Sunday, June 10, 2012

More Than Meets the Eye
2 Cor 4:7-20[1]
We tend to operate our lives based on all kinds of measurements.  We measure time to keep us on schedule, whether we’re traveling or going to classes or playing a game.  We measure the distances we drive so that we can turn in expense reports and be reimbursed with currency in a measurable way.  Many of us have instruments on our cars now that tell us what our average gas mileage is so we can know whether we’re driving in an relatively efficient way.  Teachers at all levels have objectives that they’re supposed to be able to measure by how well or poorly the students do with their assignments and exams.  At work we have performance evaluations that are based on numerical scales! 
All of this measuring assumes that we can accurately evaluate our lives based on what we can see and hear and touch.  It assumes that what meets the eye is what is truly real.  But I think that’s a huge assumption when it comes to the quality of our lives.  What objective measurement can you use to determine a person’s worth, or relationships like friendship and love, or the value we attach to the people and activities that define our lives?  It seems to me that the things that really matter in life are hard to measure based on what meets the eye.
In our lesson for today, the Apostle Paul insists that there is more than meets the eye going on when it comes to our experience with faith.[2]  The reason he insists on this is because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  In a very real sense, although Jesus touched thousands during his life, only a relative handful remained loyal to him at the end.  By all measurable standards, when he was dead in the tomb, Jesus’ enemies had every reason to think they had defeated him.  But when Jesus appeared alive to his astonished disciples on the third day, it changed everything about the way they looked at things.
In a very real sense, St. Paul was in a similar position.  Although he had actually founded the congregation in Corinth, spending eighteen months with them as their pastor and teacher, he found himself in a position of battling for their loyalty.  He had taught them “the message of the cross”—that Jesus’ death and resurrection calls us all to a life of sacrificial love and steadfast faith in the midst of the trials of life.[3]  But after St. Paul left Corinth to cultivate churches in other places, others came to Corinth preaching a very different message.  Apparently, they claimed that all the weakness and suffering Paul endured was prime evidence that he was a failure as a preacher of the Gospel and a pastor.[4]
But St. Paul insisted that his sufferings were in fact prime evidence that he was following in the path marked out by our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  He could claim that the hardships he was enduring were a way of “acting out” the death of Jesus so that he could also demonstrate the life of the risen Christ.  That may sound like a strange way to look at things, but listen to what he says, “We often suffer, but we are never crushed. Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up.  In times of trouble, God is with us, and when we are knocked down, we get up again” (2 Cor 4:8-9, The Message).  The fact that he could endure the hardships he faced with faith and perseverance was a way for him to show how the new life he found through the risen Christ makes a difference in real life.[5]
We still face this issue today—how do you measure the benefits of faith?  For some our faith guarantees that we will never have to suffer, that we will never have times of trouble, that we will never find ourselves knocked down by what life brings our way.  The message that God wants us to be happy and healthy and wealthy is one that is very attractive in our day.  There are a lot of people who embrace that message.  And those who promote it seem to think that they can measure their success by the numbers of people they are able to attract.
But what happens when life comes crashing down, as it so often does when we least expect it?  As those of us with any experience with life know, it happens all the time.  That doesn’t mean that we’ve somehow done something wrong and God is punishing us, or that our faith is somehow lacking.  The lesson of Job is that life just happens that way sometimes and it’s beyond our ability to understand.  But St. Paul insists that the new life God gives us through Jesus’ death and resurrection shines most clearly in the midst of the suffering that real people experience all the time in real life. [6] The measure of our faith is not how “perfect” our lives are.  God never promises us a fairy-tale, animated cartoon-world life as a reward to for our faith.
As St. Paul insists, the measure of our faith is whether it can sustain us when life comes crashing down.[7]  That’s when we need to be able to trust that God will never abandon us, no matter what we may have to endure.  That’s when we need to be able to hold onto the faith that sees the possibility of new beginning in every ending, that sees the light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair.  That’s when we need a faith that consists of more than what meets the eye

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/10/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, 92. St. Paul advocates “not allowing our aim in life to be determined by what passes before our vision, for such “phenomena” are only surface impressions of reality, which is open only to the eye of faith.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 286: “The new life is seldom experienced in any other way than as: ‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed (II Cor. 4.8).”
[4] Cf. Ronald J. Allen, “2 Corinthians 4:7-18,” Interpretation 52 (July 1998): 286: They “adapted Christianity to conventional hellenistic religiosity that was famous for spectacular displays and intense emotion. It was high-voltage religion. Cf. also B. C. Lategan, “ 2 Corinthians,” in Guides to the New Testament, ed. A. B. Du Toit et al., V:80.
[5] Cf. John B. Polhill, “Reconciliation at Corinth: 2 Corinthians 4-7,” Review and Expositor 86 (1989): 347.  He says, “For Paul, death and resurrection go together. His portrayal of the death attests the reality of the resurrection.”
[6] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 279, 281-82, where he argues that our experience of faith points beyond itself to the new creation.  Cf. also Polhill, 348: He calls it “the new life of the new humanity that God has brought about in Christ.” 
[7] Cf. J. Paul Sampley, “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” New Interpreters Bible XI: 88: Paul “was convinced that God would never let him go.” Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:330, where he contrasts the visible suffering of our lives with the “invisible” new life that is also working in us.

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