2 Corinthians 4: 6-15; St. Matthew 22: 35-46
2 Corinthians 4: 6-15. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed— always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you.
And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” we also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.
There are so many sick in this world. There are so many people who suffer. Compounding this, there is the mistaken belief that we should bear our pain in secret. While there is a time and a place for stoicism, this is not it. How can we be healed, how can we know Christ if we hide our sickness and pain from His Church?
In today’s epistle, St. Paul is teaching us how to understand and overcome our suffering. St. Paul calls us “earthen vessels” to remind us of the frailty of our bodies; and to tell us that despite this frailty we endure. We endure because it is God Himself, the one who “commanded light to shine out of the darkness” has come into our hearts through the mercy of Jesus Christ. It is thanks to what fills us that we are able to endure.
“We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed.” Here, St. Paul is referring to the Roman practice of putting criminals under slabs of granite, adding weight until they were crushed beneath them. Have you felt this way? Of course you have, and probably do now. We use the word “stressful” to describe modern life, and it fits with this metaphor. St. John Chrysostom says that these “sides” are “concerning our foes, our friends, necessities, other needs, from them that are hostile and of our own household”. The responsibilities of this world – and our inability to address them all properly – seek to crush us. Despite this and the frailties of our fallen bodies and minds, we endure.
“We are perplexed, but not in despair.” St. Paul wrote this referring to the impossibility of getting every calculation right – how much more is that true now! The array of choices before us is bewildering, and often the consequences of failure seem so catastrophic that it can be paralyzing. And none of us have gone through this gauntlet unscathed: everyone has miscalculated and suffered as a result. Worse yet, we have all caused others – people we love dearly - to suffer as a result of our miscalculations. Such mistakes and the fear of making more can build over time, threatening to throw us into hopelessness; to suck the life and joy out of our world. Yet somehow we endure.
“[We are] persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down but not destroyed”. A person is persecuted for going against the prevailing law; it cannot happen unless those who administer the law hate you or see you as an enemy. They see you as an enemy and they try to destroy you. And please do not doubt that the powers and principalities of this world work for your destruction. But the ultimate power; the authority greater than those that rule this world; never turns against you. Never forsakes you. As long as we walk in this world, its fallen powers will strike us down. We fall so many times, both due to our weakness and the strength of those that oppress us. But despite this persecution, we are not destroyed.
This flesh and blood, this earthen vessel, is so fragile, so weak, but it does not break. It does not break because it is “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” God does not will us to suffer- it is the evil we ourselves have planted here that does that – but God will (through the Christ we bear within us) preserve and strengthen us through our suffering.
To summarize St. Paul’s lesson, we are able to endure and thrive through suffering because Christ makes us more than the easily shattered jars of clay that we inhabit.
But there is something more. There is another way that Christ works through us in our suffering. We are made to live in community. Just as our miscalculations harm those around us, so to do the things we do right strengthen those around us. I am not talking about making the right investments, keeping a sound budget, or being attentive to the needs of our family. This is something more profound and more difficult for many to understand and appreciate. St. Paul teaches us that we persevere despite our human frailty “so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh”. Christ endured suffering not for Himself, but so that we might endure through Him; and when we persevere, it is obvious to all that we do it in Christ. We become victors that inspire others toward victory.
I say that this is difficult for many to understand because endurance and perseverance do not always look like victory to the world. It, in its fallenness, thinks the suffering to be humiliating; something shameful to be hidden. Worse yet, it teaches us to think this way. We hide our suffering in our hearts, in our veiled expressions, in our closed mouths, behind our closed doors. We do not think it proper to share our pain, to let others see our weakness. This is the culture we must break. And we must break it for at least two reasons.
First, the Church is not just for those who are well. It is the hospital and Christ is the Great Physician. You do not go to the hospital when you are well, but when you are ill. We should not wait until we have healed from the pain of broken relationships to come back to Church, we should come immediately and constantly so that Christ can hasten this healing. God ate with lepers, healed them, and brought them salvation. He wants to do the same with you. Do not hide your pain from the Church He established for this very purpose.
Second, we suffer together so that the Love of Christ might grow among us. I am occasionally allowed to see things that few others do, so let me share a short testimony. Part of my calling is to visit the sick, and especially those whose bodies have all but failed them. This is a very difficult time for everyone. To many it seems as though the sick have been robbed of all dignity; that they have been “brought low”; that, perhaps, it would be better for it all to have ended long ago. I sympathize with this sentiment – no one desires to see anyone suffer, much less those whom they love. But the inference is incorrect because it turns Christ and the Christian whom He inhabits into an object to be pitied rather than a witness and instructor to be followed. These encounters are challenging, but I always come away from such encounters humbled. The tears they bring are not just of sorrow for the pain and loss; but due to the love the encounter has grown in my heart – for Christ is so strongly “manifested in our mortal flesh”. When we suffer alone, we keep this witness hidden, like a light beneath a bushel.
We suffer together because we are Christ to one another and to this world. When we see the cross, we do not focus on the anguish, but on the resurrection. We are strengthened in suffering, knowing that “He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up… For all things are for [our] sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.”
May this grace and the comfort that comes with it transform your sorrow into joy through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Fr. Anthony Perkins
St. Michael's Parish