Paul: It’s tough following Jesus
2 Corinthians 11: 23-33, 12: 7-10
Saints under pressure: Jacob, Joseph, Gideon, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Stephen, Peter and today the last of the Biblical figures: Paul. These heroes of faith have shown us many important things (seeking time alone for a God encounter of the supreme kind, trusting God whatever the circumstances, having died to self truly surrendering all to God and being living martyrs, and understanding that all things work for the good of those who love God) but I want to suggest to you that this final lesson is probably the most crucial to grasp, if not the most uncomfortable to bear. What Paul shows us as he reflects and shares his testimony in this passage is that although it’s tough following Jesus, all that happens to us in our lives (pressures more than comforts) is for one purpose and one purpose alone: to make us more like Jesus. It’s the process of salvation at work: oh and by the way, it’s always been a process, not just a single act: his whole life from the Damascus Road onwards had been to ‘Work out his own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2: 12)’. It doesn’t say work out another person’s by the way!
Paul’s 7 verse litany is a powerful one: how about this as an advert for following Jesus: worked much harder, jailed more often, beaten up numerous times, flogged 5 times with 39 leashes, beaten with Roman rods three times, in the sea 24 hours and hard travelling, including fording rivers and fending off robbers. Struggling with friends and foes, at risk in the city and the country, too much sun, top many storms, betrayed, given hard labour, long and sleepless nights, missed meals, blasted by the cold and naked to the weather. Add that to the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. Someone gets to the end of the rope I feel desperation in my bones. Some duped into sin, an anger burns in my gut. Yet he finishes, ‘I’ll brag about my humiliations that make me more like Jesus’. That’s the job description many of our Church Leaders today would aspire to I fear! Yet it’s a description, which leaders of the Body of Christ in persecuted nations will well understand, are ready for, and almost expect. John the Baptist understood it well: I must decrease so that Jesus might increase, he said, just prior to martyrdom by beheading.
Comfort-zone saints and saints under pressure are as different as chalk and cheese: the first group opt for theory, the second for practice; the first group have opted for mere religion, a me and my God philosophy, the second have given up their lives and been incorporated by faith into the Body of Christ; the first group have turned churches into religious institutions, whilst the second signed up for the pilgrim people of God who will never be home till Jesus returns.
Paul then speaks of his ‘thorn in the flesh’. Let me say here that this is an area much misunderstood: it’s not a bad relationship, which we are expected to stick at with without attempting reconciliation, it’s not a mandate to stay in a congregation where ‘Icabod’ is the reality (the glory has long since departed), and it’s not a Biblical okay for any kind of abuse. For Paul it was something, which troubled him and affected him daily: singleness, bad eyesight, being two possibilities. In Paul’s words: Satan did his best to get me down but all he did was push me to my knees (in prayer!!). No danger, said Paul of me walking around all high and mighty! I didn’t think of it as a gift and begged God to remove it, to heal it! But here’s the key for saints under presure: God told me, ‘My grace is enough: it’s all you need. My strength comes into it’s own in your weakness’. Wow! Once I heard that, Paul says I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began anticipating the gift. It was a case of God’s strength moving in my weakness! Now I take limitations in my stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size-abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And the weaker I get, the stronger I become! This weaker stronger principle is so trye because it’s so Jesus! Remember how our Lord made himself nothing, taking the form and nature of a servant, being made in human likeness like us. Again, it’s more of Jesus, more like Jesus, and yes bring on the pressures: the more I have deal with the more I can become like Him!
Paul could even rejoice when put in a ‘narrow place’. Stenochria is the Greek word used, and it is highly evocative. It speaks of the narrow room, or the prison cell, or the smelly ships hold: the narrow place – not pleasant or easy for the ablest intellect of the day. The Roman citizen who once had wealth and ease at his command. But he was following one who trod the narrow way to cavalry, and he did not baulk at being hemmed in by circumstances. He simply turned it all over to Christ, and he found that Christ’s strength was made perfect in his weakness. That was his secret and that is the secret of saints under pressure. That was why He did not complain about suffering but realised it was a privilege, and a means of drawing on the risen strength of his Lord. He had come to see that only as he knew the fellowship of Christ sufferings would he know the power of his resurrection.
Painfully and reluctantly down the centuries, the Church has had to learn that lesson. In the past 100 years, it was not the state church in Germany who compromised with Hitler, but the confessing church that had an impact on post war Germany. The suffering Church in Uganda, whose Archbishop and thousands of members were murdered at the orders of President Amin, was purged and strengthened by that terrible ordeal, and played a significant part in the reconciliation and reconstruction of the nation. Christians who suffered in the Mau Mau risings in Kenya, Christians belonging to the underground church in Russia and China, have acquired through their sufferings a moral authority, which the rest of Christendom cannot attain. As always, the Blood of Martyrs is seed. As always, the way to the cross proves to be the way of new life. There is no other way in the economy of God.
The church in the west will probably remain flaccid and weak until it is called to suffer; we ourselves are likley to learn the most significant lessons of our lives through suffering. If Jesus had to tread this path, there can hardly be another for us. But that is something that we, like the Corinthians, are most reluctant to accept.
So saints under pressure learn that their identity is Jesus and Jesus is their identity-that’s why the best description of the church is the Body of Christ. Paul said later, ‘for me to live is Christ, to die is gain’ (Phil 1: 21) and it’s a word about unity, it’s a word about communion (no, me and my God anymore), it’s a truth that fundamentally will transform your Christian life, and launch you into a life of faith, following the Master.
August 21st 2011