2 Corinthians 4:13-18
“So we do not lose heart,” the Apostle Paul writes in our New Testament lesson this morning.
In theory, this sounds nice; even simple, perhaps. For we know that it can be easy to lose heart—to lose
hope. In what often may seem like a daily occurrence, there are those things within our lives that strike the very core of our being, chipping away at hope. Sometimes this discouragement is only a “momentary affliction”, or perhaps a chance to look at a situation from a new perspective. In those moments, we can indeed find that discouragement can compel us to find hope elsewhere, in places that we initially did not think that hope could be found. In those moments, we can make sense of the broader, eternal picture that God is painting for us.
Sometimes, however, we lose heart in ways from which recovery seems impossible; in ways in which the broader picture seems bleak, or perhaps even nonexistent.
Over this past week, I have been more keenly aware of this kind of loss of hope, hearing the stories of those whose lives were taken from us far too soon because of suicide. And we have been reminded in the past few days that the story is bigger than we anticipated, with 45,000 suicides occurring in 2016 in the United States alone, a number that statistics suggest will grow each year.
Even as many do not reach that point, we still must remember that there are millions more every day who contend with the ravages of depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental illness, and others whose situations in life bring about a hopelessness from which there seems to be no way out. I must admit that there are days when I feel it more acutely than other days, when even getting out of bed is a significant challenge. And I know that there are those within our church for whom finding hope and motivation within the day-to-day seems impossible.
“So we do not lose heart.” While our passage today can at times resonate and provide much needed encouragement, there are other times that these words ring hollow due to illnesses and situations far beyond our control.
Though he helped establish the church in Corinth, evidence suggests that the Apostle Paul’s relationship to this church was shaky and contentious, as they soon began to reject his leadership and guidance. They became distracted by other leaders and prophets, who offer messages that were far more attractive. Some began to think that Paul was just a fraud, an evangelist who was simply reaching out to them for money. Second Corinthians is generally viewed as Paul trying to rebuild a relationship with this church, a relationship that was on the verge of collapse.
The lectionary starts our passage at verse 13, but I would like to stretch out the beginning by a few verses. Hear the scripture again:
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your workers for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts, so that we might in turn make known the glory of God shining on the face of Christ. This treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair. We are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed. While we live, we are constantly being delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our bodies. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. But as we have the same spirit of faith that is mentioned in scripture — “I believe and therefore I spoke”—we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the One who raised Jesus to life will in turn raise us with Jesus, and place you with us in God’s presence. You see, all of this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow, to the glory of God. This is why we don’t lose heart.
Paul and his immediate associates have undergone unfathomable inflictions on their journey. They have been shipwrecked and jailed, persecuted and mocked, and on the verge of death many times. There have been times when they’ve been lonely, times that they have not seen the way forward, and times that they have been utterly rejected by those whom they have loved and nurtured. And yet, even as death is at work within and around them, their faith holds.
For Paul recognizes that faith is not always about believing or saying the right things. And as much as we might think otherwise, faith isn’t grounded in doing the right things. Yes; belief, words, and actions can come out of faith. But at the heart of faith is not what we are doing but what God has done and is doing. It’s leaning into the faithfulness of who God is. It’s leaning into the promise that as God has done for Jesus, so too will God do for us.
It’s holding on to dear life to what Paul wrote in Romans: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
My friends, the beauty of the gospel is this: there is nothing we can do, nothing we can say, and nowhere we can go that separates us from this love that raises us out the grave.
Holding on to this promise is difficult. At times, the voices of self-hate, depression, and despair overwhelm the sound of this promise. Yet even when those voices seem to have the final word, God does not give up on us. Even when we’re going through Hell in this life, and even if we are convinced that there is no hope, God does not give up on us. And I pray that if you hear nothing else from this sermon today, you hear this: God is still with you, never giving up. No matter what happens. No matter if we can see the bigger picture. No matter if we even believe it. God still is faithful.
But when we can hear that promise, it demands something of us. We are the Body of Christ, after all. And while we may not be able to heal those with illness, and while we may not be able to bring the dead back to life, we can still be there as Christ is there. We are still called to be the Body of Christ, the presence of God, the embodiment of love even in Hell itself.
To offer a hug when it’s needed. To simply check in with someone you know is struggling and ask, “Is everything okay? Is there anything I can do? I love you.” Sometimes it’s simply to sit with someone as they talk about what they’re feeling and thinking. Sometimes it’s encouraging someone to get help. To make sure that they’re eating and taking medications if they have them.
It will be uncomfortable. We may feel powerless. But we can no longer act as though mental illness is a non- issue, as if it’s not serious. We can no longer act as if the status quo is okay. And, like the Apostle Paul, we must speak rather than stay silent. We must speak because we are caught up in a story that spans centuries, of God’s people being liberated. We must speak for we know that the One who raised Jesus from the grave will raise all of creation from the grave; each and every one of us. We must speak for our God does not give up on us. Let us not give up. Let us not lose heart.