2 Corinthians 6: 1-13
Good morning and grace and peace as we move on into this summer season—the solstice actually at 12:38 p.m. today, just a couple of hours from now. Again, a warm word of welcome!
This pastoral letter from Paul to the small church in Corinth, Second Corinthians, as he works lovingly but with a firm hand to help get them back on track after they have experienced and to some extent seem to be continuing to experience a great deal of distress caused at least in part by leaders who had been straying away from the gospel message they had heard from Paul. We’ve been paying attention to this letter now for a couple of weeks in our Sunday lectionary.
The results of straying from the gospel were clear as it played out in the life of the Corinthian Church: conflict and division and a culture of negativity and grievance. I can’t help pausing over that as we look ahead in the next week to the gathering for our Episcopal Church General Convention. The Church in Corinth becoming something of a political entity where people are striving to be in charge of things. It’s all about winners and losers, my group and your group, about identity and privilege. We remember Paul’s prescription, in the perfect literary expression of First Corinthians 13. Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude. Love seeks not its own way. Words that sound so beautiful in theory when you read them at a wedding. But so difficult to make the words real, to walk the walk and not just talk the talk--whether in a marriage or, as Paul originally intended them, in the life of a Christian congregation.
The Second Century North African theologian Tertullian famously accounted for the rapid rise of Christianity in Late Antiquity by saying that where the Church was established people in the neighborhood would begin to say, “These Christians, how they love one another!” And Paul knows this in his heart. Not love simply as some sort of general affection and good will, but the kind of costly and sacrificial love that would begin to frame and interpret the story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus before people had even heard the story.
A little side note here. At a continuing education event a couple of weeks ago I heard an English historian, Frances Young, give a presentation on exactly this topic. Again, accounting for the spread of Christianity through the Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire. Her study of the topic was entitled “Holiness and Mission: Learning from the Early Church about Mission in the City,” published in 2010, and what she basically tries to account for is the rise of Christianity especially in places where even the basic story would have been unknown and where what we would call public preaching and evangelism was sharply restricted. And what she says, and I will quote here from the introduction to her book, “Within in context of Roman cities . . . people seem to have been attracted by belonging to a community, by support offered, both material and spiritual, and by the lived ethic of love, love of neighbour, stranger, and even enemy.”
Young’s basic premise is that for us to understand something about mission and ministry in our own context, on into the complexity of life in the 21st century, even here in the East End of Pittsburgh, we may need to take a ride in the Delorean that carried time-traveller Marty McFly “Back to the Future.” If you remember that great and fun movie and series. Young in her presentation at the conference talked about how in the first great smallpox epidemic in Rome in the year 165 AD terrified citizens would abandon even family members to die in the streets, except for the Christians, who cared not only for their own but even opened their homes to care for neighbors and strangers, despite the risk of infection and death. A community noted for care for widows and orphans, newborns and the dying. A community noted for scrupulous honesty in trade and commerce, for life-long fidelity in marriage, for generosity, simplicity, kindness. Before the first recitation of the story of journey from the Manger to the Cross, the character of that story had already made itself known, and in a society storming with violence, greed, rampant materialism, a disregard for the value of life, and a commercialization and degradation of marriage, family, and sexual conduct, these small clusters of Christians would give testimony “not only with their lips, but in their lives.” First by walking the walk, and then, later, by talking the talk. But that pattern was critical. People wanted to hear what Christians had to say because they were drawn first by how Christians lived.
In any event, that’s where we are here in Second Corinthians 6. When Paul talks about his own qualifications for Christian leadership—and apparently arching his eyes with a sense of irony as he contrasts himself with those who have claimed leadership in Corinth by boasting of their status and accomplishments. He doesn’t in any event list seminary degrees, ecclesiastical honors, and a track record of institutional success and church-growth. This is a different kind of a resume altogether. “Great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” That’s how you’ll know someone has been doing it right. Show me your scars.
What you would expect to see in the life of your own congregation, when you’re getting it right, Paul is saying. How when the going got tough, you pitched your tent. You made your stand. Pretty challenging, then and now--and it always does seem like we put other kinds of things front and center in our church publicity materials. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Again, and welcome to our newcomers this morning!
And what else in this recipe? “Purity,” –already a tough sell in the world we live in. And “knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love”—notice, not false love, not superficial love, not easy love, but genuine love—“truthful speech”, and showing day by day not your own strength and authority and success, but “the power of God.”
But deep down, isn’t that the kind of church we want to be a part of? Well, you tell me the answer to that question. Isn’t that how we want to describe our friends? What we would hope and pray would begin working in our lives? Of course we desire to have a Church that is theologically centered and true to the witness of Scripture and the Creeds and the teaching of the Apostles. But what is the sign that this is the case. Says Paul: “Purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, the power of God.” And battle scars. And not just for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning . . . .
And then we go on to read these polarities: People treat us as imposters, Paul says, as hypocrites, and yet we hold fast to the truth. They say we have hidden motives, but we open our hearts and our minds and even our homes to any and all. They say we are dying, failing, irrelevant, the past and not the future, but see, we are alive. Even as Christ is alive.
If this Second Corinthians 6 sounds familiar, we might be remembering that it is also the epistle reading appointed in our lectionary for Ash Wednesday, when the theme is all about waking up from a life of dreams, from a false life, and meeting the true life that is only known in Christ Jesus. Ash Wednesday echoing on the First Day of Summer, a reminder of that day of fasting and prayer and reflection about how to live in his world truly in the light of Christ. His Cross, the generous love that forgives us our sins and showers us with grace. The opening words of the reading this morning, “We urge you not to accept the grace of God in vain.” Like getting tickets to a play as a birthday gift, and then when the day comes, just forgetting about them, not valuing them, not paying attention. “Forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the Body, life everlasting.” An ancient creed and words on a page, but all in vain if we don’t allow them to live in our lives. Doesn’t it make sense that people who have received blessing would then be a blessing? That people who have received grace as this free gift of God given in the life of Jesus, in his costly sacrifice, would be characterized above all else by graciousness? Which is a decision, really. Turning this way rather than that way. Putting our cards on the table. And no time like the present. I always love the way this lesson rings like an alarm at the early-morning Ash Wednesday service. Paul asks, what are you waiting for? Little church in Corinth. And the words echoing down through the centuries. What did you think this was all about? There are easier answers out there, though whether they are the right answers or not—you’ll just need to sort that out. Not so for Paul, here. Little Church in Corinth, he says, what did you expect? What are you waiting for? “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” What in the world are you waiting for?