The Apostle St Paul once said in one of his epistles: “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Notice that he says that all things work together for good to those who love God. In this he was speaking from his own experience. The many trials and sufferings that he knew as an apostle would have defeated a person of lesser faith. Instead his strong faith taught him that God could use even the bad things that happened to him to bring him fullness of life and joy. Listen to the list of his trials that we heard in the apostle reading today… tribulations, needs, distresses, stripes (that is, wounds), imprisonments, tumults, labours, sleeplessness and fastings… (with that last one in the context of the verse we must suppose in involuntary deprivation of food, in short going hungry).
He heads up the list with the supreme virtue of patience as a man who waits in hope, in trust in God, the One who brings a happy issue out of all troubles. Each one of this list begins with a little word “in”... In other words this is the state that he finds himself in, not by choice or desire but simply that he must bear these things and offer them up to the Lord as the cost of his work, his call to serve God. The next list is prefaced by the little word “by.” He shows how he meets the challenge of his trials. We need to look at these in a little more detail for they will help us to make good out of our trials when they inevitably come.
First, by the word of truth. Orthodox Christianity concerns what is true; not what is expedient, pleasant, welcome or even useful by worldly standards. It deals with the truth which is to be found in the word of God, which of course is Christ himself and the words about Christ which are the holy Scriptures in the Tradition of the Church. It matters to St Paul that he believes and lives out that faith as received from the Apostles. It should matter to us to for in that Word we shall find rich and deep resources in the understanding of our faith so that we can apply it to every situation that faces us in life. This truth is not concerned with slick answers to difficult questions but rather a person, Christ and his friends, the saints who will show us the way to live in that creative freedom which is to be found in the wisdom of God.
Second St Paul says that he lives by the power of God. In another place he explains this as follows:
1 And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. 4 And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
We should always, therefore, call upon the power of God to help us in our time of need and indeed the spiritual armour of His righteousness as St Paul continues to explain “on the right hand and on the left.” The power of God is not only an active gift, there to help us achieve great things, but also a defensive power to keep us safe from harm. He knows that we have weaknesses, frailties and sins; which is precisely why He gives us His righteousness to be a shield and defence.
St Paul then concludes the second list of “by”s by including two very strange couplets… honour and dishonour, evil report and good report. I think that he is saying here that it really does not matter what people say about us provided that we are true to God and live with integrity in our faith. Did not Jesus himself say that if the world hated Him, it would hate us also? (John 15:18).
Again in the Beatitudes He says:
“10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.“ (Matthew 5:10-12)
So honour and dishonour, evil report and good report; it’s all the same to us provided we do God’s will.
Finally in the third list, a magnificent, deep and profound list, he shows us the mystery of the cross and all the words begin with “as.” They show us both what we can be and become if we will only take up our cross and follow Christ. In short we shall know the power of his resurrection. The world is astonished to see that there are believers from whom suffering and death hold no terror. Even Stoic resignation does not cut it for Christians. We live by the gospel truth and we learn through experience that everything that is ugly and threatening can become beautiful and full of indestructible life if we take up our cross and follow Him. Where the world can only see defeat we see glory. We live in the victory of Christ’s resurrection and therefore nothing can harm us at all. Let us then rehearse what St Paul says in full at the end of this, his spiritual autobiography as an apostle. He speaks paradoxically, yet truly for those who know how the God Who has turned the world upside down in Christ.
“... as deceivers, and yet true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” (2 Corinthians 6).
I have actually left something out from the apostle reading that we have heard today but I have saved it until now the at the end, for it is a very special and meaningful verse. It gives a context to everything that St Paul teaches in the lists that we have just examined.
After quoting from Isaiah (49:8), he says: “Behold now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation.” Everything is now in the Gospel; we mustn’t get lost in the past with its regrets; we mustn’t be disturbed by the future with all its uncertainties. If we are to trust God, to live by his power, if we are to know salvation then we can only do that when we live in the present moment, that ‘now’ which is always fresh, vital—the only place and time where we can truly be in communion with God and live life to the full.
The devil rarely says to Christians: “don’t listen to God.” He’s not stupid. Full frontal attacks rarely work. No he is much more subtle than that. He says: “listen to God tomorrow; there’s plenty of time, it can wait.” No it can’t! When tomorrow comes, if we are around to see it that this, it will always be a new “now” and the likelihood is that if we have grown used to putting things off today, we will still be doing that tomorrow, and the day after that until our love for God grows cold and we die spiritually. We must never let that happen. We must daily exercise our faith in God’s ‘now’... the only moment we can know salvation, the present moment.
So, to conclude, if we are to live effectively in the power of God, if we are to know his power to save even in adverse circumstances; then we must listen to him now and do His will, not put it off, not make excuses. Every moment in our lives, every “now” that moves along our timeline is an opportunity to know God, to love Him, to serve Him and to respond to Him. Let us not be found sleeping when He calls and let us turn all that happens to us to good, for such belongs to a living faith, full of life and truth and pleasing to God.