Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sermon: 3 Pentecost (21 June 2009)

Sermon: 3 Pentecost (21 June 2009)
(1 Sam 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49/Psalm 9:9-20/2 Cor 6:1-13/Mark 4:35-41)
That the Life of Jesus May Be Manifest

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Two weeks after Pentecost the Revised Common Lectionary plunged us – rather inexplicably – right into the middle of 2 Corinthians. The first week made little difference to us since we focused almost exclusively on the Gospel text. But this week it is the epistle that speaks most directly to the nature and mission of the church, and some background is required if we are to read the text aright. The Corinthian correspondence, and Paul’s relationship with that church, is complicated enough – in terms of chronology and personal dynamics – without starting midstream. The letter we call 2 Corinthians is almost certainly not the second letter Paul wrote to Corinth. In fact, 2 Corinthians may contain part of a letter Paul wrote before 1 Corinthians as well as a letter he wrote between 1 and 2 Corinthians. That probably makes 2 Corinthians 4 Corinthians. Confused yet? Let’s try to sort it out.

Though by no means certain, one of the reasonable and fairly standard reconstruction of events goes like this. Paul, with assistance of traveling companion Silas and local residents Aquila and Priscilla, established the Corinthian church – probably a confederation of house churches – near the end of his second missionary journey, c. 50. He remained in ministry there for some eighteen months before returning to Antioch in Syria via Ephesus, where he left Aquila and Priscilla to begin an Ephesian ministry. On his third missionary journey, c. 53-57, Paul returned to Ephesus for an extended stay. While he was there, word reached Paul of serious problems in the Corinthian church: sectarianism, sexual immorality, lawsuits between believers, marital issues, struggles with paganism, abuse of spiritual gifts and of the Lord’s Supper. From Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter – 1 Corinthians – to correct the understanding and conduct of the Corinthian Christians. It was a demanding and disciplinary letter that required some corrective response from the church. Worried about that response, Paul made a quick trip from Ephesus to Corinth to “check up” on the church. The visit was disastrous. Not only had the church not resolved the issues, but in Paul’s extended absence new leaders had arisen from within or infiltrated from without – leaders who presented themselves as super-apostles: charismatic, eloquent, impressive. They were, on the outside, everything that Paul was not. These super-apostles led the Corinthian church in disparaging treatment of Paul, questioning his credentials as an apostle and his authority over the church. Paul returned to Ephesus in turmoil and temporary defeat, almost despondent over the state of the Corinthian church and the ongoing difficulties of the work in Ephesus.

In this state of mind Paul wrote yet another letter to Corinth. Very harsh in tone, it is called the severe letter; some or all of it may be contained in 2 Corinthians 10-13. In this letter Paul “took on” the super-apostles by defending his own apostolic credentials and authority against theirs. He also promised/warned/threatened the church that he would come to them again soon in full apostolic power and judgment if necessary.

Have you ever hit the SEND button on a hastily written, harsh email and then immediately regretted sending it? Evidently Paul felt the same way after sending his severe letter. He worried that the letter might have made matters even worse. In true turmoil, he sent Titus to check on the Corinthian church, to see what effect the letter had produced. He was delighted to learn that his letter had brought the church to its senses and to true repentance and amendment of life. Relieved, he penned the more conciliatory letter we call 2 Corinthians.

Though gentler in tone than the severe letter, 2 Corinthians nonetheless continues Paul’s defense of his apostolic calling and authority and his appeal to the Corinthian Christians to respond to him as openly and genuinely as he has served them. This is where the lectionary locates us this morning, asking questions about the nature of and the bases for ministerial leadership and authority.

Let’s play a game of What If. What if you were Paul trying to defend your apostolic calling, ministry, and authority to the Corinthian Christians? Where might you start? I believe I might start at noonday, on a road to Damascus.

I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me (Act 26:12b-18, NRSV).

If I were Paul, I think would emphasize that my calling, my mission, my authority – like the calling, mission, and authority of the Twelve – came directly from Jesus and that, through this vision, I, too, had become a witness of the resurrected Lord. I think I would have started with the power and glory of my call.

But I am not Paul, and he chose quite differently.

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger (2 Cor 6:3-5, NRSV).

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sister; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Cor 11:24-28, NRSV).

Paul starts not with the power and glory of his call but with the suffering and humiliation of the ministry that resulted from that call. I can just imagine Paul standing before the Corinthian Christians – though I am certain this never happened – saying, “You want to see my credentials?” as he stripped his robe to reveal a body covered with ancient scars and recent wounds, a body almost impossibly alive. “These are my credentials!”

From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body (Gal 6:17).

To the super-apostles he might have said, “Show me your scars.” Christ’s call to ministry, though it might come in power and glory, is a call to take up the cross and follow him to Calvary; it is a call to suffering for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel. Christian ministry is cruciform, or it is no ministry at all. The Corinthians were impressed with what they could see on the outside – the look, the charisma, the eloquence of the super-apostles. God is interested in what is not seen; God is interested in the scars beneath the robe.

Little has changed in two millennia. The world is still impressed by appearance. Political candidates are not elected on substance, but on looks, charisma, eloquence. Products are marketed by young, thin, gorgeous actors who promise that, if you only use Product X, you will turn back the clock, shed 50 pounds, and have the look you’ve always dreamed of – with no effort, just by using the product. Super-apostles, many of whom may be seen on Sunday morning television, still look the part and still preach a gospel of health, wealth, and success. And God still looks for scars. The world may be manipulated – it certainly is manipulated – by those with looks and charisma and eloquence. But the world is redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ through his scarred and wounded servants, through those willing to embrace and share the pain and suffering of the world, through those who pour out their lives as a holy offering.

“When Jesus calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoffer began his classic work Discipleship, “when Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” So it always was, and so it always will be. The call to Christian life, which is always also a call to Christian ministry, is a call to martyrdom. In some places and times – even today – the martyrdom is visible and real: imprisonment, torture, death. Mostly for us, the martyrdom is hidden, though no less real – scars beneath the robe: hours spent in prayer, days of fasting, words of anger withheld and words of grace spoken, passions battled and put to death, pleasure foregone and service rendered, losing life to gain life. Visible or hidden, the Spirit-inflicted scars of martyrdom are still the credentials of ministry – for Paul, for me, for you, for the Body of Christ in the world.

Paul continues the defense of his apostolic call, ministry, and authority with these credentials: “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Cor 6:6-7a, NRSV). Imagine this. After spending several years in seminary preparing for the ministry, on the day before graduation a young man is called into his advisor’s office. “Thomas,” the advisor says, “you have an outstanding academic record here – top of your class, in fact. You are a fine looking young man, charismatic, eloquent. Still, I’m afraid we will not be awarding you a diploma tomorrow. You have no patience with yourself and with others. Your mentors here have noticed a “mean streak” in you, no genuine kindness; you impress people and manipulate them well, but you don’t truly seem to love them. Your speech is glib; you shy away from the difficult truth that should and must be spoken. Looking at you we see the excellence of Thomas but not the power of God. You are simply not ready for the ministry.” Perhaps this type of thing is done in seminaries; I don’t know. But I do know this: knowledge – the kind of knowledge that wins arguments and exercises superiority – “puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1b). Apostolic ministry and authority are based on love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; love that does not insist on its own way; love that is not irritable or resentful; love that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth; love that bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor 13:4-7). Even in his severe letter, with the harshest of reprimand and discipline, Paul acted in love for the church. Hard truths must sometimes be spoken, but they may rightly be spoken only when motivated by love. Those we serve as ministers – and we are all called to ministries of service – may be impressed with how much we know, but they will be changed by how much and how well we love.

Paul ends this defense by noting his faithfulness “in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute.”

We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything (2 Cor 6:8-10, NRSV).

True ministry is often filled with paradox: strength in weakness, glory in humility, authority in service, victory in defeat, riches in poverty. A life in ministry is a life not always as it seems, not always as it looks, not always as it feels. A life in ministry is a life lived by faith and not by sight, a life lived by the power of the spirit and not by the power of the flesh.

5For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. 6For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor 4:5-8, NIV).

“That the life of Jesus may be manifest,” Paul writes. That seems a fitting summary of Paul’s ministry and of all Christian ministry – yours and mine and ours included – and perhaps the only defense and credentials necessary: That the life of Jesus may be manifest – in the cruciform life that scars the back and breaks the heart and embraces the world, in love that builds up and redeems, in paradox that makes sense only by faith and not by sight.

You are called to ministry – different than Paul’s but not less than Paul’s. You may not think yourself – you may, in fact, not be – charismatic, eloquent, impressive. But you can embrace the pain and suffering of a broken world – one person at a time – and bear its scars. You can love with the love of God because you have received the love of God in Christ Jesus. You can live the paradox of God’s strength working in and through your own weakness. You can make the life of Jesus manifest in your life. These are the only credentials and defense you need. All that remains now is for you to go forth in the power of the Spirit; go for into your ministry bearing these credentials that the life of Jesus may be manifest.


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