“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, perhaps the greatest truth.” Those opening lines of M. Scott Peck’s bestselling, The Road Less Travelled, were a sensation back in the 1970’s. Now, as the GEICO insurance commercial says, “Everybody knows that.” What people don’t know is how to deal with the difficulty. That’s what Paul outlines for us in this reading from II Corinthians 5. Unlike Peck who offered a mixture of psychology, Buddhism, and Christianity, Paul gives us the unvarnished Christian “road less travelled.”
I think that verse 7 is the heart of Paul’s “advice” for the road. I put the quotation marks around that word because Paul doesn’t give us the kind of advice we find in today’s self-help books. Rather, Paul roots his “advice” in hardcore Christian doctrine. In the words just before this, he has been talking about either the intermediate state or the resurrection of the body (depending on how you interpret the words of verses 1-4). In the middle of this passage he refers to the final judgment. Then he turns to the crucifixion. And at the end he discusses the new creation. In other words, Paul roots this advice for the road in deep Christian eschatology and soteriology.
Which should alert us to the fact that the faith Paul talks about in verse 7 is not some generic faith—faith in God, or faith in humanity, or faith in the spiritual world, or faith in self. It is specifically faith in the Triune God whose historical actions in Jesus Christ and whose personal actions through the Holy Spirit have changed the way we deal with the difficulty of life. That’s what Paul meant back in chapter 4:18, when he said, “we fix our eyes (the eyes of faith), not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” With eyes fixed on the unseen God and his unseen salvation made visible in Jesus Christ, we walk by faith, not by sight.
Paul characterizes this faith with three words that seem mutually exclusive at first. However, upon closer examination they actually show the thick texture of faith. The words are confidence (verses 6 and 8), fear (verse 11) and love (verse 14). The faith that enabled Paul to endure the troubles of his ministry was a combination of confidence, fear, and love.
Given the way many of today’s Christian leaders value doubt, uncertainty, and questioning, Paul’s words about always being confident will sound arrogant and doctrinaire to some of our listeners and even to some of us preachers. But Paul is confident precisely because of the doctrine he has just taught. “Therefore” points back to verses 1-5 where Paul is dealing with deep eschatological doctrine, which he concludes with this strong claim that God has given us his Spirit as “a deposit, guaranteeing what it to come.” Because of that truth, “we are always confident and know….” Note the “know.” No uncertainty here.
What does Paul know with such confidence? Basically this– that, if we walk by faith, we cannot lose. Using words that occur only here in the New Testament, Paul describes his current life as being “at home in the body” and his coming death as being “away from the body.” Though he doesn’t explicitly say it, he is suggesting, I think, that he is at home with the Lord whether he lives or dies. He would prefer to be away from the body, so that he could experience being with the Lord in a visual and tangible way. But even when he is away from the Lord in that directly experiential way, he is still at home. Now, he walks by faith, not by sight. But that doesn’t mean he is unsure, filled with doubt about the unseen. Twice he says, “we are confident.”
But then he introduces what seems to be an opposite dimension of faith, namely, fear. After asserting his confidence, he says, ”Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord….” How on earth did Paul get from confidence to fear? He got there by way of the final judgment. Immediately after talking about his confidence, he writes, “So, we make it our goal to please him, whether at home in the body or away from it.” Rather than making him lazy in his faith, his confidence that he is and will be “with the Lord” moves him to labor (the Greek is philotimoumetha, to work hard, to be ambitious) to please the Lord. Lest we miss his point, Paul explicitly talks about appearing “before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body….”
It sounds as if Paul is taking away the very confidence he has just professed. How can he be sure that he will be with the Lord, if he will have to give an account to the Lord for all the good or bad he has ever done. How can he be sure that he’s done enough good? Well, of course, the answer is that we cannot lose our salvation at this judgment. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ….” (Romans 8:1) Salvation is not by works, but by grace through faith. Judgment is on the basis of works, but God’s grace received by faith cancels the guilty verdict we deserve. So, Paul’s strong desire to please the Lord is not based on his terror of punishment, but on his deep reverence for the Lord who has already saved him. Because he is so confident that he will be with the Lord, he wants to please the Lord who has saved him. And he lives his life with “deepest, tenderest fear,” as the old hymn put it.
Indeed, that fear motivates him in his evangelistic work. “Since we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” He might mean that he wants to spare other people the terror of appearing before the judgment seat of Christ, so he preaches Christ in order to move them to faith in Christ. But, given what he says in verses 12 and 13, I think it is more likely that he is contrasting his fear of the Lord with his fear of his opponents. Because my life is dominated by my deep reverence for the Lord, I’m not going to be deterred by my fear of other human beings. I’m going to wade into the conflict and try to persuade people of the truth about Jesus. I’m not going to worry about my approval rating with the Judaizers or the Gnostics or the pagans. My confident, reverent faith in the Lord Jesus gives me the courage to face the foe, even if they call me insane (as some did).
But there is one more dimension of the faith that enabled Paul to continue down the road less travelled. He is motivated in his ministry not only by his own fear of the Lord, but also by Christ’s love for the lost. “For Christ’s love compels us….” Some scholars take that to mean Paul’s love for Christ, but the following words talk about the greatest expression of Christ’s love for a lost world—“because we are convinced that one died for all….” We go out into the world and preach to everyone, regardless of their race, class, sex, or religion, because we know that Christ died for all. If Christ loved all people enough to die for them, then I need to love them enough to preach to them.
Most of my readers know that there is huge dispute about the referent of that little word “all.” Does Paul mean all humans without exception or all humans without distinction? Is Paul referring to every single human being or to all kinds of human beings? I’m not going to attempt a solution to that old Calvinist versus Arminian dispute. I’ll just point out that Paul connects those for whom Christ died with those who subsequently live for Christ. That is, Christ died for those who will live for him. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Christ looked at the life he saw we would live and, on the basis of that, died for us. On the contrary, it means that Christ died for us precisely so that we could live for him. The purpose of Christ’s death was to bring formerly dead people into a new life, a life in which they live for him who died for them.
Paul’s point here is that Christ’s love for sinners, the walking dead, compels him in his ministry to all kinds of people. He doesn’t focus on where people are at the moment he meets them, but on where Christ in his love wants to take them. That’s what Paul means when he claims that he doesn’t look at people from a worldly point of view anymore. He doesn’t see Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, male or female, Republican or Democrat, Sunni or Shiite, good or bad, Christian or non-Christian. He sees people who through Jesus can become a new creation. He is motivated not by the kind of partisan spirit that divides humanity into a billion warring factions, but by the love of Christ that can make a new creation. In fact, Christ has already done that. “If anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come!”
The problem is that Paul’s claim about a new creation seems to be patently false. For that matter, so does the rest of what he says about faith in Christ. We do not live by faith, at least not all the time. Our lives are often dominated by what we can see. We are not always confident about our standing with the Lord. We often fear our fellow humans much more than we reverence the Lord. We aren’t new creatures. In fact, Christians look very much like everyone else, or so the polls tell us.
What are we to make of this apparent inconsistency between Gospel claims and Christian living? Well, we might say that the Gospel isn’t true. Or we might say that we aren’t true Christians. Or we might say that we walk by faith, not by sight. We don’t always see the truth of the Gospel being lived in our lives, but we walk by faith anyway, confident that it’s all true because the Bible says it is. We walk by faith anyway, striving by the power of the Spirit to live in deep reverence before God and with Christ-like love for our neighbors. We walk by faith anyway, believing that the Triune God is making all things new. Living by such faith is the road less travelled that will take us home “through many dangers, toils, and snares.”
Paul’s talk about being “compelled” by the love of Christ got me thinking about the things that drive our lives. I’m currently reading a book entitled, Ghettoside, which describes the murderous culture of south central Los Angeles in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Black on black murder, most of it driven by gang rivalry, was epidemic in those years. The police department was so overwhelmed by that epidemic that many cops were more than a little cynical about it, and their performance of duty was influenced by their cynicism. Often they did their job in a perfunctory fashion. But there were notable exceptions. One of them was a white detective named John Skaggs, who was driven to bring justice for all those who were killed, no matter who they were. The book focuses on Skagg’s pursuit of the killer of a black officer’s non-gangbanger son. He solves the crime because he is “compelled” by his passion for justice.
Paul’s words about how we look at people reminded me of C.S. Lewis famous words in The Weight of Glory. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses; to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 14, 2015
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 Commentary