I'm reading once
again from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, which is a bit of a
misnomer as we will soon see. This particular text from the 6th
chapter I don't think is a familiar text to most of us, so I thought a
little background on it would be helpful, especially as it relates to
Paul's relationship to the congregation.
According to Acts 18,
Paul spent about 18 months in Corinth establishing the church there,
working with Priscilla and Aquila, two Jews who came to Corinth from
Rome after Jews were expelled from Rome in one of the pogroms. So
it's around the year 49 or 50, about 20 years after the death and
resurrection of Jesus that Paul is working in Corinth.
In the process, he
created a bit of controversy, and was brought before the Roman Tribunal
and charged by leaders of the synagogue with teaching things that were
contrary to their tradition.
It just so happens
that it was exactly one year ago that we were in Corinth at the
beginning of my sabbatical. Judy and the kids got to go with me
for the first couple of weeks, and the first stop we made after arriving
in Athens was in Corinth, looking down on the excavations here:
And the Temple of
Apollo that dominates that site, from about the 6th century before the
common era (BCE):
And just to the right
of the Temple of Apollo is the Bema, or the Tribunal:
This was the place
where the Roman Governor held court. And it's right in the center
of the marketplace there. So I was telling my kids this story of
how the Apostle Paul was brought before the tribunal in Corinth, and
this is the place where they would have brought him. If you look
there, you're standing where Paul stood. And my daughter says:
"Cool". Well, yeah, it's cool. Now that wasn't the purpose
of the sabbatical (by the way, we're talking seriously now of doing a
tour in 2011, so you can think about making plans to experience the 1st
century). So it's not about going where Paul walked, but about
experiencing the 1st century and what it was like.
At any rate, Gallio,
not to be confused with the astronomer Galileo, was the provincial
governor in Corinth and he dismissed the case against Paul, saying it
was a 'religious matter', and therefore it did not concern him, thereby
setting the precedent for the principle adopted by Thomas Jefferson of
separation of church and state. Well, Paul wisely perceived that
such hostility was not helpful to his mission, and so he moved on to
Over the next 5 or 6
years, he would return to Corinth at least twice that we know of.
Between those visits, he wrote a number of letters in response to the
inquiries that they sent, or the news that he heard coming out of
Corinth. So how many letters did Paul write to the Corinthians?
More than two is the correct answer. We don't know precisely how
many, there's a great scholarly debate about such things, but it's very
clear from his "first" letter to the Corinthians that he wrote a
to you in my letter . . . . (1
So what we call "1st
Corinthians" is really the second letter, at least. And what we
know as "2nd Corinthians" is actually a composite of multiple letters.
How many is still up for debate, there's no consensus, it depends on
whether or not you consider chapters 8 and 9 as separate letters that
were compiled into this one.
But at any rate, the
Corinthian correspondence is quite unique, and it gives us a glimpse of
an evolving relationship between an early church and its founder.
A relationship that became quite strained as Paul's leadership became
questioned by some of the leaders in that congregation. Earlier in
2 Corinthians he refers to a "painful visit" that he had with the
congregation. And just after that, he writes of his "tearful
letter" that he wrote following that painful visit. Many scholars
think that chapters 10 through 13 is that tearful letter, but again,
there's no consensus about that.
So, what Acts
portrays as largely an external conflict between Paul and the leaders of
the synagogue, Paul himself portrays more as an internal one between
competing leaders in the congregation for the hearts and minds of the
people of that congregation.
In this text, then,
in chapter 6 of 2 Corinthians, we jump right into the middle of that
evolving and somewhat tested relationship. Listen, then, for how
Paul seeks to establish his credentials for his authority as he appeals
for the affection of the Corinthians. He writes:
As we work together
with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace
of God in vain. 2For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day
of salvation! 3We are putting no obstacle in
anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our
ministry, 4but as servants of God we have commended
ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in
afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings,
imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights,
hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness,
holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech,
and the power of God; with the weapons of
righteousness for the right hand and for the left;
8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good
repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are
true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying,
and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not
killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as
poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and
yet possessing everything.
11 We have spoken
frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open
to you. 12There is no restriction in our affections,
but only in yours. 13In return—I speak as to
children—open wide your hearts also.
So how does that text
strike you? I have to be honest in saying that when I first read
it in preparing for this sermon, the first image that I had come to mind
was that of the popular sitcom a few years ago Everybody Loves Raymond.
A fun show. Remember Raymond's mother? Always playing the
martyr, you know -- "I've sacrificed my whole life for you, but do you
ever come to visit me?". She lived right next door
We can relate to stories like that.
Well, this is kind of
the way this sounded. Paul is laying it on pretty thick here,
isn't he? And he comes across as kind of laying a 'guilt trip'.
So I think we need to be careful in how we use this text as a role
model, because that's not what we want to do. And I really do not
think it is what Paul is intending, either.
It's always helpful
to remember that when you read the letters in the New Testament, you are
reading someone else's mail. The frank and sometimes even blunt
way that Paul speaks may not always be the best example for us.
Even though Paul is writing for a very specific group in a time and
place that is vastly different from our own (and he never intended this
to become scripture, never occurred to him that it would be read in
worship service as he read the scriptures) there are some valuable
insights here for us. Which of course is precisely why his letters
have been preserved as scripture.
So here are some of
the take-aways I get from this text that I think can be very useful to
"Now is the time of
salvation". Paul begins with a quote from Isaiah 49, which we
sometimes refer to as "2nd Isaiah" because it comes from a time period
more than a century after '1st Isaiah' (or the historic Isaiah) when the
Jews were returning home from their captivity (the exile) in Babylon.
And so the prophet says:
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
Referring to the
restoration of Israel from exile. Paul takes this text and flips
it from its original context to bring it into the present moment.
This is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. The
saving grace of God is not about what happened back then, centuries ago,
it's what happens now, for us, to us, in our own lives. Now
is the time.
If you watch Oprah
Winfrey, you know about Eckhart Tolle, who puts great emphasis on this.
That now is the time. We can't live in the past, the past is gone,
we can't repeat it. The future never arrives, in one sense -- now
is the only time that we have. To live each day, every moment, not
as if it were our last (though certainly may be) but as if it truly
matters, because it does. It is the moment, now, that counts.
Each and every moment. We can't re-live any moment in time.
moment matters. Every moment counts for us and for God.
One of our favorite
family stories is when we were on vacation years ago, traveling through
Colorado, and stopped to visit some friends who had kids the same age
and gender as our kids. My son Patrick, I think was about 5 at the
time. It had rained, they lived on a hillside, and there were
little rivers going down the driveway. Patrick and John are out
there making channels for the water to go down, and making dams, and
creating puddles. You know how little boys like to do. And
at one point Patrick comes running in the house to get something, and on
his way out with great exuberance says: "This is best day of my
I think God wants us
to live each and every day like that. To put aside those conflicts
and worries that preoccupy us but in the end really don't matter that
much. To enjoy the fullness of life as God intends for us.
Knowing the happiness and love and satisfaction and peace and joy and
beauty and friends and family -- to share all of that. And the
grace of God.
This is the day.
Now is the time of salvation. To experience the fullness of life.
My second take-away:
take note of the list that Paul gives of all that he has endured for the
gospel and the church in Corinth:
It's a lot like
But note what Paul
does not do here: he does not play the martyr. You
know, 'see how much I've suffered for your sake'. That's not what
Paul is doing. Instead, Paul matches this list with another list
with what enables him to endure:
The power of God
And then he follows
that with a list of seven dyads:
|We have been treated as
||yet are true
||yet are well-known
||yet are alive
||yet not killed
||yet always rejoicing
||yet making many rich
|As having nothing
||yet possessing everything
What is Paul doing
here? I don't think Paul is laying a guilt trip. Just the
opposite -- I think Paul's message in essence is this: if I can
rejoice in light of all I have endured, think how much more so can you.
Paul's not trying to
make anyone feel sorry for him, or guilty. He wants them to
celebrate with him how God has enabled him to triumph over all these
trials and tribulations. And therefore how God is available to us
to do the same. This Paul's own personal Easter story. The
powers that be will not destroy him. God has turned every defeat
into a victory. Every loss into a gain.
Many of you know the
story of Andy Laird and his bicycle accident about 5 weeks ago on
Memorial Day weekend. He broke his neck, nearly killed him,
airlifted to the hospital in Bend (Oregon). It has left him
partially -- and hopefully temporarily -- disabled. He's regaining
some of his abilities, it's just wonderful to see how he's healing.
I finally got to see him, now that he's in Eugene, and I was so touched
by his spirit. You would think if anyone would have cause to be
bitter about life (if you know Andy, very outgoing, very much an
outdoorsman), and here he is now in a wheelchair and a halo brace that
keeps his head immobile, and spending so much time in the hospital.
And it's possible he may never walk again. But, this is what I
took away from that visit with him: his spirit. His spirit
is incredibly positive and hopeful, and he has this attitude that this
is going to change his life for the better. I think Andy has a
powerful witness in him to give as a result of this.
Paul provides us with
a witness to that kind of divine reversal. From the cross of Good
Friday to the resurrection of Easter that is available to all of us.
Does it always happen when tragedy strikes? No. Bad things
do happen to good people. And sometimes it cannot be redeemed or
turned into something good. But that such can happen is the
foundation of our hope. And that it ever happens through no
credit of our own is a cause of wonder and joy for which we can only
concludes with a message that I think is very appropriate for us on this
Father's Day. Asking his children in Corinth to open their hearts
as wide as he has opened his. Now, I know many of you have
children. All of us here have or have had parents, some you might
call your father or mother is someone to whom you were not born.
In some cases it may be someone you chose later in life because your own
parents, for whatever reason, were not able to fulfill that role.
Whatever the case may
be, call to mind as a child or as a parent what it means in that role to
say "my heart is open wide to you".
Recall the things
that your parents did for you, or that you did for your children.
Remember that time your child was so sick or injured and how you would
have done anything in your power to take away some of that pain.
Or maybe something your parents did for you. Something they gave
up so that you could have that gift or that experience or go to college.
Parents know about
hearts open wide because it is that unconditional love we feel for our
children. And even when parents are estranged from their own
children (and it sometimes happens), that love often remains there,
sometimes hidden beneath the surface looking for a way to get out.
Fred Craddock, the
great Disciples preacher, tells the story of a fellow minister he knew
who was born without any arms. He and his wife Nettie were
visiting with the armless preacher when the preacher shared his story of
how he learned how to dress. His mother, of course, dressed him
and fed him. And every day, she would dress him and feed him.
Dress him, fed him. And so the days went. And then one day
the mother came in with his clothes, put them on the floor in the middle
of the room, and said "You're going to have to dress yourself".
He said "I can't
dress myself!" She said "You're going to have to learn, because
I'm not going to do it any more". And she left.
He couldn't believe
it. He was stunned. He began to cry. He rolled on the
floor and threw the biggest, meanest, baddest tantrum he could, kicking
his feet and screaming and yelling and crying. And he screamed out
"You don't love me anymore!". And she didn't come.
After he got hoarse,
cried out, he finally realized that if he was going to wear any clothes
he was going to have to figure it out himself. It took him several
hours, but he did it. It was only later he learned that his mother
was in the next room the entire time, crying.
To have hearts open
wide is to know and to feel that kind of love. Not only for your
family, but for people around you, for people here. Well, maybe
not everyone. That's for God. Sometimes I wonder if even God
is up to the task. But, I think so.
But to know there are
people here in this room, here in this community, who matter so much to
you that you know in their time of need you'll be there. You'd cry
with them, for them.
And there are people
here who know you, who in your time of need will be there for you.
Crying, with you, for you.
That's what you call
a family. Paul says that's what we call a church.