Koinonia – Fellowship – part 5 – The Grace
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
Before the talk, 2 Corinthians 13:11–end was read by Ruth Priestly-Yates.
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- The introduction to the talk and the reading of Acts 2:42–47 are not included.
- [00' 00"] Famous last words
- [01' 26"] Corinth
- [03' 14"] Paul and the church in Corinth
- [07' 37"] The Grace
- [19' 17"] Closing prayer
Koinonia, part 5: Famous last words
You may not know that one of my oddities is that I have a fascination for last words, famous last words. Did you know that Winston Churchill’s last words were, ‘Oh, I’m so bored with it all.’? Karl Marx, the philosopher, remarked that, ‘Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.’ Oscar Wilde apparently said, ‘Either that wallpaper goes or I do.’ Marie Antoinette apparently said, ‘Pardon me, I didn’t do it on purpose.’ after accidentally stepping on her executioner’s foot.
Final words. Often the most poignant, the most remembered. They may be the last things that remain in one’s memory after someone has moved away or perhaps passed on. These last words stay. They have an impact. And here, at the end of 2 Corinthians, I’m sure that Paul has the same idea. To encourage and to bless at the end of a rather ranty letter, reminding them of his, and God’s, love for the church in Corinth.
Before we delve deeper, I need to set the scene both for this week and for a couple of weeks’ time, because we’ll be looking at 1 Corinthians then. So we’ll be looking at what the church in Corinth was like, and what Corinth as a city was like. And then we’ll spend some time looking at these last words of Paul in what we now know as The Grace. The challenge for us is whether, once we’ve considered, whether we do as we say.
So Corinth was a rough, tough kind of place in the first century AD. Imagine being a Christian trying to live out your best, a godly life, in somewhere, I guess, not that I’ve ever been, like Las Vegas All the temptations of excesses: drinking, gambling, women, men, drugs, whatever. Or all those things aren’t helpful to a Godly life – well, too many of them, anyway. Corinth, I think, was a bit like that.
This place was famous for its places of worship. Its altars to the goddess Aphrodite, where we get the word aphrodisiac from, so you can imagine what kind of happened there. For all but also the home to lesser gods as well, Poseidon the ruler of the sea, Apollo the god of music and poetry and other things. As well as temples to other such minor gods as Isis and Demeter and Hermes and others. For places of worship, Corinth was not short of them.
Paul and the church in Corinth
Because of its loose morals and its lecherous ways, Corinth became synonymous for immorality and Paul writes to the church – yes, there’s a church there even amongst the brothels and the excesses, somewhere there’s a church right there – because it was being influenced by many outside sources and Paul writes to the church at least three times. We’ve got two of the letters here in the Bible. He writes to them to get the church back on track morally, spiritually, and socially. They just such can’t seem to get along, these Corinthians. Paul writes to them very strongly and says he’s planning to visit, sort out the issues once and for all, because this is not how the Church of God should be. So the church at Corinth was full of infighting and pride and snobbery, and so the rich people weren’t going to share communion with the poor people; they wouldn’t eat together; there was all sorts of immorality that you can read in 1 Corinthians. And people were unwilling to submit to the authority of the church leaders and some people were already also thinking, ‘Well, Paul … what’s he got to say to us?’ So they were doubting his spiritual authority.
David Prior in his commentary on Corinthians says that if the love of God, the love of Jesus Christ, could take root in Corinth, the most populated, wealthy, commercially-minded, sex-obsessed city of Eastern Europe, it must be powerful anywhere.
And so Paul writes again, on this occasion to tell the church he can’t get there just yet to sort out their issues once and for all but that he plans to come. And so they’d better get their act together.
Two Corinthians is full of him trying to tell them what he had done. And to prove to them, to prove to the Corinthians, his authority, his spiritual authority. Ii is full of him putting together an argument as to why this group of people is important to him, but that their behaviour needs to change.
And here, right at the end of 2 Corinthians, we have something a little bit different: different in style, new in theology. There’s nothing new in Paul saying farewell at the end of his letters. But let’s look again. I like the Proclamation NIV version which is what Ruth read from, I’ve not heard of that until I got this particular Bible for Christmas last year, the Proclamation NIV. It says rejoice rather than farewell, goodbye, strive for restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. The RSV version of the Bible tells the Corinthian church to mend your ways. Whilst other versions seem to steer clear of this final admonishment and say more positive things such as strive for perfection. I think the Proclamation NIV here has an encouraging kind of middle way: encouragement to the church, yes, but knowing that there’s a long way to go.
The church is encouraged to encourage one another, no small feat when they’re divided over so many issues, and to live in peace. These four things are implicit in the life of any organism, any living entity. If we’re not ‘together’ then we’re not heading in the same direction, says Paul, and so clearly Paul is expecting some kind of change in attitude to the believers, both towards himself and for one another before he arrives on his next visit. Paul’ looking for, and expecting, a bit of ‘togetherness’ and a bit of unity, so he tells them a holy kiss would be the sign of fellowship as well as merely a friendly greeting.
Many of Paul’s letters finish in a similar friendly manner including things like ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus be with your spirit,’ ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.’ But unlike any other sign-off, Paul’s closing greeting here includes Father, Son and Holy Spirit. ‘May the grace, the love, the fellowship be with you all’.
So what’s the purpose of this phrase? We say it every week as a closing blessing to each other. But what’s the purpose?
Let’s look at this well known blessing a phrase at a time with the help of my friend Tom Wright, who’s able to say lots of amazing things quite succinctly.
Being a Christian, being a Christian starts with grace. The reasons why we are what and who we are is all because the Living God has reached down in sheer, undeserved mercy. That’s one definition of grace. Paul also uses the word grace to describe not only what God freely and lovingly does for us, but what he does in and through us. Grace is totally generous and from the self-giving love of God. If our lives are transformed by this grace it is little wonder that we mirror that generosity of God and become self-giving and perhaps gracious ourselves.
Tom Wright says it like this, so why does Paul speak of the grace of the Lord Jesus rather than simply of God? Jesus is the person the generous and self-giving God became. Jesus embodied the grace of God. In Jesus grace became human because that’s what grace needed to do to be fully of itself, to give itself for the world
We can properly speak of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and we can pray, as Paul does here, that his Grace will be powerfully active in the life of the church. But behind this specific power, active power, is the love of God. In the New Testament, God’s love is not simply an aspect of his character, it is the very essence of who God is, and I think 1 John talks about that: God is love.
The pagan gods of Corinth and the very ancient world didn’t believe in one God of love. Some Gods and Goddesses might show a type of love, for certain people, perhaps, but none of these god options spoke of a single god whose innermost nature was love. What was different about the God of the Christians was the belief that one God, who made the world, was indeed a totally, totally, loving God who would demonstrate this love by acting within the world. That is to say through Jesus, at enormous cost to himself, the death and resurrection of Jesus, to put everything right.
In gazing upon that loving God and learning to love and trust him in return, the early Christians found themselves embraced in a new kind of spirituality. An intimacy of trust like that of children with a good father. A warm security of knowing that they were loved with an everlasting love. And I think that’s what Paul meant by the love of God.
Those who are grasped by that love, says Tom Wright, who now have the grace of the Lord Jesus in their bloodstreams, are joined together in a family which the world has never seen before. It’s a family called to share a common life. And the word Paul use this here is that word that we’ve been exploring over the last few weeks: koinonia. That word can mean partnership and sharing, communion, participation, as well as the familiar fellowship.
It is because Paul believes passionately that God’s Spirit is at work in both his life and out of the Corinthian church, that he can’t walk away. Despite all of its difficulties, Paul can’t walk away.
Paul has not just provided a neat shorthand summary of the Christian life, he’s provided an astonishingly brief, yet complete, picture of the God in whom we believe. His understanding of Jesus and the Holy Spirit here, and elsewhere throughout 2 Corinthians, forces us to see the whole phrase as describing one God whom the earliest church came to see in a three-fold or Trinitarian form: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Paul is telling the Corinthians that through this formula of words, which we now know of as The Grace, is a unifying formula and that’s what the church needs to hear. It brings together the three most important ingredients of our faith: grace, love, fellowship, with the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And coming to know God in this multi-dimensional kind of way demands a change of heart, a change of life, community, and behaviour, and that’s what Paul was asking the Corinthians to do here. And so Paul has no option other than to end his letter here like this because the church in Corinth needs to go forward, needs to go forward in grace and love and fellowship.
I know I’ve said it before: those times when we gather as believers, whether formally or informally, we are being and doing koinonia. We are fellowship, we are family, we are community and we are partners. Because it’s about that spiritual and normal is what we do here and in the world. It’s not spiritual and physical. It is not that kind of one over here, a spiritual life over here and everything else over here. It’s everything, because that’s God way, that’s how God made the world to be: whole. And so when we talk about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit being with us all we are partaking, promising, and renewing that very present commitment of God in our lives to each other.
It is not just a blessing, it’s not just a commitment to godliness and to wholeness in its broadest form, it is not just a Trinitarian formula but it’s everything that’s central to do with who God is and who we are as a church family.
Groups gathered like we are now, small groups gathering to pray together, to study together, that’s the koinonia of God. But it’s more than that. When we serve together in a manner of different ways: bringing up children, serving coffee, meeting friends at the pub. The koinonia of God can be in these activities. Even when the church is scattered, when we’re home by ourselves, at a desk at the office, or on the train, wherever we are we are still joined by the Spirit of God because his spirit lives in us.
Wherever we are, whenever we have committed ourselves to Jesus Christ, it is our responsibility to be in fellowship, to be united, to be family, ‘to be together.’
I like how Paul puts it in Philippians, Philippians chapter two verses one to eleven, and this is from the Message version. This is what he says:
[If you, the Philippian church,] if you’ve got anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care – then do me a favour: agree with each other, love one another, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that – death on a cross.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honoured him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth [– even those long ago dead and buried –] will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honour of God the Father.
If you’ve got anything out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, do me a favour: agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.
I know I’ve said here many times, I am deeply deeply grateful to Main Street Church. I do love it. I love being part of the congregation here and I am blessed to be pastor here because there are so many things that we do, so many people, so many actions, so much personality, that does exactly what Paul says here: being a community of the Spirit. If we care, if we have a heart, then be the deep-spirited friends.
Lord God, I thank you for deep-spirited friends. I thank you for people here who have been friends because of their common life and their common faith in you for many years.
Father, I thank you that I have the privilege of being friends with people here.
Father God, would you please deepen our relationships? Would you please deepen our friendships in you?
Whether we meet each other in the week here, or whether we have coffee, or meet at the pub, whether we have a curry together, Father, thank you that it’s you that draws us together.
Would you please continue to walk with us? Would you please continue to guide us, and would you help us to follow you? In the unity of the spirit, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
The scripture quotation from Philippians is based on The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Petersons.