Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 21, 2015
2 Corinthians 6:1-13 Commentary
This is a tough text to preach, because it is so very personal and situational. It’s all about Paul’s ministry and it is obviously addressed to a specific church (see verse 11, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians….”). Whenever we preach on an epistle, we are reading someone else’s mail. But this particular pericope feels so personal that it is not easy to see how we can translate it into a sermon relevant for 21st century congregations in North America. How can we make this ancient preacher’s passionate plea to the Corinthians and his embarrassingly personal profession of integrity relevant to lay people today?
The answer lies, I think, in those difficult words in verse 1 about “receiving God’s grace in vain.” Is it possible to receive God’s grace in vain? As a Calvinist, I believe the Scripture teaches that God’s grace is irresistible and, thus, triumphant always. Is it really possible that someone could receive God’s grace, but then so resist God’s grace that it all proves to be useless and empty in the end? Of course that’s possible, answer my Arminian friends. It happens all the time and that’s why Paul says this.
But I suspect that Paul would say, “I’m not talking about the doctrines of irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. I’m talking about the way people respond to the preaching of the Gospel.” In the last verses of chapter 5, Paul, the ambassador of Christ, uttered that stirring call to be reconciled to God. Now he says, you’ve heard that message from me and from many others. What are you going to do with it? You have to do something with it, or you will render the Gospel worthless and unprofitable. An inactive response makes the offer of grace vain or empty (the word here is kenos, the word at the root of the Kenosis passage in Philippians 2).
What response is Paul looking for? What is he urging them to do with the offer of grace in the Gospel? Well, he has just talked about being reconciled to God in chapter 5. If that’s what Paul is urging the Corinthians to do, we could preach a rousing evangelistic sermon on this text, passionately calling our people to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. However, the focus of this chapter seems to be somewhat different. The last words of our pericope are a passionate plea to them to “open wide their hearts” to Paul in the same way as he has opened himself to them. Remembering how divisive this congregation was (according to I Corinthians) and knowing how Paul’s opponents had tried to undercut his authority, it is likely that Paul was estranged from this church. So a textually faithful sermon should be a heartfelt plea to be reconciled to each other as preacher and congregants. If we don’t respond to the Gospel by being reconciled to each other, we have received God’s grace in vain.
When we look at this text that way, it is very easy to move from the “then and there” to the “here and now.” A number of years ago, my denomination’s “Pastor to the pastors” told a gathering of pastors that 1 in 6 churches had significant problems between pastor and congregation. I have no doubt that the numbers are the same or higher today. And I can tell you as a 40 year veteran that the frequency of disputes between congregants is probably higher than 1 in 6 in many churches. Many of our congregations need to hear Paul say, in effect, “Enough! Stop it! Now!”
That’s the intention of his quote from Isaiah 49:8 in verse 2. This is the day to respond to God’s call to be reconciled to each other. You can’t let this fester for months and even years. You can’t let this estrangement linger until it drives out the minister and divides the congregation fatally. “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” Do it now! It will take a great deal of courage to confront a church that has turned away from you or a church that is full of dissension, but this text gives you a perfect Word from God on that very difficult subject.
Paul shows us how to broach the subject. He talks about the way he has done ministry among the Corinthians. His opponents had accused him of being an underhanded, dishonest, greedy fake, not a good man, let alone a genuine apostle. So Paul unabashedly says, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.” This kind of appeal to our own integrity is a risky thing to do, but Paul does it often. He knew that the character and behavior of the messenger is crucial to the message itself. The “Me” of the preacher can get in the way of the “Message,” even if the preacher is highly skilled and intelligent.
But as we call our people to reconciliation, how do we defend ourselves without sounding boastful? Apparently Paul’s professional opponents had pointed to their qualifications and accomplishments as “super apostles.” (II Corinthians 11:5) That might impress some people, but it was not the way of Paul. Instead, he pointed to his “great endurance” in verse 4. That seems to be the general heading for all that follows. In other words, he commends his ministry to this estranged congregation, not by pointing to the number of people converted under his ministry or to the impressive buildings erected or to the increase in giving (the infamous “butts, buildings, and budget”), but by reminding them of how patiently he had endured the hardships of ministry.
It is risky to talk about what you have endured in your ministry, so you don’t want to do it too often. Paul actually does it three times in this one letter (4:8-12 and 11:21-12:1 as well as here). One is tempted to say, “he protests too much.” But he doesn’t do it to draw attention to himself in an effort to earn praise or gain sympathy. We’ve all heard ministers do that, and it is disgusting and demeaning. Paul lists his sufferings and his endurance for one purpose—to ensure that his Gospel is not discredited and discarded. As he says elsewhere (II Corinthians 11:16ff), he “makes a fool of himself” for the sake of the Gospel.
But he is very careful how he does that. What follows in verses 4-10 is a masterfully constructed, almost poetic recitation of the way Paul did ministry. It should be an inspiration to everyone who does ministry of any kind. He begins with 9 hardships, continues with 8 gifts and 6 conditions, and concludes with 7 contrasts. The hardships (verses 4b-5) are presented in 3 triplets, each of which is introduced with the Greek word en. The gifts or graces (verses 6-7a) are in the form of doublets, introduced with that same proposition, en. The 6 conditions (verses 7b-8a) are introduced with the Greek dia, translated “with” or “through.” And the 7 contrasts (verses 8b-10) are preceded by the Greek hos, translated “as.” I note these grammatical and stylistic niceties to point out how seriously Paul took this self-defense. He didn’t just mount the pulpit and vent. He thought about it very carefully, because the stakes were so high. If his opponents could undermine Paul’s ministry, they could destroy the life giving Gospel of grace. And his congregation would be lost in error and disagreement.
I won’t go over each word in Paul’s poetic self-defense, but here are some salient points. In his listing of hardships, the first of the triplets is general, while the second is imposed by humans, perhaps law enforcement authorities, and the third is self-imposed (“hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger”). The longer list in II Corinthians 11 spells out in great detail how much Paul had suffered for the Gospel. He wasn’t in this for the earthly reward, as his critics claimed.
His listing of the spiritual graces he displayed as he ministered among the Corinthians could be taken as self congratulatory, except that he attributes them all to the Holy Spirit and the power of God. What commended his ministry was (sexual?) purity, a thorough understanding of the Gospel, patience under criticism, a kind spirit that made him easy to get along with (unless you attacked the Gospel), sincere love for all, and a faithful proclamation of the Truth. Wouldn’t you love to hear people attribute those things to you at your retirement party?
The contrasts with which Paul ends this testimony capture the paradoxical character of the Christian life. Or as an old minister once told me, “all truth is elliptical.” Here are the two apparently contradictory sides of the Christian life, the two poles of the elliptical truth about all of us who follow Christ. On the one side, we are regarded as imposters, but on the other side we are the real deal. We are unknown in the world, and yet we are well known where it counts. We are always one step away from death, but we live on. Paul continues until the end, where we are regarded “as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” What a word for a church living in a wealthy, consumerist culture! Paul reminds his church that appearances can be deceiving. The truth about me is quite other than my opponents claim. I may look like a loser, but I am the genuine article, a faithful minister of Jesus Christ, a true apostle. As such, I have everything I’ll ever need.
How can we preach this to our congregations? We could hold up Paul as a model of the Christian life, moving through his testimony and challenging our people to be just like that. That would be the easier way to use the text. Or we could use this testimony as Paul did, as part of his appeal for reconciliation. Reconciliation was so important to Paul that he was willing to go out on a limb, put himself out there, and open himself up to even more criticism. That’s what he means when he says in verse 11, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened our hearts to you.” And he is heartbroken that his openness has not been reciprocated by the Corinthians. “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding your from us.” This is heart wrenching (or gut wrenching, since the word “affection” here is the Greek splangchna, intestines, where our deep emotions reside). Being reconciled to his congregation and seeing them reconciled to each other was a matter of gut level importance for Paul.
Here we can press the message home to our congregations. If it mattered that much to the Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, the author of so much of the New Testament, the minister who was willing to give his all for the church, we must be reconciled to each other, NOW. I’m willing to give my all for you. “As a fair exchange (as an exact equivalent), do the same for me and open your hearts also.” As I said before, it will take a lot of courage to preach this to a church that is struggling with its minister and with each other, but, as Paul said, we don’t want our churches to “receive the grace of God in vain.”
I should warn you that this appeal didn’t work for Paul, at least not immediately. By the end of this letter, Paul seems to be fighting the same battle with his critics. In fact, the tone of hostility seems to have risen. That is a realistic reminder that success in ministry comes not first of all and not finally from our best efforts, but from the grace of God.
Here’s an obviously fictional (and more than a little heretical) story that stresses the urgency of acting on the grace of God today. Rather than putting off reconciliation, do it today, “now is the time, now is the day of salvation.”
Walking down the street one day, a United States Senator is hit by a truck and dies. He arrives in heaven where he is met at the pearly gates by St. Peter. “Before you settle in,” says Peter, “you’re going to have to spend one day in hell and one day in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.” With that Peter puts him on the elevator and down he goes to hell.
The door opens and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and in front of it are all his friends. Everyone is happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him with hugs. They play a round of golf and then dine on lobster and champagne. Also present is the devil, who is really a very friendly guy who has a good time dancing and telling jokes. The man has a wonderful time, but then he has to go.
The elevator goes up and up and opens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him. “Now it’s time to visit heaven.” So, 24 hours pass, with the senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing harps and singing. They have a nice time, and before he knows it, his day in heaven is over and St. Peter returns. “Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and a day in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”
The senator reflects for a minute and then answers. “I would never have said it before. I mean heaven is delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.” So off he goes, down the elevator. The door opens and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with filthy waste and smoldering garbage. He sees his friends, dressed in rags, picking up trashing and raking through garbage as more filth falls from above. The devil comes over and puts his arm around the senator’s shoulder. “I don’t understand,” stammers the senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a clubhouse and we played golf and ate lobster and danced. Now there’s a wasteland and all this garbage and everyone is miserable. What happened/”
The devil looks at the senator, smiles, and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning…. Today, you voted.” Now is the day to vote. “Now is the day of salvation,” the day to get reconciled, both to God and to each other.
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