Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 4, 2023
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Commentary
The Revised Common Lectionary invites those who follow it to observe the first Sunday after Pentecost as Trinity Sunday. So we’re not surprised that the RCL chooses part of 2 Corinthians 13 as its Epistolary Lesson. Paul’s second letter to Corinth’s Christians ends, after all, with what we sometimes call a “Trinitarian Formula.”
However, there are several problems with that linking of Trinity Sunday to the Epistolary Lesson. First, 2 Corinthians 13:14’s Trinitarian Formula actually falls outside of the Lesson’s parameters. This Sunday’s Lesson doesn’t include Paul’s blessing, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Preachers can, of course, relatively easily circumvent that quirk. We can choose to include 2 Corinthians 13:14 in this Sunday’s Epistolary reading. After all, that’s what the RCL’s editors almost certainly intended for those who follow its suggestions to do.
However, there’s also a second challenge to linking 2 Corinthians 13:14’s Trinitarian Formula to Trinity Sunday. As the New Testament scholar Matt Skinner notes, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is not actually Trinitarian in the formal sense of that term. 2 Corinthians 13:14 doesn’t, he writes, “adequately express the affirmations of nuances of the classical Trinitarian doctrine that was formulated in the centuries after Paul lived.”
So preachers and worship planners might take advantage of Trinity Sunday’s opportunity to include in our liturgies classical formulations of the Trinity. But we might approach this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson from a slightly different angle.
One approach preachers might take, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, is to preach 2 Corinthians 13 through the lens of grace. A proclamation of that grace, after all, brackets Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. It basically both begins and ends Paul’s second letter to Corinth’s Christians (1:2, 13:14). It also basically begins it. Grace, in fact, actually brackets the apostle’s first letter to those Christians as well (1:3, 16:23).
Paul’s gracious greetings and benedictions may, however, surprise some of his letters to the Christians in Corinth’s readers. He, after all, spends much of both of those letters scolding those whom God has so richly graced for their decidedly ungracious responses to that grace.
In fact, writes the New Testament scholar Carla Works, it’s as though Paul’s emotions have been bubbling close to the surface throughout his letters to Corinth’s church. At its beginning (1:15-2:4) he cites both a painful visit and emotional letter. In 2 Corinthians 10 the apostle also defends himself against so-called apostles who relentlessly boast about themselves.
Even this Sunday’s short Epistolary Lesson alludes to some of his readers’ lack of holiness. “Be perfected (katatartizesthe),” Paul tells them in verse 11. “Be exhorted (parakaleisthe). Be of the same mind (auto phroneite), be at peace (eireneuete).”
Near the beginning of his first letter to Corinth’s Christians, Paul called them to “agree with one another so there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). However, his second letters’ closing suggests that little has changed in the time that elapsed between his sending of his first and second letters. After all, 2 Corinthians 13:11 at least suggests that the Christians in Corinth stubbornly remained less than perfectly united in mind and thought.
This offers this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers a chance to explore with our hearers how little has changed in the centuries that have elapsed since Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians. We might point to examples of how Jesus friends continue to be divided rather than united.
Preachers, of course, want to carefully avoid sounding self-righteous. One way to do that might, in fact, include being honest about our own struggles to be holy, listen to God’s Word and promote the unity for which Jesus prayed. We might speak about our own preferences for division over what The Message calls “cultivating a life in common.”
It’s into the context of sinfulness that Paul consistently speaks in his letters to the Corinthians’ word of grace. Its scolding for such brokenness that 2 Corinthians brackets with the apostle’s repeated announcements of grace. Grace not only surrounds Paul’s letters. It also saturates them.
So how might the Spirit speak that grace into the preaching of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson? It perhaps begins with an acknowledgement that God always meets God’s dearly beloved people’ failures to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves with God’s amazing grace.
While Jesus’ friends have failed to even aim for perfection, God has been, is and always will be gracious. While God’s adopted children have failed to listen to the various Scriptures’ appeals on God’s behalf, God is gracious. While Jesus’ followers have failed to be of one mind, God is gracious. While Christians have failed to live in peace, God is gracious.
God responds to the guilt we have and feel about our sin, sins and sinfulness with God’s grace. God responds to God’s dearly beloved people’s regrets about failing to submit ourselves to God’s Word with God’s grace. Christians’ divisions are great. God’s grace is even greater.
What’s more, however, the obedience, faithfulness and unity to which Paul summons the Corinthian Christians is also a gift of God’s grace. Christians can’t somehow muster on our own the kind of obedience to which Paul calls us. There is no genuine Christ-like love for God or our neighbors where God’s amazing grace is not both present and active.
Carla Works notes that the Christ-like virtues – especially joy (a literal meaning of what English versions translate as “Good-by”) and peace — to which the apostle summons his Corinthian readers are what Paul elsewhere calls fruits of the Spirit. They are, in other words, among the lovely ways God’s graces God’s dearly beloved people.
Paul in some ways makes that claim explicit with verse 11’s promise that “the God of love (agapes) and peace (eirenes) will be with you.” It’s promise that God doesn’t just grace Jesus’ friends with Christ-like virtues. God also continues to grace God’s adopted sons and daughters with God’s Spirit’s very self.
In fact, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers might even point to Paul’s closing blessing as a sign of God’s amazing grace. God’s unconditional love for Jesus’ friends is a grace for those who don’t deserve it. The Spirit’s ongoing fellowship with Jesus’ followers is a grace for those who don’t always want it.
On top of all that, every good thing God’s dearly beloved people is a grace. None of us conceived ourselves. None of us granted ourselves a safe birth. None of us parented ourselves. None of us trusted Jesus Christ for our salvation on our own. None of us adopted ourselves into God’s new family.
Jesus’ friends may have chosen a spouse carefully. We may have parented children wisely. We may have worked hard to care for ourselves, families and friends. But none of that by itself guaranteed any of the flourishing that so many of us experience. Any wellness that we enjoy is yet another gift of God’s amazing grace.
In his sterling book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner writes, “After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested any more. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.
“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
“There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
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