Three CJune 14, 2009, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
How can we live faithfully in the daily give and take of this world filled with its constant distractions, competing goals and frequent optical illusions? We know about the distractions from our life of the Spirit–they are constant and endless, as are the struggles of living in a world with competing values and goals, whether that has to do with how we treat our enemies, allocate our resources, or speak to others of the hope within us. As for optical illusions, they usually become apparent only in hindsight, as we painfully discover people and things are not what they appear to be.
This sets the background for Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In his first, Paul identified many of the temptations, distractions and competing values, and did so with directness and forcefulness that caused many there to chaff.1 Now, in his absence, new leadership has arrived and, playing to the crowd, is ridiculing and discrediting Paul and his ministry among them–never a good pastoral strategy, by the way.2 In today’s lesson, Paul not only refutes their criticism, but identifies three characteristics central to living in this world by faith: confidence, compassion and compulsion–three “C’s” of the Christian life.
Confidence: always so, says Paul, regardless of the circumstances. The word behind our English “confidence,” means “full of courage,” able to act boldly, even courageously.3 But from whence does such unwavering confidence come? To answer, we have to step back into the verses which come just before today’s lesson. In defending himself and his ministry among them, Paul reminds the Corinthians that none of us is perfect. Rather, even the most faithful of us bear the treasure of the Christian gospel in clay jars–fragile containers. But even this, insists Paul, has its value, for it reveals that the extraordinary, transformative power of the gospel in human lives comes not from us but from God.4 Life is easily broken, subject to all sorts of challenges, infirmities, and hardships. When we lose our focus and begin placing confidence in ourselves alone, all sorts of pitfalls lie before us. Christian confidence lies not in ourselves, but the One who is within us: the presence of the risen Lord.
Paul writes, Even though our outer nature is wasting away, we do not lose heart. Why? Because Christ’s presence within us is dynamic, renewing our inner nature day by day.5 This is what enables us to look and live, not by what is seen, but by what cannot be seen–living by faith rather than sight.6 One reason for confidence is the daily renewal of our faith as in life’s hardships we experience the power of God at work within us, sustaining us and drawing us ever forward and deeper into life in and with God. Think of how often a crisis has become, for you, an occasion for deeper and more powerful faith.
There is yet another unseen that accompanies Christ’s constant presence within us. Paul writes, “We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heaven.”7 The ultimate source of confidence lies here: we belong to the Lord. “In life and in death we belong to God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”8 Our confidence lies in Christ’s love for and presence in and among us, not simply in this life, but in the life to come when all will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to receive recompense for what we have done in this body, whether good or bad.
Paul clearly believes in a judgment, a final reckoning for all of us, based, not on what we have thought, nor even believed, but upon what we have done. Paul was too good a Jew to want to deny God’s justice, or have it swallowed up in God’s mercy. He knew that mercy without justice was neither just nor merciful and justice without mercy was not God’s justice. Consequently, our confidence standing before the judge is this: the judge has done what was needed to set things right, giving his life for us that we might die in and with him.
We have died to the past, as the assurance of pardon here regularly reminds us. Paul writes, “...we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.”9 Notice Paul said “all,” not just those who believe in Jesus, or even God. In writing to the Romans Paul says the same thing: “Christ died for the ungodly.”10 His death claims the lives of all humankind.11 The cross is not simply something you and I look on from afar to see the magnitude of God’s love for us. Nor is it merely something that happened back there that had some eternal influence on God concerning us. Christ’s death on that cross involves each and every one of us directly, in that death we all die–all humanity dies.12 Christ’s death was not just personal, it was cosmic. It has broken the power of sin over all of life. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.”13 In that death, the sin that separated humanity from God was destroyed and reconciliation with God accomplished–for everyone! Those who respond in faith find God’s power to live into new life.
This means, says Paul, you and I can no longer look at anyone from simply a human point of view. As those who know about life’s optical illusions, we are called to look at others from God’s point of view, who looks not on outward appearances, but on the heart.14 Think about it: from a human point of view, Jesus was an illegitimate boy from the country who, though a charismatic teacher and gifted healer, never developed his real potential, but wasted it hanging out with lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor and other sinners. His rebellion against the faith and challenge to the religious leaders of his day got him killed as an enemy of both God and Caesar! How’s that for an optical illusion? But as we no longer look at Jesus from that human point of view, neither must we look at one another from that view. We are to live, not by what is seen but by what is unseen.
This leads to the second “C” of the Christian life–compassion. What God has done for us God has done for everyone in this world.15 The source of our compassion lies in the recognition that our value–everyone’s value–comes from the fact that Christ died for all of us.16 The Christian life at its core is compassionate because of God’s compassion for us. Even unbelievers must be related to differently because Christ died for them as well as for us.
Christ died for all so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”17 Just as we died in Christ, so too we have been raised to new life in him–life lived out of the reality and power of being members of God’s new creation. The cross and resurrection of Jesus has triggered a New Age, the big bang of God’s New Creation. “If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; behold–everything has become new!”18 And now we are at the very heart of it: we are so new, not only are we compelled to see others as God sees them, but we actually can! This is one of the gifts of being part of God’s new creation. The old is past–the old way of seeing things, the old way of doing things, the world of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the world of getting what we deserve (thank God that is past), and the world where we were captive to the sin that lies behind all of that. All of this is from God who in Christ was reconciling us to himself and incorporating us into God’s work of reconciliation. Christ is so at work in us that we are no longer our own. Here comes the third “C.” The love of Christ both constrains and compels us. I know, it sounds like a third and a fourth “C” but they really are one in the same.
Paul writes, “The love of Christ urges us on...” The word behind that can be variously translated: “urges us on,” “holds us together,” “constrains us,” “holds us fast,” or “controls us.”19 In fact it is the love of Christ that does all of that, compelling, empowering and enabling us to live our lives as members of his new creation. Christ’s love holds us together in the challenges of living by faith and not by sight. Christ’s love constrains us when we would live by sight rather than faith and deny others the compassion and mercy of God we so desperately need for ourselves. Christ’s love empowers us to see others as God sees them, and compels us to go into this world living not for ourselves but for the one who has commissioned us his ambassadors.
Confidence, compassion and compulsion–three gifts God gives us to live as members of the new creation, sent as ambassadors to any and all in this world who are confused, trapped in life’s optical illusions, or unable to live for anyone but themselves.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!
- Those who hold the notion of the church of New Testament times as some idealized norm of perfection need to read 1 Corinthians regularly. It makes the challenges and conflicts of the contemporary church seem tame.
- Upon Paul’s departure from Corinth to continue his missionary work, another group of evangelists arrived with a different version of the Christian message, and began to discredit Paul, ridiculing him for his appearance, his apparent lack of verbal eloquence, and his frequent falling into ecstatic worship and mystical experience. But more serious still is the way these new missionaries are distorting the gospel. Paul later sarcastically refers to them as “Super Apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:15 and 12:11). However, as is frequently the case in Paul’s letters, in arguing for his own integrity and apostleship, Paul also reveals a solid theology of the Christian life.
- Tharreo; sometimes translated “good courage.”
- 1 Corinthians 4:7
- 1 Corinthians 4:16
- 1 Corinthians 5:7
- 1 Corinthians 5:1
- “A Brief Statement of Faith,” The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2002), p. 267, lines 1-4.
- 1 Corinthians 5:14
- Romans 5:6; see also Romans 5:8; 1 Cor 8:11; 15:3; 1 Thess 5:10.
- Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching; A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 388.
- Paul is not saying here that Christ’s death was “substitutionary”–he taking our place, but rather that he did it for all of humanity, and that in that death, all humanity died. See J. Paul Sampley, “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 92.
- Romans 6:11
- 1 Samuel 16:7b
- Sampley, p. 99.
- Sampley, p. 98.
- 1 Corinthians 5:15
- 1 Corinthians 5:17
- The word is sunecho.
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