2 Corinthians 4:1-18
"Since through God's mercy, we have this ministry, we do not lose heart."
Paul's words really resonate with me. Like him, I too, find myself losing heart and struggling with my own fragile nature and this priceless Gospel he has implanted within us. I think a lot of us at one point or another have been on the edge of giving up. We face mounting discouragement and constant battles -- perhaps it would be easier to give up. But then I think about what Paul was facing, and my life looks mildly inconvenienced compared to what he dealt with:
A church that was tearing itself apart through elitism, pride, sexual sin, pluralism, denial of the resurrection (and even vegetarianism!).
A culture that rejected him and was opposed to the Gospel (his own people were hounding him from city to city).
A government that persecuted him and wanted him dead.
If anyone had the right to use words like "hard-pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down", it was Paul.
He had every reason to lose heart -- except one. What refocused Paul over and over again was coming back to Jesus and the message of the Gospel. He was determined to remain faithful to that message, so he had no interest in deceiving people or distorting the Gospel message. He wanted to plainly speak the Truth.
I think we can stand to learn a lot from Paul in what he had to say in 2 Corinthians 4:5. He wasn't interested in preaching his own agenda, and I think we're guilty of this too often. We do this when we preach our politics or our personal ideology or our feelings, and I think we do this when we preach our own conscience. Jesus doesn't call us to be faithful to our own conscience; he calls us to be faithful to himself. Personal conscience doesn't override the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ and the New Testament. When our conscience does override it, we judge the word of God as being inadequate in the same way the serpent judged what God had said to Adam and Eve to be inadequate (is that what God really said?).
We don't preach ourselves. We work for the mind of Christ.
We have a diverse little church here in Covington (politically, theologically, socially, culturally). We like to say we're an 'eclectic bunch of fixer-uppers who are trying to follow Jesus'. We are a mixed bag of scoundrels, common folks, and high-tech rednecks. I love the diversity of this place -- but that diversity can be hard work (especially in such divided times).
I also have my opinions on a whole range of controversial issues, and it's a real struggle at times to keep those opinions to myself. There are only a small number of people that know how I vote, and one of them is my wife (and she ain't talking). I work hard to keep it that way. Why do I feel the necessity to bridle my tongue and refrain from posting divisive political content?
I'll tell you why. 1) Because I love you (and believe I am supposed to prefer you out of love). 2) Because it could be a huge distraction to the Gospel (which is what I'm called to preach while here). "For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (4:5).
Paul -- though he had hot rhetoric at times -- struggled with his own inadequacy in his ministry. He was curious why God chose to place the treasure of the Gospel into fragile clay jars like himself, people who were susceptible to fracture and brokenness. I respect pastors and others in the church who feel inadequate for what God has called them to do. The opposite is also true: I fear what pastors can do when they operate out of ego and self-confidence.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the story of two very different people who were praying in the temple. He tells this story to point out the arrogance of the Pharisee who believed in his own superiority over others, particularly the sinner who couldn't even bring himself to look to heaven. "Thank God I am not like them!" Yet how many times have I heard Christians utter this same phrase about other Christians with whom they disagree? In the Body of Christ, there is no us vs. them. It is only Christ. We are us (unless we have already decided we are no longer us). We must be very careful about falling into the trap of elitism, because like the Pharisee, we will really just end up judging ourselves.
Paul knew that when we hope in ourselves, we lose. When we hope in our strategies and political maneuvering, we lose. When we hope in governments, we lose. When we hope in our own cleverness, we lose. When we hope in our own skewed self-importance, we lose. And when we hope in ourselves, then everyone who stands in the way of me becomes my enemy (and this is not the Way of Jesus). We cannot be full of self when we seek Jesus.
The theme of our conference weekend is "Risk Hope", so that's where I'm headed. At the end of our scripture we read earlier, Paul tells us what he is willing to risk it all for: the Lord Jesus Christ. He was willing to risk flogging for that. He was willing to risk homelessness and hunger for that. He was willing to risk drowning in the sea for that. He was willing to risk being hated for that. He was willing to risk death for that.
But here's the thing... in Christ, that's no risk at all. It's a guarantee! "To live is Christ; to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). It's a win-win.
There once was a time when I thought I was taking a risk only to find out it was a guarantee. I spent a lot of time planning a creative proposal on a San Diego beach complete with a gorgeous sunset and a basket of fruit and chocolate. I loved this girl and wanted to spend my life with her, so I decided it was time to take the risk in order to have her as my wife. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweating...
But I rocked it like a stud, and she said 'yes'.
And then she proceeded to tell me moments later how she had already bought her wedding dress months before because she was determined to marry me. I thought I was taking a huge risk; I didn't realize it was already a guarantee.
Paul says it's the same with Jesus. His hope was in Jesus Christ alone, so he said "I will not lose heart, even though I feel like I am wasting away."
We have no hope apart from Jesus. We have no hope in other gods. We have no hope in human potential or systems or the query process. We have no hope in human governments. We have no hope in our own cleverness, craftiness, or convincing arguments.
Our hope is in Jesus. And in Jesus alone.
That's what we risk for...but it's really no risk at all.
It's a guarantee.