May 21, 2016 by jmar198013
My sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016.
I’m starting on a new adventure, trying out the Narrative Lectionary. This week begins a six-week series in 2 Corinthians that will run through the end of June. I’m calling this series “Real Talk.”
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.
Calvin vs. Paul
What should we think when we suffer? When our loved ones and neighbors suffer? How should we respond? Where do we find God in the midst of suffering and trials?
John Calvin gave one answer. He said that whatever happens, happens because God willed it. God decreed it. God set it in motion. Whether good or evil; helpful or harmful; ridiculous or sublime—it all comes down to God’s plan, God’s desire, God’s decree. He said the Bible shows “that every thing done in the world is according to [God’s] decree.” He went on to explain:
What seems more attributable to chance than the branch which falls from a tree, and kills the passing traveller? But the Lord sees very differently, and declares that He delivered him into the hand of the slayer.
And it’s not just falling tree branches doing God’s will. Calvin taught that even robbers and murderers are, in the final analysis, only doing what God wanted them to. “All things are divinely ordained,” he insisted. “Neither thefts nor adulteries, nor murders, are perpetrated” apart from God’s will.” 
That means . . .
Somebody robs a pizza delivery person at gunpoint. God’s will.
You find your spouse in bed with your boss. God’s plan all along.
A toddler gets killed in a drive-by shooting. God ordained it.
The doctor tells you it’s cancer, and it’s terminal. God made that tumor just for you!
The Holocaust. Totally God’s idea.
And you know what the upshot is? Do you know why, according to John Calvin, God wills all this murder and mayhem? To punish us for our sins, of course! For his glory and—if we’re among the elect—our good. Calvin said that God drops tree branches on passerby and inflicts murderers and thieves on the world
to train his people to patience, correct their depraved affections, tame their wantonness, inure them to self-denial, and arouse them from torpor; or, on the other hand, to cast down the proud, defeat the craftiness of the ungodly, and frustrate all their schemes.
Yes, Calvin concluded: “thieves and murderers, and other evil-doers, are instruments of Divine Providence, being employed by the Lord himself to execute the Judgments which he has resolved to inflict.” 
One of the many reasons I’m not a Calvinist is that I just can’t fit what Calvin said about human suffering and God’s character with what Paul wrote in our reading today: May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! He is the compassionate Father and God of all comfort. He’s the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God.
In our lesson today, Paul said that God comforts us in all our trouble; but never gets anywhere near saying that God wills all our trouble. Rather, when God’s comfort meets our trouble, we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. God does not go around inflicting evil so that good may come. But he can—and does—create a healing community of comfort. The Father of the crucified and resurrected Jesus makes us a community of wounded healers.
Communities of comfort
This idea of God sharing his comfort with us when we are suffering or in any kind of trouble is at the very heart of our reading today. In fact, as we continue on through 2 Corinthians in the weeks to come, we’ll find that it’s the framework of the entire letter. Christ has shared in our sufferings. Jesus has suffered for us and with us. The crucified, resurrected, and ascended Jesus forms an empathetic bond between humans and God. And as we are gathered together in Christ, this empathetic bond—this shared comfort in all our troubles—makes us able to comfort one another.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul will say things like:
We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. (2 Cor. 4.10)
God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5.21)
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty. (2 Cor. 8.9)
The story Paul is telling in 2 Corinthians is far, far away from the story John Calvin told. We’re not meeting a God who inflicts suffering—a God who ordains theft and torture and murder to teach us a lesson. When Paul tells the story, we meet a God who, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, enters our suffering and our trouble and makes it part of his own life. We meet a God through Christ who doesn’t ordain robbery, but did have his clothes stolen from him. Who doesn’t decree torture, but who was tortured. Who doesn’t will death or murder, but who was murdered on a cross. We also meet a God who raises the dead. That alone should show us that God does not will suffering and death for us. God has done and is doing everything that love can do to defeat sin and suffering and death.
And that is the source of God’s comfort for us. We are called by God—the compassionate Father and God of all comfort—to come to him and be comforted in our troubles; and then to share that comfort with others.
New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote along these lines a couple of years back. In an opinion piece titled, “What Suffering Does,” Brooks said that:
[S]uffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.
People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence . . . It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it . . .
Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different . . . Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments. 
This is the process that Paul described in our reading today: God comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God.
The God of all comfort creates communities of comfort in a troubled and suffering world. That’s part of what it means to be the church.
What Paul means by comfort
In our reading today, Paul uses this word comfort ten times. Other translations say consolation (NRSV). The Message does a fantastic job of bringing out the full range of meaning of the term. It variously translates the comfort-words in this passage as healing; or counsel; or coming alongside; or giving a helping hand. All of those are appropriate ways of of putting the comfort-words Paul used into English.
I mention this because I don’t want us to miss that the comfort-words in this passage are social and relational. To console, to counsel, to heal, to come along, to offer a helping hand—those are all about reaching out to someone else, and drawing them in. We live in a highly individualistic culture, and that sort of tweaks what we often mean by comfort. For example, we talk about comfort food. And what we mean by that is a coping mechanism—you’re going to soothe yourself. You’re going to drown your troubles in a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. We might speak of making a comfortable living, and what we really mean is self-sufficiency. We talk about creature comforts, and we mean all the modern conveniences that make our bodies more comfortable. Now, the kind of comfort Paul talks about ten times in this passage might very well involve a cup of coffee or a hot meal or a soft couch or a warm blanket. But what Paul most has in mind is the reaching out; the listening ear; the warm embrace; the softly-spoken word. The knowledge that even in the darkness of our suffering, there is someone coming alongside us, a strong hand that will not let us go. The comfort Paul spoke about can only take place in relationship, in community.
That’s essential because I have said that God has called the church to be communities of comfort. In our day and time, we might mistake that to mean a community where we are made comfortable. A gated community where everyone is making a comfortable living. And we all come home to the latest and best creature comforts. And if anything we’ve experienced that day has made us uncomfortable, we can smother it in comfort food. The problem with that idea of comfort is that it makes us ignore or bury our own troubles and suffering. And soon enough, we will also be ignoring or minimizing the troubles and sufferings of our neighbors. The comfort Paul talks about in our reading today doesn’t end with us. It’s not a vaccine against suffering. It doesn’t blind us to someone else’s troubles, or deafen us to their cries. No, the comfort Paul wrote about comes through Christ’s sufferings, and from the compassionate Father. The basis is suffering and compassion. Fred Buechner said that “compassion is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”  The comfort that comes to us from the compassionate Father through the suffering Son makes us unable to ignore someone else’s troubles or sorrows. Remember, God comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble.
If you have received comfort that doesn’t move you to reach out to someone else, you may not have received that comfort from God.
The substance of comfort
Of course, this raises some rather important questions. What is the substance of the comfort Paul wrote about? Is it simply a good feeling? A sigh of relief? Warm fuzzies in the midst of distress? Or does the comfort that comes from our compassionate Father through the suffering Son have definite shape and form and dimensions?
Paul helps us answer those questions in our reading today. After speaking to the Corinthians about how God comforts us in our troubles, and prepares us to comfort others; Paul tells his own story of God had comforted him during a recent time of trouble. Brothers and sisters, Paul writes, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. No one these days is certain what troubles Paul was talking about here. But whatever happened was a big enough deal that Paul could write: We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, since you are helping with your prayer for us.
Paul and his friends were in trouble so deep, they were afraid it would end in their deaths. But in the midst of their troubles—weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength, Paul says—they found comfort through their confidence in God, who raises the dead. As death stared them in the face, they remembered that their lives were in the hands of the God who raises the dead.
This is why the comfort of God must come to us through suffering—through the sufferings of Christ. The comfort God comforts us with so that we can share it with each other is the assurance that he is a resurrecting God. Even if our present suffering or trouble ends in death, we have confidence that death will not get the final word.
The comfort that comes from God, so that we can comfort others, is the promise that God raises the dead. In the face of every kind of trouble, we can be comforted and comfort others by remembering that we do not live by our own strength. We are loved and sustained by a life-giving God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, and who will give us a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21.1). We live in confident hope that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will do for all of creation, and for us, what he did for Jesus. He will rescue us, Paul says.
The substance of our comfort is knowing that our lives are in the hands of the God who raises the dead. We comfort each other when we are able to tell the story of how God has brought light from our darkness; beauty from our ashes; and new beginnings from our endings. We share the comfort we have received whenever we can tell how the life-giving God has rescued us.
The Spirit of comfort
Now we had a supplemental reading today, from John’s Gospel. And it’s a fantastic complement to what we heard in our reading from Paul. It shows us how we receive God’s comfort through Jesus. Or better yet, from whom we receive the comfort that overflows, so that we can share it with others.
Not long before he was arrested and crucified, John says that Jesus told the disciples: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you . . . Don’t be troubled or afraid. In other words, Jesus is giving us—his church—the peace that comforted him as he faced the cross. I am certain that it was the same peace, the same comfort, Paul and his friends found in their time of trouble. The comfort they shared with the Corinthians in our reading today. The comfort that gave Jesus peace, and that he leaves with us, is confidence in God, who raises the dead.
And Jesus gives us that confidence and peace by leaving us in the care of God’s Spirit. Jesus said it this way: The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.
Now what’s fascinating here is how the special name Jesus gives the Spirit in John—in our translation, the Companion—corresponds to the comfort-words Paul used in our reading from 2 Corinthians. The words Paul used were paraklesis and parakaleo. Consolation. Healing. Comfort. A helping hand. Coming alongside. And the word Jesus uses in John to name the Holy Spirit is parakletos. The Companion. Other translations have it as the Comforter (KJV); the Advocate (NRSV); the Friend (MSG); or the one who is coming to stand by you (Phillips). None of those translations is incorrect—they’re all catching a different shade of meaning of the word. The point is, God’s comfort is found in community, through the suffering and comfort of the crucified and risen Jesus. But it comes to us from the Holy Spirit. The Companion Jesus promised, who gives us Jesus’ own peace in the world.
Paul had said that the overflowing comfort we can all share in times of suffering and trouble is our confidence in God, who raises the dead. Who better to instill this comfort in us than the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 8.11)? If our comfort comes in knowing that the life-giving God is making all things new; who better to pour this comfort into our lives and our community than the Spirit of God who moved upon the face of the waters when God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1.1-2 AV)?
I began my message today by asking some questions: What should we think when we suffer? When our loved ones and neighbors suffer? How should we respond? Where do we find God in the midst of suffering and trials?
I hope that now we are better prepared to begin to answer those questions. We find God in community, as he comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We find God among as the Holy Spirit. Our Companion. Our Advocate. The One who has come to stand by us. Who breathes the peace of Jesus into our lives, and our life together.
We respond bound together in prayer, and by the Spirit who pleads our case with unexpressed groans (Rom. 8.26). And bound together by the Spirit and prayer, we offer those who are troubled the same comfort that we ourselves received from God. This comfort must begin in prayer, but it should not end there. Comfort is a word that becomes flesh as we come alongside one another, and give a helping hand. The comfort Paul had in mind must be as real as a safe pace. A listening ear. A shared cup of coffee. A hot meal. A warm embrace. A strong hand of love in the darkness.
Yes, church. Whenever we find trouble and suffering; or whenever they find us; may we be true children of our compassionate Father and God of all comfort. Let us offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God to those who are in every kind of trouble. Both in this body, and wherever else we may find them.
 Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.16.6. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed May 20, 2016. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.xvii.html.
 Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.17.1, 5. Accessed May 20, 2016. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.xviii.html.
 Brooks, David. “What Suffering Does.” The New York Times. April 07, 2014. Accessed May 21, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/opinion/brooks-what-suffering-does.html?_r=1.
 Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: a theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 15.