I Can Do All Things
One year ago last week, Pittsburgh Pirates' third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes hit a home run. It was a Tuesday night home game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in PNC Park. It was part of a stellar rookie year for the 22-year-old star. Except…he failed to touch first base. The umpire ruled him out!
It is important that we touch all four bases in this text: I can! All Things! Through Christ! He Strengthens Me!
If we can perfect this spiritual practice, we will (as Paul calls it in this wonderful letter) enjoy peace in our inner spirit, impact in our gospel work, and “receive the heavenly prize to which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”
First base: I can! We can!
What is not to like at this can-do spirit. I like people who say, “I can get that done.” I have some of that in me. Here is a clue: any time people say to me, “That can’t be done!” I don’t believe them. I know sometimes they are right; but not always. From sailing around the world to discovering the human genome, from bringing a church back from the edge to granting equal rights to LGBTQ folk, I am one to say: Yes, we can! Yes, I can!
Paul must have been this kind of forceful personality, full of optimism rather than pessimism, full of confidence rather than confusion. This was his natural disposition, long before his conversion to Jesus. This gave him the audacity to stamp out the Christian movement, to demand authority to travel to Damascus to root out of the Jewish life there any followers of the heretical rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul took that same supreme confidence into his work as an apostle, a missionary, an apologist, a preacher, an organizer, a writer. He never hesitated to say, Yes, I can! But this natural ability was baptized by his faith in Jesus and his calling from God.
Second base: I can do all things?
I can do all things? What in the world did he mean?
We already know there were things Paul could not do. For instance, he could not put a stop to the Jesus movement of his day. He tried and failed.
He could not resist the calling of God and the commission from Jesus. They confronted him, and he could not resist it.
Paul could not master his own self. Isn’t this what he meant when he wrote in his most famous of all letters, to the Romans, “the good that I want to do, I can’t; and the evil that I desire to avoid, I can’t. Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
In another poignant passage, he confesses that he prayed three times for his disability—whatever it was—to be gone, lifted, removed; but it was not.
Yes, there were many things that Paul could not do!
Here are some more: He could not put to silence his detractors. He could not protect himself against the authorities who constantly put him in jail. He could not deliver himself from jail. He resigned himself to death. He wrote in one letter, “I am ready to be poured out like an offering. I have run the course and finished the race.” He was martyred for Christ, unable to free himself to finish his work.
What is on his mind when he says, I can do all things?
He was not superman, able to lift tall buildings, stop speeding trains, move faster than a speeding bullet. Superman was a fantasy then and now. Paul was not a superman, not a super Christian, not a super apostle. What did Paul mean when he said, “I can do all things”?
Paul connected his ambition, his personality, and his intellect with Jesus the Risen Lord. It was Jesus the Christ who enabled him to find the meaning of his supreme ability and confidence.
In Christ, Paul found his strength and his mission. He was confident of doing what God had called him to do, everything God called him to do. All his ambition was now funneled through Jesus. All his immense intelligence was surrendered to Jesus the Risen Lord. All his rare organizing and managing ability was put at the feet of Jesus.
My middle son is intelligent and talented, but he had a terrible time navigating life. He got into trouble with just about everything capable of disrupting life. Sometimes I thought to myself, “He has everything … except Jesus. Jesus has the power to channel his intelligence and his talent and his ambition so as to make it kingdom worthy, gospel worthy, life worthy.
Early in his life Paul had this problem. He had been going in this direction: religious, disciplined, focused, but judgmental, controlling, violent; now he is going in that direction, because that is the way Jesus Christ is leading: humble, patient, helpful, gracious, full of love. Years later, he wrote, “For even if I speak with the tongues of angels and orators, but do not love, I am nothing, I accomplish nothing, I succeed at nothing. If I understand all the mysteries and prophecies and doctrines, but have not love, I am a gong, a noise, mere silliness, an emptiness, wasted, wanting.”
Paul found that love in Jesus the crucified and risen lord.
His testimony is this: I bend my knee at the feet of the cross. I surrender what I have to Jesus. I accept his lordship, his mission, his methods, his schedule, his ways, his spirit.
How we need this in our world today!
Today too many people are renouncing the prince of peace and taking up the weapons of war. The Christian Patriarch of Moscow is renouncing the faith by endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. People are dying, homes are exploding, and that leader of the Russian Orthodox Church is granting his blessing to it.
Here in our own country, people are taking their tools and making them into weapons. They are giving up their plows and rakes and shovels and beating them into pistols, and rifles, and shotguns. They are trading tool belts for high-capacity magazines that fire 60 bullets a minute. They are solving problems by pulling out pistols.
The purchase of guns is up from 10 million a year a quarter century ago to 40 million a year now. They are arming themselves with the weapons of the world instead of the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit.
Because of Christ Jesus, Paul turned his back on violence and death and took up the cause of non-violence and life, of service and compassion.
Before his conversion, he was the one arresting and charging people; after his conversion, he was the one arrested and prosecuted. Before his conversion he depended upon the power of law and authority and strength and prison bars; after his conversion he was used love, truth, and the persuasive power of personal testimony.
I was lost but Jesus found me, he would say, and Jesus can find you also and bring you to a place of peace and trust and kindness and generosity.
“I can do all things” through the ways and means of Christ, through the power of the gospel of love and service, through the call to conversion and the consecrated life.
Don’t look to armies and armaments to do the work of God. Don’t arm yourselves with the weapons of this world. Put on the whole armor of God. Take up faith, and hope, and love, and do the work God has called you to do.
I can do all things through Christ…who gives me strength.
Here is home plate, the piece of this spiritual puzzle that puts everything into place. We need strength, some kind of strength, to get us through the day and the year, to make us strong to meet the challenges that face us, that keep us hopeful instead of despondent, that keep us loving people who disrespect us.
We stood yesterday around the table at the Pride Picnic. I was proud to be there. On my Facebook feed are a regular roll of pictures from others who participated in Pride events this week and this month. Yesterday, I was with a community that, ten years ago, twenty-five years ago, would have been difficult for me.
I remember clearly an important episode on my journey with LGBTQ folk. I had just taken the job of dean of the chapel at Georgetown College. My office was on the ground floor of the chapel. One day a senior administrator knocked on my door. “Can I talk to you?” he asked. He came in and closed the door behind him and sat down. “I have been watching you and listening to you,” he said. He was referring to my role leading the chapel services at the college. “I think I can trust you. I want to tell you something,” he continued. He proceeded to tell me his story: college graduate, married with children, church member and Sunday School teacher, fund-raiser at the college. “All of that will crumple,” he said when I tell people I am gay.
I did not know what to say. He did not need me to say anything: just to listen, and keep my mouth shut. Which is what I did. And when he came out, he lost all of it: job, family, church, friends.
At times like these, you need that phrase, “through Christ who gives me strength.” He needed strength to navigate life and survive the pressure. I needed strength to stay by his side and understand what was happening. It was 25 years ago, imbedded in the conservative Christian Baptist culture of the American South. I knew he was in a process of change, and I knew I was in a process of change.
Conversion, we call it in the religion business. Here was an illustration of the observation: it is the church (and her ministers) that need to change.
Yesterday, I stood and listened to the hecklers across the street interrupting our gospel work of listening, loving, and laughing with their rants of judgement and danger. There were about ten of them, with placards and a PA system. They passed that microphone from one person to another, trying to drown out our happiness with their hurtful version of the gospel. Time and again, one of their preachers would call our name, Providence Baptist Church, and denigrate our mission and damn our message.
I asked myself this question: who needs the conversion here? Who needs a change of heart? What is the strength of Christ trying to do here, on this lovely day in the public park? What is the one thing that is happening today?
The big thing is always the conversion of our own hearts, our own lives, our own actions?
I can do all things through Christ who convicts me of my prejudice and ignorance and indifference.
I can do all things through Christ who converts me from my own ambitions and my own anxieties.
I can do all things through Christ who comforts me in the midst of my mistakes and my misjudgments.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me on the journey to faith, hope, and love.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me to confess my sins and straighten my walk and embrace a gospel witness in this angry, anxious world.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me to love everybody, serve everybody, welcome everybody.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me to sing for joy and live with hope.