2 Corinthians 6:1-13
First United Methodist Church, June 24, 2018
Toni L. Carmer
I doubt that very many of us look forward to a tough conversation. Avoidance would perhaps be our preference! People invest significant amounts of time and money in counseling sessions to make up for conversations that should have taken place but never did, to try to repair hurt feelings from conversations that did take place but went bad, or to learn how to step into them even though our strongest impulse might be to turn and run the other way. When we want to have a relationship with someone, when we really care about them and want that relationship to be as healthy as it can be, we sometimes need to have a difficult conversation. We need to share things that hurt and touch us deeply, in order for our relationship to be better, to move forward, to keep growing.
That's what Paul has been doing in his letters to the church of Corinth. We've been looking at different parts of his 2nd letter to them over the past few weeks as he addresses issues in this church that he founded about their continued relationship together. He loves these people and he wants them to know that as he speaks from his heart.
The church has been going through a rough time. Corinth is an important and busy commercial city. It is a crossroad for travelers and traders, rich in Greek, pagan culture. Its immorality is widely known—and in the midst of all this, these first generation Christ-followers have been called to a new way of living.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul gives firm instruction to deal with the immoral practices within the church that have been brought to his attention. He has also encouraged them to resolve their differences in the church, rather than bringing suit against one another in the civil courts while other religious associations look on and wonder about this "unity" thing these Christians so often speak about. He instructs them to pay attention to the poor and the needy: it seems that while some are slugging down wine and bread for Holy Communion, others are going away empty, literally hungry.
To further complicate matters, after Paul's departure, other missionaries have come to Corinth who don't respect Paul or the work that he's done, and so their teachings have created problems between he and the community. Many of his earlier followers are anything but accepting of Paul right now—they are resisting him. They wonder—shouldn't following Christ make everything good? Shouldn't following his ways make you successful? Powerful? Look what's happened to Paul, he doesn't even try to hide those bad things that have happened to him! All the awful things he's endured—the "afflictions, the hardships the calamities." Isn't the cross foolishness/weakness? Are these the kinds of things—is this the kind of life Paul is calling us to live?
It may have been easier to simply say, okay, fine, I'll focus my attention somewhere else where they're more receptive. Where they're not acting so badly. But he knows he has to say something. He has to respond. These people are too important to him to just let it go. And so he speaks out. He takes a big risk. It will be a difficult conversation, but they're worth it. He reminds them that they have received the gift of God's grace, and to not let that gift be given in vain: He rallies them to faithfulness: "Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!"
He then says something I think is interesting: "We put no stumbling block in anyone's path, so that our ministry will not be discredited." He follows that with a list of the awful things he's experienced in his ministry, which are precisely what some of his followers have expressed concern about: the problems, disasters, and stressful situations? The beatings, imprisonments and riots? The hard work, sleepless nights and hunger? These are good things? Perhaps they might be a stumbling block to someone who is new in the faith if they think that these are real possibilities for the days ahead. They don't sound all that inviting to someone who is well established in the faith, either.
And yet Paul perseveres. Uses his example for others, so they might persevere in difficult times, as well.
And people today still respond to the call. Continue to persevere and to share the Good News.
I have a friend who was a part of a missionary family during his growing up years. He and his parents moved to the Congo when he was very young and by the time he was 3, he and his very ill and pregnant mother returned to the states after his father died of polio. Later, his mother married a physician who was called to be a missionary as well, and they moved to the former Congo. When that country experienced civil war they were evacuated, taking nothing with them. Chased by rebels, they poured diesel fuel on mattresses so the US Navy pilots could see the grass strip on which they would land to take them to safety.
That little boy eventually became a United Methodist minister, despite the problems, the disasters, the stressful situations he experienced as a little boy.
Being a missionary isn't easy. Proclaiming God's word, living out God's word in the world isn't easy. We may not be beaten, thrown into jail or chased by rebels. But there are times when we're called to speak, to do, to be what isn't popular. There are times when we as Christians, and we as the Church are called to speak out when there is injustice, when people in our world aren't being treated as neighbors, as beloved children of God. And sometimes, people who we love and care about won't understand, they'll disagree. They might decide to pick up their toys and play elsewhere. It isn't always easy.
In the mid 1980's, as a result of his opposition to apartheid in South Africa, Beyers Naude suffered rejection by the Dutch Reformed Church where he was a pastor. He was eventually banned—which meant he was placed on house arrest, imposed by the South African Government.
In his reflection on this in an article he wrote entitled "My Seven Lean Years," he wrote, this:
"…there was a practical side of a banning order. It has to do with facing one's feelings of anger, frustration, and vindictiveness which inevitably arise. I soon discovered that I had to make a crucial decision with regard to these feelings: would I allow these feelings to take root in my life, would I do everything in my power to ensure that no such feelings would corrode my inner life and freedom? I requested my wife, Ilse, to be on the outlook for any signs of such expression of anger or bitterness and to help me to discover this immediately she became aware of such expressions. This she faithfully did…and as far as I know both of us have been able to live through this period and to conquer any feelings of bitterness, hatred or revenge which otherwise could have destroyed us. I consciously refused to allow the banning order to accomplish its intended goal.
It would not rob me of the opportunity to think, reflect, and plan the future.
It would not prevent me from sharing and passing on my insights, analyses, discovering of new values to other people—even if this could only be done one at a time. Such discovery of precious thoughts and new truths were like small seeds which I was sowing all the time, certain in my faith that the explosive power of truth would let it take root and grow in the hearts and minds of many of those with whom I associated during that period.
It would not stop me loving people and trying to understand them better, deepening my concerns for their hopes, their joys and their suffering, and therefore becoming more sensitive to such joys and suffering.
It would not stop me from growing as a human being and as a Christian.
It would not rob me of my inner freedom, my peace of mind, my joy of living and sharing.
All of this brought me to the firm conclusion: through God's grace I would never allow this banning to break my spirit, to distort my freedom of mind, or my concern for justice. It would never rob me of the deep conviction…that freedom will come to our land, that the system of apartheid will eventually crumble and disappear, and that our country and our people will be free (C.F. Beyers Naude "My Seven Lean Years," Journal of Theology for South Africa 15 (June 1985): 10-11).
Beyers Naude was able to find grace in his experience, to learn and to grow out of that experience, in spite of this time that was meant to stop him, to hold him back. And apartheid eventually came to an end.
Paul, too, found grace in the awful moments that he experienced. He did not view them as times when God was absent from him, as times when he was on his own, or as times when God was punishing him. Rather, he shared those experiences with the community of faith as testimony of his commitment to serve God in every season and in every way…no matter what. No matter the response. He knew God equipped him with the weapons of righteousness that would carry him through; he knew God would give him what he needed.
Through it all, he wanted the Corinthians to know how much he loved them. He wanted them to know how much he wanted to remain in ministry and in relationship with them. No matter what they had gone through, no matter what they had done, his desire was to remain their father in faith.
What we know is that the Corinthians responded well to this difficult conversation. And the Word of God continued to spread.