by Daniel Harrell
Well, Minnesota Public Radio finally wore me down. After six days of pleading and pushing and warning me that Congress was going to shut down my news and classical music for good—to which I know some might say “good riddance”—I caved in and became a member. I have mixed feelings about it. The same mixed feelings some might have here at the end of this 2 Corinthians sermon series. It’s likely worn some of you down too. For almost six months the apostle Paul has been pleading and pushing and warning: pleading for you to love and forgive and do rightly, pushing you to follow the true gospel, warning that if you don’t then there could be trouble, if not in this world then definitely in the next. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” the apostle declared in chapter 5, “so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”
Here in the last chapter, Paul makes one last membership push. “Examine yourselves,” he says, “to see whether you are living in the faith.” Sort of a Judgment Day pretest. This is not a bad idea. Given the short shelf life of most sermons—even I can’t remember what I said last Sunday—it might be good to examine ourselves and see what has stuck with us. Paul is emphatic that Jesus has stuck with us. That is not his concern. “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” he rhetorically asks. His concern is whether we’re sticking with Jesus; whether or not, as Paul puts it, we “meet the test.” Let’s take a test and see:
(The following is the slide show shown at Colonial Church. Elucidations on the answers follow below)
1. In chapter 1, the word comfort might be better translated as encouragement or boldness. It’s a comfort not to be confused with the comfort that assuages anxiety or allays grief or heals illness. It’s not the comfort of mercy that forgives the distress we bring on ourselves or cause others due to our sin—though the Bible speaks of all of these as comfort. Here in 2 Corinthians, the kind of comfort Paul particularly has in mind is not the alleviation of suffering as much as it is its endurance. It’s the kind of cross-bearing endurance that’s part and parcel of following Jesus. How is this comfort? Given the counter-cultural nature of cross-bearing, the assumption is that austerity and pain are the mainstays. But ironically, if you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of Christ and the gospel and been forced to depend on Jesus, then you know how sweet that can feel. There is an undeniable comfort that comes with having to depend on the Lord—and then watching him work in your life.
2. Paul wrote in chapter 3 that Moses’ “ministry of death” came with such lethal glory, “that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face.” The reference is to Moses coming down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments glowing with glory. You may remember my analogy to the X-Men mutant named Cyclops who has a problem with these optic rays that blast out from his eyes blowing away everything in their path. To protect people from demolition, Cyclops puts on these special goggles of ruby quartz to block the rays. I’m not saying that Moses was a mutant X-Man, but I do imagine glory being something like those dangerous rays, threatening to demolish rebellious Israel with divine fury. To protect the people from God’s wrath, Moses deployed a veil. Moses’ veil saved the people from God’s wrath as a preview of Christ’s cross saving us.
3. I remember a young single woman speaking with me once who was very worried about her faith. She’d been a strong Christian for so long, but now for the first time she’d started to have serious doubts. She said, “I just don’t know if I believe anymore.” I’d seen this before. So I asked, “Who are you dating?” And sure enough, she’d been going out with this guy she liked very much but who made fun of her faith to the point that she decided not to bring it up anymore. She felt torn in her devotion and it had started to take its toll.
It’s the same sort of thing that was happening in Corinth. The Christians there, strong of faith and obedient to Christ, had become enchanted by Paul’s opponents who lured them into thinking that maybe they had it all wrong. Relationships aren’t the only things that entice you away from God. Over-demanding career tracks, compromising political alliances, the possessions you crave, the status you seek, the entertainment you choose—all of these things can become unequal yokes pulling on your neck. Do you feel torn in your devotion? Do you find yourself rationalizing your behavior? Adjusting your ethics? Is your commitment to righteousness wavering in the face of social acceptance? Have you felt the need to bend your identity and pretend you’re somebody you’re not? Has endurance in adversity and love begun to feel like a hopeless waste of energy? Are you ashamed and afraid when it comes to your faith? Have you begun to question whether your beliefs are worth believing anymore? This is why Paul implores the Corinthians in chapter 6 not to be “yoked” or “mismatched” with unbelievers. Faithfulness is not something you can manage all by yourself. Christianity is more than just you and Jesus. In his membership drive to the Ephesians, Paul writes how “we are members together of one body, sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” We need each other.
4. Why is giving so important? Because the God whom we worship is a God who gives. To be a Christian is to receive grace. To receive grace entails becoming a conduit of grace. It’s no secret that if all Christians on earth merely tithed ten percent of their after tax/after debt income, world poverty could be obliterated and the effects of unemployment in America dissipated. Yet for Christians, generosity is not only measured monetarily, but also relationally. God gave his son Jesus to reconcile the world to himself. Giving and forgiving go hand in hand. Reconciled to God, giving to your neighbors and forgiving your enemies, living at peace without any need—this is as close as it gets to heaven on earth. Which is why Paul lays it on so thick in chapter 8, using every lever he had at his disposal: Shame. Flattery. Fear. He did whatever it took to get the Corinthians to be generous with love and money.
5. Paul was tempted to boast about his extraordinary religious experience in chapter 12. For this reason, God gave Paul his famous “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment [him].” As with the Old Testament story of Job, God releases Satan to keep Paul humble and weak. Why? So that no one could ever attribute Paul’s success to his own talents. Surprisingly, God also releases Satan to keep Paul faithful. Whatever religious heights you’ve experienced, it’s the valleys and deserts that tend to draw you nearest to God. God’s unleashing Satan on Jesus in the desert only succeeded in firmly grounding Christ for the impossible mission that lay before him. Jesus prayed three times for some other way to account for the sins of the world. Like Jesus, Paul too prays three times for reprieve. But Jesus answers Paul just as God answered Jesus: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Even after the resurrection, the way of the cross remains the way of following Christ.
6. The gospel of Jesus urges Jesus-like sacrifice; Jesus-like forgiveness and Jesus-like dependency. Of course the ability to sacrifice, forgive and trust like Jesus comes from Jesus—from Christ in us. Thus it is no indication of anybody’s superior faith or spirituality—which is why you can’t brag about it. And yet Paul does brag about his weaknesses—as well as about the hardships and troubles he’s suffered for Christ. Why? Because as long as he is weak, the success he suffers is only attributable to the power of Christ. “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,” he says in chapter 12, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
7. Nothing like a little Judgment Day to ruin a perfectly fine sermon series. Paul couldn’t stand to leave well enough alone? I guess once a Pharisee always a Pharisee. Certainly as a Pharisee, Paul knew better than anybody how easy a guarantee of heavenly reward can sour into a license for earthly arrogance. Presuming upon grace is a problem throughout the Bible—which is why Paul frequently follows his doctrinal indicatives with ethical imperatives. While we can do nothing to earn God’s favor, we must still do something to show that we’ve received it. “I urge you,” Paul writes in chapter 6, “do not receive the grace of God in vain.”
2 Corinthians is so much about integrity. It was Jesus who said, “You can tell a tree by its fruit.” And not only that, “But every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and tossed into the fire.” Paul desperately wants the Corinthians to be good wood instead of firewood, thus he directs them to “examine themselves to see whether you are living in the faith.” The language hearkens back to Jesus’ wilderness temptations. As fully human, Jesus would have liked to bypass the cross—this was his Gethsemane prayer. Satan tempted him to save the world in rock star fashion instead: turn rocks into bread, dive off high Temple towers and be caught by angels, exert world domination. And Jesus was tempted. But this would not have saved anybody. Therefore: “Not my will but thy will be done.” We read in the New Testament book of Hebrews how “we do not have a savior incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.” I’ve always liked this verse because it makes me feel that Jesus understands whenever I mess up. “Nobody’s perfect,” and all of that. But at the same time I hate this verse. Jesus was tempted like me but always did the right thing. So what’s my problem?
The obvious answer is that I’m not Jesus. Which is true. But Paul is insistent that I have Jesus in me. I am a new creation in Christ now. The old is supposed to be gone. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “God’s grace is something more than the infinite remission of our sins. God’s grace is the gift of regeneration too—the very real possibility of new life right here on earth—complete with a new vision, new values, and new behavior.” “This is what we pray for,” Paul writes, “that you may become perfect.”
This might be a good time to make another plug for my new book: How To Be Perfect. It’s about me and a group of Christians trying to follow the Old Testament book of Leviticus. It got some positive press on the Huffington Post this past week—although the comments—500 and counting—were mostly negative. Typical was the following: “Leviticus was the first book I ever read that made me consider Atheism. A God worth worshiping would not write such nonsense. It seemed to make more sense when I realized that it was just scribbled down by fearful bronze aged goat herders instead. It reflects their bigotry and ignorance, nothing else.” Leviticus is not for the faint of faith.
While my book is about trying to follow Leviticus, the title comes from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This was Jesus’ reiteration of Leviticus, “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” Yet because such holiness remains impossibly hard (nobody’s perfect and all of that), the tendency is to do what I’ve called a Torah two-step, treating God’s commands as idealistic. What we do is claim the Bible sets the bar too high on purpose in order to force us to cry uncle and concede our need for Jesus. While appropriate, it is also convenient. By leaving the bar so high and labeling the hard commands idealistic, we can leave any actual obedience out of reach. That way we’re not really to blame for our failures at faith.
But I don’t think that Jesus intended “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which comes from Leviticus) and “Love your enemies” (which comes from Jesus) to be treated as idealistic. Likewise, I don’t think that God, when he told the Israelites in Leviticus not to spread slander, meant “It’s okay to slander as long as you think the slander is true or the gossip is especially juicy.” Or when God told them to leave the gleanings of their vineyards for the poor, he didn’t command it with the qualification, “Unless you’re still hungry.” The same with Jesus. He didn’t say “Love your enemies, unless you’re mad at them.” He said simply, “Love your enemies.” Loving your enemies is not idealistic. You can do that. It’s difficult, but it’s not idealistic. This is where grace comes in. The grace that forgives us our sins against God is what makes it possible for us to forgive others’ sins against us. It’s hard, but by grace we can do it. And when we fail to do it, there’s grace to prod us to try again.
I’ve been doing a lot of book promoting of late (obviously). I haven’t made it onto MPR yet, despite becoming a member. However I have made it onto a number of Christian radio stations, and somewhat to my amazement, the first question I typically get asked by Christian radio personalities is an incredulous “why would you follow Leviticus?” I usually respond with something like, well, the last time I checked, Leviticus is still in the Bible. But I guess it’s not for the formidable of faith either.
Not that I followed it well, mind you. But that still doesn’t mean that perfection is an unreachable ideal. That’s because, according to Paul, we’re already there. As we read in Colossians, “you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, are now reconciled in Christ through his death, so as to be presented as holy and blameless and perfect before God.” The Biblical idea of perfection is not so much about sinlessness as it is about fulfilling your purpose. Put another way, our purpose is simply to be the people we already are. The Levitical sacrificial animal without blemish, a student who’s completed her studies, an athlete well-trained for the race, a person equipped for his calling—these all get described in Scripture as perfect. People are deigned to be perfect if they realize the purpose for which they were made and called. So what is your purpose? To love God and your neighbor and your enemies too. “Love is how people will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said.
And yet despite both the command and the capacity to do it, we still manage to fall miserably short. Which is why Paul prays for the Corinthians’ perfection. Yet even then, as we saw in chapter 6, the final passing grade is not a flawless life, but a faith that endures even in the face of spectacular failure. That’s because when we fail, we get to embody repentance and grace. And it is this grace that prods us to try again and again. It is by grace we are saved. It is by grace we obey.
So “put things in order” Paul concludes. Or as other translations have it, “be made perfect.” You are already new creations in Christ. Therefore “agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”