2 Corinthians 2:5-11
by Daniel Harrell
“If we are afflicted,” Paul wrote in chapter 1 verse 6, “it is for your consolation and salvation, …which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.” There is a solidarity in suffering that binds us not only to Christ but to the body of Christ. Paul welcomes hardship for Jesus’ sake as a means whereby the church is strengthened. Such hardship not only sets us apart as an authentic body of believers, it energizes us to live lives of redemptive obedience and service together, eager and able to make an impact in our communities and in our world. Remember from last Sunday, this consolation is not comfort as we typically understand it, but better translated as encouragement or boldness. Rather than the alleviation of suffering, Christ’s comfort is the power to endure it. Basically it is the capacity to go out and suffer some more.
If ever you have put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel, for the sake of mercy and righteousness and suffered for doing so, then you know this power. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famed Lutheran pastor who led a resistance movement against Hitler and died doing it, once wrote, “It is good to learn early enough that suffering and God are not a contradiction but a unity, for the idea that God himself is suffering has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think God is nearer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this way gives peace and a strong and courageous heart.”
Paul continues on this suffering theme in 2 Corinthians 2, by applying it to the less lethal but no less arduous arena of forgiveness; an arena where suffering for the gospel is likewise demanded. We’re not exactly sure what happened here, but apparently somebody in the Corinthian church slandered Paul and his work and the church did nothing about it. Now Paul was not looking for the church to defend him; what bothered Paul was how the church couldn’t see that because the body of Christ is just that—a body—an attack against one part affected the whole. Verse 5: “I am not exaggerating to say that if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not so much to me as to all of you.”
Evidently the Corinthian church got that message and censured the offender sufficiently (verse 6); so that now Paul writes in verse 7 how forgiveness is in order “so that the offender may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” There is a sorrow for sin, a genuine remorse, that stimulates repentance and faith, but that same sorrow when allowed to wallow can harden into resistance to faith, as well as into self-justifying resentment. Therefore Paul insists that church discipline always have reconciliation as its goal rather than punishment; inclusion rather than exclusion. Granted, the whole concept of church discipline seems somewhat outmoded in our day, especially given how being a part of a church body has become mostly a consumer-driven endeavor. As the saying goes, every church is just one bad sermon away from losing half its members—funny if it wasn’t so true. If people aren’t willing to put up with bad sermons, no way they’ll put up with being disciplined. Accountability and responsibility are fine things until somebody actually calls you on the carpet.
Aside from guilt junkies, the only people who ever go for church discipline tend to be those most eager to dole it out. They’re the types for whom forgiveness and reconciliation come off as travesties of justice, as slaps on the wrists, as permissive winks of the eye. “How can you get serious about following Christ if you’re always getting let off the hook for messing up? Jesus said that if your hand causes you to sin cut it off!” Which is true, except that Jesus meant cut off your own hand, not somebody else’s. As far as others go, Jesus’ severe parable of the unmerciful servant applies. Though forgiven a huge debt by his master, the unmerciful servant refused to forgive the comparably meager debt of another. Upon hearing this, the master turned his unmerciful servant over to the jailers to be tortured. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you,” Jesus warned, “unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Likewise Paul urges the Corinthians to “reaffirm their love” for the disciplined offender. “This is why I wrote,” verse 9, “to test you and know that you are obedient in everything;” by which Paul meant obedient in forgiveness and reconciliation too.
Now it may be that the last thing you need to hear is another sermon on forgiveness. Another round of how it’s your Christian responsibility to be the doormat and let those people who’ve hurt you wipe off their dirt off on your back. Suffering is hard enough. Do you have to forgive it too? How about some justice for the victim for a change? A little righteous anger? Some serious condemnation. How ‘bout we go back to John the Baptist? Call a viper a viper and rain down some unquenchable fire! Tell the truth and demand something be done to right the wrong! Jesus did that. So did Paul. Forgiveness may be harder to do than condemnation, but that doesn’t mean you should never condemn.
And yet, when you stop and think about it, forgiveness really isn’t harder than condemnation. That’s because forgiveness is condemnation. We may typically associate the words “I forgive you” with kindness and leniency, but actually forgiveness is much more about blame and accusation. Imagine the following scenario. You’re greeting a new visitor here at Colonial Church. You walk over to this new person standing out in the Common, someone whom you’ve never set eyes on before in your life, and you stretch out your hand and say hello. But rather than the customary response of “nice to meet you,” this visitor replies “I forgive you.” Now taking for granted that you’re not a person with some citywide reputation for being a total jerk, imagine your surprised response: “What do you mean you forgive me? What have I done? What are you accusing me of?” It’s an affront! And it is. To forgive is to blame.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf acknowledges how for victims, the problem with forgiveness is that it feels too much like disregarding the offense, too much like acting as if it didn’t happen. How can you treat your offender as if they are not responsible? You can’t. And forgiveness does not demand that you do. Instead, Volf writes that when we forgive, we accuse, “and in doing so we affirm the rightful claims of justice.” Forgiveness is condemnation. But it is not only condemnation. Forgiveness extends past condemnation to the “generous release of genuine debt.” Forgiveness acknowledges the wrong but then refuses to press charges.
Several years ago I was out riding my bike and pedaled through this rotary in Boston—a roundabout as you call them here. I was careful to signal my intentions the whole way knowing how maniacal rotaries can be—not to mention Boston drivers. Nevertheless, this huge Buick, figuring that she could accelerate around me, impatiently swerved in front of me to take her exit, misjudged and hit me. The impact threw me from my bike onto the asphalt, breaking my helmet in two. Gratefully, aside from a few bruises, bent spokes and a headache, no other damage was done. The Buick screeched to a halt, its driver jumped out, ran over to me; and then to my shock, started berating me for hitting her! She said I could have killed her. I’m like, lady, who’s driving the car and who’s on the bicycle? Someone who witnessed the collision called 911. The ambulance and police arrived. Seeing my broken helmet, the EMTs instinctively threw me onto a backboard and stabilized me with neck braces and rushed me off to the hospital for observation. The crazy lady was still shouting and gesticulating at me even as we sped away. I couldn’t believe it.
As I lay strapped and monitored in the hospital bed, a State Trooper appeared by my bedside. Witnesses had attested to my right of way. The trooper told me that the driver was at fault and that now I had to decide what action to take. I was not seriously injured; but I was furious at the driver’s mercilessness. I thought of her refusal to even acknowledge our equal right to the road. I angrily remembered her screaming at me and giving me the finger and calling me every name in the book. I vengefully thought, “she needs to learn a lesson.” I’d seen the ads for personal injury lawyers on TV. I had the law on my side. The State Trooper said, “it’s your decision sir.” My decision.
If only the driver had shown a bit of concern for my condition. If only a hint of remorse. That would make obedience to Jesus easier here. But instead she showed no concern, no remorse, no repentance, making the burden of forgiveness unbearable. This was not right. This was not fair. I did not deserve this. So why should I bear it? Because to forgive is what it means to be a follower of Christ. Back in one of those John the Baptist sermons I made the point that repentance, while a precondition for receiving forgiveness, is never the precondition for offering forgiveness. Reconciliation may be a two-way street, but forgiveness runs in one direction. It rises up out of the bitterness and out of the pain, while the hurt throbs and the head aches. Christian forgiveness is unfair and unjust and undeserved—which is why the Bible calls it grace. Grace for the unrepentant is not an optional side dish in the Christian way of life. It’s the heart of the thing, the main entrée, the center of the gospel—a gospel for which Jesus says we must suffer.
However we do not suffer alone. Forgiveness is borne not of our own strength but out of the power and the right of Christ who himself died for us while we were yet unrepentant. It is Christ’s suffering for us that makes our suffering possible; it is Christ’s forgiveness which becomes our own forgiving. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Likewise with forgiveness, “it is no longer I who forgive, but Christ who lives in me.” Jesus in us forgives us and forgives through us, and that is how we can forgive. And that is how I decided not to press charges.
Martin Luther, in his 1520 Treatise on Christian Liberty, put it this way: “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out for pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as Christ to my neighbor [and to my enemy], just as Christ offered himself to me.”
“Anyone whom you forgive I also forgive,” Paul concludes in verse 10, “And what I have forgiven, I forgive in the presence of Christ for your sake.” This language carries Judgment Day overtones. Just as our forgiveness embodies Christ’s saving mercy, so withholding forgiveness threatens our salvation. The parable of the unmerciful servant applies. “I forgive in the presence of Christ for your sake,” Paul writes, “so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” Satan entices you to hold tight to your grudge. But Jesus allows you to let your grudges go. To forgive is what it means to be a follower of Christ.
There’s a vegan café in San Francisco you may have heard about that’s as interested in their customers’ self-esteem as in their stomachs. It’s is called Café Gratitude and their menu forces the practice of self-love. You want a Caesar salad? Then you have to ask for “I Am Dazzling,” because that’s what the Caesar salad is called. Want the pesto pizza? That’s called “I Am Sensational!” The mocha latte? “I Am Marvelous.” If that’s not enough, when your meal arrives, the wait staff reads the whole thing back: “Who’s Dazzling?” “Who’s Sensational?” “Who’s Marvelous?” “That’d be me!” you say. “I’m Marvelous!” “You are Marvelous!” the then waitress responds as she sets down your dish. “You are Sensational!” Reportedly it’s been enough to turn even the most cynical skeptics into true believers. One customer said she was overcome with tears. Another gushed how this is the way the world ought to be. A third said she felt so empowered she would now live her life with gratitude!
You know, if the San Francisco self-indulgent spouts crowd can come up with “Café Gratitude,” shouldn’t the people of Jesus Christ at least be able to come up with something like “Grace Church”? Why not force one another into the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation by renaming our menus? Instead of Wednesday Night Live or Such and Such Committee, we could quote Martin Luther and call it “Unworthy and Condemned People Mercifully Loved and Forgiven by God.” Or instead of the Church Council or Koinonia Groups, how about “Undeserving Losers On Whom God Has Lavished All The Riches Of Righteousness!” And that way when someone says, “Who’s the undeserving loser on whom God has lavished all the riches of righteousness!” You could say, “Me! I am! I’m the undeserving loser on whom God has lavished all the riches of righteousness?” And everyone could then respond, “You are! You are the undeserving loser on whom God has lavished all the riches of righteousness!” Who knows, maybe by being so overwhelmed by God’s grace it’d become easier to lavish that same grace onto our enemies and overwhelm them too. Luther writes that rather than waiting for repentance, we should load our enemies so full of mercy that they can’t help but repent.
Grace and forgiveness are not side dishes on the Christian menu of life. They’re the main entrées, the center of the gospel—bon appétit.