Below is both the audio and the full text of the the sermon that I preached yesterday at Mosaic Birmingham. I really am always thrilled to teach/preach, and since God has been using the letter of 2 Corinthians to breath life into me for the past six months or so, this yesterday felt especially significant.
It’s the week after Easter. And you know what that means, don’t you?
I say: “He is risen.” And you say…?
Now for those of you who might be uninitiated—at this very moment you find yourself in a room with a community of people who believe that “He is risen indeed.”
To your left, to your right, in front of you, behind you, you can look into the eyes of people who really do believe
that the universe is not ultimately cold, calloused chaos,
that human history is not an unguided, unintentional mess,
that the essence of life is not accidental, arbitrary biology,
that our hearts are not unforgivable, that our choices are not unredeemable, that we ourselves are not unloved.
To put a bit of finer point on it, you’re in the company of brothers and sisters who are daring to trust daily
that the deep Mystery behind the universe has actually made himself known,
that the Author of human history literally entered into his own story,
that the Wellspring of Life intentionally became the ground-zero of death,
and that we are impossibly caught up in the nail-scarred arms of a God who forgives freely, redeems totally and loves us to death.
Because our Creator entered creation,
Yahweh became an Israelite, God became man,
the Judge took judgment on himself, Life itself died,
but death couldn’t stomach who he had swallowed.
and right now a real-life human being sits at the right hand of God the Father reigning over the universe who will return one day to remake, restore, redeem, rescue and rule.
His name is Jesus.
The tomb really is empty, and he is risen indeed.
Happy week after Easter.
And with that said, let’s get to work: turn to 2 Corinthians, chapter four. No time to waste today—we’ve got lots of ground to cover.
[skating over struggle] v5-6, 13-15
The text sounded good, huh? Our grand announcements from Easter are definitely echoed here in this passage. Did you hear them? Here are the high points:
Verse 5: We are proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and that we are his servants.
Verse 6: light is shining out of darkness and the knowledge of God’s glory being put on display in the face of Christ
Verse 13: through God’s Spirit, we believe and speak
Verse 14: the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will raise us too
Verse 15: grace is reaching more and more people and causing thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
Well, glory be to God and happy Easter to us.
This sounds good—I mean, really good. I’d dare to say that most Christians in most churches of most stripes are pretty familiar with these points. These are the biggies.
In fact, these are the big points to such a high degree that we tend to condense these points down to some kind of belief-bullet-list. It’s sort of like our Easter Memo.
How many of us (in some shape or form) are somewhat familiar with this Easter Memo? Grown up hearing it, believing it, not believing it, but for a lot of us, we’re pretty familiar with it—Jesus, resurrection, grace, glory, Easter, the whole shebang. We proclaim Jesus as Lord… but then I think we’re a little less clear about what exactly this means. I think we make a lot of loose, fuzzy assumptions about what exactly Jesus as King should look like right now.
And so we move on to asking questions about implementation—about methods. What’s the most the most effective and efficient way to—well, I don’t know what. To “be the church” or “be a Christian,” I suppose. That’s sort of the loose, fuzzy part.
But we kow really want to be doing something. We want to be seeing progress. And we want to be able to measure how it’s reaching more and more people. So on an organizational church level, questions start getting asked about what program or strategy can we implement to display the knowledge of God’s glory? On a personal piety level, we start asking about habits or rhythms or disciplines that God could use to bring light shining in our darkness?
We’re using the same language so we much be talking about the same things. But the thing is, our fuzzy Post-Easter ideas, our assumptions about how King Jesus ought to be ruling and putting the world back together—including how he ought to be putting our lives back together—they often skate right past verses 7-12:
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
Carrying around the death of Jesus? Death is at work in us? For years if I stumbled across this verse, I really didn’t like it. Shouldn’t he have said “it appears like death is at work in us, but life is work in all of us”?
Well, we’re not sure what all that is talking about, but surely it can’t be that important. After all, we’ve got know the high points—we’ve got them identified, labeled and put on a slide.
On this side of Easter, the cross is history, right?
It’s not terribly obvious how these verses are going to help us with the mission of the church or with our own “spiritual lives.” I mean, verses 5-6 sound good. And verses 13-15 sound good. They resonate with the language of glory, grace and progress that we love. But verses 7-12 are a mystery—they just sound strange and downright impractical.
And we don’t really have time to reflect on them. The Easter Memo is so important—and there’s so much to do, so many people to reach, and I’ve got so much growth that I need to experience—that they’re probably not worth sweating. We don’t have time to wrestle with Paul and his riddles.
We’ve got the high points, thank you very much. But then we wonder why we struggle with the low points.
Because I’m not sure if this thought occurred to any of you, but (at least for me) there’s a little bit of tension between the grand pronouncements of last week—that death is defeated, resurrection has come, that Jesus is Lord—and the everyday experience of our lives. Some of us don’t voice, our concern because we don’t want to sound like bad Christians but—if we got honest—we have these doubts that kind of nag at us:
If Jesus is alive and reigning, why has the last week (or year or decade) been like this?
If the Healer sits at God’s right hand, why do I see and experience so much pain?
If the Rescuer reigns, why am I stuck here?
If the Resurrection himself rules over the universe, why do I see and feel so death?
If he’s reigning why allow this pain? Why that crisis?
Why that news? Why all this loneliness?
Why that diagnosis? Why this betrayal? Why all this struggle?
If Easter is true, why do things look like they do?
If Jesus is Lord, why can’t I see it?
I think that we doubt the truth of the Easter because we’re looking for a method to resurrection apart the cross.
“Oh, yes, yes, Brett. The cross. If you wanted to talk about that, maybe we should have had a Good Friday service. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins or something like that. Lives of power and resurrection, that’s what we live now. And the cross is what got us there.”
And yet the cross keeps emerging smack in the middle of passages like this and all over the New Testament. Smack in the middle of talking about glory and resurrection we find “death is at work in us.”
For the earliest Christians, the cross was not just an abstraction or an idea or an event back there—it’s something right here, right now, in our lives. Not just as something that got us there, but as something getting us there—present tense.
Now don’t misunderstand, it’s all grace. We’re saved by entirely by God’s faithfulness and his grace in Jesus. But central to his faithfulness and grace is his saving us no just by his cross but through the cross in our very own lives. After all, what did say:
34 “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8)
For so many of us—I slip into it all the time—the cross becomes merely an idea to be believed, a theory to debated or an event to be proven but never a reality to be embodied.
But when we start glimpsing this—that the life of the cross is central to the life of resurrection—it begins makes all kind of sense of our world and our lives. Our fuzzy ideas and assumptions about what the post-Easter world ought to look like begin to change.
I mean, what do we catch from Paul here? We’ve caught him in the middle of talking about his ministry—he’s traveling the Roman world around the Mediterranean, establishing colonies of devoted to Jesus as Lord—and talking about this mind-blowing good news about Jesus. As he and his crew are traveling and working, they’re often enduring significant struggle and suffering. They’re:
(8) …hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
I think we tend to think of this list (“we are this but not that”) in terms of persecution—that Paul and other early Christians were being hunted and oppressed. And while persecution was definitely taking place in the early the church—and still is around the world—it’s a mistake to think that if we’re not being hunted down by the cops for Jesus or something that somehow we’re experiencing suffering that the New Testament doesn’t address.
Because included in Paul’s thinking—I’m sure—are things like:
12 Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, 13 I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. (2 Cor 2)
5 For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. (2 Cor 7)
You’re experiencing fears within? Why are you feeling no peace? I can hear well-meaning Christians now: well, haven’t you read the Sermon on the Mount, Paul? Why are you worrying about your life? Look at the lilies, look at the birds. Just cast your cares on God, Paul. Why aren’t you just seeking him and his righteousness and trusting that all these things will be added to you?
In fact, it’s really interesting if we look at the beginning of the letter, we get an even better glimpse inside Paul. As he’s going through this list of “we’re this but not that,” we see that he’s definitely not always feeling that way:
8 We do not want you to be uniformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed we felt we had received the sentence of death. (2 Cor 1)
Come on now, Paul. I thought you just said you were perplexed but NOT in despair. And now you’re saying that in the moment you actually were? Yeah—he was in despair.
Evidently his Spirit-filled, abundant, count-everything-else-as-loss kind of life under the reign of Jesus included times of not finding peace even in the midst of God working, experiencing conflicts on the outside, fears within, and sometimes even despairing life itself.
This is all post-Easter, post-resurrection, from a guy who has seen Jesus, in a universe where resurrection has invaded.
And this is why for Paul, this incredible news! These low points ARE the high points! God actually made them feel the sentence of death (1:9) so that they wouldn’t depend on themselves but on God—who raises the dead.
Because Paul knew that the Easter Memo is true. Christians trust that God raised Jesus from the dead and that we’re going to be included in that too. And that on that glorious day, the entire world will be recreated and renewed. And if you believe that, you have a hope that puts the despairing-of-life-itself-moments into perspective.
Nothing in the world depends on me.
It depends on the God who raises the dead.
Who loves raising the dead.
On the God who will raise the dead.
And so for Paul, living under the reign of a resurrected king meant shouldering a cross. That’s part of the fabric of this thing. Woven into the life of redemption is experience of suffering. The cross goes with the resurrection—not just for a Jewish carpenter turned rabbi in Palestine in the year 30 AD, but for our lives here and now.
This reality—that to experience lives of resurrection we’ve got embrace lives of crucifixion—well, it’s staggering. This is a can of worms bigger than one sermon—or even than a series of sermons. And all we have time for today is a couple of reflections on its implications (1) in our individual lives and (2) in our community.
[death in us, life in you] v7-12
First, a few reflections on our individual lives. A little later in the letter (7:9-11) he’s actually going to explicitly say that there is a suffering or sadness or sorrow that is “kata theon” (sorrow from God, godly sorrow, or sorrow as God intends) that grows and develops all kinds of wonderful things in people.
God intends that our suffering actually heal us. That it actually be part of redemption. That we’re being saved through our struggle.
Lest we think that Paul was just having a wacky sort of day when he wrote this, read in Romans:
3 …we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (chapter 5)
God’s Spirit in us and the experience of suffering.
The cross is the method of resurrection.
The letter to the Hebrews goes so far as to say that Jesus himself “Son though he was, learned obedience from what he suffered” (5:8).
Excuse me? Jesus learned obedience?
Yep. That’s what the Bible says.
In his humanity, Jesus learned obedience.
The garden of Gethsemane leaps into our minds. It’s dark, he’s on his knees sweating in prayer because the moment is fast approaching. He’s going to be betrayed, abandoned, arrested, condemned, ridiculed, flogged, humiliated and crucified. He’s going to experience abandonment from even God himself—experiencing the full weight of God’s wrath against everything that is hate-spreading, self-seeking and life-taking.
And he doesn’t want to do it.
And there’s something here very important for us to bear in mind—shouldering the cross is not about masochism or stoicism.
It’s not masochism—we’re not commanded to go to looking for pain or suffering or struggle. It’s not stoicism as if we’re supposed to accept that this is the way life is or that pain doesn’t really hurt. The Easter Memo is right that God is about redemption and healing.
He’s the God who loves raises the dead. We’re not ultimately seeking pain but seeking healing. It’s not masochism or stoicism, it’s birth-pangs—learning how God brings about new creation.
As a side note, I absolutely do not believe that God’s intention for creation was that it would suffer. We don’t find a distant, detached God in Genesis 1-2 rubbing his hands together and saying wait until they see what I’ve got in store for them: “BAM—welcome to existence. Here’s a heaping helping of suffering.”
What passages like Romans 8 and Ephesians 1 witness to is a—as hard as it is for us to wrap our minds around—is that God using all things to redeem a creation who has set its will dead set against him. Using all things to redeem us, who have our wills dead set again him. He’s using even that rebellion for his good purposes. Far from being distant or detached, this God is spreads his hands wide and takes the weight of the world’s darkness supremely on himself. And only then does he say:
“If you would follow me, I’m going to save you through suffering. Not because I want you to die but because I want you to live. But this is the way it’s accomplished.”
We can see the sharp, shooting birth-pains of new creation in God’s own body on the cross—why do we expect anything different when that God’s Spirit invades us?
And so Jesus in Gethsemane helps us glimpse something of the depth of our need to surrender our wills. To die to ourselves. We are so strong-minded, we think we know best, we’ve got all our plans, and God has to teach us that we’re not self-sufficient, that we’re doing fine on our own, that we don’t know best. We’re a boat taking on water, sinking fast and continuing to strike our defiant colors against any rescue.
And so God in his infinite, unfathomable mercy works through our suffering to break through our pride and hardness so that we’ll finally say, “Ok. Not my will. Yours.”
A German pastor named Martin Luther put it this way:
“God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead….He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace.”
The difficulty is that we want to embrace and experience the transformation promised in the Easter memo without admitting how dead we are. And God knows we’ll never do that while everything is sunshine and rainbows. It takes God rolling in the storm clouds and often soaking us to the bone for us to finally admit that we’re helpless and rebellious and utterly dead.
This is what being a Christian means—confessing we are dead and that we need life.
And, in my experience, Jesus is right that this is a daily thing that we have to admit because we quickly fool ourselves.
I really (really) wish there was a quicker way of experiencing the transforming power of God’s Spirit. But from even my own experience, there are things that I can’t learn any other way than through suffering.
We want to experience growth—to see the Spirit growing fruit of patience, maturity, wisdom, character, faith, hope love in our lives. But it’s as if God’s Spirit has got to till the soil of our hearts through suffering before so that it can grow.
But as incredible as it is that God uses the suffering in our lives for our good—that he breaks us to remake us—the Bible’s primary focus is not on growing your individual spiritual life. As true as it is that God shapes us through suffering, he’s not succeeding if it’s making you more you-centered.
Us becoming overly obsessed in our own “spiritual growth” is a sure sign that we’re not becoming like Jesus. Your life—spiritual or otherwise—is not about you. And neither is your suffering.
Remember the way that Paul puts things:
10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed [to other people] in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed [to other people] in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
The sure-fire way of recognizing Jesus-sort-of-suffering is that our attention starts spiraling outward and not inward. The God who gives himself over to the pain of the cross does it to for the sake of others.
And when his Spirit invades us and begins transforming us, the same shift occurs in us. All of our lives—including our suffering—begin becoming a beautiful life-long project of self-giving love.
Listen to Paul as he opens the letter:
6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. (2 Cor 1)
It’s as if Paul is saying:
“If I’m distressed, it’s for you. If I’m comforted, it’s for you. I’m not worried about me. I’m dead—crucified with the Messiah. And since he’s coming back, since he’s the kind of God who raises the dead, I never stay in despair long. What I’m interested in is you, Corinthians. Death is at work in me, but life is at work in you.”
The invitation for us as a community is to embody this. We tend to shift into selfishness by default during seasons of struggle and suffering. Our challenge is to live counter to all conventional thinking that we’ll finally find joy and peace and life by focusing on ourselves. I mean, if I watch out for me, who else will?
Look around. The church will.
God knows that the church throughout its long history—that this church in its short history—hasn’t always gotten it right. We get it dead wrong—A LOT. I certainly haven’t always been pouring myself out moment by moment, day by day for YOUR comfort, for YOUR life, for YOUR reconciliation.
But this is what the church is called to be. Because this is what the body of Christ does. It endures the suffering of others and proclaims what God has accomplished in Jesus—the reconciliation the world back to God.
The King whose reign defines the entire universe is characterized by sacrificial, self-giving love. And he’s inviting us all to embody this reality for the sake of each other and for the sake of the world.
When we as individuals begin turning our eyes away from ourselves and saying, “Your comfort. Your life. Your reconciliation,” then we’ll find that it’s no longer I who live. And we’ll discover that we’ve stumbled across joy while we weren’t looking and even while we’re still hurting.
When we as a community look outside ourselves and say “Your comfort. Your life. Your reconciliation,” and begins exploring what it looks like for us to be broken and poured out for Birmingham and for the world—then we’ll discover what it means to be the Body of Christ.
[body broken, blood poured out]
And so as we wrap us this morning, we’re going to enter into a time of communion. The band can come on back up. The elements will available at the tables on each side of the room. If you’ve accepted the reality that Jesus is Lord has made a claim on your life, then this table is open to you.
This mystery of communion—of the Messiah’s body broken and the blood poured out—is central to the meaning of the universe. God himself pours himself out to redeem and restore his creation. And we are invited to the table not as Sunday habit or ritual, but as a way of proclaiming that this—the cross—is God’s method.
We’re rescued not only by the cross but through the cross.
The love of God meets us in the bread—in his own body broken. But for his brokenness to heal us, we have to confess our brokenness. Maybe today is the day that you finally recognize that your pain isn’t God’s anger—it’s God’s mercy. You’re finally at the end of your rope and thank God because that’s the only place he can meet you. And in our honesty about our deadness, he recreates us.
So that we worship, so that we can hope, so that we can love. So that his grace can overflow and reach more and more people. So that this glorious God can be known and celebrated lifted high.
I think for some of us, I think the worry that haunts us is not that whether God does or does not use suffering—it’s whether God can or will my particular suffering. After all, my suffering doesn’t feel particularly spiritual or holy. It feels like chaos that I’ve caused. It was that decision. It’s this messed up relationship. It’s these selfish choices that I just keep making. It’s this attitude or that addiction.
And yet, the God of this table isn’t so much concerned so much with whether you’re being persecuted so much as it’s concerned with your posture. Your willingness to confess how dead you’ve been. How wrong you’ve been. To turn, to repent, to ask God to change you. And then to see how in the brokenness of Jesus—in the seeming chaos of the cross—that God is making all things new.
The only thing required for suffering to be redemptive is precisely confession that we ourselves are the problem.
For all of us, we’re challenged by the cup that our lives aren’t about us. That our hearts are meant to be spiraling outward and not inward. When we struggle and suffer, it’s so easy to turn our attention in on us. But taking from the cup—the blood poured out for others—means embracing Jesus to such a degree that our lives (our brokenness and suffering included) are becoming less and less about us. In midst of hurt, we have a God insisting that true life is found in being poured out for others.
So as we sing, you’re invited to come to the body broken and the blood poured out.
Because it’s here that the Easter Memo makes sense.
It’s here that we hope in the God who raises the dead.
It’s here that Jesus reveals his reign of resurrection.