First Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 81: 1-10; Second Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6
This morning I want us to look back at today’s epistle reading, Paul’s words to the church at Corinth. Here we have a classic example of a preacher preaching to himself and inviting his congregation to listen in. It’s something that may happen more often than you think, because only rarely is it stated up front as something we’re actually doing. Here is Paul baring his soul; and, for any preacher who has the temerity to make this his sermon text, it becomes by extension our own exercise in soul-baring.
What am I preaching? That’s the question that lies behind what Paul is writing. And before he answers it with the positive, he immediately asserts the negative: he says that he’s not preaching about himself. Do some preachers sometimes come across that way? Maybe we could affirm that many preachers do, at least from time to time. I think Paul is being remarkably sensitive to that possibility. I think all of us who stand in pulpits need to ponder the same thing periodically.
Truthfully, I think many of us do ponder it. And that sort of self-examination can be incredibly valuable on one hand and damagingly deprecatory on the other. Why am I here and what am I doing? Paul self-identifies here as a bond-servant for the sake of his people, his flock at Corinth. And he further affirms that his preaching is not about himself but about “Christ Jesus as Lord.”
That is one powerful statement! That’s the heart of the Gospel message. That’s the heart of what we call “the Jesus prayer:” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” It starts out with the affirmation that Jesus Christ is Lord. And that, as many of you know, was the earliest and simplest creedal statement of the Early Church: simply, “Jesus is Lord.”
What does that confession say? What does it mean? Why in its simple form was it once thought to be an adequate affirmation of true Christian faith? The answer is almost as simple as the confession itself. When we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we are saying several amazing things about Him all rolled into 3 words. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that He is God, to affirm unreservedly that He bears the very covenant Name of the Hebrew God, that the Name no Jewish believer could say out loud is now known to us as the Name of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ: He is the Lord.
But there’s more. The Name Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, means “the Lord saves.” Salvation is from God. God is the Lord. Jesus was given His Name so that the whole world, both Jewish and Gentile, would know that He, the Son of God, was to be the instrument of God’s salvation. When we say, “Jesus saves,” we’re being redundant. Yet we’re not. We’re saying that when God intervened in human history to save humankind, He chose to do it through His Son Jesus.
“God saves” means “Jesus saves.” “Jesus saves” means “God saves.” As we heard once again in last Sunday’s Gospel, the most familiar verse in all of Scripture, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life,” that is, that we might be saved from the alternative: perishing. That’s the message Paul told the Corinthians he was preaching. The Messiah who saves us is Lord.
But when Paul appends the statements that he’s functioning only as God’s bondservant, as God’s “doulos,” and then adds that he only has this treasure in an earthen vessel, he’s saying a third thing about what “Jesus is Lord” really means. It means that Jesus is our Lord, our master, the One Whose bondslaves we are, the One Whose will conquers our own will as we surrender ourselves to Him. That’s what it truly means to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and ourselves as His servants. That’s the result of seeing ourselves as nothing more than earthen vessels. That was Paul’s self-image, and it ought to be ours.
Does this come with a cost? We’re always rejoicing in salvation as God’s free gift to us, one that we receive simply by faith plus nothing, one that springs from God’s own nature as a God of abundant and selfless love, of lovingkindness, of unrestricted love, of love that asks nothing in return, of love that gives without strings attached.
That description of God’s love is not wrong; in fact, it’s quite Biblical. But there’s a problem. If that’s all there is to God’s love, then it turns into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have called cheap love or cheap grace, a love that makes no demands on us, a warm-fuzzy, feel-good love that’s very 21st century, very contemporary. It’s a love that makes us feel really good about showing up at church when it’s convenient and serving God whenever it’s not too embarrassing or costly.
Is that what Paul is describing to his believers in Corinth? Listen again to what he actually wrote: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
That sounds costly. It sounds a bit terrifying, truth be told. It’s not a sort of faith we would be inclined to welcome. Did you follow that chain of adjectives? “We are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down,” and also are “carrying about the dying of Jesus.” What could be worth all that? Paul gives us one of his answers, but it’s not one that resonates with us: again, “We who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
We want something at least a little easier than all that. And we believe that the easier path is the one we all deserve. Is there anything in the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that could motivate us to live so sacrificially? Must the “Cost of Discipleship” really be that great?
What was it that motivated Paul and the first-century Christians? Paul gives us two things in this passage that were his guiding principles, his true motivation. The first is what he calls “the surpassing greatness of the power of God.” For Paul, this was a bone-chilling reality that drove him forward in the face of all those unpleasant things that he listed.
If we can claim with Paul that we have “the surpassing greatness of the power of God” at our disposal, then we can affirm that there’s nothing we cannot do in this life. We simply need to harness that limitless power. After all, if we believe that God the Father created everything and that, as John writes in the prologue to his Gospel, “without (Jesus) was not anything made that was made,” then such a creator-God must surely have retained power over His own creation.
If we think that at some point God has lost control of this world of ours, a world that seems at times to be spinning out of control, then we’re retracting many things we believe about Who God is, and of what He is capable. The problem is that when we limit God and the “surpassing greatness” of His power, we’re also limiting ourselves as His servants. Yes, as Paul wrote, we are only “earthen vessels.” But in that very context he also affirms that in these vessels we have these two inestimable treasures: “the power of God” and “the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
To what end? Again, Paul wrote that it’s “so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” There’s our power source that carries us past our feeble mortality. Do you sense that the life of Jesus is being manifested in your life? On one hand that’s an incredibly humbling thought. Yet, in another sense, it’s definitely an empowering thought.
Think about the things Jesus was able to do in His earthly life, even within the limitations of the incarnation! He could walk on water, and that, in His case, is not a metaphor. He could perform miracles, miracles of healing, miracles of feeding multitudes, miracles of power over evil spirits, miracles of raising people from the dead. He could heal a man with a withered hand. Imagine having that life manifested in your mortal body! It’s a power that He literally passed on to His first disciples with the apparent exception of walking on water. Ask Peter.
These are powerful thoughts from the Apostle Paul. Paul actually knew what it was to experience “the life of Jesus,” that power-giving life, that wonderworking power of which we used to sing in an old gospel hymn that has disappeared right along with the power of which it speaks. That hymn said that the wonderworking power resided in the Blood of the Lamb. Maybe that thought was in Paul’s mind when he spoke of “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus.” In other words, our access to that power calls on us to live sacrificially. It was something from which Paul never was willing to shrink, because he knew that it was his spiritual lifeline. And it’s also ours.
We don’t often think of Paul as being particularly poetic. “Hard-hitting” and “iron-fisted” spring to mind more readily than “poetic.” “Densely theological” usually applies. But in today’s passage Paul writes what I consider to be among the most poetic phrases in the whole of Scripture, a phrase so amazing that I know I never will fully comprehend all that’s packed into it. It’s that the “God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
We await that life-transforming day when we literally will look into the face of Christ. But we already live with a vivid preview. It’s not in our sightlines as it was for those who saw Jesus during His earthly lifetime as the incarnate God; but what Paul describes is far better than something that’s only visual. Every time in this life that our eyes fall on something awe-inspiringly beautiful there’s a bitter-sweet realization that we will only see it for a defined period of time that will come to an end. Even if we find some way to capture it photographically, we know that beauty will fade, our eyesight will fade and our mortal bodies will perish. Paul knew that, when he concluded our reading with these words: “So death works in us, but life in you.”
What life? “The life of Jesus,” the life that counterbalances our “carrying about in our bodies the death of Christ.” It’s the life that will not perish, the life we call “eternal life,” the life that enables us to say, “Jesus is Lord” and mean it. It’s the life that is fully ours only when we commit to His Lordship. It’s the life that gives us “the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” John could write in his Gospel, “We have seen His glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). In this life we cannot see that glory as John saw it. But Paul is telling us that we do in fact have “the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God,” and it’s found “in the face of Christ.”
Only when we live in that Light do we discover what it means to be “fully alive” in Him.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen