Tension: Seen and Unseen

Tension. The state of being stretched tight. The experience of being pulled in opposite directions.  The feelings of anxiety or nervousness in the midst of stress. All of us experience tension in our lives. In fact, I’m sure for most of you just hearing the word tension immediately conjures up a situation or circumstance in your life that is particularly stressful. Now in our fast paced, consumer based, twenty-first century culture we have come to expect a certain amount of tension. It might be at work. It might be at home. It might be financial. Whatever it is, I think we can all agree that we have been experiencing significantly high levels of tension in our culture and the world around us. But we expect that! We have sadly grown more and more accustom to the reality that there will be tension, anxiety, and fear when it comes to our life in the world around us. 

But what about the life of faith? What about our journey as followers of Jesus? Is that part of our life somehow immune to the ‘stress and strain’ and ‘push and pull’ of the world around us? The short answer is “no!” In fact, the reality is that when we choose to follow Jesus there is often even more tension, because we are trying to live a life that is different from the world around us. And the very fact that we are trying to live a different kind of life stretches us and often pulls us in opposite directions. Peter and Paul; John and James, and so many other leaders in the early days of church experienced hardship and persecution. They were stretched. They experienced the stress and strain and push and pull of trying live a different kind of life. My friends, if you and I choose to follow Jesus, if we choose to live the life of faith, we can expect tension. Yet, in spite of and in the midst of the tension, the first followers of Jesus walked in peace and contentment and freedom. How does that happen? Hopefully, over the next three Sundays we are going to find out.

We begin this morning by turning to the reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In this particular letter, Paul shares extensively about his own struggles. He shares about the disappointments and obstacles in his life and ministry. He shares about his own experience of tension.  In the midst of this tension, Paul says the most remarkable thing. He says, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

We look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen. Now, Paul is not advocating that we ignore reality. Paul is not telling us to reject the rational world in which we live. There are facts and certainties about the world and about how we live our lives that simply are true. But at the same time, the good news of the gospel tells us there is something even more true. Something more real. Something more permanent. Something more than what meets the eye. And so, for you and I to walk in peace and freedom and contentment in the midst of the tension means that we have to put our trust in what we do not see.

Now I want to stop here and remind us that in the physical realm we put our trust in what we do not see every single day of our lives. For example, when you walk out of your house in the morning or drive around in your car or throw a baseball across the field, you do those things completely trusting in this unseen force called gravity. You believe that your feet are going to stay on the ground, your car will stay on the road, and that the baseball will not float off into space. Or how about when my sons were younger and we went to Busch Gardens to ride the Scorpion, one of the first roller coasters to have a complete 360-degree loop with no shoulder harness. We had confidence that we could ride that roller coaster and not fall out because we trust in this invisible power called centripetal force. Or think of the fact that we consistently board airplanes that can weigh up to a million pounds and travel at hundreds of miles an hour at altitudes of over 35,000 feet, because we trust in the unseen forces of lift and gravity and thrust and drag, all of which all have to be perfectly balanced to keep the plane in the air.In the physical realm, you and I place our trust in what we cannot see all the time. 

In a similar way, Paul is telling us that in the spiritual realm, there are realities that we cannot see. There are forces and powers that we cannot see. And yet they are work in our lives every single day. For Paul and his fellow Christians in the city of Corinth, they experienced the stress and strain and push and pull of everyday life. They encountered resistance. The experienced rejection. They witnessed injustice. They didn’t ignore those realities. They didn’t put their heads in the sand and just try to be good spiritual people. No, they worked for change. They proclaimed good news. They transformed the world. But what brought them peace and contentment and freedom was not the things they could see, but the things that were unseen. 

Think about this. We can’t see gravity, but witness its effects. In the same way, we can’t see grace, but we see what grace can do. We can’t see hope. We can’t see mercy. We can’t see forgiveness. We can’t see new creation. We can’t see the transformational presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit, but we believe and trust and put our hope in the fact that God is at work all the time healing, restoring, and making all things new. Over and over again, we choose to look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Now all of this has been rather ethereal so far. I’ve been speaking in fairly broad terms about the unseen spiritual realm. But I want to bring us down from the spiritual to the relational. Because right now we are living in a world characterized by broken relationships, divided families, and disconnected communities. Just turn on television or scroll through your social media newsfeed and you will see the levels of anger and mistrust that have become normalized in our world today. That’s what we see. That’s what we witness and observe every day. 

But just turn and look at your neighbor for a moment. What if I told you that right now in the midst of the tension and stress and strain of this world, there is something that is a part of each of you that defines who you are, but you can’t see it. And yet, even though it is unseen, it is more real than anything else around us. I’m talking about the fact that every one of us has been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We carry that seal, we bear that mark at all times and in all places. We simply are God’s beloved no matter what. No matter what we see. No matter how much tension we experience. No matter what how stretched we might feel. No matter how divided we might be. We are marked as belonging to Jesus Christ.  

Can you imagine a world, a home, a family, a community, a neighborhood, in which we intentionally chose to see what we can’t see? The power and purpose and presence of Jesus that binds us together as one and that calls us to share together in God’s abundant life. My friends, this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

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