Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 31, 2019
2 Corinthians 5:16-21 Commentary
“From now on,” Paul insists to the Corinthians in this Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson, “we regard no one from a worldly point of view (16)”. Yet whenever I hear him say that, I want to ask, “Really?! Do we really no longer view people from a worldly point of view?
After all, how quick aren’t even God’s adopted sons and daughters to regard especially people who somehow differ from us “from a worldly point of view?” To help our hearers and us approach that issue, those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 5 might ask a leading question like this one: if I were to ask you how you’d describe your neighbor or co-worker, how would you respond? I imagine that many of us would begin by describing what a nice guy he is (or isn’t). I suspect that you’d probably even tell me the color of her skin before you got around to finally telling me that she’s a Christian.
Or think of how we identify ourselves to those who ask about us. I tend to first mention my daily work as a pastor. I often say something about where I live and to whom I’m married. I might also say something about my interests and grandchildren. I might even eventually get around to mentioning that I’m a Christian.
Those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 5 will want to spend time exploring with our hearers what a “worldly view” looks like. Perhaps foundational to that view is its contrast with God’s view of those whom God creates in God image and cares for. God’s view doesn’t mimic our culture in thinking of people as primarily black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, Muslim, Jewish or Christian.
Yet if Paul doesn’t want us to view people the way our culture views them, how does he want us to “regard” them?
Clearly he expects us to view each other the way God in Christ views them. “We are convinced,” Paul writes in verses 14 and following, “that one died for all and therefore all died. And [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
At the heart of God’s view of people is the “all” for whom the “one” who is Jesus Christ “died” (14). Jesus’ followers view all people not first of all as black or white or any other color, but as those for whom Jesus died. Since Christ died for all, Christians see people not primarily as rich or poor, or as gay or straight, but as those for whom Jesus Christ died.
Yet perhaps especially those whose ears are especially tuned to the melodies of the Reformed expression of the faith may be ringing about now. Don’t Reformed Christians, after all, profess that Jesus Christ died only for the elect, only for those who God chose before God even created the world?
As my colleague Len Vander Zee, to whom I’m indebted for many of this Commentary’s ideas, notes, we don’t have to say that God will somehow save all people in order to profess that Jesus Christ died for all people. By saying that Christ “died for all,” Paul simply means that through God’s atoning work in Christ God did something radically new for the whole world.
So, as Vander Zee goes on to note, God didn’t let people kill Jesus before raising him from the dead just to offer people some kind of religious deal. God doesn’t make offers; in Christ God creates something “new.” God doesn’t offer Jesus to the religious marketplace as some kind of new fad; God’s work in Christ changes the world. God transforms history, making all things new.
Of course, God expects God’s beloved children to faithfully respond to this new thing God has done. After all, for the seed that is God’s transforming work to fully flower in people’s lives, we must receive it with our faith. God’s people most appropriately respond to Christ’s death and resurrection by faithfully reconciling ourselves to God and each other.
That reconciliation, in turn, shapes the way Christians now view the people around us. Now even if people label themselves in that way, we don’t see them as primarily male or female, rich or poor, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist.
Instead of viewing people from such “worldly” perspectives, now Christians see people as those whom God wants to faithfully respond to God’s grace. From “now on,” that is, ever Christ’s completed his saving work, we see all people as those for whom Jesus may well have died.
Christ’s love compels God’s adopted sons and daughters to love those whom we so quickly label as unlovable. So Jesus’ followers seek to live for him who died and was raised for our sakes in part by loving all people with the unconditional love of God.
That means that, among other things, Christ’s love compels God’s adopted sons and daughters to deeply love both our fellow Christians and our enemies. Christians are, after all, sometimes the most critical of our Christian brothers and sisters. Since we often expect more of them than of those who don’t yet believe, we’re often least loving towards Christians who sin or even merely disagree with us.
God, however, challenges God’s children to live for Jesus Christ by unconditionally loving our fellow Christians. God expects us to respond to Christ’s transforming work by praying and working for what’s best for our Christian brothers and sisters.
Christ’s love also compels his followers, however, to love even our enemies. So instead of torturing them, we treat them with love. Instead of condemning people to hell, we learn to pray for them. We learn to view even our enemies as those whom God wants to draw into his glorious presence.
Flannery O’Connor was what one colleague calls “a remarkably perceptive diagnostician of the human condition.” One of her most diagnostic but startling short stories is entitled, A Good Man Is Hard to Find.
It’s the story of Bailey, his wife, children, and mother.
The family decides to travel to Florida for a vacation, even though that means it must travel through an area in which an escaped convict is on the loose. The ornery grandmother is what some call the story’s driving force. She constantly tries to direct the trip. Eventually she convinces her reluctant son to turn off the main highway and onto a deserted road. There they have an accident that disables their car.
The only people who stop at the remote scene of the accident are the escaped convict O’Connor calls the Misfit and his docile henchmen, Hiram and Bobbie Lee. When the grandmother shrieks his name, the Misfit tells her that it would have been better for all of them if she hadn’t recognized him.
The old lady spends most of the rest of the story (and her life) desperately trying to save her family and herself by insisting that the Misfit must come from good people. While we sense she really believes just the opposite of what she keeps saying about him, the strong-willed grandmother continues to insist that the Misfit is a “good man.”
Even after the Misfit’s henchmen take Bailey and his son John Wesley away to execute them, the grandmother insists he must be good, not common people. She tells the Misfit he could be honest if he just tried hard enough. All he needs to do, the grandmother keeps on saying, is, “Pray, pray, pray.” Even after the Misfit’s henchmen take the mother and her daughter June Star away to kill them, the grandmother just keeps on insisting that he’s a good man.
Finally, the grandmother peers intently enough at the Misfit to see that he’s about to cry. That leads her to jettison all her religious clichés and murmur that he’s just one of her children, one of her “babies,” in other words, a child of God.
However, when the grandmother expresses this by gently touching his shoulder, the Misfit recoils and then shoots her three times. She would have been a good woman, he concludes, if there were just someone there to shoot her every moment of her life.
The grandmother naturally regarded the Misfit (and nearly everyone else) from a worldly point of view. It seems as though it took her recognition of her imminent death for her to view the Misfit not as he regards himself, but as God views him.
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