7: How God sees … our living. 2 Corinthians 6:3–10
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on . It is preceded by a reading of 2 Corinthians 6:3–10 from the NIV.
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[Jo: ] The reading today is from 2 Corinthians 6:3–10.
We put no stumbling-block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
[Paul W: ] Thank you, Moira and Jo. This week, for me, reminded me that three years ago, I walked through the doors of Main Street Community Church for the first time. I was about 15 minutes late for my interview. I was coming down Church Street and I turned right instead of left. Then, for those of you who know Ashton Drive and St. Hildas Drive, it’s an absolute nightmare to try to turn right from there. I turned left to try to turn around. It took me another few minutes to get here. Moira, I think was the first person I saw as I ran through the door saying, “I think I’m late for my interview.” She said, “I think it’s that way.”
Three years is almost gone by since I began here. I’m grateful for every moment that I have spent amongst my friends and my family here. Paul talks a lot about hardships and difficulties, but he also talks about joys. It’s been my absolute joy to be with you for the last three years here. Next week, we will be drawing our series to close on how God sees us. We’ll be looking at how God sees us in the light of eternity, I think, or something like that, as Andrew draws this to a close, but before that, there’s something a little more pressing, how God sees our living.
We often get a sense that Jesus’ teaching is all about living a life in heaven, waiting for future to begin, that this life is merely preparation for something then, because in the now, it seems sometimes there’s a lot of suffering. For some people, this present life does have an element of suffering. We switch on the news, and here if we’re lucky between bulletins about the general election and Brexit and impeachments, about how awful life is for people having to escape their own countries due to civil war, how rain forests are being felled at an alarming rates so that loggers can move in and take over land that has belonged to people groups for generations.
For those who have no access to medical treatments or are on the verge of starvation or are experiencing pain through the loss of someone dear to them. Life, it can be tough. Even our own aches and pains and life experiences can sometimes wear us down, especially when there seems to be little or nothing that can be done. When the electricity meter runs out of money again, when there’s nobody to go to the shop to put money on the key, or when we sign a petition or attend a rally for something we wholeheartedly believe in, but yet sometimes we can’t see a positive outcome, but yet we stoically say, “I’m not as badly off as others, so I count my blessings.”
Last time, when we were talking about these sorts of things, Paul talked about something being a thorn in his flesh. He asked God to remove it, but three times the reply came back, “No, my grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Somehow Paul was able to get beyond blessing counting and receive the higher calling, which was receiving God’s grace. Not a feeling of having overcome trials, but rather coming to an acceptance that somehow, even in that midst of total adversity, there is a God who has, somehow, has it in hand, but somehow it’s going to be okay. Today is about how God sees us in our living. That’s the backstory to 2 Corinthians 6.
2 Corinthians 5 is all about new ministries and new creations, a new way of being, a new way of doing life. “In Christ,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “we are a new creation.” The problem Paul explains is that the Corinthians are not living as new creations. As an apostle of Christ, someone who has experienced Jesus in person, he wants to show the Corinthian church that he has seen some of this new stuff, the riches of God’s kingdom, rather than what we might call earthly riches. As new creations, there is a new world which must be experienced through being reconciled to the God who loves them.
Paul as one of God’s ambassadors invites the Corinthians to join him in being ministers of reconciliation. For us, this might mean not looking to heaven as a way of escaping Earth, but by walking with one another, limping along together, pointing out the good stuff and the bad, offering a shoulder to cry on, an arm to rest upon, a platform to hang on, as we each hobble our way through life. We don’t do this alone, we do it as part of a community together. The ministry of reconciliation cannot be done by ourselves. Paul invites his partners, the Corinthians in this instance, to make the most of this grace, that is sufficient even in weakness. That’s the backstory to 2 Corinthians 6.
Here, Paul wants to tell the Corinthians exactly how it has been for him, and bursts into a whole list of what sounds like confusing stuff, stuff which sounds conflicting and stuff that doesn’t sound like it should be coming from a victorious grace-filled evangelist. Here is Paul the ambassador being vulnerable. Just the state we sometimes find ourselves in. Just as we saw a couple of weeks back when we thought about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, so we see Paul telling his followers, how it really is.
Paul seems to put together things that generally clash, glory and dishonour, bad reports and good, dying yet living, sorrowful yet rejoicing, having nothing yet possessing everything. How does this look like a new creation that he was talking about a few minutes ago? Tom Wright explains, “The list of hardships in verses 5 and 6 are balanced by the qualities in verses 7 and 8.” [Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians] He goes on to ask, ”How do you react to sufferings, difficulties, hardships? Most of us don’t have to put up with beatings and imprisonments, and if we did we’d be unlikely (I fear) to respond with kindness and genuine love.”
One way of looking at this passage, it seems to me, is to balance out the horrific with the even slightly better. Let me give you an example of my working life. Last Christmas Eve, a jolly time, last Christmas Eve morning, I led a sombre funeral for a man that I’d never met. As with any funeral, the role of a pastor is to hold the feelings of those gathered and enable them to reflect, to be sad, to remember good times, and also, when the time comes, to say farewell to someone dearly loved. The mood was somewhat lightened when a group of people from the care home that the gentleman had lived in came wearing their Christmas jumpers. One of the grieving family asked if he could bring his dog into the service. So long as it was well-behaved, fine, why not? In the morning, as we said goodbye to this gentleman that I had never met, I could sense the range of emotions. Following the service and the committal, I went home, had some lunch, after which I came back here to set out the celebratory Christmas carol service, welcoming the newborn King. In that Christmas Eve, there had been a clash of emotions for me, holding the grief of a family, whilst at the same time being glad that I could celebrate the wonder of another Christmas. Did I feel sad? Did I feel glad? No and yes; yes and no.
The point I’m trying to make is that I wanted to be authentic with my feelings about that day. As a pastor, as a minister, sometimes I have to grieve with those who are grieving and perhaps even just a few moments later, in another context, I’m celebrating and laughing with somebody else. It sometimes feels like a moment when the real Paul Wintle must step forward. The truth is, the real Paul Wintle is in both of those situations. None of us lives a glorious life in every moment of every day. Even the most positive, extrovert person needs a reality check. It is not a case of leading a double life but sometimes both joy and sadness, for example, can exist in that same moment.
I think that’s what Paul is trying to convey in his message in 2 Corinthians chapter 6. When we say I’m struggling but there are others worse off than me. I wonder whether we are doing a disservice to our own situation. I wonder whether we are actually being truthful to ourselves. Whilst there might be others worse off than me, I’m actually forgetting the reality of my situation. What Paul is trying to do here is point out that Christian maturity involves balance. “As servants of God”, he says, “we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots;” he goes on, “… through glory and dishonour, bad report and good …; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; … sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Tom Wright goes on, “Christian maturity gets the balance right,” he says. “It isn’t so much a matter of a bit of this and a bit of that; it’s a lot of both, and at the same time.”
For me on that Christmas Eve, it was okay to be able to grieve and to celebrate different things at the same time. It is okay for each of us to have those confusing emotions about our own circumstances, to allow them to be what they are. To bear the difficulty of them, whilst also being able to be happy for someone in their joy. Because life is not one happy journey and that’s the reason that we need one another. God sees those apparent contradictions in our lives, our emotions, and our situations. He sees us, and he knows us. Paul is pointing out that throughout his discourse here, that he wants his Corinthian friends to be mature, faithful followers of Christ.
How they can both be rich and poor, for example, depends on the context. I’m going off on one now. I don’t know if anyone has seen the Channel 5 program Rich Kids Go Skint, I wouldn’t recommend it. One of my friends calls this kind of program poverty porn. Looking at it and making judgements on everyone taking part. It’s about a very rich family taking on the life of another family from the other end of the financial divide. For a week, the family lives on a restricted budget in the other family’s life, whilst the poor family can know what it’s like to lead the luxury with an expendable income of perhaps hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
In the one episode I saw, the rich kids said that they would much rather enjoy their luxury lifestyle. Though the poor kid whilst they enjoyed the luxuries of that week, ended up saying that they would rather live in a small cramped flats with the knowledge that their mum loved them. How we view riches depends on what we compare. Spiritually, I might be bankrupt if I compared my own faith with those giants of faith like the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. The point is, I shouldn’t compare myself anyway. Life happens. It is hard enough sometimes without having to compare it with how good someone else has it. Because it’s about balance.
Sometimes I can say that I understand that God’s grace is sufficient for me. While there are other times, I might only be able to say it through gritted teeth. It’s a balance. Sometimes my faith is hunky-dory and at other times perhaps it’s a struggle to believe that God is there. Perhaps the Paul who is writing to the Corinthians here has the gift of holding on to the promises of God for dear life. Perhaps he has the grit and determination that maybe I don’t. In each second of every moment of every hour of every day, that’s not necessarily true, and that’s not a let-down, it’s human. Paul’s difficulties mirror the words of Jesus to his own followers in Mark 8:34, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
In this instance, Jesus had been telling his disciples that he would have to go through hardships and suffering. It’s the way of the cross, it seems. This act of denying oneself of taking up one’s cross and of following Jesus is it seems to me and it seems to Mark the definition of what a Christian is. It’s not a walk in the park. It might be a dangerous path to tread. For Paul, as much as for Jesus wholehearted following is at the centre of this walk. We are called to follow. Paul is telling his friends at Corinth this walking with Jesus is not always easy. Yet, as he writes to the Philippians, Paul sees following Jesus as something that involves both loss and gain, another apparent contradiction.
In Philippians 3:7–12, it just says this,
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Paul’s worthless rubbish, his garbage is to use the vernacular dung. Compared to everything else, knowing Jesus is the best stuff. Knowing Jesus means so much to Paul that he was willing to give up his old lifestyle, to live that new creation that we talked about earlier. His old attraction to the former way of living has been transformed and become a new way of living. In Romans, Paul calls this transformation. Romans 12. All this boils down to two things, two words, perspective, and balance. How we see things, rich and poor, for example, needs to be with the right perspective and the right balance. We can’t always see our own world with perspective and balance. Other things get in the way. That’s okay because we shouldn’t apologize for being human and for being the way that we were made. The way we see things are not necessarily the way things are. It seems to me that what Paul is doing here is readjusting his thinking. He is renewing his mind. His outlook on life does not depend on his own circumstance only, but his outlook on life is not the thing that directs his life because he’s following Jesus. It’s another way of thinking, this renewed, transformed way of life is ultimately through following Jesus. As he points out, it’s not always the easy way, but this way of thinking and being enables him and us to be new creations, looking to that new era, when the old has fully gone, and the new has fully come.
My encouragement for us this morning, similarly to two weeks ago: don’t give up. God’s got you. Hold on.
Wright, N T (Tom), Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians, SPCK, 2004
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