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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - July 9, 2006

In the teacher’s room of the first school I taught at in Antrim, NH there was a poster taken from some teacher magazine, and what the poster showed was a picture of a rather frazzled looking, somewhat disheveled, exhausted teacher sitting behind her equally disheveled desk.  The clock on the wall said 3:15 and the caption was, “No one ever said it was going to be easy.” 

That seems to be the message that Jesus is trying to get across to his disciples in today’s gospel.  The first part of this lesson has Jesus himself being rejected in his hometown where you might have thought they would welcome him as a local hero.  But no; because of his modest background (modest as far as they knew anyway) they’re pretty skeptical, he doesn’t meet with much approval.  Following this rejection he commissions his disciples and basically tells them to expect failure.  Not everyone they encounter will approve of them or welcome what they have to say.  It’s a wonder any of them stuck around.

Jesus was right about what he said.  On the whole, the disciples and others like them did wind up being quite successful.  There still is a Christian church and those early followers certainly deserve some credit for getting it off the ground.  But there was also failure and persecution and martyrdom.    People have never responded well to messages about repentance, because repentance means change, and often we don’t want to change because we kind of like the way things are and rather than change we would prefer to try and have Jesus put his stamp of approval on our present behavior.  It’s easier that way.  The message of Jesus was not an easy sell, but then, Jesus told them that’s the way it would be.

If you were to read through all of Paul’s letters you would get a pretty good sense of his experiences of success and failure.  The trouble is, we don’t usually read his letters all the way through.  I get frustrated sometimes with the way we read Paul in church because we just get little pieces taken out of context and you really do need to have some idea of the context in order to have these letters be more than seemingly disconnected ramblings interspersed by the occasional verse that really hits home.  Read in their entirety though, included in Paul’s letters are references to places and groups where his message has been well received and incorporated into the life of the people, his successes: but there are also references to the difficulties Paul faced, failures and frustrations sometimes even when the message was being well received.    

Today we have the last of four readings from what we know as Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and to be honest as I have heard these lessons read over the past few weeks they have sounded like disconnected ramblings to me  At the conclusion of the reading I find myself wondering does anyone get anything out of this?  At their best, Paul’s letters are always something of a puzzle because we have one side of the conversation and then have to try and figure out the other side; but still…we know more about the history and context of his letters than we do any other part of the Bible and knowing some of that is useful.  Here is a little of what is known with some historical certainty about Paul’s correspondence with the people of Corinth.

First of all this conversation covers a period of several years and includes four letters, not two.  Paul was in Corinth for about 18 months.  He left, settling eventually in Ephesus from where he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians which is not what we know of as the first letter to the Corinthians.  The actual first letter was lost but Paul makes reference to it in 1 Cor 5.  The Corinthians responded to Paul’s first letter with a letter of their own, apparently about divisions and problems that had developed, about others who had come preaching in the name of Christ but with a less demanding message.  Paul responded to that letter as well as to some oral communication that had come to him with the letter we know of as 1 Corinthians.  In that letter he tries to restate and reclaim the authenticity of his gospel message over against those who were preaching something else.

After he sent that letter Paul also sent Timothy, one of his associates, to Corinth to try to get them back on track, back to the gospel message of Christ crucified, but Timothy was unsuccessful.  So Paul himself returned to Corinth, making what he calls a brief, painful visit because he too was unsuccessful in getting the people to hear his message, so he left in humiliation.  At this point Paul sent a third, harsh letter which is chapters 10-13 of 2 Corinthians from which today’s lesson came.  This letter was hand delivered by Titus, another associate, and despite its harsh tone it was apparently received quite well.  Titus had encouraging words about Corinth when Paul met him in Macedonia.  Paul then wrote his fourth letter, a gentler, more conciliatory letter, which is most of the first nine chapters of 2 Corinthians.

I trust you can see from this that even Paul, thought of as the greatest evangelist ever, sometimes thought of as the real founder of the religion of Christianity, even Paul struggled, mightily.  In the chapter just before today’s reading, a chapter which is also part of that third, harsh letter, Paul writes of imprisonment, floggings, beatings, being shipwrecked.  He writes of danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.  You can look it up; 2 Cor 11.  No one ever said it was going to be easy.  Paul makes that pretty clear in this letter

In the portion of this letter read today Paul also makes reference to what he calls a thorn in the flesh.  It is never made clear exactly what this thorn in the flesh refers to; whether it’s a physical ailment or deformity, speech impediment, we don’t know; but it seems that in addition to all those previously mentioned dangers and hardships, there was something else that made his mission and work difficult, but also kept him at least a little bit humble.

What amazes me the most about Paul is his persistence.  I don’t always find him to be the most appealing character or voice in the Bible, but there is much to learn from his persistence; he didn’t waver in his message.  When people, like the people of Corinth began to jump off the bandwagon, he didn’t do a market survey to determine their needs and then try to tailor his message to those needs.  He preached the gospel, sometimes harsh, sometimes gentle but always with honesty, trusting that if he did that, the Holy Spirit would work through him, and clearly it did.

I said that Paul’s letters sometimes seem like disconnected ramblings interspersed by the occasional verse that really hits home and this text today has one of those.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  My grace is sufficient for you.  Knowledge of that grace and trust that it was indeed sufficient had to be what kept Paul going despite all the hardships and weakness.  It’s not that he didn’t get emotional and upset and angry at times; he certainly did, but some part of him could always come back to that grace of God.

For Martin Luther it was knowledge of that grace, knowledge that in Jesus a God of grace is revealed, not a God of wrath; it was that all sufficient grace that empowered Luther to begin to reform the church and sustained him through his times of danger and imprisonment.  It was true for Paul, it was true for Luther and it is still true that ultimately all we have to fall back on is the grace of God.  It is sufficient.  It is the truth that we continue to proclaim and cling to.

There is always a need for repentance and change, a turning from ways of living that are not pleasing to the laws and commands of God.  We preach and proclaim that too and that part of the message can be a tough sell.  But we also proclaim grace because without grace, the message of repentance leads to despair.  With grace, repentance and recognition of our weakness leads us to the power of this grace which then frees us and makes us holy and righteous in the eyes of God.  Repentance is recognizing that we can’t do it, but God’s grace can.

Repentance can be a tough sell, but you know, grace may be a tougher sell.  For those who want Christianity to be black and white, right and wrong, a clear list of do’s and don’ts, who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell, hard line statements on the hot button social and moral issues of the day, for those who want their Christianity like that, grace is a tough sell.  Grace often isn’t black and white; it leaves lots of room for gray, room for a difference of opinions, room for I don’t know, that’s God’s call, not mine.  Grace is a tough sell.

The ELCA gets bashed sometimes for not standing for anything but to those who say that I would say, “Yes we do.”  We stand for grace.  Sometimes it’s a tough place to stand.  It’s a tough sell.  But then, no one ever said it would be easy.

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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