June 7, 2015
Identity: You’re Built to Last
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
I played football in high school. Now, I wasn’t a particularly good football player. To start with, I’m a very average athlete. Very average. And I played offensive line. As you can see, I don’t have the prototypical build for an offensive lineman. Also, I started playing in 9th grade, whereas most of my teammates started playing in 7th grade. So, I was about two years behind in terms of understanding the game. On top of that, I was new to the school and fairly shy, so I didn’t do a great job of asking for help getting up to speed. Basically, my football career involved a lot of pretending I knew what I was doing--and not very well. I make a much better fan than player.
What I did learn, however, is that I loved the weight room. I liked the rhythm of going to workout every day after class. So, even after I stopped playing football, I got into the habit of working out on a regular basis. Exercise is my favorite form of stress relief--whether it’s in the gym or running on a trail. Now, it’s not in my genetics to be the strongest or the fastest. I learned that pretty quickly. But, I love the feeling of improving, of lifting more or clocking a faster run. What it has taught me is that the key to improvement, the key to growth is pushing yourself. That seems pretty self-explanatory, but simple doesn’t mean easy. In order to get stronger or faster, you have to put stress on your body, so that it will adapt to produce more power with greater efficiency. To improve, you have to increase the difficulty and force yourself to adapt.
Have you ever had one of those moments in your life when you’ve had to deal with something that you felt was beyond your capabilities? Have you ever been faced with a challenge that exceeds your training and your experience? I’m a month away from being a parent, so I know I’m there. We all face challenges at times that push us beyond our perceived limits.
We don’t always like it. We like to live in spaces and routines that are comfortable, that help us to maintain. But, it is when we are forced to bear something beyond our perceived capabilities that we truly grow. The year I worked as the Associate Youth Director at Davidson UMC, fresh out of college, we were preparing to take the first international youth mission trip that the church had done in about a decade. Part of the reason it had been a decade is that the prior one had been an absolute disaster. I won’t get into the details, but it put an end to international youth missions for a while.
But, three youth directors later, we were going to give it another shot and decided to take a high school trip to serve in Costa Rica. I was pretty excited. One, because I love missions trips. Two, because I wasn’t in charge. I didn’t have to bear the burden of ultimate responsibility. And, 23 years old, I wasn’t really equipped to bear that burden. That all changed when the youth director and her husband found out that they were pregnant and the due date was right before the mission trip. There was no way she could take a newborn on a trip to rural Costa Rica, so, all of a sudden, I was in charge of 50 high schoolers and 12 adults preparing to head to Costa Rica for a week. It didn’t matter whether I was ready for the responsibility, it was mine to bear. I’m pretty sure that trip is part of the reason I already have some grey in my beard. It was a success, mainly because no one got hurt or arrested and we came back with the same number with which we left.
That trip forced me to grow more in a week than I probably had grown in the entire year prior. Bearing that weight forced me to adapt and grow, preparing me to bear more weight in the future. In no way did I think I was ready to be responsible for sixty-three people in a foreign country, but it is when we are forced to bear something beyond our perceived capabilities that we truly grow. We’ve all had experiences like that in our lives.
The passage we read this morning is from one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. I say “one of” because there were more than the ones we have in scripture. At lot of scholars actually think that 1st Corinthians was the second letter and 2nd Corinthians was the fourth letter. On top of his four letters, he also visited a few times. What that tells us is that the church in Corinth required a lot of Paul’s attention. That’s not because they were the model church. In this particular letter, he has a few goals. We can tell that he had some disagreement with some people during his previous visit and isn’t too happy with the way things ended up. Basically, it looks like he got caught up in the middle of a bad church fight. As some of you know, there’s nothing worse than a bad church fight. Jesus tends to get shoved out of the picture. As he’s writing, Paul’s still upset, but he knows that they need some reconciliation, so one of his goals is to mend relationships. Another goal he has is to reestablish his authority. He wants to smooth things out, but he’s not ready to give in. He’s looking for them to engage in a little repentance.
Finally, a goal he has is to help the Christians in Corinth understand their identity in Christ. Just like we’re doing with this sermon series, Paul wants to help them understand what it means to be a follower of Christ. And, in the wake of this nasty church fight, Paul is saying, “Look, this is who we are. We are not simply a bunch of bickering people, we are something more.”
In the passage we read, he tells them this. He tells them that they, that we, are a people preparing for the weight of glory. He talks about the afflictions we face. Sometimes those afflictions are the result of external forces. Sometimes they are the result of forces in the church community. But we are something more. Those afflictions wear on us, but they prepare us for a different kind of weight, the weight of glory.
That’s a strange concept, the weight of glory. We don’t often think about glory as something difficult, we tend to think of glory as a type of achievement or liberation. That glory is about overcoming or releasing burdens, not taking them up. But that’s a shallow understanding of the nature of glory.
Another translation of the word “weight” here is “significance.” The weight of glory is not oppressive, but it is substantial. Paul is telling them that dealing with things of lesser significance is preparing them to embrace things of greater significance. They’ve faced all kinds of challenges from inside and outside of their church community, but Christ’s invitation is to trade one burden for another. To trade something of minor significance for one of great significance. We are a people preparing for the weight of glory. We are a people preparing for greater significance. For, in Paul’s words, the “eternal significance of glory beyond all measure.”
Today, we celebrate and bless our graduates. Whether they’ve graduated high school, college, or graduate school, we recognize that these men and women have achieved something great and now have their eyes set upon the next thing. They look towards the next phase of their lives, whether it be additional education, career ambitions, or something else. My one piece of advice for you graduates would be to not rush to quickly to the next thing.
It seems we are always looking towards the next thing. Sometimes, we are so focused on the next thing that we don’t fully appreciate this thing. Trust me, I remember what it is like to have senioritis. I was itching to graduate by first semester of my freshman year. Once we finish school and pursue a career, we still find ourselves looking towards the next thing. Our aspirations. Our desires. I’m the same way. I am not without ambitions, hopes, dreams. And yet, as we look towards the next thing, we risk falling into the trap of confusing achievement with significance. That great achievement in school or career automatically translates into great significance.
In this passage, Paul reminds us that we are a people that see with a different sort of vision. “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” Often, when we look towards the next thing, we look towards that which can be perceived. And yet, Paul reminds us that God invites us to look towards that which cannot be perceived. It is much more difficult. When we are trying to get from one place to another, we want directions, we want landmarks. “Go past the water tower and turn left, turn right at the third light, and it’s half a mile down. You can’t miss it.” And yet, Paul tells us that there are no landmarks for the journey of true significance. We look towards something that is beyond our perception.
It is beyond our perception because it is not about reaching a destination. We are not preparing to reach a certain point and then we’re done, we are a people preparing for “the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” Beyond all measure. You cannot give directions to something that is beyond all measure. You know, the word “weight” could be translated “significance.” It could also be translated “fullness.” There’s a difference between achievement and fullness. Fullness is not something you see, it’s something you feel. That is our identity as people of God, we walk a road that challenges us to lay down things of lesser significance for things of greater significance, while looking towards an eternal fullness of glory that we cannot wholly perceive.
And so, Paul’s question for all of us--those graduates that go on to new things and those of us always looking towards the next thing--is this: Are we looking towards that which is temporary or that which is eternal? Are we looking towards that which we can perceive or that which is beyond our perception?
You know, our understanding of the brain has drastically changed and continues to change. Neuroscientists talk about what they call neuroplasticity. For us non-scientists, neuroplasticity refers to the fact that our brains don’t stay the same. We used to think that they developed up until a certain age and then stopped changing. But, what we know now is that our brains do change, based on how we use them and a variety of other factors. And so, as we gain understanding, we can actually influence our brains to change in certain ways. Now, for any scientists out there, I’m sure this is a pretty simplistic explanation. Sorry, neuroscience isn’t a big part of the Divinity School curriculum.
Now, as people have applied these discoveries, they figured out that they could do things like train your brain to better process the information it receives from your eyes. They developed an app that trains the brain and tested it with baseball players. After using the app for thirty 25 minute sessions, the players vision improved dramatically. Normal vision is 20/20, they had some players reach 20/7.5 vision. Meaning that they could see from 20 feet what a normal person could see from 7.5 feet. Pretty incredible. By working at it, they changed their vision.
Where do we need to work to change our vision? Where is our vision limited to here, when it could be there? Where are we focused on things of little significance, when God invites us to look towards things of great significance? This type of vision does not come easily. It is not something we achieve overnight. Just like it takes an ongoing commitment to train your body to produce more power or work more efficiently, it takes effort to train your vision to look towards that which is beyond your ability to perceive. But, as Paul reminds us, we are a people called to that work. We are a people preparing for the eternal weight (significance) of glory beyond all measure. May we not settle for anything less.