Sunday, June 9, 2024
Becoming in Christ
Psalm 138:1-8 & 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

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It was not easy to be a Christian in Paul’s day. Christians were in the minority and were seen as a weird, small, and fledging religious sect that grew out of Judaism. When you’re in the minority you don’t feel supported nor do you feel you have a voice because there are so few of you. It’s safe to say that the Corinthian church felt this way. In addition to tension from the wider community, there was also conflict within their own church community. To encourage them, Paul writes to them a second letter.

As I said earlier, the theme of our summer sermon series is “Becoming in Christ.” What does it mean for us that God loves us and how does God’s love change us? Depending upon where we are in our faith journey, the answers to those questions differ as we are always in the process of growing in our faith or “becoming in Christ.” 

The early Christians in Corinth were in a place in their Faith Journey where they needed reassurance that Jesus was still with them amid the conflict that came from outside as well as inside of their small faith community.

The first thing Paul does to reassure them is to quote scripture. Many Biblical scholars believe that Paul in verse 13 is referring to Psalm 116:10, which says: “I kept my faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted.’”

We would be wise to follow Paul’s example and return to scripture to be reminded of God’s promises. Especially when we are going through difficult times and it’s hard to see how Jesus could possibly give us any comfort. It’s safe to say that’s where the Corinthians were.  

Paul refers to Psalm 116 to describe the power of the “Spirit” that raised Jesus back to life. He is of course referring to the Holy Spirit who not only raised Jesus back to life, but who will also raise the Corinthians, along with Paul, bringing them all into the presence of Christ. 

While Paul is referring to resurrection after death, he is also referring to the renewal Jesus is doing in the Corinthians now. Not that he’s discounting the bodily resurrection, as Paul emphasizes the bodily resurrection in all of his writings because he wants people to know that our physical bodies also matter to God. After all, at the heart of our faith is that God became Flesh as Jesus Christ. The power of the resurrection also pertains to the renewal of our inner selves, or as Paul calls it: “Our inner nature.” The truth that God as Holy Spirit continues to renew our inner nature even when our outer nature is wasting away. Whether it’s external forces attacking us mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or physically, Christ continues to renew our inner natures.

Last year our Board of Deacons read together “Aging Faithfully” by Alice Fryling. In this book she writes about how our faith is impacted by getting older. One major impact is the slowing down of our bodies. She tells this story of how she was winded after several flights of stairs that led to her doctor’s office. Huffing and puffing she joked with the front desk person: “Phew, that was a long way up! But I’ve never been old before.” Without missing a beat the person at the front desk replied: “Sometimes we just have to ignore our bodies to keep climbing.” 

Fryling points out that this is common advice. We’re used to – and we are encouraged to push ourselves to “keep going.” It shows resilience and determination. But there comes a point when we have to listen to and take care of what hurts. 

She writes:

  • It doesn’t work to deny the changes in our bodies and in our lives. They are going to happen anyway.
  • It doesn’t work to resist the changes and losses. Resistance takes up a lot of energy, which we have in lesser and lesser amounts.

She goes on to say that buried within the grief of losing the mobility and dependability of our bodies, God offers “holy invitations” to “notice and receive” what God still offers in the midst of our bodies breaking down. 

No matter what age or stage of life we are in we are still “becoming in Christ.” We continue to learn how God as the Holy Spirit continues to work in and through us no matter how our bodies are doing. 

Part of “becoming in Christ” is to name, as Fryling writes, the inevitable changes that happen to bodies and in our lives. We will inevitably find ourselves in conflict in our relationships and with age our bodies inevitably will start to break down. 

But when we name those things and name how they cause us to grieve, we are no longer in denial of those things. We are also able to prayerfully seek Christ’s comfort and presence during those difficult phases and stages of our lives. After all we can’t pray for help from God if we don’t name what we need help for in the first place.

That’s the Holy Invitation that Fryling refers to. An invitation to ask God to help us see how God is still faithful. How God remains present and at work when life is difficult. 

Similarly, Paul sees a holy Invitation that God is extending to the church in Corinth amid hardship. One Biblical scholar writes that the “outer nature,” could also refer to the conflict that exists outside of the Corinth church. For the church in Corinth, that would be the outside community who did not share their faith. As I said earlier those in the earliest churches were the recipients of persecution and opposition. We get the sense that those in the Corinth church are starting to feel worn down by such persecution and opposition. 

But Paul encourages them to “not lose heart” by remembering why they are together in the first place. Who was it that brought them together? Who it is they believe in and follow. Who was the one that God raised from the dead? What does Scripture say about God’s faithfulness to us?

This is why Paul quotes Psalm 116:10. The only way they can keep their faith during affliction is to remember who remains with them in the midst of their affliction. I’ve titled this sermon “Faithful Endurance,” but the only way to achieve this is to depend not on our faithfulness, but on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. 

If we accept Christ’s Holy invitations in the midst of hardships, God will open our eyes to how only God can bring good out of any difficult situation. That is Christ’s faithfulness to us. Paul isn’t saying in verse 17 that God purposely brings affliction into our lives to make us more faithful Christians. What he is saying that in the midst of any affliction God can bring about good. In the case of the Corinthians, it’s the good that God is doing within them. To see how Jesus meets them in the opposition they’re experiencing both inside and outside of the church. Paul reminds them that Jesus and his power and love for us are eternal and will outlast their momentary troubles. 

Not that their troubles will instantly disappear just like our bodies will inevitably fail us, but Christ shows how his presence with us helps us endure whatever comes our way. This is a huge part of “becoming in Christ.” To experience how Jesus strengthens us through his love and his presence amid any hardship that comes our way. 

Before coming to First Pres, I served briefly at Calvary Presbyterian Church in northern Illinois. This congregation was lovely. It was clear they loved God, loved each other, and loved their community. It was also clear, sadly, that they needed to face the reality that they could no longer sustain their church. Their numbers had shrunk and their people were getting older. They could no longer afford to hire a full-time pastor or any other staff position. The majority of their Session of Elders were ready to face this reality. But not everyone felt the same. People viewed me as the Presbytery’s evil messenger sent to kill their beloved church home. That didn’t feel great. But I also empathized with them. It wasn’t really me they were mad at. They weren’t even mad, but actually they were sad. They were grieving. This was the church where many of them were baptized and married, and where their kids and grandkids were also baptized and married. 

I did an exercise with their Session where we listed all of wonderful ministries of Calvary and the impact they had on people. Some mentioned the many years of Vacation Bible School where they had a great time of bonding with one another as they planned lessons, games, skits and stage props. The memories of helping children in the community better understand the love of Jesus. There was the food pantry that their church housed. While it had shrunk in size like their congregation it was still at that point serving those in need. There was the community garden they created and invited the middle school next door to be a partner in growing fresh produce for the community and teaching youth about the importance of sustainability and a lesson in where our food comes from. 

With each ministry they listed they became even more thankful for their time together as a church. Above all, they were thankful to God for working through and within them to serve their community. In that exercise, they remembered all of the wonderful things God had done through their church. In doing so they were reminded of the goodness of God. 

And it was that reminder about the enduring faithfulness of Jesus Christ that got them through the difficult process of coming to terms with the closing of their beloved church. In their grief, however, they were comforted by the truth that the goodness and presence of God is not limited to any one church building. God’s love sustained them when their church was more vibrant and God’s love would continue to sustain them when it became clear their time together as a congregation was coming to an end. 

A renewed trust in Christ’s faithfulness was one of the many good things God brought out of that hard situation for the good people of Calvary. Another interesting thing that happened is that after Calvary closed the majority of them continued to serve in other churches. They continued to answer God’s call to provide for those in need and they continued to do so faithfully just as they did at Calvary. 

The early church in Corinth, like Calvary, eventually closed its doors. But God who is the beginning and the end, Jesus who is the same yesterday and forever, and the Holy Spirit, who also raised Jesus from the dead not only remains, but sustains us as we go through the inevitable hardships of life. Just as the Holy Spirit comforted and led the early Christians in Corinth and the good people of Calvary Presbyterian Church, Jesus continues to be our comfort and strength, and will always bring good out of the most difficult of situations. 

As Paul said earlier, when he quoted Psalm 116, this is what we know about God: with the help of the Holy Spirit. we can speak and live our lives based on the steadfast faithfulness of Jesus Christ that never fails.