Believing Makes All the Difference
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, June 10, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
Believing makes all the difference, doesn't it?
When you know something to be true—you can rest in that knowledge…lean back in that knowledge. You can let that have the final word, no matter what else happens, because you already know the bottom line. Whatever happens, the conclusion is clear.
It can be as simple a belief as knowing that your companion will get you to your destination just fine, or that your pilot knows how to fly the plane you're on and how to get it to where you're going—and so you take a nap. You fall asleep in the passenger seat, trusting that you'll safely get to the place you're going. Or, it can be as complex/significant a belief as your confidence in God's love for you and the saving grace you've experienced in Christ. So whatever happens as you live out your life, you know your bottom line is assured. You'll spend eternity in heaven.
Paul believed. His whole life changed because he believed. He took risks—not because he was an Evil Knievel kind of guy, but because he was so convinced that the message of Jesus Christ was so important that as many people as possible needed to hear it in order to live their lives to the fullest, and to ultimately spent their eternity in heaven with Jesus.
Paul believed this so passionately that he couldn't keep quiet. He believed it so completely, that he spoke, even when it would have been in his best interest to remain quiet. When he experienced the consequences of speaking out—when he was berated, beaten, thrown into jail—he focused beyond that moment. He was able to persevere…to hold tight. And he spoke of these experiences, shared them with others, as an encouragement, urging others, too, who were dealing with persecution or other difficult circumstances to hold on. To not lose heart. Because, he tells us, our outer nature is wasting away—what we can see happening on the outside is crumbling—it won't last forever. But what is on the inside is eternal, and is being renewed day-by-day.
Whenever I go to Annual Conference, I see people I haven't seen for a few years. There are pastors and spouses who for a number of years lived within shouting distance of us; we'd go to district gatherings together, maybe share a meal together now and then. Then, they'd move or we'd move. Time passes, and we haven't seen each other for awhile. Isn't it funny how people age? I don't know, it seems like I look the same, but they've gotten so much older. I thought he was closer to my age, but now I'm not so sure. Surely not.
But then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I seem to be looking more and more like my mother. Scott says I sound just like her, and our voices are the same. I'll catch myself saying things she says, and I think—Oh, my gosh, I've become my mother!
Our 8 year old granddaughter Olivia is spending half of the summer with us, along with her mommy. Grandpa childcare is much more affordable than any other, even with the drive added in, and we're more than happy to accommodate. I think we're pretty boring to her, but so far, she seems okay with it. But with her here, I think more and more of time I spent with my grandma in the summertime, and how OLD she was, and realize "that's me now!" I have a small framed photo of my grandpa and grandma, and it's just the way I remember them. They're really old. Then I realize that since my grandpa died at 66 that that picture was taken at some point before then…so grandma would be several years younger. Oh, my gosh. She may be about my age in that photo! How can that be?
Our outer nature is wasting away. I can't see the small print anymore without my glasses. I've had a couple of skin cancers scooped off my face. I have some sparkles in my hair, and my hands aren't as smooth as they once were. My outer nature is changing, as it is meant to be…and yet Paul tells us that that our inner nature is being renewed day-by-day.
For Paul, it's less about the process of growing older…it's more about the persecution, afflictions and hardships he has endured. We don't know specifically what has happened and what he's writing about at this time, but at the beginning of this letter to the people of Corinth, he shares that he has endured a time in Asia when he and his helpers were "utterly, unbearably crushed," when they "despaired of life itself," when they "believed they had received a sentence of death." Having endured, from that experiences Paul writes, they learned—not to rely on themselves—but to rely on God, who did rescue them from that peril, and who he knows and trusts and believes will rescue them again (2 Cor. 1:8-10).
This awful time he calls a "slight momentary affliction." It's a time he knows has grown him stronger. Earlier in this text Paul writes, "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed." He has and continues to keep his eyes focused on the prize ahead, and he knows the Spirit is working in him, renewing him day by day.
What's happening outside isn't near so important as what is happening on the inside. We all know that beauty is so much more than personal appearance and what we can see on the outside. We have seen physical beauty canceled out through the individual's hateful words or attitudes, and we have also seen great beauty in one whose appearance is pretty average, but whose love and grace is so evident.
The most important qualities or attributes of who we are can't be seen; they are invisible to the eye. I think of love for family and friends. Justice and righteousness in our dealings with others. Belief in the power of forgiveness, both offered and received. And the Fruits of the Spirit, that Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (5:22). These attributes are what are important…these are the unseen things that the Spirit works to grow within us…these are what have eternal significance.
Claire McKeever-Burgett is a pastor who is on the staff of the Upper Room in Nashville, TN. She tells this story in Alive Now, entitled "Life and Death" (March/April, 2015). She writes:
Not long ago, a good friend and colleague in a congregation I once served lost his son to cancer. My friend wrote in an email one Saturday evening, "My son took his last breath at 10:43 p.m." The next morning, I looked at Facebook and saw that another dear friend had given birth to a boy at 11:43 the night before, exactly an hour after my former colleague's son died. When I saw the birth announcement and the time he was born, I burst into tears. The heart can only hold so much before it breaks.
Of course, the heart does not break just once and then it's done. Life is a journey of heartbreak and heart healing, pleasure and pain, sorrow and joy. Only because of the God we know in and through each other do we have the capacity to navigate this great, complex web of life and death.
Deepening my grief over my friend's son's death, though is the knowledge that I now have two close friends who've lost children. On the list of things I'd like to be expert at doing, accompanying friends who've lost children is not really one of them. Still—and I say this as humbly as I possibly can—if I lost a child, I'd want me as a friend at my side.
I wonder, though, how does one write this on a resume? "Good at accompanying people who are destroyed by grief. See list of references for firsthand accounts." And then I muse, "In what world is accompanying friends who have lost a child a reality?"
I know the answer without having to take a breath. In this world, it's a reality. This is the world in which people both lose children to death and disease, and welcome them with joy and thanksgiving. In this world, new life arrives amid teeth-clenching, back-bending, breath-screeching pain. So I learn again a lesson I've learned a thousand times over: weeping may consume the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Don't get me wrong. I do not think suffering is required for joy to manifest itself in our lives. Rather, I simply state what I know: if we live in this world, we will suffer, pain will find us, our hearts will break. At the same time, if we live in this world, our hearts will mend, and just as we hear the news of a dear friend's child dying, we will hear news of a dear friend's child being born—and somehow, we will have the capacity to receive and hold both.
"Maybe this is why our hearts break," a friend recently mused, "to make more room for love."
Perhaps this is why they mend, too, so we can heal, and in healing, we can love again.
I may never fully understand the ways of grief and life and death and friendship and healing and love. But I hope I understand, again and again, that life is best lived with others and with the Spirit of the Living God, who mysteriously connects us time after time. Indeed there's no way I could ever make it alone."
"Do not lose heart. Our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day."
The Spirit works within us, in the midst of what is happening in our daily lives…in the regular and ordinary days, in the joyful and amazing moments, and in the times of sickness, pain, trials and tribulation…that Spirit is working within us, renewing us, because God is faithful and will not let go of us.
Paul knew, too, that this young Christian community was praying for him as he traveled about, preaching and proclaiming Christ.
Paul knew this. Trusted. Believed.
And believing makes all the difference.