Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 11, 2017
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Commentary
“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you . . . Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Those are among the closing words of the landmark “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The full letter is powerful, moving. Indeed, I am assigning my students to read and study the letter for a summer elective course I am teaching for my seminary.
But wouldn’t my students find it puzzling if I assigned them only those closing words quoted above? True, they might love the brevity of the assignment but still . . . why read just the signature line?
The same could be said about this Sunday’s Lectionary Epistle reading that encompasses just the last few closing words from Paul’s much longer second letter to the church at Corinth. There is so much in this letter—why zero in on just the “Farewell” part? But of course we already in part know the answer to that: it is because this text is assigned for Trinity Sunday and it contains one of the New Testament’s classic Trinitarian formulae as Paul gives a benediction that encompasses Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit. True, it’s not quite the classic “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” but it’s awfully close and surely counts as one of many places in the New Testament where reference to God goes into the triplicate modality of speech.
The Doctrine of the Trinity is—as most everyone knows and as any good Jehovah’s Witness can tell you—nowhere spelled out systematically in the Bible even as the word “trinity” itself does not occur. The early church distilled this doctrine from the wider witness of Scripture. It found building blocks for the doctrine here, there, and so on and cobbled each block together into the edifice that became the orthodox view of one God existing in three wholly distinguishable divine Persons who share but once essence and constitute but one Deity.
Of course, the perennial challenge for preachers on Trinity Sunday is to find a way to talk about, highlight, and yes, even CELEBRATE our God as Triune in ways that will not cause people’s eyes to begin glazing over or quietly reach for their smartphones to check on any breaking news headlines. In the case of the Year A Lectionary text from 2 Corinthians 13, this may be easier than you think.
Consider: the wider context of the Corinthian correspondence involves Paul’s pastoral love for a congregation that was—at its best—a headache. 1 Corinthians is clearly Paul’s long reply to an original letter he had received that was chock-full of questions, controversies, and other evidences of woeful fractiousness. Scholars think the Corinthian congregation could not have been very large and yet it had quickly balkanized into large units that claimed various spiritual heads (Paul Peter, Apollos) and each of those contained further sub-units divided by social class, intellectual class, economic class even as fights broke out over whose spiritual gifts were more important, whose teaching on the resurrection was the most correct, whose notions on justice were the more Christ-like. On top of all that, men still thought it acceptable to hook up with prostitutes now and then, at least one man took up with his own mother-in-law, and a few folks hauled each other into small claims courts with lawsuits being used to settle congregational disputes.
Outside of that all was well. Really.
But then sometime between their reception of Paul’s corrective letter taking on all THAT, a few among the Corinthian faithful began to become persuaded by some so-called “Super Apostles” that the teachings of their beloved founding pastor Paul were not necessarily all that great and the Corinthians needed to start following a whole of other new notions. So in what we now call 2 Corinthians (that may have really been 3 Corinthians in that it appears there was another in-between letter we no longer have access to) we find Paul going to at times some rather bizarre rhetorical lengths to defend his credentials as an Apostle not to mention the orthodoxy of his teachings.
Taken together the 2 letters we have from Paul to the Corinthians—and the missing but apparently nicknamed “Painful Letter”—are a roller coaster ride of controversies, raw emotions, and just a whole lot of the hurly burly nature of life inside a Christian congregation.
All in all, it should sound plenty familiar to most any pastor.
And then comes the end of it all. I can hear The Beatles in my head: And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make. Well, not quite but close. Because at the end of this surely exhausting correspondence, Paul raises two weary hands to speak one last blessing. His wrists and his every finger don’t have the strength they had when he first planted that church in Corinth all those years before. He’s been through the wringer a few dozen times since then and has shed his share of pastor’s tears over the Corinthians themselves. Still, he raises his now tired hands and says “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
And what more is there to say really? From the fullness of our Triune God comes everything we need to exist as the often fractious communities of believers that we are.
We need Jesus’ grace. We need that grace to get saved in the first place, to be spiritually relocated to dwelling ‘in Christ’ as baptized people—a new identity Paul returned to again and again in trying to straighten out many a Corinthian ethical knot—and we need that grace just as much to keep forgiving and re-forgiving the myriad ways we manage to wound each other in the church too. We need Jesus to be gracious with us. We need to extend that same grace to one another.
We need the love of God the Father. Where would we be without it? For it was while we were yet sinners that God . . . well, that God LOVED us and sent his Son to die for precisely the undeserving and wretched lot of folks we tend to be.
And we need—oh, how badly we need—that koinonia, that abiding fellowship of the Holy Spirit who took up residence in our hearts after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit alone is the glue that can hold together people who sometimes (let’s be honest) don’t have a whole lot in common outside their common commitment to the faith.
Yes, when it is all said and done, the weary pastor holds up wrinkled, tired hands to shower down on oft-difficult people the whole Trinitarian blessing of grace, love, and fellowship and through that—though Paul does not explicitly say it here—of that crazy peace that passes all understanding. Peace that passes understanding descends on people whose actions often defy easy understanding, too. But there it is. We live in the tension of the already and the not yet even as we find a million creative ways to test the patience of one another and of our pastoral leaders in the church.
But if the Trinity means anything at all, it means this: from all eternity three divine Persons have had an unbounded love affair with each other and then, once upon an eternity, they decided to share that love with a universe of other creatures. That those creatures turned out to be wholly unloveLY eventually did not, even so, render them finally unlovABLE. And so the grace and the love and the fellowship keep coming. It’s just God’s Triune nature to send it. It’s just our awesome opportunity to keep getting it.
Thanks be to God, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. Amen!
Note: I have used this conclusion to a Tom Long sermon on 1 Corinthians 1 before but it bears repeating and fits the end of 2 Corinthians as well:
Tom Long was once asked to preach at an intergenerational worship service, the premise of which looked great. On paper. The idea was to hold the service not in the sanctuary but in the Fellowship Hall where families would sit around tables laden with all the ingredients necessary for making loaves of bread. The families would make the bread during the first part of the service and then while the smell of baking bread was to waft through the hall, Dr. Long would deliver a sermon followed by the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that would use, of course, the fresh bread.
It was a great idea. On paper. Off the paper, it was chaos. First the Fellowship Hall filled with clouds of flour dust as children threw handfuls across tables. Then the ovens did not work quite right and/or someone failed to realize that baking that many loaves at once would significantly lengthen the baking time. Long stretched out his remarks like gluten for as long as he could even as children grew bored and restless, bickering, crying. Families seemed on the verge of falling apart.
Mercifully, it did end eventually and the script called for Dr. Long to pronounce the benediction “The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Too weary to improvise anything else, Long held flour-caked fingers aloft and pronounced peace over the Fellowship Hall chaos.
“The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” . . . to which a small child’s voice from the back of the Hall replied “It already is.”
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