Sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
I take a small measure of comfort from knowing that people have been getting the apostle Paul wrong since the very beginning. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in his letters to the church in Corinth. In the Corinthian correspondence, Paul is addressing a community that has heard the gospel, but has interpreted it in some unique and problematic ways. In first Corinthians, Paul cajoles, scolds, and encourages members of the community to put aside their prejudices and tribal loyalties and embrace the transcendent and unifying truth of the gospel. First Corinthians is a masterpiece of pastoral theology that culminates in one of Scripture’s most powerful descriptions of the resurrection. It’s hard to imagine that it would have been received with anything other than enthusiasm, but apparently, the Corinthians were not as impressed as they might have been. Their reaction to Paul’s exhortations was, essentially, “Who does this guy think he is?” Their skepticism was abetted by some rivals of Paul, who, in so many words, told the Corinthians that Paul was weak, feckless, and untrustworthy. These rivals accused Paul of unprofessionalism, noting that he had not only failed to provide any references who could vouch for the efficacy of his religious worldview, but that he also refused to accept payment, implying that he had a guilty conscience and couldn’t possibly be considered a “real” religious teacher. Moreover, these critics of Paul observed that he had been beaten within an inch of his life on one of his missionary journeys, clearly indicating that he was nothing more than a transparent charlatan who was ignominiously driven from town by an angry mob. It’s worth noting that Paul probably didn’t help matters when word of what these interlopers were saying got back to him. During his next visit to Corinth he made his displeasure known, and followed up with a letter that, in his own words, he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.” By the time he gets around to writing Second Corinthians, in other words, Paul and the church in Corinth are decidedly at odds with one another.
Under these circumstances, one might expect Paul to explain that the charges leveled by his critics were false, or at least overstated. One could imagine him saying, “I wasn’t beaten up; my enemies are lying to you” or “People are saying I’m one of the best preachers they’ve ever heard.” Instead, Paul confirms the accusations made against him. He admits that he has no letters of recommendation from people of influence, but that he bears only the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, in the passage we heard this morning, Paul poignantly describes the physical trials that have been features of his ministry: not only was he beaten within an inch of his life, he has endured “afflictions, hardships, calamities… imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.” Lest we think this is just one of those Pauline lists that are so easy to gloss over, it is worth noting that Paul probably had a specific instance in mind for each and every one of these trials. For Paul, his weakness, physical or otherwise, is not something to be ashamed of. In fact, it is something to boast about, because it reveals the power of God. Paul’s critics got it wrong; in fact, they fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his ministry. Ultimately, Paul was not interested in converting people to his worldview. Rather, Paul was committed to proclaiming the grace of God that has been revealed in Jesus Christ. For this reason, Paul’s priorities are radically different from those of his rivals, a fact he illustrates when notes, “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see–we are alive.” In the eyes of his rivals, Paul and his coworkers were unknown impostors who were as good as dead, while in the eyes of God, they were true to the gospel and alive to a grace that is incomprehensible by the standards of the world.
To be clear, this dispute is about more than which spiritual teacher is more popular among the Corinthians. The disagreement between Paul and his critics is representative of a larger conflict about the very nature of the Church, namely: does the Church exist to enforce a particular way of ordering human society? Or is the Church’s responsibility to witness and respond to what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? It will come as no surprise that Paul’s critics were of the former persuasion. They thought the primary task of the Church was instructive: to provide a collection of rules and regulations that governed how one should approach the world. They weren’t the first or the last to think of the Church in this way. Throughout church history, there has always been a temptation to systematize the gospel: to make God’s self-disclosure in the person of Jesus Christ primarily about human behavior. The pitfalls of this anthropological approach are obvious. If the gospel is primarily about rules, then the Church will quickly find itself enforcing and defending societal norms, no matter how sinful or unjust they may be. Yet the Church has always been tempted to turn the gospel into a religion. I hope it’s clear from my tone that that’s not a good thing. In words of Karl Barth, a theologian who saw the church in Germany almost entirely co-opted by the Third Reich, religion exists when “the divine reality offered and manifested to us in revelation is replaced by a concept of God arbitrarily and wilfully evolved by man.” It is religion in this sense that leads to the insidious practice of proof texting, where the Bible functions as little more than propaganda. It is religion that seeks to justify the actions of those in power and uses the Bible to defend an immigration policy that, no matter when or with whom it originated, is extreme at the very least and cruel at the very worst. In fact, it is religion that permits the existence of concept like “zero tolerance.” Religion doesn’t have much room for compassion, because it is primarily concerned with whether people are acting correctly.
Paul never wanted the gospel to become a religion in this sense. Like many New Testament writers, Paul was pretty unsparing in his criticisms of those who practiced religion for its own sake. Paul understood the gospel as the revelation of God’s deep love for creation. Moreover, he argued that this revelation should transform the way we perceive and experience the world. For Paul, in other words, the Church’s primary task is not to order human society, but to respond to what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul gives us a glimpse of what this looks like in the final verses of the passage we heard today. “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians,” he writes, setting them up for one final rebuke. Instead, he continues, “our heart is wide open to you.” It’s difficult to fathom the vulnerability required to write these words. But Paul has a deep confidence: that, because God’s strength was revealed in the shame of the cross, the same strength will be revealed in Paul’s admission of his own weakness. Paul doesn’t make his case or seek to justify himself. He has opened his heart to the Corinthians and has but one request of them: “open wide your hearts also.” Open wide your hearts. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate and urgent invitation for our time. Open wide your hearts to the refugee and the immigrant. Open wide your hearts to those with whom you disagree. Open wide your hearts, not because you have been commanded to, but in response to the revelation of God’s deep love for you.