2 Corinthians 5:13-6:2
So after Gillette came out with their five-bladed Fusion razor a few years back, I decided I’d had it. Five blades? Really? Where would it all end? How many blades are enough? 8? 15? 20? For me it was now going to be one. I went retro. Old-school. I ordered a double-edged single blade razor from Germany. I bought a badger hair shaving brush and a hand thrown ceramic shaving mug to go with a tub of Truefitt and Hill high-end British cream. And now, every morning, not only do I get to experience the greatest shave imaginable, but I also get to imagine myself as somewhere between Cary Grant and Don Draper—too cool for the bathroom. A class act. A man’s man. Suave. As it turned out, my conversion to what’s called wet-shaving did not occur in isolation. It was part of a mass revival of men who threw off their Fusions, their Quattros, their Mach3s and all their pressurized cans of white goo for the sake of grooming glory.
Among wet-shaving’s fellow converts is old friend and author Andy Crouch who flamboyantly berated the Fusion “as safe, but ultimately dull. By contrast, the single blade razor,” he writes with apologies to Aslan the Lion, “is not safe, but it is good. It is good to be at risk. Only a single sharp blade can give the sound of every one of the hairs on your head being numbered. Now each shave leaves our skin as smooth as it was before we became men.” We are restored. Redeemed. Made new creations each morning. Born again every day.
NBC’s Today Show eventually ran a segment on wet-shaving that turned it into something of a minor craze. The reporter, Cory Greenberg, went on to start a Shaveblog. Because my own conversion turned me into something of a wet-shaving evangelist, I couldn’t help but preach about it (like I’m doing now). Picking up on my sermon podcast, Cory Greenberg posted on his blog how, “a church full of innocent young children sat in hushed silence a few Sundays ago to receive the word of the Lord, and that word was wet-shave. And it was Good. Dr. Daniel Harrell is a man of deep Christian faith who has journeyed the world over to carry the message of Jesus Christ and to save men’s souls from hellfire without respite, much in the same way I recommend the best razors, brushes, shaving creams, and techniques to those who would otherwise suffer eternal damnation. We are kindred spirits, Dr. Harrell and I. So it should come as no surprise that a recent sermon segued nicely into comparing the Day of Judgment with—and I’m not making this up—a very close shave. Listen jackal and disciple alike, and go forth as a new man.”
He was correct. I do imagine final redemption as something of a razor’s edge experience. If St. Paul is right, just as we face ourselves in the mirror each morning and take responsibility for all that we see, so with our lives we rehearse for a final day when we “must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” If you’ll remember from last Sunday’s foray into 2 Corinthians, that’s how Paul put it. In the verse that leads into our passage this morning, the apostle wrote, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” A very close shave indeed.
It was also a very wet blanket thrown onto what had otherwise been a feel-good passage. Paul had assured us of God’s surefire grace which rendered failure, hardship and even death as nothing but lightweight and momentary blips on the screen of eternity. Our futures secured, we can walk by faith without worry. “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident,” Paul wrote. And we could have gone home confident had Paul not gone and spoiled it all by bringing up Judgment Day.
His reason, you’ll remember, was to tacitly indict that ancient tendency believers have always had to take God’s grace for granted; or as Paul says here in chapter 6, “to receive God’s grace in vain.” From the apple to the ark, from the golden calf to drinking the golden cup of Babylon, the guarantee of salvation—aka the doctrine of divine election—gets treated by many like unchallenged incumbency. If there’s no way you can lose your election, why not live it up and do as you please? Paul counters that grace as free gift is not a free pass. While you can do nothing to lose God’s grace; you still must do something to show you’ve received it. “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said. Therefore, Paul wrote, “we make it our aim, our practice to please Christ.” If pleasing Christ is not your practice, the implication is that your seat may not be as safe as you presume.
Martin Luther applied this connection between grace and pleasing Christ to the petition about forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Luther wrote, “The outward forgiveness that I show in my deeds is a sure sign that I have been forgiven my sin in the sight of God. On the other hand, if I do not show this in my relations with my neighbor, I have a sure sign that I do not have the forgiveness of sin in the sight of God and I am stuck in my unbelief.” In other words, if you do not forgive others their sins against you, there’s a good chance that the grace of God has not truly rooted your heart, even if you believe it has. “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said, “And every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and tossed into the fire.”
Such a severe word from the Lord explains why today’s passage begins with “the fear of the Lord.” “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others,” Paul wrote. Grace is both good news and serious business. Of course, to Paul’s critics in Corinth, this is what made Paul’s good news look so bad. The gospel Paul preached brought him a lot of trouble and suffering. Getting serious about following Jesus does that. Paul’s wasn’t a testimony you wanted to hear at one of those old-fashioned revival meetings: “I came to Jesus and my life got worse. Praise the Lord.” How would that persuade anybody? Paul’s detractors thought he was nuts—which Paul himself allows in verse 13. “If we are beside ourselves—if we are out of our minds—it is for the sake of God.”
At first you think this is just another way for Paul to admit he’s a “fool for Christ.” But then he tacks on the next line: “if we are in our right mind, it is for you” referring to the Corinthian believers. It reminds us of a problem Paul had back in 1 Corinthians. Among the ways Paul never measured up in the eyes of many was his lack of charismatic charisma. In 1 Corinthians, Paul’s critics judged his failure to ecstatically speak in unintelligible tongues, for instance, as proof of deficient faith. Some churches still teach that you have to speak in tongues to be a real Christian. Paul did agree that ecstatic expression is a fine thing; but like dancing in your underwear when you’re happy, it’s not something you should flaunt in public. “In church,” Paul wrote, “I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in tongues.” Why? Because his goal is persuading others, not freaking them out; loving others, not showing off. Living an honest faith, not performing a pretend one. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love,” Paul famously wrote, “I am only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
He reiterates this same sentiment here in 2 Corinthians chapter 5: “The love of Christ urges us on.” The verb is a strong one. It means to control and compel, to impel and propel. It’s Christ’s love that seizes us and captures us and pushes us on to love others.
Of course if you stretch the verb to its limit—Christ’s love kills us too. Paul writes, “The love of Christ compels us because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” This isn’t what you expect Paul to write. What you expect Paul to write is that “Christ died for all and therefore nobody dies.” You know, John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”? Jesus dies our sinful death so that we get his righteous life. We call it substitutionary atonement. As our sub, Jesus serves our death penalty and we get set free.
It’s a theology not without problems. I remember a conversation with a woman who wandered into a pew during a Lenten service. To her Jesus’ unwarranted death for sinners made no sense. How does executing an innocent third party atone for the crimes of a guilty offender? Moreover, having a heavenly parent punish a blameless only child for the sins of everybody else sounded like divine sanction for child abuse.
She had a point. While it is legally possible for an innocent person to serve another’s sentence, that doesn’t make the innocent person guilty of the crime. Even if I pay your speeding ticket; you’re still the one who drove too fast. I can’t take on your guilt because I can’t become guilty of something I never did. The deed and the doer are inseparable. So what do you do with the guilt? Jesus died for our sins. He paid our penalty. Paul writes, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin;” but no where does Paul write that Jesus became a sinner. No where does he say that Jesus was ever guilty himself.
It’s important to emphasize first that God did not send his Son to the cross as an innocent third party. Christ who bore human sins on the cross did so as God himself. Christ is one with God as part of the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God. Yet at the same time, in the mystery of the incarnation, Christ bore human sin as a human being. Jesus who is one with God is also one with humanity. Thus when Paul writes “one died for all, and therefore all died,” he does not mean that Christ’s death replaces our death. Instead, Christ’s death includes our death and in so doing his death redeems our death. Because we are one with Christ, what happened to Him happened to us. He was condemned, we were condemned. When he died, we died and suffered our death penalty. But then Christ rose from the dead, and we did too. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the deed and the doer finally divide. Our tickets get paid and our guilt get buried. We are now truly free.
And as free people, we are free to be reconciled to God. If we were still guilty, reconciliation with God would not be possible. But in Christ, Paul writes, God “God no longer counts our trespasses against us.” “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We do not make ourselves right with God. God makes us right with himself through Jesus. And because God does it, it is as good as done; which is how Paul can have the audacity to assert that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation now. The old is gone away. Resurrection has started. Everything is brand new. On earth as it is in heaven.
But then by way of reiteration, Paul goes on to make clear again that being a new creation is not solely for your own personal enjoyment. “God who reconciled us to himself through Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” “Christ died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” The love of Christ urges us on as ambassadors of Christ to persuade others to be reconciled too. Paul concludes by citing the prophet Isaiah. The prophet had foreseen a day of salvation when God would make all things right. Paul declares Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. “This is the day of salvation,” he says. The right time is now. As new creations in Christ, do not receive God’s grace in vain. Don’t take it for granted. As ambassadors for Christ, don’t be ashamed to share it, afraid to live it or afraid to suffer for it. Make it your practice to please Jesus. “For we must all appear before Christ’s Judgment Seat,” or if you prefer the metaphor with which we began: his barber’s chair.
For a recent birthday, Dawn treated me to a haircut and shave at this old-timey barber shop in downtown Boston. As a wet-shaver, I loved the idea of spending an hour or so under scented hot towels, followed by brushed on hot lather and the clean swipe of a straight edge across my cheek. The barber shop was just as I expected it to be: lots of wood and leather, the smell of witch hazel and lime, a striped pole whirring outside. The place reeked of testosterone. There were Sports Illustrated and Maxim magazines on the table and complimentary beer. This was place for real men, and as any real man knows, the only that matters to real men after sports scores and women is what you do for a living. Now I’ve already shared with you my anxiety about admitting I’m a minister. In Boston, it brought every conversation to a drop dead halt. So I got a little scared. What if my barber was one those dudes who thought faith was for freaks and wussies? Or worse, what if he packed a truckload of religious resentment due to some horrible experience he’d had with church in the past? What if he had it in for hypocrites? He was going to have a straight razor at my throat!
I swallowed hard as he honed his razor’s edge sharp on his strop. I tensed as he dabbed the hot lather across my now exposed and defenseless neck. Then came the dreaded moment. He asked: “so what do you do?” A bead of perspiration sprouted out on my forehead. My mouth went dry. My heart picked up its beat. I wanted to say that I “work for a local non-profit.” It wouldn’t have been a total lie. The bead of sweat trickled downward and the words of Paul rang in my ears: “do not accept the grace of God in vain.” “OK, OK, I’m a minister!” I confessed, “I preach in a church! I talk about Jesus! I believe he rose from the dead! I pray and I read the Bible! Please don’t cut me!”
The barber stopped sharpening his razor. He said, “Really? Me too. I read the Bible. I go to this little church just north of the city. You should come sometime. Our minister plays the accordion.” I was afraid for nothing.
If St. Paul is right, just as we face ourselves in the mirror each morning and take responsibility for all that we see, so with our lives we rehearse for that final day when we “all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, where each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” For most of us it will be a very close shave. It will be the best a man can get. That’s because on that day, as Andy Crouch reminds, for that final shave, another will hold the razor. Another will serve as the barber. And if we have practiced well, we will know what is coming. The blade will be applied at just the right angle to shear off the stubble. It will be terribly sharp and terribly close; but wielded with tremendous skill and care—it will divide doer from the deed; who we truly are from what we were never meant to be. Then cold water will splash against our skin; fragrant oil will leave us glistening and new, and together we will rise and go—with Christ, like Christ—into that light where no shadows grow.