Friday, January 25, 2013

The Difference Hope Makes


A sermon preached this past Sunday 
at Sts. Cosmas and Damian Orthodox Cathedral, Nairobi, Kenya

2 Corinthians 4:6-15
6For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
            7We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure.  This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
8We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed.  We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.  9We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God.  We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.  10Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
            11Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies.  12So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you.
            13But we continue to preach because we have the same kind of faith the psalmist had when he said, ‘I believed in God, so I spoke.’  14We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you.  15All of this is for your benefit.  And as God’s grace reaches more and more people, there will be great thanksgiving, and God will receive more and more glory.
           

Think with me a few minutes about hope.

Prof. Beneshevich
Vladimir Nicolayevich Beneshevich (1874-1938) was an Orthodox Christian, a scholar of Church history, and a teacher at several Russian universities during the tumultuous times after the Bolsheviks took over Russia.  The authorities considered him a threat, and he was arrested in 1922 and again in 1924, though he was released each time.  In 1928 he was arrested and charged with spying for the Vatican, for Germany and Poland and sent to a prison camp.  Two years later he was charged with sedition, and sent to another prison camp for 5 years.  The authorities totally destroyed his manuscript collection and his life’s work.  He was released, but when his scholarly book on one of the church fathers was published in Germany, he was arrested again, charged with spying for Nazi Germany and convicted.  He was taken out and shot along with his twin sons and his brother.  How does one carry on in the face of such hardship, such trials, such suffering?  When you have lost everything and are about to suffer the loss of your life, how does being a Christian make any difference? Does it make any sense?

St. Philotei and Slaves

Philothei was born in 1522 into one of the leading families of Athens.  When she was of age she was forced against her will to marry.  When her husband died a few years later, she gave away all of her worldly possessions, became a nun and started a convent that became a refuge for women who had been enslaved by Turks and abused in harems.  By 1589, her work with these poor women had come to the attention of the Turkish authorities.  They became so enraged that they dragged her out of church and beat her so severely that she died a few days later.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian

Cosmas and Damian were brothers, twins, from Cilicia in Turkey, who both decided to practice medicine together.  As Christians, they chose not to accept payment for their services.  As a result, many people were drawn to Christ because of their example.  In 287 AD, during the time of Diocletian, the brothers came to the attention of the local governor who ordered them to be arrested and then tortured until they denied their faith in Christ.  According to tradition, they held on to Christ even though they were first crucified, then stoned and shot by arrows and finally beheaded.

But these aren’t just stories of long ago times.   The same things are happening today.  Today, we are living in a time where Christianity has become the most persecuted religion across the globe.  You and I have chosen to become Christians, to become followers of Jesus, at a time when to do so may be very costly.  And many people are choosing to be faithful to Jesus than to deny their faith under pressure and persecution.  Today, right now, Christians are being persecuted in Saudi Arabia, in Turkey, in Israel and Palestine, in Iraq and Egypt, in Iran and Malaysia, in Pakistan and Sudan, Libya and Algeria, in Nigeria and parts of Ethiopia and India and China.  Christians are being denied jobs, forced to flee from their homes, subjected to threats, to beatings, to being blown up, to being shot.

But if are a real Christian today, you will know that pressure is not new.  We are constantly under pressure to conform to the ways and values of all the people around us.  To give a bribe here, to deny justice there.  To turn the other way when wrong is being done, to keep quiet when to tell the truth would be too costly.  All of us face choices every day.  We can choose to love, we can choose not to love.  We can choose to speak against corruption and injustice, we can choose not to speak.  We can choose to give to people around us in need, we can choose not to give.  We can choose to conform to the ways of the world, we can choose not to conform.  And the choices we make reveal who it is we are really following, who it is we are really serving, who it is we are really loving.  Is it Jesus? Or is it our own interests?  Our own needs?  Our own desires?  Our own reputations?

But the question that comes to my mind is why would anybody want to give up living for themselves here and now? Or satisfying themselves here and now?  Why be a follower of Jesus when it is so costly to do so?  When it might mean losing your job because being a follower of Jesus means you choose integrity over corruption.  When it might mean losing friends because being a follower of Jesus means you won’t join in with their destructive behaviors.  When it might put your property, even your life in danger because you will not go along with the community around you when they want to chase out people of the wrong ethnic group and you choose instead to protect them.  When you could save your life, why lose it?

The Apostle Paul understood all of this.  He says in 2 Corinthians:

8We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed.  We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.  9We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God.  We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.  10Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. 11Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus’.

But then he says something unexpected, something that most Christians today have never really grasped.  Paul tells us why it’s worth it.  He says:

13But we continue to preach because we have the same kind of faith the psalmist had when he said, ‘I believed in God, so I spoke.’  14We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus and present us to himself together with you. 

Paul can face the present because he is certain about the future.  Paul can endure suffering and loss and hardship – Paul can be a follower of Jesus because he knows what God is up to; he knows how it ends.  The people of this world live as though a bumper sticker I saw back in the US is true – ‘The one who dies with the most toys wins.’  That’s why just about everybody all around us is scrambling around trying to get as much stuff and money and good times and pleasure as they can stuff into their lives, because they think that that’s what this life is about.  Even people claiming to be Christians are falling for this lie.  I just read about the leaders of some Pentecostal churches in Nigeria who are boasting, not about how many cars they have, or houses, but how many private jets they own.  When asked to justify how a Christian minister could spend $10s of millions of dollars on a private jet, he said, ‘Well, I’m an important person and have lots of meetings to go to.’

‘But what good will it be,’ says Jesus, ‘for a man to gain the whole world and yet forfeit his soul?’ (Matthew 16:16-26) Jesus rather pointedly says that our lives are to be based on other priorities.  Love God, love your neighbor, forgive as you have been forgiven, do unto them as you want them to do unto you, care for the needy, don’t be anxious about food and drink and clothes, but make God’s priorities first in your life and relationships, and the rest will take care of itself.

But how can we live the life that Jesus is calling us to live? How can we be strong in the face of pressure to conform to the ways of the world?  How can we stand when we are ridiculed, wronged, or persecuted?  How can we endure suffering and even death at the hands of those who hate us?  For Paul, understanding what our hope is as Christians is what transforms our lives and makes all the difference.  The world around us has nothing to say in the face of death.  But we do.  Jesus died on the cross; but after three days, he broke the power of death and rose again from the dead, the first fruits of God’s new transformed humanity.  And the good news is that God will raise us just like he raised Jesus, with a new body and a new life, and we will live forever with him in the new heaven and the new earth, where there will be no more pain and hurt and injustice, where every tear will be dried and where there will be no more dying.

The worst anyone can do to you or me is to kill us and our loved ones.  But Jesus has overcome death and everyone who trusts in Jesus will rise with Jesus and be blessed with a new body and a new life.  We’ve been set free from our slavery to sin and fear and death.  But even more than that, through Jesus, God is rescuing and redeeming and saving and recreating the entire world, and he is inviting us to be a part of that rescue mission right now.  God has called you and brought you here for a purpose, not so that you can just sit here and be blessed, but that you can right now be God’s blessing in the lives of the people around you.  God is calling you, and all of us as his church, to be his partner in saving the people around us and in saving his creation.  That’s what God is doing.  And when you get a glimpse of what God is up to, and that he is calling you in Christ to be a part of his mission, to be his missionary right here and right now, that’s when the kingdom of God begins to break through.  Never mind that you and I are earthen vessels, what matters is what’s inside you.  God is right now, if you have eyes to see, making his light shine in your heart, in my heart, giving us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of the Lord Jesus – the risen Lord Jesus! 


Knowing your hope changes everything.  Having Jesus changes everything.  Hearing the call of God changes everything.  At the end of 1 Corinthians 15, which is the longest sustained reflection on the resurrection and what it means for you and me in the New Testament, Paul’s conclusion doesn’t end on some irrelevant cloud of pie in the sky bye and bye, but brings it back to you and me what you and I are doing right now today: ‘Therefore my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.’ (1 Corinthians 15:58)  This was the secret that sustained Prof. Beneshevich, that motivated Philotei to give her life for abused women, that enabled Cosmas and Damian to stand when their world crashed down around them.  What about you?  Do you see what they saw? Do you understand what they understood?  Are you responding like they responded?