Sermon written and preached for the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, Indiana. Delivered (some version of it anyhow) in the chapel and sanctuary services on Sunday, June 7, 2015.
2 Corinthians 4:13-15, Common English Bible
13 We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: I had faith, and so I spoke.[a] We also have faith, and so we also speak. 14 We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. 15 All these things are for your benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory.
Last week we asked worshippers in each worship service to answer the question “What need in the world (or our surrounding community) weighs heaviest on your heart?” Many, many answers were submitted and we are grateful for each submission. Tom, Susie, Pastor Rebecca and I read through each one as we worked to prepare the exercise for next week’s worship service. The needs identified ran the gamut from global to local. There were a few that came up repeatedly. In the mix were a few cards expressing grief over the decline of this church. We are not what we used to be. Many in this room remember very different circumstances— circumstances that led to the building of this glorious building… and then filled it, regularly. Many Christians in the United States are feeling exactly the same way. Some of you have forwarded news article about the latest pew research which shows the radical decline in Christianity and rise of the “nones”- not Roman Catholic sisters— people with no religious affiliation at all. And lest you think this is just a mainline Christianity thing, the pew study that’s generated so much buzz demonstrates decline in Evangelical Christian churches too. The Church in the United States, and really the whole of the western world, is in decline— our church is no exception.
This isn’t pleasant.
But it isn’t, necessarily, disastrous.
I’ll unpack that in a bit. But first I want to note that in a church anxious about decline the last verse of our reading this morning, as translated by both the Bibles in your pews and the Bible from which I read, talks about grace increasing to benefit “more and more people.” I think this phrase is probably a magnet for us. When we hear this, I suspect, it reinforces our inclination to think that where grace is present numbers boom— like on Pentecost, right? The Holy Spirit shows up and 3,000 get baptized that very day. More and more people… that’s what many of us, on some level, are hoping for. More and more people to fill these pews. More and more people to come to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. More and more people. Yes, God, please. Send us that.
But I’m not sure that the Greek actually says anything about more and more people. The second half of verse 15 is very difficult Greek- scholars cannot agree how it should be translated. Most of our Bibles— including the one from the which I read and the one in your pews, both of which are usually close translations of the original languages— get really loose when they come to the second half of 2nd Corinthians 4:15— adding words, making interpretive leaps. I don’t blame them. I happened to have a New Testament scholar visiting one night this week and we sat down with this verse together— and he eventually said— “Yeah, you just have to decide. It’s open. It’s not clear.” I don’t really want to get into the nuances of what’s tricky in the Greek— and all the different translation possibilities— it’s not necessary and it’s a bit beyond me actually… but I learned from my scholar friend that both the intensification of “more” to “more and more” and the word “people” are not literally in the Greek— they are supplied by the translators.
Enough Greek. My friend urged me to remember the context and to consider where the emphasis lies. So let’s do that. In the preceding verses, not just the two we read, but the first 12 verses of chapter four, Paul is talking about the suffering that he and his fellow ministers of the Gospel are enduring— some might have used the persecution and suffering they were enduring to discredit them and their ministry— suggesting that if they were really aligned with God, they would be thriving, riding high on glory. Paul suggests that this not how the power of the Gospel works. God desires for light to shine out of darkness. God brings life out of death. This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who spent his whole life dying— only to be raised to eternal glory after he died. Paul suggests that the more frail a vessel for doing God’s work, the better (fragile, common, clay pots…)— so there can be no confusion about who owns the power that is being exercised. He suggests that Christ’s ministers carry Jesus’ death in their bodies so that Jesus’ life can be seen through them. Verse twelve reads “So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
Considering this context, it seems that the emphasis is less on the more (more people or whatever), and more on the grace. Grace being power that shines through weakness, love that rescues from death. Grace being salvation in spite of… Despite our unworthiness, our sin, our weakness— God claims, names, and saves us. That is grace. Life that springs from death. Grace.
Paul and his fellow ministers were gripped by grace. Their lives were turned upside down by grace. They were blessed with a confidence in God’s saving, life-giving power that allowed them to endure all sorts of calamity… and to keep speaking their faith. Here’s the thing about grace…when it grips us, when we feel the enormity of this gift, we want others to feel it too. We can’t help it. When we feel as though we have been snatched from death in spite of ourselves, we want others to be snatched from death too. It’s not a private, secret gift. It’s a gift that compels further giving. It’s always been this way. That’s why despite this season of decline and many previous oppressed, beleaguered, apparently disastrous seasons in 2,000 years of Christian history… the church has persisted, and spread, and sometimes even grown. Paul and his fellow ministers looked forward to being raised into the presence of Christ with the Corinthians. Their faith compelled them to bring life giving witness to others, for the benefit of others… a private audience with Jesus would have felt like failure to them. Suffering, even dying— not failure. Failing to speak their faith for the benefit of others… just to avoid suffering and death… failure.
I think that speaking faith sometimes looks (and sounds) like what I’m doing right now. But I think sometimes we speak louder in actions. When we find ways to stand in solidarity with the dead and dying, that God might bring new life— we are speaking faith. If we can worry less about how many people are in our pews and more about how many people outside these walls need an experience of grace I think we’ll be on the right track. And finding one or two or even three significant mission commitments that position us to serve our neighbors, humbly certainly, but faithfully— speaking our faith because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with others… others whom we serve in his name.
Tom, Stu, Pastor Rebecca and I went to a workshop last fall in which we heard about a church that had been in a long and steep decline— they were down to maybe 12 members. A few of those members showed up to a workshop much like the one we attended; they showed up feeling discouraged and hopeless… they were sure they were dead, done, and gone. But they decided, since they were dead anyhow, they had nothing to lose. So they started a tutoring program for neighborhood kids. They didn’t expect to grow. They just thought they should use what they had to benefit others in need. They focused on extending grace for the benefit of others— in spite of their apparently desperate circumstances. And their church came back to life.
Sometimes decline results from unfaithfulness— forsaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ for some earthly standard of glory. Sometimes. Sometimes decline results from faithfulness— making decisions informed by the Word of God that are unpopular in the world today. And sometimes it has nothing to do with us really– with our faith or unfaith– businesses leave town, communities change, people die… Let’s worry less about why we have declined and more about what this moment means to us right now. Friends, we may be better positioned today to experience and to demonstrate the grace of God for the benefit of our community and world because we are less aligned with power and privilege and earthly glory than we once were. In days of old, we could feel rather proud of ourselves. But today if we succeed, it’s clearly because of God, not because of us. And because this church belongs to God, and not to us, I am not discouraged. I know God’s grace is present here and that we will be bearers of grace to a world that we all know desperately needs it.
The resource in addition to scripture that most significantly influenced this sermon was a conversation with Dr. SungUk Lim, a fellow, recent graduate of Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion.
This post on church decline was also an influence.
And I think this post, that I read some time ago, provides background influence, too.