II Corinthians 6:1-13
"Becoming the People of God"
June 21, 2009 - Third Sunday after Pentecost
Greetings in the name of Christ. As always, it is a great honor to be up here. Today I want to continue preaching from the epistle lesson in the lectionary as Pastor Steve has been doing, which means we are still in II Corinthians. The lectionary always seems to focus on something that I really needed to hear. I hope this is your experience as well today.
I had a conversation recently with a bright young man—mid-twenties, college educated, professional job. He was telling me, very earnestly, why Christian churches were a total waste of time, money and energy, and how they should all just shut down and give their resources to the poor. And although it became obvious to me that this young man knew very little about the Christian faith, I still tried to listen as empathetically as I could. Yes, I told him, we American Christians can sometimes turn “church” into another form of consumerism and entertainment, but not all of the time. And in any case, how we do church in America is hardly representative of how Christians have done it historically or even how the rest of the world does it.
But in the end, I don’t think I was very convincing. It was, on the whole, not a very productive conversation, except just before we parted I looked him in the eye and asked him quietly, “Tell me, do you really have any clue as to what Christians actually believe?” And to his credit, he blushed and said, “No, not really.” That’s when I knew there was still hope for this young man, since he at least knew what he didn’t know.
But why am I sharing this whole tedious conversation with all of you? Because like this young man, when I do pause and reflect on the church at large, I often become troubled by all the conflict, uncharitable behavior, and just plain craziness that characterizes so much of the church world. The secular media loves to periodically isolate a church caught in some ridiculous posture and expose it to the whole world. For example, several weeks ago the national press sent out a story about an evangelical church in Kansas that is asking all its members to bring their guns to church over the 4th of July weekend in order to celebrate the two things that make America great—God and guns. I read that story and just prayed, “Lord, have mercy on us all!”
But it’s easy (and unfair) to point out ridiculous examples like this. What is far worse is when I catch myself engaged in destructive behaviors—in conversations that tear the church down rather than build it up, or I become disengaged and uncaring, as if I am too spiritual to get my hands dirty in everyday church life.
But because Pastor Steve has preached from this Corinthian epistle, I know that you are all keenly aware that these same problems have afflicted the people of God from the very beginning. In fact, few churches have displayed a crazier mix of spiritual and unspiritual behaviors than the early church at Corinth. And yet Paul poured more time and energy into healing that church than just about any other in the New Testament.
He would not give up on them precisely because God had not given up on Paul when he had been at his worst. It was precisely when Paul’s ignorance and twisted zeal for God had driven him to destroy the church that God knocked Paul to his knees on the road to Damascus and transformed his entire life. As a result he became a long-suffering minister to God’s people.
And it also explains the whole trajectory of this second epistle to Corinth. Paul had apparently sent them a harsh letter that we longer have which caused the whole church a great deal of pain, but which also caused them to repent and focus again on their journey with Christ. What we now call Second Corinthians is Paul’s rejoinder to their repentance and his efforts to encourage them and shore up his relationship with them. But along the way he is trying to model from his own life what an authentic, truly spiritual ministry looks like. This is where chapter six begins. Let me read the opening:
As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.
It is no accident that in the Anglican liturgy my text for today is used for commissioning new ministers. What follows is a brutally honest and yet inspiring picture of what authentic ministry looks like. But it’s a text that is really for all of us. It’s one of the affirmations of the Covenant Church that we believe in the “priesthood of all believers”—that we are all commissioned by Christ to minister to his church. And so, just as Paul in chapter five considered himself to be a “fellow worker” with God in this ministry of reconciliation, so he is now exhorting us to join him as fellow workers also.
However, we often only pay lip service to the idea that we are all ministers. The church at large, unfortunately, has become very professionalized. There are seminaries and ordinations and titles, just like other professions in the world. And most of this has value in one sense, but it often undermines the very nature of ministry itself. To borrow from St. Paul in his Ephesian epistle, pastors and teachers exist “to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry.” Too often we lay people think we exist to donate the money so that the clergy can do the work of ministry, which is upside down.
To see things otherwise, Paul warns us, is to receive the grace of God in vain. God has called and gifted us precisely to do ministry. To become disengaged or passive is to waste his gift—a rather shocking idea, if you think about it. And to drive his point home, he quotes from Isaiah 49, where the prophet reminds Israel of its high calling of being a light to the whole world.
For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
In other words, once we were unbelievers and separated from God, but at the right time God himself took the initiative and reconciled us. Well this ministry of reconciliation didn’t suddenly stop when we became believers. Indeed, this whole age we live in since the coming of Christ is an age of reconciliation, a “day of salvation.” We are part of that process. So the question always becomes, for Paul, not whether we are called to ministry, but how in fact we conduct our ministry. And so he continues:
We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants (or literally, “ministers”) of God we commend ourselves in every way…
And to illustrate what he means by “in every way,” Paul next gives us 25 very vivid images, all delivered in a rapid-fire manner. When read aloud, there is almost a poetic cadence to the words. But there is also a vivid reality to them, since most of the examples are taken from Paul’s own life. We don’t have time to comment on all of them in detail, but let me try and at least capture their essential point. First, he tells us in verse 4:
…in great endurance, in troubles, hardship and distresses;
Here he gives us four words that set the stage for everything else that follows—which is that living as a disciple of Christ, serving him and his people, requires great endurance. Why? Because of all the troubles, hardship and distress we encounter. These words all sound the same, don’t they? And they all sound very dramatic. The truth is they are similar but very different, and what they describe is anything but dramatic.
The word “troubles” is most often translated “afflictions” in our English bibles, and yet the underlying meaning of the word is very simple. It comes from the verb “to apply pressure.” This is Paul’s most common word for describing what ordinary, routine, daily life is like. It is full of pressure. Ministry means taking on a care and concern for others. It means that Christ gives you a burden to carry. If you are married and with a young family, the “troubles” will largely come from caring for your immediate family—ministering to their daily needs. It means ministering at your place of work as a faithful employee or employer. It means becoming responsibly involved in your community and sharing Christ’s love by tangibly serving your neighbors. And supremely, it means caring for the needs of your fellow believers within your own community of faith.
But what about the two words that follow—hardship and distress? Those words sound similar and certainly more dramatic. However, they each in their turn take the idea of pressure and expand on what that feels like. “Hardship” comes from the word that is sometimes translated in the New Testament as “necessity” or “compulsion.” Paul is expanding on the idea of pressure by saying that we do not undertake ministry as a “soft option.” We cannot be part-time, fair-weather, on-again, off-again about it. Ministry brings pressure because we take it on as a life-long commitment to Christ and his people.
I remember the night my first child was born. I was 27 years old and after spending most of the day at the hospital with my wife, I went home to catch some sleep. But suddenly, while lying in bed, the reality came home to me that this tiny new life that had just entered the world was not just a temporary visitor to our home. That for the rest of my life I would be that child’s father. I had taken on a burden, a pressure, a necessity, that would never go away. And I could not sleep. It was a hard night, but a necessary “wake-up” to the reality of what had happened.
So our call to ministry is a call to endurance—to taking on pressure and necessary responsibilities, but Paul also says it involves “distress.” This last word also sounds very similar to “troubles and hardships,” but it is actually a very unique term. It is a compound of two words—ςτενος, which means narrow, and χωρα, which means area or place. In other words, doing ministry often feels like we are between a rock and a hard place. Doing the right thing is not always smooth and easy; it often requires holding in tension opposing pressures.
And the reason I have spent so much time on this initial description of Paul’s is that what follows next is indeed a very dramatic example from Paul’s own life.
…in beatings, imprisonments and riots;
And when we read it, we are usually very impressed with Paul’s example but inwardly we feel like spiritual lightweights because, after all, how many of us have had to endure beatings, imprisonments, or riots as we tried to faithfully serve Christ? But although Paul is intentionally giving us an extreme example of where ministry can take us (and even in today’s world there are many Christians who endure these very same things), he quickly returns to language that all of should be able to identify with.
…in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;
We Americans are famous for our love of the creature comforts of life. But I know many humble Christians who live very ordinary lives, and yet they are no stranger to hard work, lost sleep or personal sacrifice while they faithfully discharge their duties. It makes no difference whether they are serving their families, communities or their church; they are the ones who are willing to rise early and stay up late, to forgo their own legitimate needs in order to help someone else.
If a call goes out in a congregation for volunteers, they are usually the first to show up. And what is it about them that makes them behave like this? Who are they on the inside that enable them to “endure troubles, hardships and distresses?” This is what Paul describes next:
…in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;
There are about ten sermons packed into that one phrase, but l just want to point out that many people are faithful to their calling in life, but they carry it out in such a grudging, complaining, martyr-like way, that their impact is more negative than positive. What Paul is describing here is a person who has truly been transformed by the love and power of God, who is filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, whose sacrificial ministry is an overflow of integrity and sincere love.
I especially want to point out how Paul has placed “sincere love” and “truthful speech” side by side. He is trying to say what the apostle John says in his first epistle—the crucial necessity for Christians to “speak the truth in love.” Our world is full of militant Christians who shout the truth all the time and do more harm than good in the process. We also have far too many Christians who think that truth gets in the way of doing good, and so they just want to be nice all the time without having the conviction and courage to say what needs to be said. It is a rare but wonderful thing when the people of God speak the truth clearly but from humble and loving hearts whose primary goal is to serve and heal. God grant us more such people in his church.
But Paul is also quick to point out that in our efforts to do the right thing for the right reason and in the right way is still no guarantee that people will receive us graciously or appreciate our efforts, as he points out next:
…through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded an unknown,
It is my experience that this is where most of us stumble. We love God, we long to serve God, we take on someone’s burden, we serve in the face of pressure and personal sacrifice, and then our very efforts are misunderstood or maligned by the very people we are trying to serve. And it can be so shattering or discouraging that we just want to pack it in and go home. Sometimes it can become so hurtful and painful (especially if it happens in our own family or within our own church) that it feels like death. Which is why Paul wrap things up with these words:
…dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
I have to admit that this is the hardest part of all to live out. There are times when doing the right thing means to feel absolutely alone and abandoned, even by those who should love and understand us the most. And yet, if indeed at the very center of our being is Christ and his sustaining life, then we are never alone, never destroyed, never without hope. We may feel destitute and desperate, but underneath it all, we know we actually possess everything that gives life its true color and meaning. In some small way, we have already begun to experience our final resurrection.
Paul has painted a very candid, open picture of his ministry and invited us to join him. It certainly doesn’t sound like a lot of “fun,” does it? But if you take all the images together, what slowly begins to emerge from the background is the image of Christ himself. It is Christ who beckons us to join him. As Paul wrote just a few verses earlier in chapter 5:
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
May God have mercy on us all today. Amen
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009
by Mike Fargo