Can God actually use broken and imperfect people? This sermon explores Paul’s defense of his right to be a preacher of the Gospel. He is not like the flashy teachers. He is just an afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down clay jar. It is in the darkness of real life that the Gospel shines the brightest.
Narrative Lectionary Text: 2 Corinthians 4:1-15
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How would describe a successful person?
We are very tuned into this question during and election year. It seems that everyone looks at the candidates and evaluates each one of them against a particular list of standards.
We do this with church leaders, too. When a church is looking for a new pastor or staff member, there is usually a list of criteria. Should she have a professional degree? Should he look a certain way, act a certain way, have certain letters of reference?
We do this to ourselves as well. The assumption is that if you are sitting here today, you have some level of interest in being a good Christian. You want to measure up to God’s standards or be seen as a valuable person.
So, what is our criteria?
How would you feel about a candidate that has this list as their resume?
Driven to Despair.
I wonder. Have you ever felt this way?
Maybe you feel this way right now. Maybe there are circumstances in your life that make this feel like a very familiar list. Perhaps it is circumstances that have been thrust upon you and you wonder what you did to deserve it.
Perhaps it is the result of choices that you have made and you feel ashamed and wonder if there is any hope for you.
Would you hire this person?
I read a blog post from a friend of mine who is a pastor in Denver, Colorado. He was reflecting on a suit that he purchased several years ago when a good friend of his died of cancer. He bought the suit to wear as he led her funeral service.
Since that day he has worn that suit several times to lead the funeral of many other young people who died in the prime of their lives. The post had a tone of despair in it.
The suit felt like a prison cell to him.
Should a pastor show his weakness like that?
Can God use weak and broken people?
That is the issue that the Apostle Paul deals with in our text today.
I invite you to turn again to 2 Corinthians. This is our third week in the 2 letter that Paul wrote to the church that he started in the city of Corinth.
We learned two weeks ago that Paul had suffered greatly since he left the city. He had been beaten and thrown in prison, and he was sick.
Last week Pastor Mark told us a powerful story of how Paul had scolded the church for how they were ignoring a man in the church who was doing some very immoral things. Then they went overboard and were too harsh with him. Paul encouraged the people to forgive the man and be reconciled to him.
This week we see how Paul is also dealing with another issue.
A group of teachers had come to the city since Paul left. These teachers were spreading rumors about him. They accused him of lying about his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. They said that he was not a legitimate apostle because he was not one of the original twelve, like Peter or John.
They were trying to convince the Corinthians that if a person is a true Apostle, then they would look the part.
They would have fancy letters after their names, that shows they were graduates of the Holy School of Pharisees from Jerusalem.
They would wow the crowds with brilliant sermons.
They would drive fancy cars, and have big church buildings, and the perfect family.
Paul mockingly calls them “super-apostles.”
Imagine how Paul must have felt when he heard that the people he had invested so much time in were now turning on him. He’s the one who planted the church and taught them the Gospel, and now they are questioning whether he’s even qualified.
If you want to really understand this letter, then you must realize that Paul is more than a little defensive here.
He basically says, “You know what? I am a loser.”
“I don’t have the fancy credentials from Jerusalem. In fact, they ran me out of Jerusalem.”
“I don’t have the fancy car, or the big church. Sometimes I’m not even a pleasant person.”
“Most places I go I get beaten, thrown in prison, or left for dead.”
This list of qualities comes straight from Paul.
He says, “I am afflicted.
I am perplexed.
I am persecuted.
I am struck down.
I am not like those flashy, fancy, super-apostles.
But here’s the thing…
He says he is afflicted…but not crushed.
He is perplexed…but not driven to despair.
He is persecuted…but not forsaken.
He is struck down…but not destroyed.
Here we see the key to being a successful follower of Jesus.
In verse 7, Paul says,
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Notice what Paul is not saying here.
He is not saying, “look at me. My life is perfect. I have it all together. I am bright and shiny, you can listen to me.”
He is saying,
I am afflicted,,
I am perplexed,
I am persecuted,
I am struck down.
My relationship with God, and my calling into ministry has not spared me from the human condition of pain and suffering.
But, what it has done is given me the strength to not let these things define me or defeat me.
He goes on to explain why.
In verse 10 he says, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus…”
…so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
Listen to this for a moment.
Salvation is not often being delivered from all the pain and suffering and being placed into a perfect and shiny life.
Salvation and the kingdom of God is being given the power to walk through the pain and the suffering with hope and integrity.
Why? Because that is what Jesus did and what Jesus modeled for us.
What is more likely to shine the light of Jesus to the world?
Is it perfect people, with problem free lives, walking around with a perpetual smile of trouble-free living? I don’t think so.
The place where people can see the light of Jesus shining the brightest is when they see honest people, dealing with real life problems, and not getting beaten down by them.
I invite you to read the last part of this passage out loud with me.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
I want you to look at that painting on the wall. That is the image I painted during the Good Friday service this year. It is a dark and depressing image.
Do you remember a few weeks ago when I painted this image for Pentecost. It is a bright happy picture. I wanted to cover the Good Friday Painting with this painting, but Pastor Mark said that we never cover up the death of Jesus with the sunshine of Pentecost. We must always hold these two realities in tension. You can’t have the light of hope without the suffering of Jesus.
My pastor friend talked about how his suit felt like a prison cell.
So he burned it in protest against death.
He concluded his post by saying,
I know I’ll need another suit. And surely there will be more holes in the ground.
But suit-on-fire is my protest against death and a declaration of stubborn hope that resurrection is real and thanks to Jesus, I will see my friends again.
A black suit and a hole in the ground is not the end of the story. I am not, in fact, imprisoned with a black suit for a cellmate. Jesus holds the keys to death. And he is in the unlocking business. Jesus is, if you will, The Great Locksmith.
This is my prayer for you today. I don’t know what you are going through. I don’t know how you might be afflicted, or perplexed, or persecuted, or struck down.
But know this. God loves you. God has forgiven you through Jesus Christ, has given you the Holy Spirit, and has promised to make all things new.
May you shine the light of Jesus as you walk through these things, in hope.