Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 20, 2021
2 Corinthians 6:1-13 Commentary
2 Corinthians 6 virtually drips with pathos. It reveals the heart of an apostle who has been both reconciled to God and invites others to be reconciled to God, but has been stonewalled by people to whom he longs to be reconciled. While God has graciously reconciled Paul to himself, Paul’s friends in Corinth have alienated themselves from Paul. While Corinth’s Christians have, at least in theory, been reconciled to God, they have not been reconciled to the apostle.
2 Corinthians 6’s proclaimers shouldn’t try to unpack and proclaim it until we at least familiarize our hearers and ourselves with the second part of chapter 5. It too, after all, deals with reconciliation. In just 4 verses, in fact, Paul uses some form of the Greek word katallaso that we translate as “reconcile” five times.
Yet while 2 Corinthians 6 largely concentrates on reconciliation among Jesus’ friends, chapter 5, focuses on the need for those friends to be reconciled to God. God, reports Paul in both verses 18 and 19, has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. Paul clearly believes that at the heart of our “new creation” (17) is God’s reconciliation of himself to God’s adopted sons and daughters, through the gracious saving work of Jesus Christ.
While both those who proclaim and hear this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson are by nature God’s enemies, God, the apostle insists, has graciously reconciled himself to us. Because of what Jesus Christ did on our behalf, we’re now God’s adopted sons and daughters, and Jesus’ adopted siblings.
Yet all too often, Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters get along better with our adopted Father and Elder Brother than we do with each other. That seems to be the case of our text’s Apostle Paul and the Corinthians to whom he writes this letter. After all, in verse 12 the apostle laments that while “we are not withholding our affection from you … you are withholding yours from us.” And in verse 13 he goes on to beg his Corinthian siblings in Jesus Christ, “As a fair exchange – I speak to you as children – open wide your hearts also.”
In light of those verses, it’s fair to deduce that when Paul says don’t receive God’s grace “in vain” (1), he means something like, “Don’t shrink the affect of God’s grace by staying alienated from me. Let God’s grace make a difference in your life. Since now is the time of salvation, let it result in you opening your hearts to me.”
Some scholars compare reading the New Testament letters to reading someone’s mail from at least twenty centuries ago. After all, while they contain inspired great gospel truths, they’re also correspondence between apostles and those for whom God has called them to care.
Yet in most cases, reading the New Testament’s letter is like reading only one part of a correspondence. It’s a bit like reading Aunt Bertha’s letters to Uncle Floyd without reading his responses. We don’t always get a full picture because it’s just one (albeit inspired) of a conversation.
So we don’t know why the Corinthians have withheld their affection from Paul. Jesus’ 21st century friends can’t know why they’ve closed their hearts to the apostle. Readers of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians can, of course, guess. We can see how his critique of their sexual and worship practices, as well as eagerness to sue each other might enrage Corinth’s Christians. But 2 Corinthians 6’s modern proclaimers can’t be entirely sure of the cause of the rift between Paul and the Corinthian Christians.
Both my colleagues Scott Hoezee and Stan Mast’s wonderful sermon commentaries have already explored how preachers and teachers might carefully share this text’s implications for relations between Christians and church leaders, including pastors. Frankly, that’s probably the most biblically faithful proclamation to this text.
But for 2 Corinthians 6’s proclaimers who are willing to wander just a bit “farther afield,” an exploration of the need for reconciliation between all of God’s adopted children might be fruitful. An exposition of the need for reconciliation between Jesus’ adopted siblings might be beneficial, both for its expositors and our hearers.
Proclaimers who take that tack might consider inviting hearers to consider this text from the perspective of both Jesus’ friends who have been so wronged that they’re reluctant to be reconciled, and those who have so deeply wronged a sibling in Christ that the sibling is reluctant to reconcile to them. Both approaches, however, require spiritually soaked wisdom.
After all, Christians have deeply wounded some of the Christians to whom we proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. A family member has (or members have) abused and/or abandoned them. A trusted friend has betrayed them. A neighbor, co-worker or even stranger has deeply harmed them. The examples of the causes of alienation are nearly as endless as the human capacity for hating our neighbors.
Yet those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 6 might gently and pastorally remind victims, “God has reconciled himself to you. Now God summons you to let God’s grace have a positive impact on you (1) by being reconciled to those who have hurt you. Make the most of the grace God has shown you by being gracious to those who have made themselves your enemy.”
That, of course, is a hard message to hear and even harder to practice. There are, after all, a lot of wrongdoers who don’t deserve to be reconciled to their victims. A fair number of those wrongdoers don’t, what’s more, as Lewis Smedes once wrote, give a fig for our attempts to be reconciled to them.
But those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson join our hearers in being the beneficiaries of the extreme lengths to which God went to reconcile himself to those who would otherwise have been quite content to remain God’s eternal enemies. So we want to look for sensitive ways to proclaim that truth, while admitting it’s hard to be reconciled to some of our enemies.
But 2 Corinthians’ proclaimers might also look for ways to carefully speak on behalf of those who are alienated but long to be reconciled. We might imagine them saying, “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding your affection from us … Open your hearts also.”
Of course, gospel proclaimers will want to be very sensitive about speaking on behalf of wrongdoers to their victims. After all, some victims will carry their scars until the moment they pass from life to Life in God’s glorious presence. Some victims will need to maintain boundaries that keep their perpetrators from ever having the chance to physically, emotionally or even spiritually harm them ever again.
But the God who raised Jesus from the dead is perfectly capable of reconciling the hearts of the most wounded victims and grievous perpetrators. God is able to raise from the dead or even create open hearts in those whose hearts others have closed by abuse, neglect, betrayal or other inflicted trauma.
Of course, this Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers don’t want to add to the pain and/or guilt that victims already feel. We don’t want to unnecessarily add the long list of things victims already need to do. But we do want to hold out the hope of the gospel and the very real difference it, by the power of the Holy Spirit, makes in God’s adopted sons and daughters.
A Man Called Ove features a man who appears to be ornery and bitter. Ove is a recent widower who lives alone in a small Swedish condo complex in which, as its one-time association president, he tolerates no noise, speeding, cigarette butts, or commotion of any sort.
Deeply saddened by his wife’s death and his forced retirement, Ove tries to take his own life. Yet each time he tries to do so, something or someone interrupts. And that’s a good thing, because life is not yet done with old Ove.
To be sure, enough bad stuff has happened to Ove Lindahl to push him to consider a swift exit from his life. While we contemplate his irritability, we learn more and more of a backstory that explains a good deal of his grumpiness about the often-ambiguous “gift” of being alive.
Ove’s actually a decent fellow who has been both too timid and suspicious of the world’s injustices to fully make his home in it. While his wife Sonja convinced him to live for the first time in his life, her death causes everything to fall apart, and his anger to escalate. “It’s just chaos when you’re not there,” he tells her in one of his regular visits to her grave.
It takes another forceful woman to reawaken a hunger for life in Ove. A fiery new neighbor, Parvaneh who’s an Iranian immigrant, wife and mother lives across the street from him. In her Ove meets his match as she hauls him back into living, kicking and screaming but finally laughing. She, and events, turns his grief and anger into loving.
Finally, Ove gets it and acts it. At his wife’s graveside, he confesses his almost countless wrongs –“Idiot! That’s what I’ve been” – and begs forgiveness of the departed Sonja who’d relished life and endlessly gave of herself, especially Ove. Parvaneh reminds him that “No one manages completely on their own. No one. Not even you.”
While we can understand it, given everything that has happened to him, Ove has proven to be a slow learner. Finally, however, he has come more than ever to realize that life is for connectedness, mutual appreciation, help and reconciliation. In a review of A Man Called Ove, Roy Anker writes, “The film’s final shot is a long way from the Sistine Chapel and the Father reaching to humankind, but it surely hearkens to the same richest gifts of connectedness and genuine intimacy.”
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