II Corinthians is actually III Corinthians. That is, it is either the third or fourth actual letter Paul wrote to this gifted, volcanic, hair-pulling congregation. I suppose these two letters are in the Bible so that no pastor can ever dismiss one of Paul's challenging teachings to church leaders by saying, "yeah, but Paul, you never had to shepherd MY flock." Written as winter approached in 55 AD, it had a "I hope I didn't come down on you guys too hard in my last letter" message. Maybe that is why he mentions the word "comfort" nine times in the opening paragraph. "Suffering" or a synonym appears seven times. So....comfort in the midst of suffering, I am sensing a theme here.....but what exactly does he say about it?
Boiled down, I think it is this:
Jesus suffered to bring me comfort. As his disciple, he lets me suffer to bring others comfort. This comfort takes many forms:
1. "What you are going through sucks brother, I know because I've been there;"
2. "Here's how I got through it;"
3. Doing anything up to and including dying in order to love another into the Kingdom.
I spent the last night and day worshipping at the Ithiel Falls Camp Meeting in Johnson. Every summer this historic tabernacle and campground on the shores of the Lamoille River in Johnson is the site of 12 days of multi-generational camping and worship. Most of the folks are Nazarenes. One of the things I like about Nazarenes is their sincere, intentional desire to press into Holy Spirit holiness for their lives. Last night a young pastor named Nathan shared a wonderful challenge-by-example: he told the story of the two Moravian missionaries and would-be slaves. It's a remarkable story, and backed up and amplified by accounts in the official history of the Moravian Church.
In 1730, two young men named Dober and Nitschmann were part of Count Zinzendorf's Moravian/pietist movement, and they felt a powerful call to bring the gospel to St. Thomas, then a slave plantation under English control. An escaped slave told them that none but slaves were allowed there. Undeterred, they resolved that even if they were to be sold into a lifetime of slavery, they would go to St. Thomas and preach the gospel to the captives! It made quite a ruckus in church circles, and when the embarked from Copenhagen, it was with the blessing of the Danish royal family. Story/legend has it that as the ship left the wharf, friends and family were crying for them to return. One of the two men raised his hands and cried:
"May the Lamb of God who was slain receive the reward for His suffering!"
These two brothers were willing to suffer and die as Christ did, to bring the comfort that He brought.
I had heard that story before, and had always wondered: whatever happened to those two guys? Well, now I know - when Dober and Nitschmann arrived on the Danish ship at St. Thomas, they discovered, lo and behold, the escaped slave had been wrong! They did NOT need to sell themselves into slavery after all! With much rejoicing they set about their great work. Fifty years later, 15,000 souls had been brought into the Kingdom. Their willingness encouraged anti-slavery Christian activism everywhere. All because two young men were willing, like Abraham, to suffer and sacrifice in response to the call of God.
The only problem with this great story, for me, is that the application is not immediately clear, to me. I do not feel compelled to surrender U.S. citizenship and move to North Korea. But I look at what these guys did: they embraced a biblical worldview; they were open to God's burden, no matter how heavy; they sought confirmation from other brothers and sisters; they obeyed, trusting God for the results. Holy Spirit, lay your burden on me, I know you will help me carry it.
Once last thought on 18th century Moravian missionaries to the Americas. During an Atlantic passage, a mighty storm arose. a young English cleric was terrified he would die in the storm, and asked the Moravians why they were so calm. They told him of their assurance that because Jesus died for their sins they would go to heaven through grace, not works. The young man believed. His name was John Wesley. Hmmm, I wonder whatever happened to him?