For the Sake of the Gospel (2 Cor. 6:1-13)
Rev. Derek Penwell's Sermon for Sunday 6/23/2012
Have you ever noticed that reading Paul places you in one of two categories: either you identify with him, cheering on his bold brand of righteousness, or you feel like you’re being ruthlessly subjected to judgment? Paul doesn’t leave many people lukewarm.
On the one hand, as has often been noted before, bad biblical interpretation usually begins with the reader reading herself or himself into the role of the hero. If when you read scripture, you always read yourself into the part of the little hero David rather than the frightened Saul, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Scripture is subversive in that it exposes us all for what we truly are—broken, often lacking the appropriate amounts of courage and faith, desperately in need of redemption by a merciful God. Therefore, if we read Paul and find ourselves cheering a little too loudly as Paul chastises yet another wayward congregation, we’re probably missing the point.
On the other hand, if when we read Paul, we think only of him as an arrogant authoritarian whose sole method of pastoral care seems to come at the end of a very sharp tongue, we’re probably not getting the point here either.
Because we live in an environment that finds claims to authority outrageous, if not shockingly tyrannical, reading someone who purports to tell others the best way to live sounds patently undemocratic, unnervingly anti-American. We’re taught not to put ourselves forward as examples for other people to follow because . . . well . . . it just sounds so pompous.
The thought that people ought not to put themselves arrogantly forward as role models, however, is a modern development. For most of history, there was a common belief that people couldn’t learn anything useful without someone to show them the way. Nobody believed, for example, that it was possible to learn anything of value on your own. You had to watch somebody else who knew how to do it. The very idea of “self-help,” in which anyone with a library card or an Internet connection and a Saturday afternoon can learn to do anything, would have been unintelligible prior to the Enlightenment.
Consequently, a modern reading of Paul that sees him as “merely” judgmental completely misses the point of how people learned in that cultural context, of the kind of mutually understood interaction between Paul and his audience.
Admittedly, though, most moderns are prone to reading Paul from one of those two perspectives—either as unfailingly like us, or as completely unlike us—as always right in the way we like to think of ourselves as always right, or as wrong in the way that all arrogant blowhards are always wrong. And in so doing we miss a profoundly significant lesson about what it means to live like a Christian.
What’s going on here in our lesson for today? Paul has just finished one of the most beautiful descriptions of this new life that comes to us in the wake of the risen Christ. The paragraph immediately preceding our text for today says anyone who is now in Christ is “a new creation.” And this new creation came not because of our initiative but “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”
And because we’ve been reconciled to God, we’ve been given “the ministry of reconciliation.” We’re no longer free- agents. Paul says we’re “ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” We’re God’s plan for saving the world.
When Paul says “we,” he is, of course, first of all thinking of himself and his companions who’ve heard the call to full time ministry. And if we were to leave it at that, we might conceivably let ourselves off the hook by seeing ministry as an act reserved for the ordained, the officially sanctioned.
But Paul’s not going to let the vocation of ministry given all of us at baptism slide by so easily. He says, “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” In other words, “What I’m fixing to say about how we full-time clergy types approach ministry has implications for everybody who’s been made ‘a new creation.’”
Why? Because all who’ve been reconciled have been given “the ministry of reconciliation.”
So when Paul says, beginning in verse 3, “We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,” he is first of all speaking of those full-timers with whom he’s associated, but he is by implication adding to the rest of us, “Pay attention. Here’s how we do it, and this is, therefore, the way you should do it too.”
Do what? What is it that should characterize the ministry of those who have been reconciled, called to be ambassadors for Christ? How, in other words, should the baptized live?
Paul indicates that he and his colleagues have “put no obstacle in anyone’s way” by commending themselves through “great endurance” in virtually every situation imaginable: in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger . . . in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, 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.”
Well, that’s really impressive, but how? How have they kept their integrity in the midst of such disheartening situations? That’s what we want to know?
Paul says they’ve done it “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left.”
But what does that mean? How do you do all those things?
I think it’s something like this: For the sake of the gospel, Paul and his companions lived what they knew to be the truth, regardless of their situation. They didn’t just talk about it. They put skin and bones on their ideas, made them get up and walk around.
When things got a little intense, they could have soft-soaped some of the harder demands of the Christian life—you know, downplayed some of the more controversial aspects of the faith. Nothing big, just enough to get a little breathing room. Go along to get along, and all like that.
But apparently Paul is in the habit of “speaking frankly,” and he decided a long time ago that the only way to be a minister of the gospel, the only way to be a follower of Christ is to say and do that which is right, even though the consequences of your speech and actions might bring you trouble.
And have no doubt, if we live our lives faithful to the gospel, as one called to the ministry of reconciliation, as an ambassador for Christ, we’re going to ruffle some feathers. But, let me be quick to add that, according to Paul, if we’re living out our faith without making any waves, we’re probably not doing it right.
Now, be careful here; I’m not saying that just because you happen to have an annoying personality and perpetually walk around irritating people that that’s proof of a life well lived. If that were true Ned Flanders and Gilbert Gottfried would be saints.
It’s possible to get crossways with people for all the wrong reasons. Paul doesn’t want that. But he’s wise enough to know that the world is situated such that if you live as a minister of reconciliation in the midst of people who love to be at war, you’ll invariably find yourself at odds.
But Paul says that they put “no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with” their ministry.
If you make people angry, aren’t you putting obstacles in their way?
That’s our modern question in the church, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, we church types tend to read Paul here as saying that the responsibility of those who’ve been called to the ministry of reconciliation is to tailor all our speech and actions in such a way so as not to upset anyone—as if true reconciliation might ever really be achieved absent true speech and right behavior—as if the guiding principle for Christians had to do with finding out what makes the fewest people agitated, rather than being true to the one who has made us now a new creation.
But Paul says that they put “no obstacles in anyone’s way.” How do we square that with Paul’s claim to speak frankly, and to live with integrity in every situation?
What we often fail to realize is that the greatest obstacle to the spreading of the gospel is a failure to live the gospel.
What brings disrepute to the Christ for whom we are ambassadors is to say we believe one thing, but when the going gets tough we wind up living something totally different.
According to Paul, the greatest witness is to speak and act in ways that bring glory to God, even though our speech and actions are misunderstood. For the sake of the gospel, Paul is willing to risk being misunderstood in the short run, in order to be faithful in the long run.
Not because he cares about piling up personal points for himself with Jesus (according to Paul, we’ve already been reconciled), or because he’s one of those people who always has to be right, but because the health and witness of the church are at stake. That’s the whole point: what is at issue here is the integrity of the church.
Personal integrity is important, but it’s important just to the extent that it contributes to the overall ministry of the body of Christ. We aren’t called to live faithfully just so we can get our heavenly bus passes stamped.
We’re called to live faithfully so that the body of Christ can continue to stand as a sign of hope to a world that wouldn’t know faithfulness or integrity if it came up and bit us right on the nose, to a world whose notions about how to act are always concerned with how it will effect me.
The hope of a lost and dying world is a church dedicated to the mission of speaking and living the truth in the service of the ministry of reconciliation—even though at first glance, the world may hate us for it.
Being an ambassador for Christ often causes problems you might otherwise have avoided by keeping a low profile. If you do it right, you risk being misunderstood; you risk making people angry.
On the other hand, Jesus died a misunderstood man in the midst of a lot of angry people. For the sake of the gospel, apparently, he figured it was worth it.
In fact, he bet his life it was worth it. Thank God he did.