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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

II Corinthians 6:1-13
“Right and Left”
June 21, 2015 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

         “One-day sale!” “Save now—only two days left!” “Last chance to buy one, get one free!” My inbox is full of notices from Fred Meyer, Staples, Amazon and other merchants who want me to feel the urgency of acting now to grab a bargain on a new shirt or office supplies or the latest thrillers. “Now is the time!” they say, hoping I’ll believe it and rush off to the store or click that “Place Order” button.

         Paul was urgently appealing to the church at Corinth in verse 3, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” Paul was worried that the Corinthians were rejecting Jesus because they had rejected Paul. They had decided Paul wasn’t handsome enough or strong enough or eloquent enough for them to listen to him any longer.

         That rejection bothered Paul, but he was more worried that in rejecting him they would also reject the Gospel, reject the Savior for whom and with whom Paul was working. He feared in verse 1 they would believe in Jesus and accept God’s grace only to walk away. All that grace would be in vain, would make no difference in their lives.

         So in verse 2 Paul quoted Isaiah 49:8, which talks about the time and the day of God’s salvation. It comes from those chapters of Isaiah called “The Servant Songs,” long poems about the Suffering Servant, the Messiah who would be “wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.” When Jesus fulfilled that prophecy and suffered and died on the Cross and then was raised from the dead that made it now the “acceptable time,” the “day of salvation.”

         But, as if your favorite store kept extending that fantastic 24-hour sale, God keeps extending His offer of salvation in Jesus. So Paul can add, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” Just remember that a two-for-one deal may go on a few more days, but you cannot put off your purchase forever. At some point it will be too late. At life’s end or when Jesus returns, God’s offer will be over. It will be too late.

         Paul says it’s time now to pay attention to your salvation, time now to accept God’s grace and start living like people who have been gloriously saved. Like we heard last week, it’s time now to become something new, a new creation in Jesus.

         Verse 3 and the beginning of 4 wants the Corinthians to see that Paul is not standing in their way. They imagine that his weaknesses, his faults are keeping them from God. They’re just like people who repeat that bogus Ghandi quote, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.” They let the failures and unattractiveness of a few followers of Jesus keep them from following Jesus.

         So when Paul defends himself here, saying “We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,” it’s not out of concern for himself. It’s out of concern for the Corinthians. He wants nothing to keep them from a lively, active faith in Jesus, a true and solid salvation in Christ.

         That’s why Paul goes on in verses 4 to 10 to lay out all the negative things people were saying about him and the other apostles and pair them off against all the positive work that God was doing in their lives. Right in the middle of this catalogue of positive and negatives he uses a military image at the end of verse 7 for what he’s trying to say, “with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.”

         What’s surprising is that picture of weapons in both hands. We’re so used to Hollywood showing us action heroes blasting away with two guns or Anakin Skywalker swinging two light sabers that we don’t think about how impractical it really is. The Myth Busters showed it’s really difficult to hit anything shooting with both hands at once, and those who actually practice sword fighting say that two swords are less effective than one held in both hands.

         A simple explanation might be that like the ancient Greek hoplites, one holds a spear or a sword in the right hand and a shield in the left. One is prepared both to attack and defend. Believers need to be ready to both boldly speak their faith and defend their faith from those who criticize it. That defense of the faith is often called “apologetics,” giving a reason for what we believe. It’s worthwhile Christian work.

         Yet the word Paul uses here most often denotes a weapon rather than a defensive item like a shield. He really means us to picture a sword being swung by what for most people is the weaker, more awkward left hand. And in Scripture, even when the left hand is strong, it’s a surprise. I always tell Confirmation students the story of the left-handed judge Ehud in Judges chapter 3. He was left-handed so he was able to conceal his sword opposite the usual side so as to assassinate the evil king Eglon of Moab. In the Bible, the left is the weak, unexpected direction from which to attack.

         Thus when Paul lays out his negatives and positives here, he’s talking about what’s coming from the strong, expected right hand versus what comes from the weaker, less-used left hand. Whose hand? We might say, with Martin Luther and Robert Farrar Capon, the hand of God.

         Luther said that God works in two ways. There are his “works of the right hand,” when God works on our behalf directly by showing us mercy, healing our bodies, rescuing us from danger, giving us peace and joy and love. Then there are the “works of the left hand,” God’s “alien work,” when God does not act directly, but lets bad things happen to us, lets us lose hope, even lets us die. It’s not that God is making evil happen to us, but that He’s deliberately working with a weak “left hand,” letting things happen, even letting us make mistakes, so that we will learn to trust that goodness which comes from His right hand when we cannot see it.

         Very relevant to the news we heard from South Carolina last week, Luther said, “You give us life when you permit us to be killed.”[1] It’s that weird, awkward, weak left-handed work of God by which He permitted even His own Son to be killed, so that He could give life to Him and to the whole world. Paul wants to pair off both kinds of work, and invite us as co-workers with God to embrace and accept that left-handed side of things together with the more pleasant right-hand.

         Starting in verse 4 Paul has three lists of nine items each. The first nine are trials in verses 4 and 5. Following Jesus and sharing His Gospel you get, “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” That’s what’s in the left hand for us. Those are our weird weapons in the battle against evil. Even if you imagine the left hand holds a shield, it’s a strange and sad collection of defensive armament.

         The second list of nine is in verses 6 and 7, “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech.” It’s a much more positive list, a catalog of virtues which God’s people want to have. But think about how we get some of those virtues. These weapons of the right hand are only possible because we’ve been through some of that left-handed stuff.

         Letting us go through afflictions, hardship and sleepless nights allows our Lord to give us the virtue of patience. Being beat and imprisoned is opportunity for us to receive from God the blessings of kindness and true love. Some of you know that. You’ve learned patience and love through the hardships of dealing with difficult people in your lives.

         It is when our own energy dwindles to nothing that the Holy Spirit enters our lives and exerts the power of God. You heard it about the disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning. In that storm-tossed boat, fearful for their lives and at the end of their own capabilities, they witnessed their Lord’s power to save them. That’s the left-handed work of God. He lets us get in over our heads, so we can discover how great He really is and how much He really loves us.

         Ultimately, our Lord would have us arrive at the last virtue named in verse 7: righteousness. Through our difficulties and hardships he wants to make us righteous, holy, in character like Jesus. Paul pictures the completeness of this righteousness with the evocative image of “weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.” He sees the people of God “armed” with holy virtues poured into them through the work of Christ.

         In verses 8 to 10 Paul puts the left hand and right hand directly next to each other in nine pairs of opposites which he experienced. We can expect to experience them too, bounced around from left to right like Paul. “in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

         As the events in Charlotte showed us, God still works on the left side of those equations. Fellow believers in Jesus, brothers and sisters in Christ still experience that horrible, troubling left hand work of God. He lets horrible things happen. Yet dying we are alive. Punished, we are not yet killed. Sorrowing, we are still always rejoicing. The reward and grace of God’s right hand is going to come through all that left-handed stuff.

         Years ago I took a Kennedy Middle School student I mentored to play racquetball. He had never played before. Our games were pretty lopsided. So I decided to play left-handed. It was hard. I wiffed a half-dozen shots, missed them completely before my eyes and that hand began to connect. I felt awkward, stupid and silly playing like that.

         But my student began to have fun. He felt he was really in the game. When we were all through, he thanked me and told me how cool the afternoon had been for him. He had a great time. That thanks and his pleasure in it all was my right-handed reward for being willing to play left-handed for awhile.

         That’s the kind of reward Paul is hoping for in verses 11 to 13. He’s been kind and loving, “our heart is wide open to you,” to the Corinthians. They’ve responded with some left-handed skepticism and dishonor and dislike of Paul. But Paul accepts all that in the hope they will do what he says in verse 13, open wide their hearts also. Of course he doesn’t just mean to him. He wants them to open wide their hearts to God.

         I met that student again a couple years ago. He was part of a church team helping with the Project Hope school supply giveaway. He told me how he became part of a campus Christian group at Churchill High and started following Jesus. I’d like to think I had a little part in that by being his mentor, by giving him a good impression of people who love Jesus when I was willing to look a little silly one afternoon as I played racquetball left-handed.

         Those of us who serve Christ today are not often as hard put to it as the extremes which Paul paints here. We are seldom dying for our faith or beaten for the Gospel we share with others. Yet the left-handed grace of God still operates. We have sorrows. We live with less than we might in order to give. We are misunderstood and sometimes put down by people who don’t believe. Yet the Lord rewards us. He rewards us with the sort of paradoxical blessing Paul talks about at the end of the list. We may be poor, but we make many rich in the knowledge of Jesus. We may have nothing, but in Christ we have everything.

         Playing left-handed with God means being willing to look a little foolish or being willing to take a loss when you could have a win, whether it’s in a game or in business or in your family. The win doesn’t come through the right hand, but strangely and wonderfully and unexpectedly through the left.

         It’s the left-handed work that is going to open hard hearts. We can attack the sins around us all day long. We can fight the good fight in standing up for the truth. We can try and change laws to support Christian values. We can struggle for freedom of religion. That’s all good work. But it’s right-handed work. And God often uses the left-hand, the weak hand, the painful hand to truly open hearts.

         There in Charlotte this past week at a bond hearing for Dylann Roof, the daughter of one of his victims told him, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.” A relative of another victim said to Roof, “I forgive you, my family forgives you. We would like you to take this opportunity to repent… Do that and you’ll be better off than you are right now.”

         Other kind and gracious words were spoken by people who had every right to vent only anger and hatred in return for the violence and hatred they received. The people of that church in Charlotte, our brothers and sisters in Christ, were studying the Bible when those murders happened. Their response proves they had learned the lessons it teaches, learned what Paul was saying to the Corinthians. We are greater when we play with the left hand. We are saved by the left-handed work of God who saved us by dying and rising for sinners like us and like the young man they forgave.

         Let’s hear Paul. Let’s hear the voices of Christian love from Charlotte. Let’s not be discouraged when we get slapped by left-handed grace. Let’s just remember that Jesus sits at God’s right hand and that He has a place for us there too on His own right hand full of mercy and grace and love.


Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1]Luther’s Works 14, 95.

Last updated June 21, 2015