Second Corinthians 5: 6-17
As I mentioned last week, the very personal tone of St. Paul’s pastoral ministry comes to the fore in Second Corinthians, and here in the fifth chapter this morning we hear him opening his mind and his heart. There is this tender and introspective character. A vulnerability. Paul is deeply aware of the pain that this small congregation has experienced in its recent history, a story of conflict and division in leadership and in the congregation. They have been through a lot—and in many ways it is apparent that they are still struggling. Paul: addressing these issues at a distance, issues of leadership, ministry, Christian life—perhaps most of all to assure them that the hard experiences of their recent past are not signs of the inadequacy of the Gospel. The overarching substance of this letter, to look deeply into our own experiences of pain and loss, brokenness, even of death, and to see and understand this pattern of life not as a kind of punishment but instead as an instrument of blessing. A way of being brought authentically into a close relationship with Christ himself. A sense of “Holy Communion” with him. As individuals growing in faith and wrestling with all the challenges that come with that. As a community, a church, a Christian family.
As I’ve been trying to frame this idea this week I found myself thinking of the Prayer Book Collect for Fridays in Morning Prayer, in succinct and elegant language: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,”—walking in his footsteps--“may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And the Friday Collect in Evening Prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, who by thy death didst take away the sting of death: Grant unto us thy servants so to follow in faith where thou hast led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in thee,”—this image of being infolded in Christ, so beautiful: “fall asleep peacefully in thee”—“and awake up after thy likeness, for thy tender mercies’ sake.”
A couple of weeks ago on Trinity Sunday we had as our Gospel reading John 3, with the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus asked, how can someone who has grown old really have a fresh start? And Jesus talks about being “born again” in and through the Holy Spirit. Coming into a fresh relationship with the Father through the Son by the action of the Spirit. The great imagery of Trinity Sunday. And Paul here calls the Christians of Corinth back to that sense of being incorporated into the fullness of God in Christ. Walking faithfully with Christ. Not to follow a highway of happiness, but to hold fast to him through the difficulties that come in this tragically and inevitably broken world. Failures, hurt, even persecution. Being misunderstood. It is to walk with Jesus up the hill to crucifixion and so to rise with him in a new birth on Easter morning.
This is a shift of worldview and value. Paul is talking about a different kind of witness for the church. A different set of expectations. For a community that has been undermined by leaders who seemed more full of themselves than full of Jesus. For a community that has been living for a while in the whirlwind of personality politics and theological controversy. But now all of that fades, as we adopt a different perspective. The New Testament word translated in English as “repent,” metanoite, literally something like “think again.” Put on a new way of thinking and being and valuing. Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” Perhaps we might translate: “Get your head on straight. Open your eyes to reality. Quit living in a dream world. See things as they really are. Wake up and smell the coffee.”
We are, Paul says, already and right now, here and now, with one foot in the presence of God. Alive in Christ whether we are prospering or suffering. Alive in Christ, whether we are alive in this world, or dying in this world. We seem to be citizens of this world, in the context of law and culture. Be we are in reality even now subject to his perfect judgment and authority. Fully alive in this turbulent world, fully alive in the Kingdom. Each so complete that it is the same to us, whether we live or whether we die.
And so we are free to live and to love and to give and to serve and to witness to the love of Christ without fear. And to think about what happens in us as individuals, as a community, as a church, when the truth of that really settles in. A freedom from the culture of possessiveness and anxiety, which is really what the Bible calls idolatry. Trying to hold on to things, to worship things, to imagine that it is somewhat what the world gives that will save us, bring us fulfillment and meaning and blessing. Leading to the scramble to accumulate more, and to the sleepless nights, when we fear that what we have will be taken away from us. Cultivating a life based on a vision of scarcity and limitation, filled with fear and grievance.
For us a different perspective, Paul says. For us, another way. There may be earthquakes and storms, persecutions and betrayals, suffering, and loss, but we are already safe, already at home.
And so—chapter 5, verse 17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Already here. Let that sink in. Already victorious. Allow the reality of that message to soak in.
Susy and I really enjoyed seeing the film, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” The story of this sweet and idealistic young man, who’s called “Sonny” in the film, who has a dream of turning a derilect old hotel in India into a luxurious residence for English retirees. Lots of humor, missteps, small and sometimes large problems. And Sonny has a wonderful saying, which recurs several times. Classic understated Indian humor and insight. “Everything will be all right in the end,” he says, as the walls are almost literally tumbling down around him. “Everything will be all right in the end. And if things aren’t right. . . that’s because it’s not yet the end!”
I mean, let’s just read and re-read the 21st and 22nd Chapters of the Revelation to St. John. The last page or two of the last book of Scripture. Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Maybe something we should do as a kind of spiritual discipline every month or so, just to keep it fresh. As a framework for our approach to leadership and mission and ministry, as a guide to the life of the church, to the conduct of our lives every day. In our families. At work. In the cultivation of our inner life. The feast of God’s victory.
Since we know the end of the story, since we already live in the end of the story, the way we live our lives is just going to be different. What Paul is trying to communicate to the Church in Corinth this morning—and then for us too. The way we live our lives will be different. More spacious. More patient. With humility. Grace. The willingness to let the other go first. Free from the urgency of reactivity. Free to be passionate and yet modest, free to be compassionate, to be generous, to take risks. To suffer loss. To stand against the crowd. Free to be, we might say, “counter-cultural.” If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, in Christ. Something new has begun.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.