Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 24, 2018
2 Corinthians 6:1-13 Commentary
Ouch! We have been noticing recently that 2 Corinthians can be a hard letter to read. There is so much personal, professional, and pastoral pain in the background for Paul. But at the end of this Lectionary selection Paul brings the hammer down pretty hard: he is being perfectly loving toward the Corinthians—as he always has—but they have closed off their hearts toward him.
“Look, we have opened wide our hearts to you but you toward us . . . not so much. So fair is fair and it is high time you reciprocate back to us by opening your hearts.”
Hard hitting stuff. But you need to loop back to the opening two verses to see the real punch behind all this. Because Paul framed up this entire section of the letter by saying that “Now is the time of God’s favor” as his gracious salvation has been announced. But it was in verse 1 that Paul really set things up for where he wanted to go: “See to it you do not receive God’s grace in vain.” In other words, if God’s grace has really taken root in your hearts and you really understand how his salvation works, then this had better show up in your lives. And, oh by the way, a really good indication that this has taken place would be if you open your hearts toward us and stop believing the people who have trash-talked me and the gospel I preach.
In between Paul provides one of many lists he wrote in his letters of the trials and travails he and his companion have endured for the sake of Jesus. It would be easy to miss the connection between what Paul writes in verses 3-10 from this business about the Corinthians not being loving toward Paul anymore but take another look. Paul is making it clear not only that working for Jesus is a rough and tumble business in this brutal world but he is also spelling out how Paul and company react to all of that.
However, most of this seems to be code for at least some of the ways the Corinthians have begun to regard Paul and others who work with him. True, they have never beaten Paul or jailed him or done any of the other physical things Paul talks about. But Paul makes it clear along the way that he is truthful, that his love is sincere, that he is bearing the Fruit of the Spirit all over the place and yet he is regarded as an impostor (a key charge the false teachers in Corinth have leveled against Paul and that at least some Corinthians had bought into). He makes it clear that although everything that can be known about him is plain to see, some treat him as an unknown commodity anyway (and again, precisely this was happening in Corinth).
So Paul is sincere, truthful, loving, genuine. He is patient, kind, and good. He rejoices when others would weep and lament over tough times. He has no worldly goods but feels rich in Christ and so gives away to all that Gospel Good News he has to share. In return the world does nothing but heap abuse and scorn and false accusations on his head. And all of that is bad enough when it comes from pagans, Romans, and unbelievers of all stripes.
But Paul knows that the Corinthians know that he is including them in this litany of woe as co-conspirators with all the other opponents Paul is talking about. The people who are dear to Paul’s heart and to whom he has always opened wide his own heart have now allied themselves with the same people who can legitimately be called the enemies of the Gospel and of Christ Jesus himself. And you can slice and dice that nascent accusation any way you want but it will not come out very nice—the Corinthians are really getting Paul’s full-court press here. And since Paul opened this chapter with the urging that they not receive God’s grace in vain—which I would conclude is tantamount to saying they had perhaps not really received that grace at all—it is clear that the spiritual stakes here are exceedingly high. This is not small disagreement with their founding pastor. This is life and death. Eternally.
Although none of us who preach today can claim the same apostolic mantle or authority that Paul and the other original apostles possessed, one thing we do share is Paul’s pain at the betrayal of the very people whom he loves and who are supposed to love him back in Christ. We know what it is to do our best as pastors only to be scorned by the very people we love and were trying to help. Many of us know from personal experience—or we have heard the sad testimony of fellow pastors—that sometimes the other leaders in a congregation with whom we work are very good and highly adept at making life as miserable as possible for us. Just recently I spoke with a pastor who clearly cares deeply for the flock under his care but who is getting slapped around plenty good by his own elders who keep changing rules and expectations in ways that seem calculated to accomplish only one thing: keep him under their thumb and just a tad miserable.
Why? Why do Christians who have received the grace of God unto salvation sometimes treat each other—and often treat their leaders—with so little affection or grace? Of course, the temptation is always to lash back, hit back. Reading 2 Corinthians 6 we might also wish we could accuse our congregations as directly as Paul accuses the Corinth congregation here even as deep down we wish we could dangle the threat of judgment in front of the people who are making ministry a trial for us.
Again, we none of us today is Paul or any other apostle. So we’d best not assume we could adopt his tactics and expect to succeed. (Then again, we don’t know finally how this played out even in Corinth or whether Paul’s heartfelt pleas had any effect.) But what we can and perhaps must say is that when things like this happen in any given congregation, the grace of God and the gospel itself is at stake.
When people close off their hearts toward one another—or toward a pastor—for whatever the reason, the likelihood of anyone’s being able to see Jesus clearly in that church starts to lessen. If we are supposed to be living temples of God’s own Holy Spirit and filled with love and grace—the same love and grace we all have already freely received from God—then conflicts and disputes and unloving actions calculated to make someone else unhappy are never neutral affairs. As Paul said in the 6th chapter of also his first letter to the folks at Corinth, when we engage in bad behavior—like still sleeping with prostitutes in the case of 1 Cor. 6), we always bring Jesus along with us into all that tawdriness and we always bring that same Jesus low.
Perhaps no message is more needed in churches everywhere today in these divided, hyper partisan times. We need the message and the truth of what Paul says at the outset: do not receive God’s grace in vain. Too much is at stake for the church to look no different from the rest of the world these days. Before we start lobbing accusations at one another or at our pastoral leaders; before we start knocking each other around in the same rough-and-tumble spirit that is animating the larger body politic today, we had best take a good, long look at our Savior Jesus Christ and wonder whether by our actions and words we are not perhaps rendering the grace of God in our midst a vain thing after all.
Something of Paul’s pain and disappointment in the church itself reminded me of these lines from near the end of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“Let me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand this past Sunday in welcoming Negroes to your Baptist Church worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Springhill College several years ago. But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel who loves the church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows. In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.”
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