Pastor Joseph Crippen
Wednesday, 25 February 2015; texts: 2 Corinthians 1:3-7; Matthew 11:25-30
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Life is hard for many.
We know this every time we hear of someone’s diagnosis, death of a loved one, problems with family; every time we hear of a catastrophic natural event, or violent attack. Much about life is good and blessed, but for many, even ourselves, life can be very difficult.
Paul begins this beautiful second letter to the Corinthian Christians immediately addressing this. In his first letter he wrote to a divided community, struggling to be the body of Christ with each other. His tone in this later letter is different. Paul speaks of the community’s struggles with the pain of this world, not each other. In the first half of this letter, our midweek focus this Lent, Paul proclaims God’s grace enters the world’s pain and suffering, transforming believers.
Paul envisions a community’s heart filled to the depths with Christ’s resurrection life, a life and truth that transforms. It gives us competence to be faithful disciples. It’s a treasure for the world contained in our fragile disciple bodies. It’s a hope in a future with God that infuses our present with joy. It’s reconciliation with God that through us is extended to the world.
Today we begin where Paul begins, with the abundant consolation we have from God in Christ Jesus.
It’s striking that while Paul begins this letter with suffering and affliction, his answer is not to dwell on it.
We might expect that if the pain of the community of faith were Paul’s initial point, this letter could focus only on those difficulties. But Paul uses this opening to introduce his theme for these people: we belong to God in Christ Jesus and that changes everything.
The word he uses here, translated “consolation,” or “console” primarily meant “encouragement,” “exhortation.” This is not consolation saying, “poor you, you’ve got it tough.” This is consolation that walks alongside someone in pain and gives support and encouragement, helps bear the burden. The Greek word literally means “called alongside.”
Paul declares that in Christ Jesus God has moved alongside us in our life, and shares all the suffering we and the world endure.
Jesus promises this in the Gospel, too, to walk alongside us and help us bear our burdens.
Jesus uses the brilliant image of yoked oxen. The yoke enables two oxen to share the load, pull together. Jesus invites us to be yoked to him, so he can pull for us, help us in whatever we struggle with. In dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus showed he can bear the greatest burden we all face, our own deaths. Christ has carried that weight, so even when we face that reality for us and our loved ones, we are yoked into the strength and grace of the risen Lord and will be able to bear it.
This is Paul’s first word to his friends, to us: you belong to the Triune God in Christ Jesus, and so God is “called alongside” you, to encourage you, to bear your burdens with you. This is what Paul means by “consolation”: companionship with the Triune God, strength for our journey of life, grace to deal with whatever comes, even death.
But Paul’s got a deeper point about what this means for our lives.
This gift of being called alongside is now the community’s to offer to each other and the world.
We, belonging to Christ, who have the companionship, the “alongside-ness” of the Triune God, now are that same encouragement to others. We are “called alongside” each other. This is how God will truly be with people in all difficulty.
This letter proclaims the presence of God in the midst of the community, in the heart of the believers individually and collectively. From the start, this presence of God in our midst changes us to be the presence of God to others.
The community of faith serves each other as Christ visibly – able to be seen, tangibly – able to be touched. We are the real way God continues to walk alongside the people of this world.
The wonder is that by turning to the other we lose our own anxiety.
It’s easy to focus on our own pain, our own worries, as if we’re worse off than others. As Christ’s community, Paul says, we don’t have that option. We are made a community for each other and the world. By giving us the gift of knowing we are God’s presence to others, Paul turns us away from our focus on ourselves.
So St. Francis prayed that God would help him console others rather than seek to be consoled. Understand others more than worrying about whether others understood him. When we recognize our place as God’s healing grace walking alongside others – in our community, in the world – we quit feeling sorry for ourselves and find joy and grace in being God’s encouragement and accompanying presence to others.
Best of all, we actually make a difference in their lives walking alongside them, yoking to them, helping bear their burdens.
This is the great gift you, my sisters and brothers, are for me.
On several recent vacation Sundays I’ve realized I’m split in my appreciation for them. It’s good to have a Sunday off from work, a day of rest from my call. But the last thing I want to do on Sunday is find a place to worship, a community of faith. Here is where I want to be, even if I’m not supposed to be working. You are the presence of God in my life. You are the people “called alongside” me by God, who, yoked with me, help me bear my burdens.
Living in the presence of God, we are the presence of God, that’s Christ’s gift. Each of us sees God’s face of love and grace in the other, and is that same face to others.
That makes life far easier, no matter the circumstances. As we bear one another’s burdens, even as ours are borne by others, the encouragement and grace of God fills our hearts and lives and becomes a gift in the world.
Just as Christ planned.
In the name of Jesus. Amen