Paul, part 7: Difficulties
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
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Gill M: Father God, we thank you for that promise; that you can be forever ours for each one of us. As Paul comes to speak to us now, Lord, open our hearts, open our minds and open our wills that we will hear from you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Paul W: Gill and team, thank you for sensitively leading us through this time this morning. Quite recently, I opened the door to a group of, or a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses, ready to ask me some questions. Not really wanting to engage them in too much conversation, I tried to answer them quickly and tried to shut them up and move them on. Especially when I told them that I was a church pastor, I thought that will stop them trying to convert me. So I thought.
Their insistence, so suggested that Jesus was somehow below the status of God, got me really annoyed. I found myself doing something that I never thought I would; quoting scripture back to them, about where Jesus and the Father were one, and the bit in Philippians where Paul writes that the Son is of the same substance as the Father. In the end, they left. Perhaps defeated or perhaps quite happy that they actually had a conversation with somebody. For me, I spent the rest of the day feeling bad that I – perhaps I almost bullied them into getting my viewpoint across.
They just didn’t get that Jesus is God. I wasn’t going to get into Biblical point- scoring by quoting Scripture at them, because they would only quote their Scripture back. Point scoring, having the last word, verbally bullying the other person into submission so that they shut up and listen. I wish I could just shut up and listen rather than be on the offensive or defensive all the time with those Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As I sat down with a cup of tea to reflect on my doorstep encounter, I reflected on whether I had been a stumbling block in their way; whether I had discredited Jesus in the way that I had treated them. Had I opened my heart to their message, listened patiently and generally encourage them perhaps to doubt their own belief, or had I got on my own high horse, I rather fear that I had been roiled into apologetics and stood by the teaching that the Bible says, that Jesus and His Father were one.
Had I been in minister mode or was I Paul -at- home mode, when my unexpected visitors rang on the door, quite, is there a difference between the two? Did I treat my visitors the same as anyone from the church? Because personality and ministry I think are very much linked together. A church chooses its minister, because the minister’s personality fits with the personality of the church.
The way you go about your ministry, your everyday life, talking to people, spending time with people, telling people about Jesus over a coffee or writing a Bible study, or sending Bible notes to a friend, listening to a loved one, having the privilege to send money to mission organisations are all styles of personal ministry, things that you feel God has put on your heart to do, things that you feel naturally drawn to act upon.
Here in 2 Corinthians, Paul the minister is being real with his congregation in Corinth. He’s had fallings-out with them and he’s putting it on the line how much hard work he has put into the people there. Depressingly, he has gone through much hardship and struggle. We see Paul the person, not Paul the minister, who’s talking in real terms about how much he has given for them and for Jesus.
This isn’t a falling out kind of a rant or a moan, this is Paul the person laying on the line, reminding the church that the life of a minister has its trials. At this point, I could use an illustration from my ministry to say how did the difficult things have been, but actually I can’t. My work here is a true honour and a true privilege to serve. To quote Sue Spilman, a former elder of this church, she said to me once, “Paul, you’re a match for Main Street.” I didn’t know quite whether she meant a match or a match .
That’s not to say that my work is a piece of cake. This week alone I obviously will have dealt with some very difficult personal and pastoral situations, but that’s the part of the role of a pastor, to be there for and with people, to offer supports and guidance, care and love. Here in 2 Corinthians, Paul is not bemoaning his position, rather he’s being brutally honest about how hard he has worked and what reward on earth this has thus far reaped. It sounds like a clash between him and the church. Paul offers his own humanness to them, his weaknesses and his challenges.
Similarly, although you probably don’t believe it, I have weaknesses and challenges. I have people that I share those with, for whom I am eternally grateful. I wonder whether you may have had a clash with somebody. Perhaps at work, colleague, about a difference of opinion. Maybe you’ve discussed something political, I can’t imagine what.
Imagine it ended up it being a war of words. The question for us today is to consider what the NIV Bible heads “Paul’s hardships.” How we respond to those situations, knowing Christ and knowing he’s calling to believe and behave and belong in a particular way. How is it that we remain calm, and strong, and sincere, and truthful in those times; in those good times and those bad.
Paul writes this third letter to the Corinthians, even though it’s called 2 Corinthians, knowing that a previous letter has been received with little enthusiasm by the Corinthians and as a result, both he and the church were pained. They were hurting and they were distressed. Indeed the letter which we do not have is known by academics as the painful letter, reflected in part of 2 Corinthians 1 and 2. Yet Paul would not give up on the church. He’s given so much time, invested so much energy and prayer and passion into the church of Corinth.
Paul reflects on how hard work a ministry work can be and how he has suffered physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. He doesn’t mind if the Corinthians know how battered he feels, making the point that he is opening up his heart to the Corinthians. Now Paul invites them to reciprocate. I think that’s the secret with dealing with personal difficulties, or as Bill put it to me last week as he read this week’s message theme in the notices, the same as dealing with difficult personalities. The way to restoration is always tender, open, honesty. Which when one has been wounded before by the ones Paul is reaching out to, must be doubly as painful.
Having been hurt by the Corinthians’ response to a painful letter, he now writes to ensure that, most importantly, relationships in the church, between the church and between them and God are the best that it can be. His relationship with them is of less importance, yet he writes to state the hardships are part of the course. They need to remember the hardships he has suffered on their behalf.
How do we deal with it when we are battered about? Does the British stiff upper lip come into play? Do we stoically look at the situation and say, “Well, worse things happen at sea. There are others worse off than I am.” Because often, let’s face it, that’s the way we often look at personal difficulties and difficult personalities.
Taking this on a little bit further, are we really doing any favors by not directly looking at the situation for what it really is? Are we good at sidestepping whatever is the real issue? Are we dancing around the elephant in the room, choosing to believe that there’s not really much of a problem that actually needs dealing with, no matter how hard it could be to stare the problem down? To use Pauline language, am I putting a stumbling block in my own or somebody else’s way in order to protect myself? Only I can honestly respond to that.
Thinking about Paul for a moment, I often see him as a confident, strong, moral, upright leader, always encouraging, being strong enough to put the churches’ problems right. In this passage, we get a more personal, almost depressed sounding Paul. As Tom Wright puts it in the Biography of Paul, that in a world where leaders were supposed to be socially respectable exemplary characters is exactly the point. Even Paul had his off days. Even Paul was reeling from this whole list of pressures that we read in 2 Corinthians 6.
As a servant of God, as a missionary, he’d been involved in all kinds of riots and beatings. He’d had sleepless nights. He’d experienced hunger. He goes on. The purity, the good and bad reports, the lies that have been spoken against him, knowing he had lost everything. It all counted towards personal hardship and difficulty. It meant he had lost it all. He had become like any normal human being, drained and sad, and maybe even just that close to jacking it all in. Because in this episode, there was no triumph, but yet it was Paul doing what we experience. It was Paul doing the Christian plod.
This was Paul being as upfront and honest with where his ministry was up until now, where it had led him. When we reflect back to what God had said to Ananias in Acts 9, at the start of Paul’s ministry, we remember that it was never going to be an easy task. This is what God said to Ananias, “I have picked him as my personal representative to non-Jews and kings and Jews. And now I’m about to show him for what he’s in for, the hard suffering that goes along with this job.” We get the point. We get the point that Paul might be on the point of just jacking it all in.
But he and we also have the confidence that he cannot and will not because of the inner confidence that God has in him to deliver the message of being in Christ to the church, to the Jews, and to the whole world. Not all of the passage here is downbeat. In spite of the sleepless nights and the hunger, Paul also remembers the purity and the understanding, the patience and the kindness. He remembers the passion of working when filled with the Holy Spirit in sincere love. He talks himself into becoming that warrior of righteousness with the correct weapons in his hands.
Finally, he draws conclusions that seem almost contradictory. Genuine, yet regarded as imposters. Known, yet regarded as unknown. Dying and yet living on. Beaten, not yet killed. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Poor, yet making many rich. Having nothing, yet possessing everything. I guess this is Paul trying not to say, “Things are worse, but they could be even worse,” but rather, “This is pretty cruddy, but looking at it from an eternal perspective, it’s only a beating. It’s only losing material wealth". Looking from that perspective, it’s still really difficult.
If we read 2 Corinthians 6, it must be one of the longest sentences in the Bible, but we get the point. Paul’s work is draining stuff, and it’s never done. An Evangelist’s lot is not a happy one. I know that I’m going to be stepping on Neil’s toes for next week, but I’m using pastor’s prerogative here in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul bemoans more what he’s gone through. He says in 2 Corinthians 11, more from next week from Neil, “I’ve worked much harder, been imprisoned more frequently, been flogged more severely, and exposed to death time and time again. Five times, I received from the Jews 40 lashes minus one.” I don’t know why he didn’t just say 39. “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was pelted with stones. Three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I’ve been constantly on the move.
“I’ve been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false believers. I have toiled and laboured and have often gone without sleep. I have known hunger and thirst and often go without food. I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face the daily pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I don’t feel weak. Who is led into sin and I do not inwardly burn.” Looking forward to next week, Neil.
Yes, there is always something and someone worse off than I am. Of course, this will always be the case. Paul makes the point that he’s not yet been put over the edge, but as humans, even Christian humans, we can only tolerate so much before it becomes too much. Our personal difficulties are just that, they’re personal. We do not expect others to come rushing to give us the emotional first aid every time we get angry or annoyed or tearful, but sometimes we need it.
As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, sometimes we need to grow into this. We need to grow through our tribulations and our trials. We somehow receive a second wind, a power from on high, an extra boost. At the same time, let us not be afraid of asking for help. Let us not get to the point of madness before we allow another trusted fellow human to get alongside and to bear the load of personal problems and hardships.
I know this is not an easy message for many of us to hear, but that’s exactly why the Church of Jesus Christ exists: to bear with one another, to stick with one another when the tough gets going, to lift one another in prayer and to offer some practical help and support. To not leave one another alone, even when it might be easier to just ignore a sensitive situation. I think we’re really good at pastoral care here at Main Street, but what about those who perhaps we don’t know as well within the fellowship that we could get to know a little better?
Is there room in my heart for another to look out for? Can I be of assistance, in a practical or a spiritual way, to enable the church here not just to exist, but to flourish? As pastor here, I don’t just go it alone, although sometimes you might think so. Andrew and Moira, Ishbel and Gill, as well as so many others, bless and encourage and challenge. Sometimes it is a hard slog, but there’s never a dull moment. At times, one can sometimes wonder, “Who’s going to fill that position? Where can someone help with this job or that, and what happens when …”
These are worries that concern every pastor. That’s because churches in this country are so often activity driven. People get worn out and worn down because they keep doing the activities that make it look like church, often feeling no one’s going to do as well as me. Paul’s encouragement here is even that if it feels like a plod, we do it for the glory of God. However we are involved in our church community, it should be the community of love and compassion for one another and compassion for those beyond our group here. Our range of activities should only exist as entry points to include people more and more into the community of faith. Each activity is not a stand-alone activity, it must always point to the saving love of Jesus Christ.
You see our failings and disappointments and personal difficulties, those things that we come across daily, our walk with God, don’t prove that we are bad Christians. To be truthful in comparison to Jesus, then we’re all bad Christians, but that doesn’t mean that we must feel that we are. With these hardships, we know that it’s because we’re human and we all have difficulties with different ways of coping with difficulty.
We know that these “roses of success,” to quote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, “don’t always grow the way we want them to.” Sometimes we never even see that rose, we don’t even see the stem. Yet we know it’s there just waiting to burst into bloom. We trust that it will, in the same way, that we know spring is, apparently, just around the corner. The telltale signs are there. We see the daffodils and we see the blossom.
Our expectation of God might be that He does what we expect Him, what we ask Him, but what happens when He doesn’t seem to respond? What then? I’m afraid I can’t presume to know, but this I do know; in those times when we stumble in faith and when we don’t feel worthy enough to be called friends of Jesus, those are precisely the times when we should call on one another.
It’s like we’re stuck together. The death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the reason we celebrate life and hope and forgiveness, and the facts that we can start afresh again around this communion table means that we have access to our Father God who loves us and treats us exactly like the prodigal son; with arms outstretched ready and longing to welcome us into his arms.
Was it easy for Jesus to go through such pain and anguish and suffering? Did he know of temptations? Did he worry? Of course, yes, he did. Didn’t he still go through the pain of death for us in spite of such hardship? If you’re feeling like a ropey Christian, if you’re feeling like a fantastic Archbishop of Canterbury, if you’re somebody who perhaps has only recently decided to follow Jesus, and even someone who wouldn’t even yet call themselves a believer, we know there’s hope.
You might tend to beat yourself up because you’re not good enough or not intelligent enough or not godly enough, but that’s not the criteria. You just have to be honest enough to yourself and to the God who cares so much about you, that He doesn’t want you to leave you the way that you might feel about yourself. Because the secret, folks, is that you are enough. God puts you in a family. He sticks lonely and lost and confused people together and we call it the church.
Back in Acts, they called it the community of believers. Whatever we want to call it, we’re family. However much you might like it or hate it, I’m kind of stuck with you and you’re kind of stuck with me. As we are stuck with one another, let us, as Paul asks at the end of this passage today, open wide our hearts as a fair exchange. Open our hearts together. Let’s be one in the family of Christ. Let us bear with one another in love, let us journey with those who find it difficult to journey. Let’s link arms and carry on, not with a stiff upper lip, but with that open-hearted way that Jesus showed for us.
Let us pray.
Lord God and Heavenly Father, we know that it’s not always easy to serve you. We know that life is not always an easy path to tread. Would we know this day, this minute, this hour that you are holding us close? Would you help us as a family, as people who desire to follow Jesus more, and to show the world that we’re serious about following him. Would you show us your grace? Would we show others your love? Would you help us through our difficult times personally and as we go forward as a congregation, as a fellowship, as a group of believers, as family here? Would you bless us in this day? In Jesus name I pray. Amen.
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