When we were younger, we perhaps naively thought that so long as we were sincere and well-intentioned then, even if we made mistakes (as we all do) we could avoid creating any enemies, avoid having anyone who so disliked us as to avoid us in public even as they derided us in private. But then one day you wake up and suddenly realize that, as it turns out, you now have a small list of folks with whom you once had contact but to whom you no longer speak. With some of these people a chance encounter at the supermarket creates awkwardness: some hand wringing and a nervous looking down at your feet. With others, though, chance meetings are ugly reminders of how deep the rupture is. In those situations there is no conversation, awkward or otherwise, but just sheer avoidance and icy stares.
And it hurts. When I was in seminary, I never imagined such things, certainly not within the context of the church. Yet it happens. Rifts and gaps open up between people for all kinds of reasons. Those who once complimented now critique, those who once thought well of you could scarcely be less charitable now.
Paul knew what that felt like. He had had a good experience in the city of Corinth. The church he planted was filled with people dear to his heart, and though the Corinthians were a feisty group loaded with potential problems, Paul loved them and, even after leaving Corinth, prayed for them every day. So how it must have hurt to learn that in Corinth his reputation has been shattered. After Paul’s departure some nay-sayers came to town and called Paul into question. They impugned Paul’s credentials, claiming he had no right to call himself an apostle. They alleged that Paul was a money-grubber and a charlatan whose motives were impure and whose so-called “gospel” was just so much hogwash and heresy.
So in this second letter to the Corinthians Paul, with grit teeth sometimes and through tears at other times, has to defend himself. At the conclusion of this fifth chapter, Paul’s desire to clear his name combines with his effort to repeat the true gospel, resulting in a sublime passage of great power. The centerpiece is reconciliation. By grace alone and because of Jesus, God has reconciled us to himself.
The result of this cosmic reconciliation is that we now look at everything differently. We look at everything and everyone through the lens of reconciliation. We are ambassadors of reconciliation as we call others to believe in Jesus and so find themselves in a good relationship with God. But it’s not just about the vertical dimension between God and us. Being caught up in God’s salvation changes everything on this human, horizontal plane, too.
“Once upon a time,” Paul writes, “we regarded Jesus only from a human point of view and when we did, we didn’t think much of him. But now we see Jesus and everyone in a divine perspective and it changes everything.” In the Greek Paul talks about regarding Jesus and each other kata sarx, which literally means “according to the flesh.” If we look at Jesus as no more than just another flesh-and-blood human being among the billions of other flesh-and-blood people who populate this globe, then there’s nothing remarkable about Jesus. If Jesus is only human, then to worship him is idolatry. But Jesus is also the Son of God, so we are right to worship him. You cannot look at Jesus only according to his human side.
But Paul makes a parallel between looking at Jesus in a complete way and looking at each other in a complete way. But none of us is divine, so what is the parallel here? Well, the parallel, according to Paul, is that because we are all “in Christ,” we are more than just human, too–there is more to us than meets the eye!
We are the bearers of God’s saving grace with the Holy Spirit living inside us. Of course we don’t treat each other like pieces of meat! Of course we do not ever think that broken relationships are no big deal. No! We are caught up in the grip of God’s cosmic reconciliation in Christ. Jesus died so that fractured relationships, dysfunctional families, lost friendships, and ruptured social circles could be restored.
From a purely human point of view it’s easy to see alienation among people and chalk it up to just the way life goes. Things like that happen, we might conclude. One friend says the wrong thing to another and that’s it. Romances break up, friends drift apart. In congregations, as in corporations, people come, people go. Some people like each other, some people can’t stand each other. The person to whom you were once close is now the one you cross the street just to avoid. Happens all the time. It’s the same all over.
But the gospel screams God’s thunderous “No!” to that kind of casual dismissal of alienation. Paul knew that in his own lifetime he had gone from being God’s number one enemy to God’s beloved apostle. There was a time in his life when if someone mentioned the name “Jesus” in Paul’s presence, Paul (who was then called Saul) turned purple and began to sputter profane vindictives about that name Jesus–a name he was intent on wiping from the face of the earth. Even years later Paul no doubt sometimes awoke in the dead of night, cold sweat running down his forehead, because of the nightmares in which he remembered the Christians he had run through with a sword, the dear women he had dragged away by their hair, that look on Stephen’s face just before the last stone hit his forehead and took his life. Paul knew from his own experience that reconciling former enemies is the main reason Jesus died. He was a living example of that!
A contemporary theologian who has done a tremendous amount of thinking about reconciliation is Miroslav Volf. He once wrote that in God’s heavenly kingdom, it cannot be just impersonal forces of evil that are done away with. It cannot be just the entire creation, broadly conceived, which gets reconciled with its God. No, Volf says, it has to get more specific than that. Before we can all dwell happily together in the shalom of God’s kingdom there needs to be real reconciliation between earthly enemies. Perpetrators and victims must embrace. Those who have lived in conflict need to have that conflict put away if there is to be shalom. It’s not just the lion and the lamb that need to learn to curl up next to one another but all of us who have lived as the human equivalents of lambs and lions in how we have treated each other. There can be no peace in God’s kingdom so long as there is anyone there who would just as soon cross over to the other side of a golden street in order to avoid you.
To be reunited with former friends is our hope. Of course, we also hope for other things, like a day when sickness and cancer will be no more. But even as for now we are not done with tumors, so for now we may also never be fully reconciled with everyone. There are many reasons for that. Sometimes it’s sinful stubbornness which blocks the fixing of things. Other times there is nothing we can do as there is too much hurt such that our efforts to be kind are rebuffed or just make matters worse. Still other times the kind of hurt and psychological damage we have sustained is too intense to overcome. In short, there are times when there is not a blessed thing we can do to repair what’s broken in life.
As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, in the Lord’s Supper the minister holds up a whole loaf of bread as a reminder of the whole, perfect presence of God among his people. But then that loaf is shattered, broken, torn, and the crumbs fall onto the table. It is a reminder that our perfect wholeness, that peace for which we yearn and pine, is not behind us but up ahead yet. Wholeness is coming, but the broken loaf reminds us that it is coming not through what we’ll do but through what Jesus already did. His brokenness is what will one day put our lives back together whole and complete, relationships and all.
Such was Paul’s message of hope to the Corinthians from the midst of that messy, hurtful situation. Such is God’s message to us from the midst of the messes of our own lives. There is a reconciliation, a wholeness, and a peace which endures. It’s a peace we need to remember and hold onto, even (or maybe especially) from the squalor of our lives.
Tom Long was once asked to preach at what was billed as a special “family worship service.” It was a great idea . . . on paper. The notion was to hold the worship service not in the sanctuary but in the fellowship hall. There, families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, the minister would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It was a great idea . . . on paper. But it didn’t work well. Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart. But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to ad-lib anything, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and saying, “The peace of God be with you.” And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”
When we come to the Lord’s table, we do so coming from the broken mess that just is our life in a fallen creation. Maybe we’ve reconciled what we can and, by God’s grace, perhaps we will be able to do still more. But it’s not all fixed, not yet. Much though we might like to, the fact is that we still can’t shake hands with some folks. Yet we reach out those same hands for the bread and wine now. And over the chaos of it all come the words, “The peace of God be with you.” The good news is that somehow, some way, it already is. Because once upon a time God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. Amen.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 6, 2016
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Commentary