II Corinthians 4: 13 – 5: 1
Good morning—and grace and peace as we step out into “Trinitytide,” the long season into summer and early fall between Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday of Advent. In the Sunday lectionary this morning we enter into a new pattern of readings, and for the epistle lesson we’re jumping right into the middle of Second Corinthians. It’s a book we would I think best read in the light of what we know from Paul’s earlier pastoral letter to this church community: First Corinthians.
Something of a long story, but the Christian community at Corinth was one that was built on the missionary evangelism and preaching and pastoral care of Paul himself. They knew him well—and he knew them well and had a special love for them. After Paul moved on in his missionary ventures there were additional pastors and evangelists and leaders at Corinth, and it happened that over time divisions and conflict emerged in the church. No big surprise, of course. Churches and conflict seem to go together like bread and butter.
We hear in First Corinthians about differences and truly significant differences of theological perspective and devotional and spiritual practice arising as the teaching of other leaders began to compete with Paul’s message, and those differences exacerbated by further differences of social and economic class, educational and cultural background, ethnicity and religious background, even newcomers and old-timers--and always by eccentricities of personality, ego, leadership styles. “Just church,” we might say. The usual mess.
In any event, the letter we call First Corinthians was Paul’s first attempt to intervene and deal with these concerns, and his message to the Church was that these divisions were all signs and symptoms of a deeper disease--that the Church was losing its grip on the central core and message of the Gospel: how God’s love perfectly expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was and is the only ground of our hope and the source of our salvation. When we hold fast to that message, Paul says, the result will be not division, but a reflection in us of Jesus himself, his divine, self-giving love in all our lives and relationships. It will be what everyone will see when they look at the Church: Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way. That thirteenth chapter, one of the most familiar and most loved of all scripture, the high aspirational word of Christian culture and community.
We learn in Second Corinthians that Paul’s first letter didn’t resolve the situation. In the interval since this first Letter Paul even made a quick, in-person pastoral visit to Corinth to try to set things right, and perhaps especially to challenge the leaders who had been not teachers of gospel truth, unity and love but of a distorted gospel, and one that has led to this continued division. Then some time later, there seems to have been yet another letter from Paul, even stronger in rebuke. So that the Letter we have today as Second Corinthians might actually have been “Third Corinthians.” Apparently the Corinthians didn’t keep copies of that letter—not the sort of thing people want to hand on to their children, I guess, as it must have been stinging in its tone and content-- though some scholars think that Paul may have incorporated at least a part of that second letter in the later part of Second Corinthians.
Finally in any case, with these letters and visits, the dust seems to have begun to settle. We don’t know exactly how. But things back on track. Perhaps Paul’s message began to rally the main body of believers, and perhaps those individuals or groups that were sowing discord have departed. Or perhaps there has been a season of repentance and conversion and deeper reconciliation among them all. It seems in any case that new teachers and leaders have risen up, and I think it’s for them that this letter is mostly intended. In any case, I think we don’t exactly see the whole picture, but perhaps those of us who have lived through church conflict and division ourselves may have a bit of intuition about the consequences. The aftermath. Those remaining may feel bruised and battered. Or angry. Or resentful. Or skeptical about the truth of the message that brought them together in the first place. The whole spectrum of emotions may be in play. Some may be in denial, pretending all is well and critiquing others for “living in the past.” Certainly in the wider community the reputation of the church must have suffered: not seen as a shining and attractive witness to Christ, but perhaps almost the opposite. Who would want to join a church like that, where people seem to be fighting all the time. They don’t even seem to like each other . . . .
Which is where we come in, for this follow-up pastoral letter, Second Corinthians, written by Pastor Paul to be a deeply personal word that will encourage the right kind of healing and renewal in the life of the congregation. And the central thrust of the whole letter is to reaffirm and refresh and reinforce the themes we’ve already heard in First Corinthians. To lift up a vision of Christ’s healthy Body. To say that we would be called to measure ourselves by the measure of Christ, by his love, his humility, his patience, his suffering, his sacrifice.
The climax and center-point of Paul’s personal testimony, which comes right at the end of the Letter, as we may get there in a few weeks, in chapter 12, when speaking of his own personal hurt, which he calls the “thorn” in his flesh--which he has prayed God to relieve, to hear this word from the Lord, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And then Paul goes on, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ . . . I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
When we experience distress, persecution, hurt, loss, brokenness, personally, or as a community, we would experience that paradoxically as an opportunity and blessing, even when it is a blessing that can be in some ways a heavy burden--to participate more deeply in the work of Jesus, in his suffering. To die with him. Not that we go looking for trouble. But Paul’s image is that the life and death and resurrection of Christ is faithfully repeated and fully recapitulated in the life of his church, and in the life of every believer.
Anyway, that is the bigger picture of Second Corinthians. A foreshadowing of this conclusion in the reading appointed for this morning at the end of the 4th chapter. (Finally in conclusion getting to this morning’s reading!) “Do not lose heart,” Paul tells the little church of Corinth. Encouraging them by his own example—encouraging them not to give up or to give in, when believing and proclaiming “the spirit of faith in accordance with scripture” brings not cheers but jeers, not reward but deprivation. When things are hard, when there is conflict, when there is opposition, when there is loss. This why what is sometimes called the “prosperity gospel” is so contrary to the spirit of those who knew Jesus best and who lived closest to him. The idea that our faithfulness of belief and proclamation will rewarded by health and happiness and popularity and prosperity. How dangerous that can be—magical thinking. If the “earthly tent” seems perfect, perhaps that would confuse the message and turn our attention away from the “building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” which is the life we are called to in Christ Jesus.
I remember our old friend Bishop Henry Scriven talking about a little mission that he and Catherine were called to serve in Argentina many years ago. As I recall him telling the story, the team had six members when they arrived, with high hopes and great energy, and that was to be the core group to begin a new work, a new congregation. Several years later, when the Scrivens were forced to leave at the beginning of the Falklands War, Henry tells us that the original group of six had grown through all their efforts to number now . . . . three! And he talked about how discouraged he and Catherine were as they left—what a sense of failure they felt. How so much of their ministry had been frustration, hitting one brick wall after another. Problem after problem. And then he tells about how 20 years later he received a communication from that congregation. They were celebrating an anniversary and wanted the Scrivens to return for the occasion. He was surprised even to know that the mission still existed, but they went, and were astonished to find that what they had left in shambles and on the brink of utter disaster was now a vibrant Christian community of several hundred members—and they were even more astonished to hear that the members of this congregation attributed their life and growth and vitality to the ministry that had begun through Henry and Catherine’s early work. They were complete failures, yet in the mystery of the working of God, their failure prepared the ground, planted seeds, for something greater to come.
So you can’t always tell. What looks like victory may be entirely the wrong kind of victory. What looks like failure may be part of God’s plan for something much greater. I sometimes remember and quote a famous word from Mother Teresa of Calcutta when she said, “God doesn’t call us to be successful, but only to be faithful.” If I were writing a study guide to Second Corinthians, and a commentary on the passage we’ve heard this morning, that quotation would go right at the top of the page. Perhaps be a great line to write on a 3x5 card and tape to the bathroom mirror, and to read every morning. “Only to be faithful.” Because we know the end of the story, because we know his victory, and our victory with him, we can be encouraged in whatever condition we find ourselves. Top of the mountain or bottom of the heap. We just keep our eyes on him, speak the truth in love, follow where he leads. Or as Paul here in Second Corinthians 4: “Just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus . . . so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the Glory of God.”