This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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Our reading today is from 2 Corinthians 1. It’s very short. It’s just three or four verses. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. Praise be to the Lord God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of compassion and the God of all comforts, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it’s for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it’s for your comforts, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. Our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
The letter of 2 Corinthians is sometimes known as Paul’s hard letter. If Philippians is Paul’s letter of joy, then 2 Corinthians is Paul’s letter of personal difficulty and hardship. Part of the reason he writes to the Corinthian church and now to a wider audience in Achaia is to congratulate them on having listened to his previous letter and on hearing how things had changed and been better. However, and there always seems to be a however with the Corinthian church, however, there’s now a problem with Paul having to defend himself as someone who has really met Jesus and an apostle. Perhaps there were problems as Paul wasn’t one of the original 12 apostles that Jesus chose. The people knew that once he had met Jesus on his road to Damascus experience, he had become very much a changed man. Indeed, as Acts 6 and Acts 9 say, let’s look at Chapter 6 I think. Ananias who had met Paul, or Saul as then was his name, on his arrival in Damascus, heard from God, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Paul’s life was transformed from a Christian-killing machine to a grace-filled God-lover whose only job was now to tell the world about Jesus, the Messiah. As we continue our journey through Lent, the Mothering Sunday readings are from the lectionary, from that traditional Bible reading list throughout the traditional church year. I didn’t know until I started reading that there was a particular Mothering Day lectionary, Mothering Sunday lectionary. They include these four verses from the beginning of 2 Corinthians 1.
The main themes we pick up in these verses are of suffering and of comfort, which perhaps seem to be odd things to be talking about on a Mothering Sunday. As I start, I do hope you’ll forgive me if at any stage in the message this morning, my words sound shallow or superficial. I really don’t mean for them to sound glib. I guess my only defence is that I’m not really good about talking about suffering. I would much rather sit in silence along someone who is suffering than come out with comfort words or platitudes.
We mentioned earlier that sometimes Mother’s Day can be difficult for many. For our fellowship and for some folk within it, especially this past year has been very, very hard. There are parents who no longer have a child. There are children who no longer have a parent. There are people known to us who just a few short months ago enjoyed fall and active lives, but because of age or infirmity can no longer enjoy the life that they once had. We all know people who for one reason or another find occasions such as today, a real struggle.
Of course, all we have to do is switch on the radio or look at our phones or take the daily newspaper to discover such tragic news through famine and war and the world in that struggle. If we didn’t have the hope and comfort of knowing God, we’d think that things will be in an eternal mess. This is precisely why Paul is writing again for the third time, we think, to the Corinthians.
He wants to share some of his own difficulties and trials of life so that he can also glow in the comfort that he experiences from God so that he can say to the Corinthians, suffering and comforts are community activities. He says, “Let me show you how all this works and how Jesus is involved in it too.” I’d like to think for just a moment about why these few verses might be pertinent to Mothering Sunday. Is it because mothers are traditional? In my experience, I find this to be true. Comforting characters, particularly, maybe in one’s younger lives.
I remember my mum rubbing my knee after I’d fallen over when I was little, giving me a cuddle, telling me I’ll be okay, even when I was hurting. I recall the time when we were on holiday-- oh, she’s here, a bit embarrassing. I remember the time on holiday, I don’t remember how old I was, but we were in Mid Wales, and I tripped and banged my head on the doorpost. We went off to see the doctor at the field hospital. The doctor said, “See, mum’s been at your head with the Germolene slammed on my head.
I’m grateful for my mum for spending hours and hours massaging my weird feet, probably for years, as we watched the nine o’clock news. That’s how long ago it was before we really knew what was wrong with my feet. For that and so much more, that I received comfort from a mother’s love. Small gifts of a meal smuggled into the fridge. Occasions when I’d come home to find the vacuuming had been miraculously done. Those times when I noticed the weeds have been pulled in the garden without being asked. Yes, I know that I’m blessed to know the comfort of a mother’s love.
2 Corinthians 1 here, all about the comfort of a mother that is in today’s lectionary reading. Perhaps, historically, the return to one’s mother church, where one received baptism gives comfort to those coming home. John’s gospel talks about the coming of the comforter, meaning the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the thoughts about baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit is another reason why we think about comfort today.
Talking about mothers as we were, and mine in particular actually, I’m sure that if you spoke to my mum after the service, she would probably say that as a parent, the first 19 years are the worst. I don’t know why, but that’s what she’s always said. Nodding. First 19 years, it’ll be fine. I’m sure that I worried my mother a few times when I’d stayed out at a friend’s house all night, not called to say where I was before mobile phones.
I’m sure that my mum suffered anguish over whether or not I was being bullied at school, probably feeling hopeless and helpless about what to do, and probably hundreds of other things that I’ll never know about that made her worry and ponder. I guess it’s part of the delightful design of who wonderful mothers are.
Back to 2 Corinthians 1, Paul sets out in his early part of the letter what he wants to tell the church in Corinth, in the rest of his letter. It’s the way that he writes things. Firstly, he wants to tell his readers about the comfort that he has received from the news that the church has been transformed because the good news of Jesus is triumphant and transforming.
He also wants to use his experience of personal suffering to encourage them, to remind them of his own credentials as a real apostle, a real follower of Jesus Christ, who wants to testify that God is good because of, and in spite of, and right in the middle of suffering. This is why 2 Corinthians is such a hard book. Paul is suffering because he’s put himself out on a spiritual limb. The church he has founded has people in it who are doubting his motives and even his status as that apostle.
Throughout much of the rest of this letter, he writes about unusual difficulties, about being imprisoned and whipped and shipwrecked and stoned and going without sleep. He writes about his experience about escaping Damascus over the wall in a basket. He writes about the thorn in his flesh. In spite of all that he’s about to write, he begins with this phrase, “Praise be to the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The father of compassion and the God of all comforts, who comforts us in our troubles.”
Paul doesn’t begin with telling the church folk off about the issues that he needs to address. Rather, first, he points them to Jesus. He praises God for who God is. God the compassionate. God of all comforts. This Mothering Sunday, we discover that the true qualities of a mother are indeed also the true qualities of God. Ten times in these first few verses, Paul mentions the word comfort. It’s quite obvious that this is what he’s got in mind.
Tom Wright says that comforts is a many-sided word that could also mean, to call somebody to come near, to make a strong appeal, or to treat someone in an inviting or friendly way. It brings people, says Tom Wright, it brings people onto the point where they are strong enough to see new hope, new possibilities, new way forward. Paul cleverly intertwines his own suffering with those of Jesus, and to show the way of Jesus is the way of suffering as well.
Perhaps, and this is the real reason why, 2 Corinthians 1 and those verses 3 to 7 is a Mothering Sunday lectionary because on our lent journey, we discover again through Paul’s sufferings, how hard the path was for Jesus and how His life would come to an end, and how He would suffer at the hands of people. That the Messiah Himself would suffer a horrible death at the hands of those religious rulers who should have known better, and at the hands of the Roman authorities who needed to get rid of yet another insurrector.
Victory and battle always comes at a cost. As I was writing this, the national news was reporting on the war in Ukraine. The reporter said that on the outskirts of Kyiv, some Russian fighters had been pushed back and the Ukrainian soldiers had taken back some of their ground. The reporter said how many hundreds or thousands of troops on each side had already been lost in the month of the war. The Ukrainians in this tiny part of their country were celebrating taking back what had been theirs but at a great cost. People had suffered for the sake of small yet significant victory.
I guess, for Paul, his ministry probably felt a lot like that. For mothers at times, parenting probably feels like that too, which battles to pick, which wars to aim to win, which issues we just let go of? For Paul, he seems to be the endless optimist. Maybe that’s a help to us as we read his words because Paul knew the grace of God and seemed always to know the presence of God with him even during those hardships. In a number of his letters, he seems to look forward with confidence about the future. He uses phrases like, “Forgetting the past, I strive ahead. I look ahead.”
Paul’s endless optimism always seems to be one of boundless qualities that always seems to see him through. Always places God first. I wonder how my optimism or my lack of it sometimes gives me a godly perspective on the situations I find myself in. In terms of struggle and comforts, Paul makes the theological point that what is true of Jesus is true of the followers of Jesus. In essence, Paul says here, “The Messiah died, so His people died in Him, sharing His sufferings. The Messiah rose again, so His people rise again in Him, knowing the power of the resurrection to comfort and to heal.”
The technical word for this theological point is called interchange, apparently. Paul uses it now to point out how it is that Jesus suffered and so His people do too. As Jesus was resurrected, so His people will be, too. As Paul himself suffered primarily for the work of Jesus, so the church somehow receives comfort. When Paul is comforted, he parted that onto the church as well. He talks about boasting quite a lot. I think that’s what his boasting is about. Because of Jesus, he can get through this, and so can we because we are a community and we don’t do hardship or trial alone.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks about the church being one body. When one part suffers, the whole of it suffers. I guess he’s also saying here in 2 Corinthians that when the body rejoices, the whole body rejoices. It’s a deep reminder that the church of Jesus Christ is one body, is one community. We are designed to be whole. It is designed to love in spite and because of the suffering that it experiences as it journeys together. Just as mothers are designed to love their children even when it includes suffering on the way, so Jesus loves His church.
Paul acts as another example of this and says that God’s comfort often comes as a result of deep suffering. How glib this sounds as I write. I know that I haven’t suffered when others, perhaps even in this very room have or are in pain, and yet I want to trust. I do trust that this is true. For those of us who suffer, as well as those of us who don’t, perhaps it’s helpful that we remind ourselves as we did earlier when the children were with us, that God’s comfort is like a hen who gathers her chicks under her wings.
In that most famous part of Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and staff, they comfort me.” Through the hard journey of life, just as we journey through lent, knowing there’s a lot for Jesus to go through before the joy of resurrection, there seems to be suffering. There’s immense hardship, and yet, even though I walk, your rod and staff, they comfort me.
That possible glimmer of optimism that Paul has here like there is written in the Psalms as well. That one person who comes alongside and says, “Take my hand, let’s walk through this together. I’m here. It’ll be okay.” That’s maybe what comfort can look like, not ignoring the harsh reality, but going through it, knowing God is here, knowing the community that we are a part of is here too.
If you’ve ever experienced or are experiencing hardship that is overwhelming, I hope and trust and I pray that you will receive comfort and support from your church community because church communities are commanded to act in a way that Jesus does. Jesus is always concerned with people, and particularly, the widowed and the orphaned. Those who perhaps don’t have much or are forgotten about by others. I’m encouraged by Isaiah 40:1, and it begins, “Comfort, comfort my people says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed.”
This comes after 39 chapters of hardship and wallowing of God’s people in all sorts of ways. There comes an emergence of hope and blessing and comfort. There will be an end to this difficulty. There is comfort in God. Tender words can be so important. It’s probably a good time to remember that so much of Paul’s ministry was, in his words in 2 Corinthians 5, one of reconciliation, that we may be reconciled to God because of Jesus and His suffering, we have access to God afresh, and that people have always been God’s primary concern.
As we pray for peace in our world, perhaps even peace with our own friends, families, or friendship groups, may we know that there will be an end to suffering. May we be comforted by this truth, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. Suffering then can be the occasion when God’s comfort is often experienced. May this be a consolation if you are going through terrible hardships. May you know in this moment the tenderness that God spoke all those years ago to His people that Isaiah was shepherding.
May you know not just these words printed in the Bible, but that you might experience such deep comfort, the comfort that can only come from a sincere loving God. In the midst of suffering, may you deeply know that God’s presence is even more strong than the suffering that we are undergoing now, and may we know that God is holding us.
On this Mothering Sunday, when we recall the comfort of mothers or mother-like figures in our own lives, as we gladly offer our thoughts for mother churches and all the goodness that God has put into our lives, even in spite of the hardships that we might be going through, may we know and experience the comfort of God, His Holy Spirit, the comforter, who gives us confidence and optimism to see this trial through. I’ll finish with one verse from Isaiah 66, where it says, “God says, as the mother comforts his child, so I will comfort you.”
God says, as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.
We spend a moment in quiet and perhaps the children will come back in just a few moments as well because we’ve got some gifts to offer our ladies today. We should have a moment of quiet.
Father God, we thank you for your tenderness. We thank you for your tender words spoken those centuries ago, “Comfort, comfort my people.”
We claim that today for ourselves, particularly for those going through difficult times. We thank you for Paul’s optimism, to look not just now, but to the future hope and blessing, and pray that today there will be a glimpse of that through one another, through our loved ones. Father, thank you for your word to us today. Bless us, I pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
References and sources
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