Summary: Suffering is a common human experience. But it doesn’t have to stop us ministering for God. In fact God can use our experience of suffering to help others by the way we offer them the support that we have received from God.
This week I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on depression by Arch Hart, who’s Professor of Psychology at Fuller Seminary in the US. One of the interesting things he said was a piece of advice he gives to ministers. He says never take your day off on a Monday if you can possibly help it. Why? Because that’s the day you’re most likely to be depressed and instead of being revived by a day off you’ll just waste it. And I can understand what he means. Imagine you’re the pastor of a church that’s wracked by divisions; where people are arguing over theology and how to apply it to their daily lives; where some of the congregation are involved in immoral behaviour and are even boasting about how sophisticated they are and the rest of the congregation just turn a blind eye; where every time you preach someone will complain that it was too long, or too simplistic or too complicated; where they point out that the other preachers are obviously far more gifted than you are; where they object to anything new. Monday would be a pretty depressing time wouldn’t it?
Now, I hope you realise I’m not talking about my experience here at St Theo’s. I’m actually thinking about Paul’s experience at Corinth, because that’s the sort of Church he had to deal with there. If you read his first letter to the Corinthians, you’ll get an idea of the issues they faced. They were a very gifted Church but they’d allowed all sorts of problems to grow up in their midst.
Now their theological and moral problems are largely dealt with in the first letter, but there was still one major issue confronting them. It wasn’t theological so much as sociological or cultural. They had a problem with their understanding of the nature of Christian leadership. Their background, of course, was the first Century Greco-Roman world where leadership was about strength of personality, being forceful, a great orator. Theirs was the cult of the hero, of Hercules and Zeus. In the first letter we read about the objections that were raised about Paul’s leadership, the way people compared him to Apollos, apparently a great orator, or Peter, whose strong personality comes out so clearly in the gospels. But Paul wants to draw them away from these models that derive from secular culture to a more Biblical understanding.
Now before we go any further let me suggest that the situation he addresses in 2 Corinthians is in fact not much different from our own. Think about it: what’s your image of the ideal leader? Whether it’s a politician or the captain of a sporting team or a business leader, what sort of attributes would you expect of them? Would you be looking for someone who was strong, purposeful, confident, high achieving, successful, eloquent? Now think about what you’d look for in a Christian leader. Does that word Christian make any difference? My guess is that for many it doesn’t. Even in the church we have an image of leaders who are strong, forceful, confident, eloquent. We hate the stereotype of the vicar as the bumbling idiot; sweet but inoffensive; kind but ineffectual. We want a leader who’s strong, who can do no wrong, who’ll be an example to the flock, who’ll lead us to victory over our opponents.
But what’s the model we have for ideal leadership in the gospels. Well, it’s Jesus Christ isn’t it? Jesus Christ who humbled himself and became like a servant; humbled himself to the point of being taken away and hung on a cross. We have as our model a leader who was first and foremost a servant.
Now this is an important issue for both leaders and those who are led. If you’re a leader in the church ask yourself, (and I ask myself this question) ’What image are you trying to project?’ Does your strength as a leader come from your personal strength of character or from your close mimicking of Christ? Are you first and foremost a servant or a director?
For those who are part of the congregation that’s being led, what characteristics are you expecting to see in your leaders? Are you looking for the ways that God will show his power in his Church despite the weakness of your leaders? Do you accept their weakness? Well, that’s what we’ll be thinking about as we work our way through 2 Corinthians over the next couple of months.
Well, that’s all by way of introduction to the book. Let’s now think about these opening few verses as Paul discusses the way he’s suffered for the gospel.
He begins after the usual introduction, where he introduces himself and in this case Timothy and gives his credentials, with an opening prayer. It’s the sort of thing you would have heard in a Jewish synagogue at the beginning of the service. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation." He’s recalling his readers’ minds to their Jewish heritage, to the prophets and kings who, like him, suffered for their faithfulness to God.