Today we are starting a new two-part series called Starting Well. The hope and the prayer behind it is that it will help people to better navigate all the changes that are happening this time of year, with school and new activities starting up again. We want to help people to make a good start that carries forward into the coming year.
Canadian marathoner, Dayna Pidhoresky, finished last (73rd place) in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics last year, but she still celebrated. On her flight to Tokyo, she was sitting next to someone who tested positive for Covid-19 and she had to quarantine for 14 days when she arrived. This meant that she was not able to train at all for the race. The lack of training impacted her performance. She finished last in the race, a big change from being the fastest woman in the 2019 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. But she was thankful to have finished the Tokyo Olympic Marathon when 15 other women dropped out.
Training makes a big difference in whether or not we reach our goals in life. You can have a goal of running a marathon, but if you don’t train for it, how can you ever expect to even complete a 26.2 mile run? And it is not just in athletics. If you want to be a teacher, a nurse, a librarian, or an accountant, you need to go through some training to be able to do those things.
But what about our eternal life? Based on what the Bible tells us, we know that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. But does training have any role to play in our eternal life and, if it does, what difference does training make? And, even more importantly, does training for our eternal life make any difference in the life we are living in this world? That, I think, is an important question. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes tend to live as if there is no connection between my eternal life and my life in this world and therefore, with that mindset, there is no motivation to train for eternal life.
But what if that assumption we are believing is not true? What if our eternal life transforms everything about our life in this world? What if there is no Part 1 and Part 2 of our life with God and instead there is only one life with God that we live both now and forever? Then training for our eternal life now can help us in our everyday life now. And that could make a big difference when we are facing lots of stress, like many parents and families are facing in this season of the year. To help us as we consider this connection between our eternal life and our life in this world and the difference that training makes, we are going on a particular passage of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 9:19-27. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
Stress Reveals What is Inside Us
As you do that, I will share with you some background information that will help you to better understand this passage. 1 Corinthians is a letter written by Paul around 53-54 AD to the Christian Church in Corinth. Paul had founded this community of faith during his year and a half stay there on his second missionary journey. Corinth was a large and prosperous city filled with pagan temples, some of which encouraged religious prostitution. With all these temptations, and because the believers in Corinth were new to the Christian faith, it perhaps should not surprise us that there were problems in the Corinthian church. There was conflict, sexual immorality, division, and a general lack of spiritual maturity. On top of these issues, the Christians in Corinth also had practical questions about how to live their new lives as followers of Jesus in a city which did not. Should they eat meat that had been offered to idols? Should they get married if they are single? Should they continue to serve as an indentured servant even though they were now free in Christ?
In many ways, we have the same questions as the early Corinthian church. Like them, we live in a large and prosperous city where we are surrounded by temptations. Most people in our city do not follow the one true God and it is easy for us to go astray. Voices and images that seek to lure us into self-centredness, sensuality, and false beliefs are as close as the phone we keep in our back pocket or purse. How do we live our new lives in a city which does not?
Here is why these words from long ago are especially important to us right now. With all the new things that are starting up in the next few days, families and individuals are under a lot of stress. And human beings are like ketchup bottles. When we get squeezed, what is inside of us comes out. Nobody likes to get squeezed, but getting squeezed is actually an opportunity to examine what is inside of us. So how do you react to stress? Does the insecurity inside you cause you to worry? Bring that insecurity to Jesus and let him make you secure in him. Do the wounds you experienced a long time ago cause you to erupt in anger when you are stressed? Bring those wounds to Jesus and let him heal you. Does the abuse someone did to you when you were younger move you, when stressed, to become a rigid, controlling person? Bring those memories to Jesus and let him restore you. Jesus not only came into this world to give you forgiveness and eternal life. He also came to bring you healing and wholeness. We tend to think of the salvation that Jesus gives us solely in terms of saving us from condemnation and life without God forever. But notice that the word “salvation” has the word “salve” in it, so it also connotes healing. We could say that Jesus saves us by salving us. So look to Jesus for the salving, the healing, you need.
It takes a brave soul to look at the darkness that gets squeezed out of us when we get stressed, but that is only half the battle. We need a vision for what overcoming that darkness looks like and we need hope that such overcoming can happen for us. That’s why Paul holds himself up as an example. As one who formerly persecuted the church, Paul has absolute clarity on the difference between life without and life with Jesus. And in the twenty or so years since his dramatic conversion, the Holy Spirit worked through fellow Christians and stressful circumstances to bring Paul to maturity of faith. By imitating Paul, the people of Corinth could grow in their faith because what God did in Paul’s life, he would also do in theirs.
The Key Principle of Life with God
So Paul gives them guidelines for living–things like settle your differences between you without going to court; flee from sexual immorality; after conversion, stay in the situation where God has put you; etc.–but we will miss the blessing of Paul’s guidance if we miss the important principle upon which it is based.
The life we live in Jesus Christ is a life of love and power. On the surface, that does not seem significantly different from a life lived without Jesus Christ. What is different is the kind of love and the location of the power. Because the original goodness of human beings has been twisted by the sin we inherited from our first parents after the fall, our love is always guided, at least to some degree, by self love. As Martin Luther put it, we are curved in on ourselves. In reference to this quote, Pastor Levi Powers wrote, “When we are in this condition, we are rigid. Easily angered. Easily offended. Easily self-righteous–looking to our own interests above all other things.”
Does this sound familiar to anyone? This is the spirit of our times, and it makes sense given what is going on in our world. There’s a war in Ukraine, and lots of uncertainty in the world. We are coming out of a two-year pandemic, but the recovery from that pandemic is going in two different directions. Some people still have their jobs and their businesses, things are returning to normal, and their life is just as good as it was before. But others have lost their jobs or their businesses, with little or no hope of recovery, and they are much worse off than they were before. It is what economists call a K-shaped recovery.
All these things cause stress, which is compounded by the addition of normal life stress, like trying to get your family ready to go back to school. Too much stress can cause us to be worried, afraid, and anxious. And when we humans get anxious we tend to look for ways to gain power. We want power for ourselves because we believe that we can use that power to bring order to the chaos and get back on our feet once again. But notice where we want the location of that power to be. In us. And self-centered love combined with self-located power results in human beings acting with no regard for the impact of our actions on others, for we become our own gods. And that is why human beings are capable of being so cruel to others, whether it is on the plains of eastern Ukraine, online, or in person. Clearly, there has to be a better way.
And Jesus came into this world to give us that better way. He began by showing us what life with God was really like as he lived a perfect human life that counts as goodness for all of us. Then, because he loves us, he willingly set aside all the rights he had as the pure, sinless Son of God to suffer to die for us on a cross. In doing so, Jesus paid the full cost of forgiveness for all sins of all people throughout all time around the world. And when we trust in Jesus and the forgiveness he gives, he gives us new, and eternal, life as a beloved, forgiven child of God, where we have all the rights and privileges that Jesus gave up for us. And we know that all these things are true because on the third day after his death, God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is alive and he is with us right now. If you apply the same standards of historical investigation used to investigate other historical events, you will find that the resurrection really happened.
In Jesus, we see that the true way to live is with sacrificial love. Jesus showed us what sacrificial love looks like by giving up his life for us on the cross, so we could live forever. Jesus also pours his pure, self-giving love into our lives so that we are able to share that love with others. As we go through life in a living relationship with our loving Lord, we know that, even in stressful times, he is watching over us, protecting us and making all things work out for our good in the end. It is both safe and life-giving for us to turn away from our old, toxic, self-centred love, and embrace the Jesus way of living with self-less, sacrificial love. Jesus is carrying us through these difficult times and that means that we can let go of any concern for ourselves. Jesus is for us, he has got us and we are forever safe with him. With our security centred in Jesus, we are free to truly love others selflessly.
And this emptying of one’s self, through faith in Jesus, clears the way for God’s power to freely flow through us. We become a conduit through which God accomplishes all that he desires. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 4:20, For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. (1 Corinthians 4:20) But the power of the kingdom of God is never something that we possess for our own purposes, it is power that is delegated to us as God’s representatives, to be used for God’s purposes, namely the redemption and renewal of all things.
It seems ironic, but the truth is that we become powerful in the Kingdom of God by becoming selfless in Jesus’ love. That is the principle that is behind all that Paul writes.
Our Time in This World is a Time of Training
What does this mean for us? Our time in this world is a time of training, which we engage with, not in order to try to earn eternal life, but in order that we might more fully live the eternal life that we have already been given. So more of Jesus’ sacrificial love gets poured into our hearts and flows through us into the lives of others. So that more of God’s power to re-direct, redeem, renew and recreate flows through us to bring more of the life he gives to others. Our goal is not to win the prize of eternal life for us. Our goal is to partner with Jesus in giving the gift of eternal life to others. We are no longer lords over our own life anymore. We have freely given that leadership position to Jesus.
A lot of times when we are stressed, it is because we think to ourselves, “Something is not right, things have to change, and I am the one who has to do it.” Jesus is inviting us to have a calm approach to life by looking at things in a different way, and thinking, “Things are not right, but Jesus will make them all right in the end, and, in him, I am fully competent to do the part of his redeeming work that he calls me to do.”
Whether it is going back to school, starting a new job, or trying to figure out our place in this world, we do not need to be anxious, worried or afraid.
Living a Life Free from Worry
James Cash Penney (who started J. C. Penney stores) made some unwise commitments and became very depressed. He worried so much that he developed shingles. He went to see his doctor who admitted him to the hospital, but his condition became worse. One night he was prescribed a sedative that quickly wore off, and he awoke believing that he would die that night. He wrote letters to his family and fell asleep.
He woke up the next morning and was surprised that he was still alive. He heard people singing “God Will Take Care of You” in the chapel and went in. He listened to the singing and message with a heavy heart, but then something happened. He later said, “I realized then that I alone was responsible for my troubles. I knew that God with His love was there to help me.”
He said that from that day forward his life was free of worry, and it was all because he realized that God would take care of him.
Dear friends, the challenge I am leaving with you today is to Train yourself to trust that God will take care of you. He is faithful, he will do it and you can trust in him. Amen.
(A version of this message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on September 2, 2022. For more info about WGLC, please go to wglc.org.)
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Levi Powers quotes is from: Levi Powers, “Curved in on Ourselves,” Sweetwater Now (Internet; available at: https://www.sweetwaternow.com/curved-in-on-ourselves/; accessed August 23, 2022).
J. C. Penny story is from: “God Will Take Care of You,” Ministry 127 (Internet; available at: https://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/god-will-take-care-of-you; accessed on August 23, 2022).