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
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
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.” 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
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
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.
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
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj