At some point after Paul was writing to First Church Corinth, St. Peter had this to say about the world's greatest apostle: "So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him...There are some things [in his letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:15-16). I don't know when Peter became so diplomatic, but it's not difficult to see what he's getting at. Today's passage from 2 Corinthians is not exactly straightforward. Paul would have failed a seminary preaching class, I think. He seems to be all over the map. As it was being read this morning, if you found yourself not quite sure what was going on, rest assured you're not alone. It's not just the "ignorant and unstable" who are confused! And yet, there's something about this passage that is just marvellous and worth the work.
It might help to know that there's quite a lot of conflict in the background of this letter. If Paul sounds a bit stressed, he is. It arrives a few years after Paul first evangelized Corinth, which was a major Roman-ruled city, in Greece. He'd had some success in planting a church. The new converts had been enthusiastic. But they were also a reminder about the challenge of the gospel. They often had a hard time getting free from the ways and influences of the world around them.
They struggled with actually living out the new gospel social order, where the kinds of divisions that had once been important were now leveled by the love of Christ; they had a hard time letting go of their ideas about rich and poor, slave and free, spiritual and secular, sinner and saint.
They struggled to integrate what happened on Sunday, with the rest of their lives--in their work and leisure, in their relationships. They struggled to be unflinchingly gracious and lavishly kind with one another, as they had learned that God is. In other words, they were a church. They are just unlucky to have their behaviour canonized in Scripture.
But letter comes at a crucial time in the life of the congregation. Things are on the verge of really going sideways. Paul's relationship with the Corinthian church is frayed, if not fractured. There seems to be a real concern that the gospel seeds that he'd planted, many of which had sprouted and even blossomed, were now at risk of being smothered by conflict and sin. So I think what we hear throughout the letter, and in today's passage, is Paul's desperation to draw these people whom he loves, this gaggle of sinner-saints back or more deeply into the ways and means of the love of God, in Christ. He wants to remind them of who they are in Christ, so that they can be and become nothing less than the people God made and saved them to be. That feels like a word worth wrestling with.
So, in an attempt to limit my own ignorance and instability, I want to draw our attention to four parts of our Christian life that Paul is either reminding us of, or challenging us to dive more deeply into. Paul reminds us that by grace, we are a people with a new vision, a new standard, a new mission, a new relationship. Certainly, we aren't going to mine the absolute depths of this Scripture, but I think we can faithfully hear what Paul wants us to hear, as people caught up in the wild and woolly ways of God: the good news (gospel) of God in Christ.
As people caught up in that gospel, we are people who are given a new vision. In verse 7, we have the fairly well-known line that we walk by faith, not sight. It's worth being clear about what that doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that we move through the world with blinders on; it doesn't mean that we ignore things like scientific evidence when it challenges us; it doesn't mean that we become so heavenly minded we're no earthly good.
We've dropped into the middle of the passage, but if we'd started a bit earlier, we'd know what Paul has been reminding us that by grace, we are becoming more and more aware that there is a very great deal going on beyond the end of our noses. He's not talking at all about a conflict between evidence and faith; he's talking about the challenge of being Christians, of living in the light of Christ, in the will and way of Jesus. As an apostle, a Christian witness and evangelist, Paul has been doing that with a kind of reckless abandon; and from the outside, it's not always going very well. In chapter 5, we get a list of the ways in which he and his fellow evangelists have been "through many dangers, toils, and snares." And if the only measure of success is what can be seen, if the kingdom of God is dependent entirely on the kinds of people who gather in churches or those who plant them, then the prospects are not terribly good.
And yet, Paul begins this passage by saying "So, we are always confident." And we are always confident not because we always have it all together, or we know exactly what we're doing, or the budgets are balanced and the programs running smoothly and everybody likes us. We're confident because we know the one in whom we have put our trust (1 Timothy 1:12). The free gift of faith--and biblical faith is a gift, not an accomplishment, not a carefully reasoned position--is the knowledge that the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God whose breath turns chaos into creation, the God whose love conquers even death is with us and for us. Faith is trusting that.
To walk by faith not sight is not to be ignorant or disinterested in what is going on around us (as we'll see), but to put what's going on around us in the right context. For Christians, to walk by faith not sight is to learn to see the world, to understand the world, through the cross: the ultimate reminder that there is much more going on than we can see or perfectly understand. We are confident, not because we've got it all together, but because the promises of God are sure, and in Jesus--his life, death, and resurrection--we get a foretaste of what God is up to: dismantling the broken ways of the world, overcoming sin and death, loving the world into wholeness and freedom and abundant life. Nothing in heaven, earth, or hell, is going to stop that.
That's the reality that God has called us into, which Paul is reminding us really, actually, truly, no-matter-how-things-look-in-the-moment takes priority. In many ways it's a switch from what feels natural--to interpret the world through the love of God that we know by faith, rather than decide things about God, based on what we see. It's a whole new kind of vision. But it's a necessary shift, if we'll really get into the newness that God longs for us, the freedom that God has for us.
We want that freedom because it gives us a new standard. When we shift our gaze from the immediate to the eternal, when we turn our eyes from what's going on at any given moment, to look on the face of the One who knows us and loves us beyond measure, since before we were born and long after we die, then who we are, what we're meant for, is cast in a different light. The stuff that we're so often told defines us, the standards the world sets for us look different. What happens when we shift our vision is that we stop making good things (like work, family, money) primary things.
In the light of Jesus, work is not the primary motivation of our lives; it's a gift that gives structure and purpose, a reminder that the God in whose image we're made is a dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of God--the God who works, and makes, and tends; the God who rests.
Family is not the only thing worth living and dying for, it's not a closed unit that we protect at all costs; it's the training ground for learning to live in the rhythms of grace, for developing generosity, for practicing forgiveness, for learning hospitality and intimacy: the things that Jesus calls us to far outside the doors of our homes, well beyond the circle of our most-loved ones.
Money and stuff is not the source of competition and anxiety, but an opportunity to use what we have to bless the world. Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can, preached John Wesley. When we turn from our stuff, to the One who gives lavishly, then hoarding as much as we can for ourselves begins to look as silly and neurotic as it is. We are indeed richer than we think, just not the way we've been taught to think it.
Paul's line, our new standard, is that we make our aim to please God. Our aim is to please God, not out of fear but out of love, out of gladness and wonder. The fear of the Lord that Paul talks about in verse 11 isn't a kind of cowering fear, but an overwhelming awareness of the wonder and splendour and majesty of God, the vertiginous height, depth, the wild length, and width of the love of God for us in Christ Jesus. When we stand before the throne the goal is to joyfully show Jesus what we've joyfully done, with what he's joyfully given us. He'll be a righteous judge, no doubt. But, as we declare in A New Creed, he is our judge and our hope. Our motivation is not fear, but the perfect love that casts out all fear! The promise is that no matter who we are, in Christ we've been given, in goodness and joy, what we need to live how we've been called to live (2 Peter 1:3). We make our aim to please Him.
The beautiful first question from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (a tool used to train generations of Christians) comes to mind. What is the chief end of humanity? The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. The chief end of humanity is not to pay bills until we die; it's not to retire well. It's not to raise good kids, or win friends and influence people. It's not even to have a successful church. As people called into a world-saving conspiracy with God, our goal is to do whatever we do in the name and way of Jesus, for the glory of God. (If it can't be done in the name and way of Jesus, we're perfect free not to do it.) And as we do that, what we experience is not limitation, but life that is truly life: the enjoyment of God, the sure and certain knowledge of God's loving presence, no matter what else is going on.
This overlaps with the reality that we have a new mission. Together, a new vision and a new standard shape how we live and move and have our being. Hear what Paul says, The love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
Having been called into cahoots with the God of grace and life, we are learning to shape our lives on the pattern of Christ's love. The love of Christ urges us on. And that love is not a warm and fuzzy feeling, but a passionate desire to both bring God's presence to the world, and to gather the world, broken and beloved, into the loving presence of God. We're sent into the world as both signs of God's grace, and invitations to it.
When telling people about the good news, Paul is never shy to point to himself, as a reminder of God's goodness. That can sound like arrogance, but I think it flows out of humility, not pride. He knows the lengths to which God has gone to chase him down. If Paul, boastful, self-righteous, militantly religious, persecutor-of-the-church, violent, angry and broken Paul, can be saved, there's hope for anyone. The more we understand how far God has gone to have us, what God is willing to give for us, the more we're able to offer the grace we've been given, to invite others into it. That's why we keep coming back to the cross. It reminds us that we love, not because we're especially good, but because God loved us first, as St. John puts it (1 John 4:19). The invitation is to know first how much God loves us, and let that truth turn us inside out.
As Christians, we're called to shape our lives on the cross-shaped love of Jesus: the love that refuses divisions, that defies the rules about who is deserving of love, that will not stay out of the places it's not supposed to go, love that is given even when to give it seems pointless or worse. Paul is calling us to hold our lives up to the cross, to think and pray deeply about whether our lives look like that: do we have anything like that kind of passion, that kind of love, that kind of relentless hope in the power at work within and among us to raise the dead and to break all brokenness? And the point is not to wallow in shame when we realize the answer. The point is to look and see the length and width and height and depth of God's love for us in Christ, to let that love overwhelm and renew us--to let that unstoppable love, love not even death can destroy, urge us on.
And the more we do that, the more deeply we're drawn into a new kind of relationship, with God, ourselves, each other, and we trust all of creation. If the cross is the way that God loves the world, if that's the length to which God will go to be with us and for us, it changes everything. Therefore, says Paul, we regard no one from a human point of view. In the light of Christ, we're learning to see as he sees, to love what he loves.
We're learning to reclaim for ourselves and for all things the beautiful and terrifying truth that in spite of ourselves, we are made to reflect the goodness and glory of God in the world. In the light of Jesus we regard no one--not ourselves, not each other, not our enemies and persecutors, not our supremely annoying neighbors--with anything short of the love of God. That may seem impossible, but let's remember that we're not asked to do it by our own strength, but in the presence and power of Jesus through whom all things are possible. As those caught up in the ways and means of Jesus, we're learning to catch glimpses of an utterly new creation, even to know more and more that all things, even now, are shot through with the grace of God, are being made new. For humans, it's impossible; with God all things are possible.
I want to give Paul the last word. Listen to what comes just after what we heard: All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has give us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to 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.
How good is that? May it be so. Amen.