The Rt. Rev. C. FitzSimons Allison
October 15, 2010
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I would like to take one word from this text as the subject of this sermon: Encouragement. The word is an indispensible key to understanding the Christian Gospel. The Greek word is paracaleo and is usually translated “encourage” or “comfort.” Without the grace that this word carries we are aptly described in the hymn “unhelped by thee in errors maze we grope while passion stains and folly dims our youth and age comes on uncheered by faith and hope.”
The need for encouragement is universal. Of all people one would think St. Paul would not need encouragement. Surely, he didn’t need it. Five times he endured 39 lashes, he was beaten three times with rods, once stoned, three times shipwrecked. He was an exceedingly tough guy and with his strong faith and obedience and closeness to God he needed no encouragement. WRONG!
Listen to the Epistle: “. . . when we came into Macedonia . . . we were afflicted at every turn – fightings without and fears within. But God who encourages the downcast, encourages us by the coming of Titus and not only by his coming but also by the encouragement with which he was encouraged in you who told him of the longing and mourning and zeal for me. I am exceedingly joyful in all our afflictions.”
Here the word “encouragement” (paracaleo) is used five times in five verses. It is reminiscent of II Cor. 1:3-7 where it is used 10 times in only five verses. Surely this word is the indispensable key to opening our hearts to confidence and trust in the Gospel, the word that is an antidote to discouragement. It is no accident that when St. John needed a word to name the Holy Spirit he chose paracaleo. The Holy Spirit is our Paraclete and we are called to carry this Spirit to all who are downcast. As Paul was encouraged through Titus, Titus in turn was encouraged through Paul.. They were not messengers of human desires and spirits. They were messengers of a gift they had been given by the Holy Spirit. Paul asked for Timothy, a brother in Christ, to come to him in prison. He wanted the presence of another Christian. The fellowship of Christians is a gift of grace, an encouragement of the Paraclete. Neither you nor I are the Paraclete. But in as much as we have been encouraged by the Holy Spirit, that encouragement with which we have been encouraged, is the very work of the Holy Spirit. We are merely his precious vehicles.
I’d like to give an example. A successful lawyer in Montgomery , Al, for whom I have inordinate respect for his manly strength, talent, and skill, was an undefeated heavy weight wrestler at Princeton. For ten years, following his graduation, he returned and beat the current Princeton champion wrestler. Like St. Paul he was a tough guy. But several years ago he called me saying he was in such a depression he could scarcely get out of bed and was too emotionally paralyzed to practice law.
Fortunately, another friend came to mind, Dr. Joseph Homer Dimon – we call him Scooty. Scooty is a widely respected orthopedic surgeon, once President of the Society of Orthopedic surgeons in America. He, too, had once become completely debilitated by depression. His return to health he attributes to the work of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete, the encourager). In telling me about what he went through he said, “Fitz, you know how much passing a kidney stone hurts, well, this depression was ten times more painful.” As a fellow kidney stone victim, I simply cannot comprehend such a pain. But Scooty offered to share his experience, with which he had been healed, with anyone I referred to him. I called Julian back and gave him Scooty’s phone number. Scooty shared with him the encouragement with which he had been encouraged. The Holy Spirit whose name is “Encourager” started Julian on the road to complete recovery. I have Scooty’s number if you need it.
Are we encouraging one another or those in our congregations? I had occasion recently to look up in the dictionary the definition of “preach”: “to give earnest advice, and to do so in an obtrusive or tedious way,” “to give religious or moral instruction especially in a drawn-out, tiresome manner,” “to exhort, to discourse in the manner of a preacher – now usually with implications of officiousness or tediousness”
I looked up sermon: “any discourse or speech especially a lengthy and tedious reproof or exhortation,” “a serious address; a lecture on one’s conduct or duty; a homily; hence an annoying harangue”.(New Web. Int.) There is no encouragement there.
There was nothing about gospel, good news, and promise – nothing that alluded to comfort or encouragement. What makes this incontrovertible evidence of a culture bereft of the Christian Gospel is that dictionaries do not tell us what words ought to mean but simply what meaning they carry to persons hearing those words. Professor Philip Turner has updated how preaching and sermons are now heard: God approves of us just as we are, to nurture our self-esteem without repentance and without God’s sacrifice and his Holy Spirit who enables us to have our hearts changed and repent which is what is meant by repentance. Exhortation is almost totally lacking for personal behavior except as that has to do with civil and environmental demands. Either way there is no gospel, no promise, and no spiritually enabling encouragement.
It’s fair to say that this reflects our culture’s understanding of Christianity. Without Revelation the secular culture is forced to speculate. The secular world with its repudiation of a fake and counterfeit Christianity is compelled to resort to speculation regarding truth, morality, art, education, family, and sex. This secularism is itself a religion, a trust and faith in something it does not know but merely believes – that this world is all there is ism. This secularism poses as neutral but even the non-Christian deconstructionist Stanley Fish rightly shows that claim to be a merely a shell game. This religion has invaded the churches that have substituted scolding and exhortation for Gospel and Grace. Secularism is a man made religion and the fruit of this religion is corruption in ethics, ugliness in art, inevitable idolatry of penultimate ideals, naivete concerning human nature, hysterical optimism regarding political hopes and depression resulting from a hope relegated to this world, a world without any final and ultimate justice, mercy and love.
This picture is discouraging. None of us is unaffected by its pervasive influence in TV, the universities, and in all aspects of society in which we live and breathe. This sad but arrogant religion is one that results from the proclamation of a false Christianity. There is an excellent book that shows how we can live in trust in such an age of arrogance but modesty forbids the author to be named.
The encouraging news is that we are not in the business of speculation. God has revealed Himself in scripture and supremely in Jesus Christ. Jesus told us that He must depart that the Paraclete might come. We have no two-person Trinity but Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Spirit of comfort and encouragement when we encourage the downcast with the encouragement with which we have been encouraged. There is the Holy Spirit.
As an antidote to secular sadness and discouragement, let us look at the twelfth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Even here the word translated exhort or entreat is paracaleo. With the authority of 27 pages of Kittel’s Word Book of the Bible, it should read “I encourage you, therefore, brethren. . .” . . . and it continues with 40 beautiful exhortations in a mere 21 verses – almost two in each verse. “Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit; serving the Lord” and 33 more wonderful exhortations. Yet the key here is that little word “therefore”. What has gone before that enables listeners or readers to respond to the exhortations?
What has gone before is a series of declarations, not exhortations but declarations about who God is, what our human condition is, what God has done in Christ, how the Old Testament has prepared us, how when we were yet in our sins Christ died for us, how we are justified by His blood, what it means to be dead to sin, the purpose and limits of the law, how there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, how God has consigned all persons to condemnation that he might have mercy on all – and only then does he start his long list of exhortations for he has proclaimed the good news that enables us to begin to fulfill the exhortations. Are we not guilty of starting with chapter 12? And if we are is that not why we are discouraged? Encouragement is not permissiveness or sentimentality. Sentimentality is long range cruelty. Are you discouraged?: We don’t say: “Oh, you poor thing!” No. Better is Heb. 12:5 “ have you forgotten God’s encouragement that speaks to you as His children?”
I grew up with a friend who became a physician in Columbia, SC. Another friend, his patient, was killing himself with liquor. Hugh made a house call on his patient the day after his life had been saved in the emergency room. Hugh took his doctor’s bag into the house, examined the patient, and asked a few questions. He said goodbye and left. He put his doctor’s bag down outside and barged back into the living room. He grabbed his friend by the lapels of his bathrobe and shook him till his teeth rattled. He said, “Your doctor just left. Your friend is back. Last night the mortician could have had you in his box. You have too many people who love you and depend on you. And I am one of them. You’re going to quit drinking. God has other plans for you.” It was the beginning of a recovering and productive new life for that patient.
“Your doctor left. Your friend is back” was an expression of love deeper than professional help. It purged what otherwise would be graceless law or cruel Pelagianism. It was true encouragement because the love that is characteristic of the Holy Spirit was there. The doctor was willing not to be a doctor but a friend. He relinquished the authority of his profession for the greater authority of love and the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit changed the man’s life.
We have no two-person Trinity. We have the three-person Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. Amen