Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bragging Rights

2 Corinthians 10
by Daniel Harrell

With the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day last week, the holidays are now officially over, though a Christmas wreath still hangs on our front door. There is still the Super Bowl of course, unless you’re a Patriots or of course, a Vikings fan. It’s as good a time as any to turn our sights back to 2 Corinthians, where we last we left the apostle Paul exercising his role as stewardship chair, cajoling the Corinthians toward cheerful giving. Thank those of you, by the way, who responded to Paul’s cajoling thus far with your own cheerful and generous pledges toward the ministry of our church for this year. We are trusting God for good things—though admittedly, as 2 Corinthians teaches, the good things of God often come wrapped in unwelcome packages.

Paul’s back on the defensive here in chapter 10, responding to charges that not only is he not much of an apostle, but he’s not much of a pastor either. Any pastor can visit a parishioner who’s just received bad news—whether it’s the bad news of cancer, or a lost job, or a troubled child who has just flunked out of school. People in such distress are happy to hear from anyone, even their preacher. However it takes a very special minister to visit that person who has just scored a large increase in their investment portfolio, or has just received a big promotion at work, or whose child has been accepted at an Ivy League school. The skillful pastor knows that genuine spiritual peril lies in that which the world considers good news, good health or achievement. That the apostle Paul actually does this may be why his opponents opposed him so. The last thing most of us want is God to meddle with our success.

It was the prophet Jeremiah, speaking for God, who first said, “Let not the wise boast of wisdom or the strong boast of strength or the rich boast of riches, but let those who boast, boast in this, that they understand and know that I am the LORD; that I act with mercy, justice, and righteousness on the earth—in these things I delight.” It’s not that wisdom, strength or riches are bad, it’s just that they’re not always truthful.

Though last week was devoted to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., the headline news on MLK Day was Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ medical leave of absence. While Steve Jobs’ health is at issue, no one doubts his wealth and business acumen. Yet as friend Andy Crouch noted this week, the most remarkable quality of Jobs is not his talent as a designer, innovator and technology leader, but rather “his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope.” Nothing exemplifies that ability more than the Apple logo, which takes the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and makes it a sign of promise and progress. Throughout the past decade, when much about the wider world was causing Americans intense distress, the one thing that kept getting better was our personal technology. In 2001, with the World Trade Center still smoldering and the dot-com bubble burst, Apple introduced the iPod. In 2007, as the US was mired in its deadliest year in Iraq, Apple rolled out the iPhone. In 2010, in the depths of the Great Recession with unemployment breaching 10%, out came the iPad. In an otherwise hopeless world, Apple makes it possible for your ordinary and mortal life to be elegant and meaningful with the swipe of your finger—I love my iPhone—even if in the end it, and we, all end up dated, dusty, and discarded like a Powerbook G4. Steve Jobs is the perfect evangelist for this kind of gospel, one that he articulated at his celebrated Stanford commencement address in 2005:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition.

Andy writes, “This is the gospel of a secular age. It has the great virtue of being based only on what we can all perceive—it requires neither revelation nor dogma. And it promises nothing it cannot deliver—since all that is promised is the opportunity to live your own unique life.”

It’s not unlike the gospel the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day believed—their iPhones and iPads comprised of pagan idols crafted out of metal and stone. Nor is it unlike the Pharisees’ gospel of Jesus’ day—only instead of golden idols they idolized themselves, exchanging paganism for legalism, a salvation you generate for yourself. As Steve Jobs makes clear, it’s a gospel without hope or comfort. Fine for a commencement speech, but hard to take at a funeral such as the one held for Christina Taylor Greene, nine years old, killed with five others in Tucson, Arizona.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus railed in Jeremiah-like fashion, “Hypocrites! You are careful to manage your profession and portfolios, but you ignore mercy, justice and faithfulness—the very things in which the Lord delights.”

Woe to the Corinthians too. Back in chapter 4, Paul warned that their unbelieving minds had been blinded by Satan. How else to explain their refusal to see the light? “God has shone his light shine in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote, piling on words that resonate from the very beginning. “Let there be light,” said the Lord, and there was light. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, on those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, light has shined.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him was life,  and the life was the light of all people.”

Here in chapter 10, Paul appeals to the Corinthians “by the meekness and gentleness of Christ,” but ironically, it’s a meekness and gentleness Paul intends as a threat. Christ’s meekness alludes to his humbling himself unto death for the sake of sinners. Christ’s gentleness alludes to his forbearance. The Lord is patient in order that all might come to repentance. It was the same with Paul’s own Christ-like kindness. Unfortunately his patient posture toward the Corinthians was misconstrued by his opponents as spinelessness. They painted him as a loser. You could see why, depending on your gospel. Once a powerful Pharisee, brilliant and successful and revered by all, Paul came to Jesus and his career instantly tanked. He lost everything. His faithfulness was rewarded with beatings, imprisonment, angry mobs, sleepless nights, hunger. If God was on Paul’s side, why did it always appear that God had so forsaken him?

But this is what cross-shaped faith always looks like. “Power made perfect in weakness.” Paul writes, “We live as human beings but do not wage war according to human standards.” What looks like suffering and defeat is in fact spiritual weaponry that demolishes human defenses and “every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God.” In Christ, every thought is taken captive and bad behavior is subjugated into obedience. Jesus says come as you are but he never lets you stay that way. He shines his light onto your darkness, hammers his law on your heart and sears you with his Spirit. His cross crucifies your old self that you might rise into a new creation. Steve Jobs was right that death is life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. But he was wrong to think that your time is limited. In Christ you now have forever.

“Look at what is before your eyes,” Paul writes in verse 7, “Who looks more like Jesus, me or these others who vie for your allegiance?” During Paul’s prolonged absence from Corinth, his opponents had taken to slinging mud. They’d impugned Paul’s apostolic authority by labeling him a two-faced, flip-flopper; courageous by letter but cowardly in person. They’d called him homely and a bad speaker and pointed to his hardships as signs of incompetence. Yet at the same time they accused him of throwing his weight around and overreaching his authority. They alleged he barged into other’s territory and took credit for their mission work. Paul could have retaliated and bragged about his rightful clout and character, about how his hardships were suffered in service of the true gospel, to bring the Corinthians to Christ. He could have boasted about how he was the one who had built their church and taught them the truth; how he was the one who had saved their souls. But he refuses to do it , not daring to be compared with those who “foolishly measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves. No, we will measure ourselves only by the standard which God laid down for us.” Paul took credit for none of his work. It was all God’s work. If the Corinthians wanted confirmation, they needed only to look at their own redeemed lives (at least on their good days). As Paul wrote in chapter 3, “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

Therefore, verse 17: “Let whoever boasts, boast in the Lord.” Paul’s quotes his own truncated take on Jeremiah: “Let not the wise boast of wisdom or the strong boast of strength or the rich boast of riches, but let those who boast, boast in this, that they understand and know that I am the LORD; that I act with mercy, justice, and righteousness on the earth—in these things I delight.”

Jesus shines his light into your darkness. His cross crucifies your old self so that you might rise into a new creation—starting now. You do have to generate your own hope. You do not have to come up with your own comfort. This is the gospel—a gospel which according to most polls, that some 97 million Americans profess to believe—more people than own iPhones.

But what if the 97 million Americans who believe the gospel believed it enough to actually live it out? Well, for starters, health care costs would decline precipitously because 97 million people wouldn’t be so afraid to die anymore. Therapists would lose at least a third of their business due to the heavy drop in anxiety and worry. The recession would have less of an impact because so many people would care so much less about money. Jesus taught that loving him meant loving your neighbor, so there’d be a lot of nice neighborhoods. There’d be a lot less hunger and poverty, fewer lawsuits, more civility and upticks in mercy, justice and righteousness. The divorce rate would plummet, children would thrive and global warming would probably start to cool down since Christians are good stewards of creation. You’d see measurably less violence and crime and probably an end to most war since Christians are peacemakers who love their enemies. You’d probably also see that 97 million increase exponentially too. People saved by grace who truly believe Jesus rose from the dead rarely keep quiet about it. As soon as Jesus’ disciples finally believed it, they and a relatively few others the likes of the apostle Paul ended up changing the whole world.

Martin Luther King Jr., writing from prison, remarked how “There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

And yet there are echoes out there. Reverberations of hope. Possibilities of faith and obedience even for the likes of us.

A fellow pastor once shared the story of a young woman who was new to church. Her having never been to church before, he was curious to know what it was that got her to come. She told about how she had gotten into some trouble at work. It was a job she really liked and one that she’d been lucky to get. The company had taken a bit of a risk on her since she’d lacked some of the experience they were looking for. Their confidence in her made her all the more diligent to succeed, but unfortunately, she’d been assigned a project and totally screwed it up. It was so bad that she knew she was going to get fired. The president wanted to see her and her supervisor at once.

Now her supervisor was a nice man with a lot of years in the company who had been a great boss to work for. She felt horrible for letting him down. They arrived at the president’s office who was furious and lit into them immediately, demanding to know how this had happened and who was to blame. However as the woman began to confess, her supervisor interrupted. He said that the blunder had been his fault and that he realized it was costly but he guaranteed it would never happen again. The president was visibly shocked that this longtime employee could make such a rookie mistake. Had it been somebody else, they’d have been let go on the spot. But since it was this man, he’d let it go with a warning. And a directive to fix it.

Leaving the president’s office the woman was absolutely flabbergasted. She was used to supervisors taking the credit, but never the blame. Why had he done it? He said it was no big deal and not to worry about it. “No big deal?” she said, “Are you crazy? This was huge! You saved my job! You saved my career! Why did you do it?” “Really,” he said, “I was glad to help.” She chased him all the way back to his own office. “No! People do not do this. You have to tell me why.” “I’ve got years with this company,” he said, “and I knew that I could take the blame without losing my job. It’s not going to look great on my review, but I’ll survive. You wouldn’t.” “Alright,” she pushed again, “Why did you really do it? Are you wanting to ask me out or something? Your wife wouldn’t like that, you know.”

“Look,” the supervisor finally said, “I’m a Christian, OK? And I believe that Jesus took the fall for all of my screw-ups and more. He died for my sins. And since he’s done that for me, how could I not in some small way do it for somebody else?”

“And that,” said the woman, “is why I came to church.”

Friday, January 21, 2011