Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Strengths and Weaknesses"

“I beseeched the Lord three times about this, that he would relieve me of this thorn in my flesh. He answered: “my grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in your weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Paul was called on Damascus Road. He was called to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. On that very day of his calling he was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians. Paul was a Jew and he and other Jewish leaders believed that this new movement of Christianity was false and that it was drawing Jews into a dangerous new belief that was not just false, but an offense against the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Paul was relied on by the Jews to stop this dangerous movement before more Jews were affected by it. Surely, Paul didn’t care at this time about whether they taught this to Gentiles or not. But, he wanted them to leave Jews alone. Problem was, at the time, it was only catching on among Jews, and noone was really teaching this new religion among the Gentiles. So, Paul was going about his business; a business he thought was a holy business of protecting God’s people from false teachers. Paul surely knew who Jesus of Nazareth had been, and who he was reported to have been. Paul had heard of Jesus’ disciples, and plenty of reports about them as well. It had been several years since anyone had even reported seeing Jesus. The church had spread from its first days in Jerusalem far enough now for Paul to be trying to arrest Christians in Damascus.
Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day, he had risen from the dead, and met his disciples. 40 days later, Jesus ascended to the Father, being raised up with a name above all other names on earth, sitting at the right hand of the almighty Creator. The Father and the Son on high had sent the Holy Spirit on earth. Those below had been blessed from on high, and a new creation - the church of Jesus Christ had begun on earth. This was a movement of new life on earth. That’s what the church is - a movement of God’s life in human life - it is not an institution.

And, though Paul thought he was serving God, he was fighting against the life of God in the early Christian movement. And, on that day, it was shown to him. PAUL HEARD A LOUD VOICE AND WAS BLINDED AND KNOCKED TO THE GROUND BY A GREAT LIGHT: “SAUOL, SAUOL. . TI ME DIOCASE” TRANSLATED: WHY ARE YOU PERSECUTING ME?

The one he thought false, was true. The one he thought dead, was alive.
At that point, it was shown to Paul that his whole course in life had been false. The one he thought was against God, was at the right hand of God. It is not too much to say that the old Paul died out there on Damascus Road. A new man was born. A new man that God appointed to a very, very important task: TO BE THE APOSTLE TO THE GENTILES. Paul might have thought this new teaching was dangerous, but he probably never imagined that it was this dangerous. It was one thing to teach Jews that the Messian had come before he had really come. It was certainly another thing to teach Jews that the Messiah had not only come but that he had opened the doors of the temple to Gentiles. Like I said, it is not too much to say that the old Paul died, a new Paul was born out there that day.

Paul says that he spent many years being led by the Spirit and taught by the Lord before he even dealt much at all with the other leaders of the early church. The FULL GOSPEL that was laid on him can’t really be taught well by human beings. Humans would tend to water it down, especially when it came to the part about Gentiles being full brothers and sisters in the mysterious plan of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Even Peter couldn’t quite swallow that for a while.

Let me go one more step in talking about the Apostle Paul. There were people who suspected him and distrusted him for two reasons: first, because he was formerly a persecutor of the church. Paul coming to teach Jewish Christians (and, he did that too) about Christ, was about like the grand dragon of the KKK coming to teach black people about civil rights. It’s a little hard to trust a man who once persecuted you, who now says he’s got good news for you. So, on one side, Paul was clearly distrusted by the Jewish Christians and for good reason. On the other side, he caused a lot of upset among Jewish Christians and Jews in general for the social aspects of his teaching about Christ. Paul proclaimed that in Jesus Christ, the racial-ethnic barriers had been broken down. He wrote to the Galatians: “In Christ, there is no male or female, no Jew of Greek, no slave or free!” That’s still radical talk, even in our day, if you really believe it and apply across the board of life. It was certainly radical in Paul’s day, and in his churches Jew and Gentile were worshipping together, sitting down at table together, probably marrying as well. So Paul was feared and distrusted both for who he had been, and for who he was.

But, he carried out his calling with zeal. He preached the Gospel from Syria over to Greece. He covered many territories, by land or by sea. But, he was hindered, not just by enemies on various sides. O, and he wasn’t like by many Gentiles outside the church, because he taught in the public square and convinced people to give up their superstitions - teaching that there was only one God, the Creator and Judge of all - the father of Jesus who had been crucified and was risen in power. Amidst all this mission of preaching and teaching and facing jail time and stonings and threats and controversy, Paul was also hindered by a physical ailment, some type of troubling medical condition, that he calls a “thorn in his flesh.” It was so bad, that he says he begged the Lord to heal him of it. He had so much work to do as an Apostle. He had to endure tough conditions. It was a serious burden to be physically sick or disabled. Surely, he thought, God will relieve me of this so I can get on with my work. Paul had watched God heal others through him of all sorts of ailments. But, after he had sought help from God three times he says he got his answer: “My grace is sufficient for thee. My power is made perfect in weakness.” From that point on, Paul accepted his medical problem or condition as part of sharing the sufferings of Christ, and that was that.

Now this is a tricky passage to interpret. O, its not hard to understand the words. They are simple. It’s not too hard to understand how Paul understood these words from God. What is hard is to understand how we might apply them in our lives. What does God have to say to us in our various situations? Now, that is going to require some care in answering.
I want to first say how not to take this passage, because that might help us find how to take it.
1) One way to understand the passage for ourselves might be to say: “well, if you have a condition, ailment, weakness, simply accept it as God’s will and don’t ask God to remove it.” Well, if that was always what we are supposed to do about our physical burdens then scripture wouldn’t have so many admonitions and examples of people praying to be healed and experiencing healing in sickness. And, secondly, we don’t know for sure that Paul wasn’t healed at some point. We only know that God told him: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” And, we can say with confidence that Paul accepted that and quite beseeching the Lord for healing. He simply understood the weakness as an occasion for the revelation of God’s power.


What this passage does is shakes us up and causes a revolution in how we see life and our life. From Paul’s personal perspective, this thorn in the flesh was painful and useless. Looking at it simply from the perspective of how he can personally perform and feel in life, it can only be seen as an evil. But, God turned Paul’s mind and heart around to see himself as the channel of God’s grace, as a vessel of God’s heavenly treasure. This is a radical shake up. Since Paul understood, even felt his whole life as an occasion for God to reveal his grace and truth to others; everything looked differently. He suddenly focused on what God was doing through him for others. And, that became more important than how he felt, how he looked, what he could personally do. It became about what God could do through him. And, somehow instead of this weakness hindering God, it was an occasion for God to use for his glory. But, that is a great step to take in understanding. And, it can only come as a matter of direct revelation in the soul.

Some ailments are meant to be healed, others to be borne. How can you tell the difference between the two? The simple answer is that you can’t unless you walk closely with God and wait on him. And, the important point of this passage is not about having the wisdom to know what can be changed and what can not be changed. That is not really the point of this passage. The point is this: WHATEVER YOU ARE TROUBLED WITH, REMEMBER FIRST THAT YOUR LIFE IS MEANT TO BE A CHANNEL OF GOD’S GRACE TO OTHERS. YOU ARE HERE THAT GOD’S GLORY MIGHT BE REVEALED THROUGH YOU TO OTHERS. IS YOUR WEAKNESS STOPPING THIS FROM HAPPENING? Or not?

If your weakness is drug abuse, then, well, yes, that is stopping you from being an occasion for God’s glory to be revealed. You can pray for healing of that sin, and expect God to be 100% on your side to remove it.

If your weakness is a physical condition that keeps you from walking like you’d like to or keeps you from many activities; well, that might be something that will be removed, but, it might not be. God might be glorified by your bearing it or by you being relieved of it.

Sometimes I wonder about conditions that affect physical appearance. What about those? We all know how sensitive we are about our appearance. What if I received a bad burn tomorrow - third degree, and would be scarred for life. Probably wouldn’t affect my outlook on life too much if it was only on a part of my leg or on my back or even part of my stomach; but, what if it covered half of my face? That would probably affect me a lot more, wouldn’t it. What would I do about that, as a man of faith? I would have to get used to it being part of who I am. I mean, at this point in life, I don’t get much positive attention for how I look, but I also don’t get much negative attention. If I had a big scar on my face, I would get negative attention. But, would it keep me from being a channel of grace to others? That’s where I am going with this. If it would, why?

Because, Paul apparently had some condition that affected his appearance. He speaks of himself as being criticized for a weak appearance, not being impressive in person, as compared with other Apostles or preachers.

It seems to me that a condition like this would keep me from being a channel of God’s grace to others if I got clogged up on the inside because of it. And, this brings us more to the truth of this passage and the truth of Paul’s experience of grace. And, I do NOT WANT TO MINIMIZE THE STRUGGLE OF PAUL OR THE STRUGGLE IT TAKES TO BEAR A WEAKNESS IN A WAY THAT DOESN’T BREAK US DOWN INSIDE.

Now, every real limitation, whether it be a disease, a physical disability, a mental/intellectual disability, CAUSES SOME REAL DIFFICULTY IN LIFE. NO DOUBT ABOUT THAT. Some damage or deformity in appearance CAUSES SOME REAL DIFFICULTY IN LIFE AS WELL. So, I don’t want to act like it’s as easy as: “Don’t worry. Trust in the Lord. God’s grace is sufficient for you.” And, having said those words, the struggle is over, the battle is done. All is well. Paul had been through a long struggle before he heard this word, before he broke through to the truth of God. And, what he found this time, was not healing, but the presence of the living God in his life, with him, around him, above him. PAUL MIGHT VERY WELL HAVE REMEMBERED PSALM 73: “MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER.”

But, words like that come after a long, genuine struggle. We church people think too quickly that we can apply those words on the front end to people’s problems and to our own. Those words come after long struggle, after silence, after not knowing, after being held close by the love of others. They come from within the heart of the one who struggles; you can’t give those words to others. They have to discover them after the long struggle of faith - of wrestling with the movement of God’s living Spirit in your life.

So, I am coming to the end of this sermon, having come upon something I need some time to think over. These words that Paul says: “My grace is sufficient for thee. My power is made perfect in weakness.” Are only real when they arise out of a living relationship with God; when they come from within; after a time of struggle.

You may be faithfully struggling with a burden and you may not be at the point where these words have come from God to you. The spiritual life is all about timing. Often we try to force things when they don’t fit. It may not be time yet to hear the freeing word from God. So, keep the faith. Rest in him. Don’t give up your praying and waiting until you hear a real word. Don’t settle for some answer that doesn’t come directly from God’s work in your heart. If the answer was easy and clear you wouldn’t be having so much trouble with what your having trouble with. You’ve tried this and that: from the Oprah show to tv preachers to easy answers from the Bible. BE STILL AND WAIT. God’s Spirit will come if you open the door; and, God’s Spirit will struggle with your spirit if you are willing to struggle with the living God. You don’t have to go up to heaven to find answers, to reach a new freedom of understanding. God’s Spirit has come down here, in here. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. That means, Jesus has drawn near. He is there knocking; he is working on the inside. Let him work, before you accept one more quick answer that will leave you empty in time.

There is a spiritual stubbornness that I want to commend to you. The spiritual stubbornness of Job. Remember how much he suffered, and how all his friends were saying good, biblical religious things to diagnose his condition and help him out? Well, remember Job wouldn’t accept any of their sermons as helpful. He stubbornly insisted on God’s Word coming directly to him. He wanted to hear from God. And, when he did, he was satisfied. Even if it wasn’t answer he might have wanted. That’s what I want to encourage you to do. But, to do that, you’ve got to be able to tell God’s wisdom from human wisdom. You’ve got to be able to tell when a human being is an agent of God’s wisdom or when a human being is simply relying on their own wisdom. You’ve got to develop a spiritual stubbornness to be able to do this.

Press on to know the Lord. Struggle until you hear a clear word that brings all other words to rest. This Word of God comes at times through human beings. It comes at times in the depths of our own hearts. It almost never comes without struggle. Press on to know the Lord. Don’t settle for anything or anyone else. Can you begin to think of your life as first of all the occasion for God’s glory to be revealed? Can you being to look at your life, all that you are, as meant as a channel of God’s grace to others. If that grace comes through you to others, is that enough for you to say: “I’ve had a good life.” It ought to be. Amen.

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