2 Corinthians 6:3-13
by Daniel Harrell
Paul concludes our passage this morning by appealing to the Corinthians to open wide their hearts. This has particular significance for me as I along with a number of our staff completed CPR training this past week. Let me just say that if ever you were planning a cardiac arrest, now would be the time to do it. There are a dozen of us who now know how to administer chest compressions at their proper depth and rate as well as how to use the defibrillator hanging in the kitchen. (Clear!) Interestingly, if you were to experience a cardiac arrest, the first thing we’d do as rescuers is to yell at you. And then we’d hit you. All of this in order to check for unresponsiveness. Unresponsiveness was a big problem in Corinth. Paul’s been yelling at them for six chapters now and may need to start CPR. He needs to open their hearts.
Are you aware how deep you have to press down on someone’s chest when doing CPR? Our instructor told us to expect to crush some ribs. He said that the rule of thumb is always “life before limb.” It’s a rule that applies to 2 Corinthians as well. Only in Paul’s case, he crushes himself for the sake of the Corinthians’ life. More than anything he wants them not to receive God’s grace in vain. Or as another translation renders it: “don’t let God’s grace be wasted on you.”
How could God’s grace ever be wasted? There is a nasty tendency among some Christians to view grace solely for our own personal security and benefit. That’s the way we’ll describe it: as having a personal relationship with Christ. Just me and Jesus. It’s like the parable in Luke’s Gospel where a farmer scores a bumper crop, but rather than share the bounty, he hoards it. God calls him a fool and strikes him dead, which is how Jesus says it will be for anybody keeps grace all to themselves (Luke 12:16–21).
Christ “died for all,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15). For reasons sometimes hard to comprehend, God so loved the world that he sent his Son to die for it. And for reasons sometimes even harder to comprehend, God so loves the world that he sends his people, you and me, to die to ourselves for the sake of spreading his love: forgiving others, feeding the hungry, doing justice, speaking truth, not being ashamed of the gospel, caring about somebody else for a change. While you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you must do something to show you’ve received it. “You can tell a tree by it’s fruit,” Jesus said. How you give your life is true confirmation of faith.
In addition to Confirmation Sunday, this is also Reformation Sunday, and thus it would be fitting to cite a quote from Martin Luther I shared back in September. He put it like this: “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, just as Christ offered himself to me. … The outward [grace] that I show in my deeds is a sure sign that I have forgiveness of sin in the sight of God. On the other hand, if I do not show grace in my relations with my neighbor, I have a sure sign that I do not have forgiveness of sin in the sight of God and that I am stuck in my unbelief.”
I’m reminded of a story from a few years back about a Christian named Tom Fox, who along with two others from his Quaker church in Virginia, went on a different sort of short term mission trip. Upon hearing the U.S. State Department report that policing institutions created by the United States in Iraq were engaged in an organized campaign of detention and torture, Tom Fox and his friends went on a “peacemaking” mission trip to Iraq to advocate for fair treatment of prisoners, and for release of innocent detainees, particularly women and children.
On his blog, Fox wrote, “If I understand the message of Christ,” we are “to love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbors and enemies as we love God and ourselves. … I have read that the word in the Bible translated as love is best expressed as a profound concern for all human beings simply for the fact that they are all God’s children. … “The ability to feel the pain of another human being is central to any kind of [compassionate] work. But this compassion is fraught with peril. … I have to struggle harder and harder each day against my desire to move away or become numb. Simply staying with the pain of others doesn’t seem to create any healing or transformation. Yet there seems to be no other first step into the realm of compassion than to not step away.”
As “servants of God we have commended ourselves through great endurance” Paul writes. “To not step away” is great endurance. As much as anything, Paul’s great endurance confirms that he is a true disciple of Jesus, a legitimate minister of the gospel. Afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and the rest—these often accompany endurance. Once you decide to follow Jesus wherever he leads, the rest is out of your hands.
For Tom Fox, endurance meant being taken hostage and tortured, their bodies later found in a Baghdad garbage dump. At his funeral, a statement Fox wrote prior to his abduction was read. He said, “We forgive those who consider us their enemies.” Many criticized Fox and his colleagues as being unwise and untimely. It was unwise to place oneself in the middle of a war zone. It was untimely to stay in Baghdad when all other foreign organizations had left. And yet, foolishness and bad timing, at least as measured by the world, are distinctively characteristic of Christian witness. So much so that afterwards, an editorial in The Star-Tribune read: “Tom Fox’s life and manner of death demonstrate a true martyrdom, absolutely unlike the so-called martyrdom of suicide bombers. A martyr is a ‘witness’ to a truth unseen, a truth that God exists and that God is good, powerful, loving and infinitely compassionate, even if life is full of violence and suffering. A martyr does not take the life of others, nor does a martyr take his or her own life. A martyr gives life for others to take, so that those who see this may gain a glimpse of who God is.”
Living here in America, we sigh with relief; thankful for the religious freedom we enjoy. We are not threatened with the dangers Tom Fox faced in Iraq, nor by those faced by Paul or by so many Christians still in other parts of the world. However, try this. The next time a friend at school tempts you to set aside your faith and go along with the bad choices others are making; or the next time a co-worker or associate tempts you to get greedy, cut corners and line your own pocket; or the next time you’re confronted by one person’s mistreatment of another—declare at that point that you believe in Jesus and that your faith demands integrity and honesty and decency and justice and forgiveness and then do something about that and I think you’ll probably discover that your religious freedom is not as free as you think.
The good news of the gospel is the hard news of the gospel. Jesus took up a cross, therefore we take up a cross. Paul’s faith was rewarded with beatings. Imprisonment. Angry mobs. Exhausting labor. Sleepless nights. Hunger. Taking up a cross felt just like taking up a cross. However the hard news of the gospel is the good news of the gospel. Crucifixion leads to resurrection every time. Endurance embodies both. “We carry around in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul wrote in chapter 4, “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Paul endures in adversity, but also in purity, knowledge, patience, kindness and sincere love—all confirmations of new creation. You can tell a tree by its fruit. We recognize patience and kindness and genuine love as “fruits of the Spirit.” Paul includes “the Holy Spirit” in his list so as to underscore this. Endurance means bearing a cross but it also means bearing fruit—attributes and behaviors which Paul readily applies to himself.
Now I’ll admit that I’m often astounded with how readily and how confidently Paul does this. It’s almost like he’s bragging, you know, tooting his own horn or something. Granted, he was the apostle Paul, so I guess if anyone had a right to blow his horn it was him. And in fact he is blowing a horn—only it’s not his own horn. “Let anyone who boasts boast in the Lord,” he often said. As for Paul himself, he always considered himself nothing but a dead man—crucified with Christ. And because he was a dead man, he always recognized any endurance, any purity, any understanding, patience, kindness or love that came out of him was not him, but Christ who lived in him.
Paul adds “truthful speech,” to his list, though a more straightforward translation would be “the word of truth.” Paul bears a cross and bears fruit on account of the gospel, the word of truth. Paul also bears arms, “with weapons of righteousness for the right hand and left.” But these were not so that he could beat others over the head with his message or protect himself from trouble. Paul’s weapons of righteousness are best understood as weapons of spiritual power with which to ward off the devil. Now I don’t know how fashionable it is to talk about Satan in Edina, but it is Halloween and rest disturbed that as sure as temptation at times slithers like a snake in your soul, the devil is alive and well and still wearing Prada.
The Reformer John Calvin wrote that the devil’s trick is “to seek some misconduct on the part of a Christian that may tend to the dishonor of the gospel. For when Satan has been successful in bringing the ministry into contempt, all hope of profit is at an end. Hence the one who would usefully serve Jesus must strive with his or her whole might to maintain the credit of his ministry. Nothing is more ridiculous than striving to maintain your reputation before others while you call forth reproach upon yourself by a wicked and base life. The honorable one is the one who allows herself nothing that is unworthy of Christ.”
I’m reminded of the guy in my college fraternity Bible study who got sloppy drunk the night before graduation and ended up stripping to his skivvies for the annual beer slide competition, proving once again what the pagan frat brothers had assumed all along: Christians weren’t that different from anybody else. It’s the same with the Christian who cheats on his wife or his taxes, or who ignores the poor because she has to have the latest gadget or accessory. Or the Christian who refuses to forgive or love or tithe because it simply costs more than they care to part with. The good news of the gospel is the hard news of the gospel. Among these confirmed this morning was one who wrote of an incredibly toxic relationship with a kid at school. “I would just surrender to her every time because I was so insecure about myself. I thought I was being a light in her life when really I was making horrible decisions about my own life.”
We’ve all been there—the apostle Paul included. In verse 9 Paul describes being “punished” or disciplined, the implication being that even Paul screwed up himself sometimes. But again, the hard news of the gospel remains the good news of the gospel. The final confirmation of the Christian is not a flawless life., but a life that endures even in the face of spectacular failure. That’s because when we fail, we get to embody repentance and grace. Thus even when sorrowful, Paul writes, we always rejoice. Though poor, we make many rich; having nothing, we possess everything. The words of Jesus echo throughout: lose your life and you will find it. Hunger and thirst for righteousness, and you will be filled. Blessed are the pure in heart, for you will see God.