No Pain, No Gain!
(2 Corinthians 4: 1-18)
Back when I was a police officer with the Houston Police Department I was assigned to the Vice Division where I worked in an undercover capacity for over three years. From time to time, we would find ourselves in places and situations where well-armed uniformed police officers wearing bullet-proof vests wouldn’t go without back up. Sometimes, we would be searched so thoroughly that you couldn’t risk having your badge or gun on your person, let alone a walkie-talkie you could use to call for help. So, we worked out in the gym. We worked out a lot, so we could be in the best physical shape we could, just in case we had to fight our way out of trouble if we had to. One of the things we used to yell at one another while lifting weights was: “No Pain, No Gain!” If you didn’t push yourself to increasingly lift more, you weren’t going to gain any additional strength. You would either stay at the same level or go backwards. To get to the place we wanted to be, strength wise, we knew there was going to be pain, but it would be worth it.
This, I believe, is what the Apostle Paul is telling the church in Corinth in his second letter to the Corinthians. He starts out by saying, this is why we don’t get discouraged, given that we received this ministry in the same way that we received God’s mercy. He’s saying that the ministry we’ve been given is like the mercy we’ve received, it’s a free gift from God. In doing this, Paul says that we reject secrecy and shameful actions. We don’t use deception, and we don’t tamper with God’s word. We are transparent. There is no hidden agenda. We want what is best for you because it is best for us. Instead, Paul says, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God by the public announcement of the truth. By public announcement, I think Paul is saying that when we witness to people we tell them what Christ has done in our lives and not about our abilities and accomplishments. Paul then talks about our gospel being veiled which is confusing at first glance. Why would we want the gospel to be veiled, hard to see? We see it. It’s there. But to those who are consumed in their quest for more money, more power, more pleasure they are blinded to the light of Christ’s gospel. They don’t want to see it because to do so would mean that they would have to focus on Christ and not themselves. Paul says that we don’t preach about ourselves. Instead, we preach about Jesus Christ as Lord, and we describe ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. A slave, is a person who toils for a dominant being expecting nothing in return other than having their basic human needs met. There’s not much of a future in being a slave, except for us slaves of Jesus Christ, who not only have our daily needs met, we actually have the promise of a brighter future. Paul reminds his readers that God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. For us, this means serving people requires a sacrifice of time and personal desires. Being Christ’s follower means serving others, even when they do not measure up to our expectations. To me, this translates as: I did all this stuff for you, I sacrificed my time for you, and you let me down by not taking advantage of this opportunity.
Jesus never said serving others would be easy. There will be let-downs and failures. The supremely valuable message of salvation in Jesus Christ has been entrusted by God to frail and fallible human beings like us. Though we are weak, God uses us to spread his Good News, and he gives us the power to do his work. Paul says we will experience all kinds of trouble, but we won’t be crushed. We will be confused, but we won’t be depressed. We will be harassed, but we won’t be abandoned. We will be knocked down, but we won’t be knocked out. John Wesley said, perplexed we may often be, but never despairing of His love and power to carry us through. (Notes, 4: 8) Knowing that the power is his, not ours, should keep us from pride and motivate us to keep daily contact with God, our power source.
So how does this translate into how we face the challenges presenting the Church of Jesus Christ in today’s world? I wish I knew and I’m trying to figure it out. I’m currently reading a book written by our former bishop, Grant Hagiya, entitled Spiritual Kaizen, How to Become a Better Church Leader. I’ve been given the book twice so there must be a message there. In any event, Bishop Hagiya defines kaizen as a “steady and continuous growth and learning.” So, spiritual kaizen must mean a steady and continuous growth and learning in our spiritual journey. The Bishop assures us that if we do this we can accomplish great things. He says the vast majority of United Methodist congregations are small to medium in size, and many of them are struggling. In 2013, when the book was published, he tells us that there were 8,722 churches with congregations of 50 to 100 worshippers. Of churches with a worship attendance of 50 or fewer there were 17,321 churches. According to his statistics that means, when combined with the 1,991 other small churches between 100-200 worshippers, 72.9% of the two “small” Methodist churches have 100 or fewer people in attendance on any given Sunday. The Bishop writes that the problem with many churches is that instead of being true to the historic, biblical roots of an outward mission focus, of serving the needs of the lost and hurting in our midst, we resort to the church itself being the object of care and attention. He emphasizes that the Church of Jesus Christ must consider its client to be God alone. Anything less, he says, dissolves into a selfish preoccupation with our own needs and wants. If God is our client, the Bishop reasons, then our mission and purpose must revolve around that which God wishes. Biblically, that means an outward focus on the needs of the other, and especially for justice to the poor, the sojourner, and the widow in our midst. Bluntly put, it’s about them, not us. Ouch. We have our work cut out for us.
Our troubles should not diminish our faith or disillusion us. We should realize that there is a purpose in our suffering. Problems and human limitations have several benefits: 1) they remind us of Christ’s suffering for us; 2) they keep us from pride; 3) they cause us to look beyond this brief life; 4) they prove our faith to others; and 5) they give God the opportunity to demonstrate his power. This is our reality check. We must see our troubles as opportunities. All our risks, humiliations, and trials are opportunities for Christ to demonstrate his power and presence in and through us. When opposition, slander, or disappointment threaten to rob you of the victory, remember that no one can destroy what God has accomplished through you. Even though we may think we are at the end of our rope, we can never be at the end of our hope. God never abandons us.
So, just as athletes concentrate on the finish line and ignore their discomfort, we too must focus on the reward for our faith and the joy that lasts forever. No matter what happens to us in this life, we have the assurance of eternal life, when all suffering will end, and all sorrow will flee away. Remember, if you experience no pain in being a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, there will be no gain.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and compassionate God, how daunting is the task at hand we have to work to save others in a world broken by turmoil, sin, hate and greed. Steel our resolve to go boldly into the world to do the work begun by your son, our brother, Jesus Christ. We know that we will experience all kinds of trouble, but you won’t allow it to crush our spirits. At times we may be confused by what we see and hear but you will keep us from being depressed and dejected. When we are harassed we know you will stand by us giving us the strength to face our critics. We know that when we are knocked down you will lift us up. And, even though there may be times when we may think we are at the end of our rope, we know we are never at the end of our hope. In the name of your precious son who put the light in our hearts, we pray, Amen.