pain of being treated as imposters and yet being true – that must be one of the hardest places to be, where no one believes us. But God knows the truth and is with us.
-As poor, yet making many rich. We can all aspire to that – it’s about generosity of spirit, giving of what we have, rather than grumbling about what we don’t have, being generous with our time, our love, our care.
Then Paul says, as dying, but yet we are alive. This may refer to physical death, but spiritual aliveness. Have you ever read a book, only to discover that the author was not flourishing when it was written? The work transcends the physical condition. I’ve been reading Brother Lawrence, who wrote the most profound and beautiful things, but spent his days peeling potatoes.
Ministry is often marked by trials and affliction. Paul talks about all the terrible things that have happened to him, and there is an account of his shipwreck in Acts 27 which reads like an action movie! Don’t forget that there is opposition to preaching the Gospel and to living it. It may come from those around us who really don’t want to acknowledge God, and therefore the claim God has on their lives. It may come from ourselves, not wanting to step outside our own safety zone, our own day-to-day routine. But it may also come from the devil. It’s funny how on an Alpha holy spirit weekend, there will always be someone who couldn’t get there on time because the car wouldn’t start. Or have you noticed that the data projector which has been working fine at the practice seems to have gremlins in it during the service? There is opposition. But in a way that’s good news for our ministry – that if it’s getting up the devil’s nose, it must be threatening to the kingdom of darkness, it must be having an impact for good on the world.
We have the hope of the resurrection to sustain us though. It sustained Paul through his shipwrecks and beatings.
And after all this, there is triumph, that when Paul stepped out in God’s name, and when we do, that God will prevail. Paul may not have seen the fruits he hoped for. We may not see those fruits either, but that’s no reason to give up.