Ending Well With Difficult People

How do your encounters with difficult people end up? Is there a fitting conclusion to such encounters? By difficult people we mean the kind of people that stress you out, or have wounded you in some way. And by an encounter we don’t even need to think of actually meeting the person, it may be an online encounter, or even just an encounter in our imagination. In fact if the truth be told, don’t the difficult people in our lives end up taking up too much space in our heads? We give them so much time and mental resources and they may not even know it! So is there a fitting way to conclude every such encounter?

If there is a group of Christians that could earn the title “difficult people” for the apostle Paul, it would have to be the Corinthians. From reading Paul’s two letters to Corinth we learn of the divisions he must address, the false notions he must put right, the crooked practices he must straighten out, and the fact that some of them evidently thought Paul himself was not worth listening to. And so with that in mind, listen to his last words to the Corinthians:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Corinthians 13:13 NRSV)

First, notice what’s at the last; “be with all of you.” Not just “the people I like”, not just “the people who like me”, not just “the people who are good to me”, not just “the people who are mature”, but “all of you.” Even the difficult people. Here is a fitting conclusion for every encounter with all the people of our lives, even the difficult people. Whether we say it or pray it, we can desire it. Let’s dig a little deeper into Paul’s desire.

Paul has a desire for the Corinthians to know and live in the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace is undeserved favour and the greatest symbol of grace is the cross where the Greatest ever died on behalf of the least. Notice Paul does not just say the grace of Jesus. Jesus is Lord, that is, the One who has the power and authority to condemn. Yet He is the One who stood on trial, innocent, but condemned. That is grace. Jesus is also the Christ, or in another language, the Messiah. He is the focus of God’s plan of salvation revealed through the events and pages of the Old Testament. That is grace. Paul knows first hand that he does not deserve that grace. So when he thinks of those difficult people in Corinth who do not deserve that grace, he is reminded of himself. When we think of the difficult people in our lives who do not deserve favour, do we remember that we are difficult people who have not deserved God’s favour? Having experienced the amazing grace of Jesus, how could we not desire it for everyone and anyone?

Paul has a desire for the Corinthians to know and live in the “love of God.” God is love. And Paul has a good understanding of that love. It is not the warm-and-fuzzy-feeling kind of love that we may think of. Neither is it just being nice. The Hebrew term for God’s love includes the notion of loyalty and faithfulness. God’s love is more a “faithful in marriage” than “smitten in dating” kind of love. The Greek word for God’s love is marked with overtones of commitment and choice. It is  not “how could I dance with another, when I saw her standing there” kind of love, which can end up being a selfish kind of love. It is more “I will ask her to dance because I care for her and a dance would be good for her.” When we say that God loves you, it is not because you are amazing, it is because He is amazing in His capacity to love. Paul knows that he himself is not amazing. Paul knows that he is in exactly the same boat as the difficult people in Corinth who are not amazing. Do you know God’s love as the difficult person you can be? Can you desire that the difficult people in your life know it also?

Paul has a desire for the Corinthians to know and live in the “communion of the Holy Spirit.” This can be interpreted either that they will enjoy good relationships with one another as the Holy Spirit makes possible, or that they will each experience the Holy Spirit personally. Perhaps we should take it as meaning both since an experience of the fruit of the Spirit in your life will come along with better relationships. This desire for the Holy Spirit can help us get over two speed bumps we might come across as we desire something really good for those people we may consider to be really unworthy.

  • Speed bump #1. Thinking: “This person has always been difficult and always will be difficult.” But not if the Holy Spirit takes control of their lives! Think of the most shady characters throughout history. Now think of the benefit for many, many, many people had the Holy Spirit taken control of their lives. How would history have been different if they had the communion of the Holy Spirit so that their lives would show the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NRSV) To pray for difficult people to experience communion with the Holy Spirit is to pray “Thy Kingdom come.” It is to pray for good things, not just for the person experiencing communion with the Holy Spirit, but for everyone who experiences the person experiencing the Holy Spirit!
  • Speed bump #2. Saying: “I just can’t do it – I just can’t desire good things for a certain person in my life.” You can’t or you won’t? Remember the communion of the Holy Spirit is available to you also, God is working a transformation in you also. In fact it is the difficult people in our lives that God uses to change us into the likeness of His Son who bore the cross for difficult people. God does not stretch your forgiveness and grace muscles through perfect people. Difficult people can be the heavy weights of a good muscle developing workout.

So how do your encounters with difficult people end up? With awkwardness, bitterness, or grudges? Paul’s conclusion in his second letter to the Corinthians provides us with a great conclusion to every encounter with the difficult people of our lives.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Corinthians 13:13 NRSV)

Even if we do not say it, we can pray it, we can desire it. It won’t just change their lives. It will change ours.

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The Well Watered Christian

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water. ’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 NRSV)

Here is a wonderful promise of the Holy Spirit so infilling the Christian believer that “rivers of living water” flow and others are blessed as well. You get the impression that there will be “times of refreshing” to borrow a common phrase and that things can’t help but grow in the presence of Holy Spirit filled people. The believer will be a “breath of fresh air” to change metaphors. Of course we recognize that God is the source, we are merely the vessels. Yet when we are being honest there are some days we feel more like a drip than a river, more dry in our own spirituality that overflowing with the goodness of God. How do we get to that place of being so refreshed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence overflows to refresh and bring life and growth to others?

Jesus tells us how: “Let anyone who is thirsty . . . ” It begins with thirst. But thirst for what? The timing of Jesus’ call to the thirsty helps us figure that out for thirst was an important theme of the festival happening that day. Actually it was seven or eight days, depending on whether you counted the eighth day when things were being wrapped up. This was the Feast of Tabernacles and over the course of seven days priests would go to the Pool of Siloam to fill pitchers with water which would then be brought up to the temple to be poured out around the altar. All this happened with prayers being made for rain and with certain “watery” scriptures floating in the background of people’s minds.

For example, the people would have been thinking of the time God provided the Israelites with water from a rock in the wilderness following the escape from Egypt.

But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:3-7 NRSV)

That miracle began with thirst. They also would have been reminded of Ezekiel’s prophecy to God’s people in exile about coming back to the Promised Land. The temple was to be rebuilt and there would be a life giving river flowing from it.

1 Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. 2 Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side. . . . Then he led me back along the bank of the river. 7 As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other. 8 He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. 9 Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. (Ezekiel 47:1,2,6-9 NRSV)

The exiled people of God were thirsty for God’s forgiveness and restoration. By the time Jesus makes his call to the thirsty the people had returned from exile, at least some of them, and the Temple had been rebuilt. However, with the Romans in charge, it hardly felt like God’s promise had been realized. Surely this is not what the prophecy through Ezekiel was pointing to! Hence, there was still thirst for the presence of the Lord in a fuller way, and for the fulfillment of His promises. “Let anyone who is thirsty . . . “, thirsty for God’s presence and provision, thirsty for God’s glory. Rivers of living water will not flow from us if we are not thirsting after the presence of the Lord.

While it begins with thirst, it does not end there: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Here we have not just thirst, but a call to decision. God’s people had faced decisions before. Looking back to the example of God providing water from a rock in the wilderness, the people faced a decision. They could either go back to Egypt, or go forward with God trusting He will continue with the blessings of His presence and provision. They could cave into temptation, or crave the presence of God. When Jesus calls out to the thirsty at the temple, he is pointing to Himself as the rock through whom God’s presence and provision happens. He is calling people to decision, to trust in him.

The example from Ezekiel is similar. When Ezekiel prophesied the restoration of the nation and the rebuilding of the temple there would have been a temptation for the exiles to just blend into Babylonian society instead. Ezekiel’s prophecy about a rebuilt temple with a flowing life giving river came with a decision, either cave into the temptation to blend in, or crave the presence and provision of God, looking forward with trust to His keeping of the promise. When Jesus calls out to the thirsty at the Temple, he is pointing to Himself as the Temple, the source of the living waters, and those waters will not flow from a building, but from Himself and through the people of God. He is calling people to decision, to trust in him. We face that same decision.

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”

Perhaps we do not feel like the promised vessels of God’s blessing and refreshing because we are not thirsty for God. Or perhaps we are thirsty, but we try to quench that thirst with gods we have created instead of the God Who is. There is so much temptation all around us to cave and blend in. We will never be vessels for God’s living waters if we drink deeply from our society and culture with a firehose while we sip at God’s presence with a straw. When we feel dry ourselves, when we feel our presence in the lives of others lacks any kind of spiritual refreshment, let us evaluate our thirst for God. Then let us evaluate the decisions we have made in quenching that thirst. Have we gone to Him? Do we drink deeply?

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”

The Resurrection Chapter: Concluding Thoughts on the New Beginning.

54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

Thanks be to God! What a fitting conclusion to this chapter on the resurrection of dead. Only this is not the conclusion as Paul, being the typical preacher that he is, goes on to say more. What more could he possibly have to say about it? Let’s take a look. . . .

 Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

“Therefore”

This is a deeply significant word that could easily be missed since it is a rather simple word. The significance lies in the fact it is a ‘therefore‘ and not an ‘if‘. It is not “the dead in Christ are raised if you excel in the Lord’s work,” but rather “the dead in Christ will be raised, therefore excel in the Lord’s work.” So often people think that God will love them if they work harder. God has already shown His love:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . . Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 20-22)

The cross and the promise of resurrection is evidence of God’s love. We do not excel in the Lord’s work to earn that love, we excel in the Lord’s work because He loves us.

“My beloved”

While most English translations translate this as Paul’s expression of his love for the Corinthians, the Greek is a little more vague being something like “brothers of mine, loved ones.” Given the whole discussion of the resurrection of the dead in Christ in this chapter, perhaps we ought to be thinking of God’s love here and not just Paul’s?

Furthermore, the fact that he addresses the “brothers” (meaning brothers and sisters) is significant in that we ought not to think this chapter is saying all people will be raised to eternal life with Christ. This chapter only speaks about the dead in Christ. Those who die without Christ are spoken of elsewhere in the Bible, but not here. This promise of resurrection to eternal life is for sisters and brothers in Christ.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

“Be steadfast, immovable”

We might think these two words mean basically the same thing, however as one Bible teacher points out, being ‘steadfast’ means that you do not take the initiative to move, being ‘immovable’ refers to not allowing other people or circumstances to move you. In what are we to remain steadfast and immovable? The very things Paul has been teaching, the truth of the Gospel including the death and resurrection of Christ and the hope of resurrection of the dead in Christ.

“Always excelling in the work of the Lord”

To excel could be translated “work enthusiastically” as one translation puts it. But how do we define the work of the Lord? It is the work God wills. It is anything the Lord calls and enables us to do in answer to the prayer “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I once heard someone say that the work of the Church is much bigger than church work. It is the work of the Church to be available and willing for God’s call in everything; work, play, relationships, parenting, learning, teaching, following, leading, in anything and everything in life the Lord can use us for impact that has eternal significance. Which brings us to our next point about “the work of the Lord.” To define what Paul means by it, we need only see how Paul is working:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

What was Paul working hard at doing? Helping people know Jesus! Anything that points people to Jesus is work that has eternal significance which is what the last part of the verse wants us to think about.

“Because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain”

We can tend to focus, as we often do, on ourselves here and think something to the effect that “oh good, my excelling in the work of the Lord will lead me to extra rewards for it is all about me.” Or we can remember that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and that the apostle Paul was helping people know Jesus for their benefit, not his own. Our labour in the Lord is not in vain, because it has lasting impact for others.

 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

I had a moment of rejoicing recently when I stood on the weigh scales and realized I had lost another pound. Will I be rejoicing over that fact five years from now? Or even five weeks from now? How long will the rejoicing in the presence of angels last when a sinner repents and becomes a child of God? For that sinner who becomes a son or daughter, that joy will be eternal. The dead in Christ will be raised to eternal life with God, therefore let us devote ourselves to helping people know Jesus, a work God calls and enables us to do, a work has lasting value and is never in vain.

A Concluding Thought

Since in verse 58 Paul adds a concluding thought to this chapter about the resurrection, perhaps I can add a concluding thought to this sermon series. Given how we normally use 1st Corinthians 15, and given where we normally hear it quoted, at the bedside of a dying person, or at a funeral for example, we might think Paul’s conclusion ought to be “the dead in Christ shall be raised to eternal life, therefore be comforted in the face of death.” While this is certainly a good conclusion, Paul does not go there. Instead he ends with something that could be summarized more like “in the face of life, be encouraged.” The Biblical teaching on the resurrection can give us comfort in the face of death, but let it also give us encouragement in the face of life, to carry on in the Lord’s work, to keep in step with His Spirit, to live as Kingdom people anticipating the coming Kingdom of God, and to keep reaching out to others with the love of Christ.

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

(All Bible references are taken from the NRSV)