June 18, 2018
The Proper 7B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 4:35-41 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 9:9-20 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1 (Lord’s Day 1)
Author: Scott Hoezee
For men ostensibly accustomed to being out on the water—presumably in all kinds of weather—the disciples sure panicked over the weather often enough in the gospels. The only calm one in all those storms-at-sea situations was the land-lubber carpenter from Nazareth. So also here in Mark 4: With just a word the Jesus who had not been sufficiently bothered by the storm to be awakened by it in the first place calmed that same storm with apparent ease.
But according to Mark, that was when the real terror of the night began. The only time in these brief verses when the disciples are described as “terrified” is not when the storm was swamping the boats but after Jesus rebukes both the winds and the disciples. The terror in their eyes and in their voices comes not when they are shaking Jesus awake to ask if he doesn’t care whether they live or die but only when they are asking each other, “Who is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
We are not told the disciples were filled with wonder. We are not told they asked this question trembling with joy or anticipation. We are not told that they asked one another this question with excitement rising in their voices. No, we’re told they were “terrified,” and the discerning reader has to wonder why.
After all, the disciples have been with Jesus long enough now to have seen a lot of spectacular healings, including the casting out of some demons. They have been around Jesus long enough to sense that he possesses phenomenal powers and is, by most any reckoning, no ordinary man or rabbi. True, they’ve not seen him command the very forces of nature in just this way but it wasn’t exactly the first time they’d seen power at work in and through the very words of their master.
Yet they were terrified at this particular display. “Who is this?” they asked.
It’s not a bad question.
It reminds me of a scene I saw in a movie years ago about a man who, to the best of his family’s knowledge, was just a typical insurance salesman from Indiana. In reality he was a highly trained government spy who spoke a half-dozen languages fluently, could wield weapons with the best of them, and knew all kinds of tricks of the spy trade. In the film the man’s wife disappears on a trip to Paris and so, with his son in tow, the man more and more utilizes his spy skills to find his wife back. Early on the man’s son overhears his father speaking fluent French into a pay phone even as he slickly tucked a pistol into his belt. As he emerged from the phone booth, his son—eyes as big as saucers—looked at his own father and asked, “Who are you?” Something was up with his father that he had heretofore never sensed or even suspected.
You can’t blame the disciples for having a similar reaction about Jesus but why had they not asked a similar question earlier when demons fled before Jesus, when paralyzed people stood up and walked, when lepers were made clean? And not only that but why in Mark 4, when they ask this question, do they do so with terror in their voices? For whatever the reason, it’s pretty clear that this incident with the waves and the wind tipped the disciples off that Jesus was not just a skilled healer but was in fact almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth and, just so, the one who could command those elements as well.
And that maybe was the part that terrified them. It’s one thing to think you’ve hitched your wagon to a highly charismatic teacher and healer. It’s one thing to think you’re in the inside circle of one gifted human being. If you’ve ever had the chance to shake the hand of a president or prime minister or royal figure, you know there is a certain electricity that courses through you at being in the presence of so extraordinary a person.
But things are different in case you realize you are in the presence of not just a gifted person but no less than God himself! Because if you have occasion to realize that you’ve been hanging around with God all along, suddenly you start to wonder about other things. Suddenly you wonder if all along he’s been able to read your mind, know your thoughts, see the envy and the anger and the things you didn’t say (but wanted to) and that were not all that kind. Suddenly you wonder if you’ve been sitting up straight enough and behaving well enough all along, if maybe the things you’ve done and said are going to have consequences well beyond the momentary (as in, maybe into eternity . . .).
As Fred Craddock once said in a sermon about John the Baptist, what made John the Baptist intriguing was that his preaching brought people right into the presence of God which, as Craddock put it, “Is what everybody wants, and what nobody wants.”
The presence of God. It’s what we want, and yet what terrifies us, too. We can only feel safe about it in case we are convinced that the God in whose presence we are is finally a good and gracious God, a God who loves us despite our foibles and sins, despite the things he can see going on in the more fetid parts of our hearts and minds at any given moment.
Thankfully, another part of the answer to the question “Who is this?” is also that he is, indeed, gracious and full of mercy.
Some versions—including the NRSV—try to soften Mark 4:41 by claiming that what the disciples felt after Jesus calmed the storm was “great awe.” But that may not be correct. The Greek says Καi eφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν, which really piles on the fear, claiming that they “feared a great fear.” It’s the kind of thing a frightened child might say, “Daddy, when that big bang of thunder happened, I was scared with a really big scare!” It’s not the kind of thing that sounds like awe. It sounds like “terror”!
There is a scene in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath that reminds me a bit of how the disciples react to Jesus once they start to get a true sense of all the power and strength that he possesses. The Joad family is traveling in their jalopy to what they think will be a new Promised Land in California. Along the way the grandmother of the family gets sick. During a long night Ma Joad lies down next to Granma in the back of the truck. In the morning and just after the family finally had crossed over into California, we read the following as it turns out Ma had laid next to a corpse most of the night:
“The fambly’s here” [Ma Joad said]. Her knees buckled and she sat down on the running board.
“You sick, Ma?”
“No, jus’ tar’d.”
“Didn’ you get no sleep?”
“Was Granma bad?”
Ma looked down at her hands, lying together like tired lovers in her lap. “I wish’t I could wait an’ not tell you. I wish’t it could be all—nice.”
Pa said, “Then Grandma’s bad?”
Ma raised her eyes and looked over the valley. “Granma’s dead.”
They looked at her, all of them, and Pa said, “When?”
“Before they stopped us las’ night.”
“So that’s why you didn’ want ‘em to look.”
“I was afraid we wouldn’ get acrost,” she said. “I tol’ Granma we couldn’ he’p her. The family had ta get acrost. I tol’ her when she was a’dyin . . .” She put up her hands and covered her face for a moment. “She can get buried in a nice green place,” Ma said softly. “Trees aroun’ and a nice place. She got to lay her had down in California.”
The family looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength.
~~ (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath: Penguin Books 2002, p. 228.)
1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49
Author: Doug Bratt
North American television might eat up 1 Samuel 17’s story. It, after all, bristles with the kind of military might and imagery that networks like the CBC and Fox News make their living on. They love to do close-ups on war’s most powerful human figures that are soldiers of one shape or another. Even 1 Samuel 17’s narrator seems enamored by its weaponry and battle. In fact, only its figurative if not literal smallest character recognizes the true source of strength and power.
Yet I imagine even David might fascinate television and movie producers. After all, as today’s Old Testament lesson unfolds, he’s Israel’s king-in-waiting, anointed but still far from its throne. In fact, David’s anointing seems to have changed nothing in Israel. The Philistines are still threatening to wipe the nation right off the map.
1 Samuel 17’s testimony to Israel’s enemy’s enormous military might is unrelenting. “The Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah” (1). The Philistines aren’t, in other words, just armed to the teeth. They’re also an occupying force. They’ve stationed their soldiers, after all, on Israelite ground, on the very land God had promised Israel’s ancestors.
The mighty Philistines also have “a champion named Goliath” (4) who isn’t just very tall. He’s also heavily armed. Frederick Beuchner says he stands “nearly seven feet tall, twirling his twenty-five pound spear with the careless ease of a cheerleader twirling her baton.” Goliath is the ancient form of the newest tank or speediest jet.
Yet Goliath and the Philistines aren’t the only ones who are prepared to try to solve things militarily. Verse 2 reports, “Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines.” Of course, the Israelites haven’t been able to militarily prepare for war very well. When, after all, Goliath taunts them, “Saul and all the other Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (11). What’s more, “When the Israelites saw [Goliath], they all ran from him in great fear.”
So we’re not surprised to read that when someone volunteers to fight the Philistine titan, Saul and the Israelites assume they must militarily prepare him to do so. David, after all, would no longer be going to war with the kinds of evil spirits that torment Israel’s king (16:23). Harps may defeat those enemies. Battling towering giants like Saul and the Philistines in an entirely different matter.
David is, of course, a veteran of hand-to-hand combat with bears and lions. But since he has no experience fighting human “champions,” Saul assumes he must arm him to the teeth conventionally. So after telling David to “Go and the Lord be with you” (37b), “Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head” (38).
However, since David is “not used to” (39b) being so heavily armed, he quickly sheds his conventional armaments. He “arms” himself, instead, with “five smooth stones from the stream” (40). With them in his hand, he approaches Philistia’s champion, Goliath.
And, of course, as most even moderately biblically literate children know, though it seems like an absurdly uneven match-up, David strikes down Goliath. Though he’s armed with little more than the faith that “the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands,” Israel’s next king kills Goliath.
Yet while David’s victory is militarily unconventional, 1 Samuel’s 17’s denouement is decidedly militarily conventional. When the Philistines see their dead champion, they run for their lives. However, Israel’s newly emboldened warriors hound and slaughter their bodies all the way to Gath and Ekron. And when they’re done with that they return to loot the Philistine’s campsites. David even brings Goliath’s head back to Jerusalem and put his weapons in his own tent.
But, of course, this military solution only proves to be a temporary solution to Israel’s Philistine problem. After all, even after their champion’s death and their panicked flight from the Valley of Elah, the Philistines continue to threaten and fight the Israelites. It’s the Philistines who, in fact, eventually kill Jonathan and force Saul to take his own life. Only David is finally able to deal with and defeat the Philistine threat.
So it’s tempting for those who proclaim 1 Samuel 17 in the 21st century to focus on its conventional military failure. Goliath is, after all, not just tall. He’s also armed to the teeth. David is, to say the most, lightly armed. Yet David triumphs over Goliath.
So those who proclaim our Old Testament lesson may want to use it to point to the folly of relying on military might for protection. That’s certainly a biblical truth. But to limit 1 Samuel 17’s application to reminding hearers of how much we depend on God to militarily deliver us is to water down its full truth.
So those who proclaim 1 Samuel 17 might invite those who hear us to contemplate, with Craig Barnes, the identity of the various “champions” who shout out to God’s people. Barnes suggests they may a giant rift in our family or wound in our heart, doubt or illness that threaten our well-being.
Some of those giants that menace God’s people are societal and structural rather than personal. Homelessness and poverty, violence and neglect intimidate God’s people. Racism and materialism also seem to stand at least seven feet tall in our society.
Having identified some of those “champions” that menace God’s people, those who proclaim 1 Samuel 17 might move on to explore how we usually respond to those threats. As Barnes notes, we generally respond to force with force. The Israelites respond to Philistine force by trying to arm a young shepherd to the teeth.
There are parallels in that to our culture’s response to various giants. Is there unrest somewhere in the world? We send in the military to solve it. Is there crime and violence in your neighborhood? We beef up our police patrols and impose mandatory minimum sentencing. Do we perceive some kind of legal threat? We take our assailants to court.
Yet as Barnes goes on to point out, our society insists there’s no place for ordinary people to address our world’s towering giants. And if ordinary people do think we can make a difference, our culture makes sure to load us down with some kind of “armor.”
What’s more, when, as Scott Hoezee notes, Goliath swaggers out to taunt the Israelites, no one seems to think about what God thinks of it all. When God’s people consider how to respond to various threats and taunts, we don’t naturally seem to ask ourselves how the Lord would want us to respond. God’s adopted sons and daughters of all times and places essentially think and act as if God is dead, powerless or uninterested.
It takes the David on whom everyone seems to look down to re-inject the living God into 1 Samuel 17’s conversation. Seven times in verses 45-47 the young shepherd refers to the God who he believes will deliver him from this champion. David fears no evil as he prepares to walk into his own valley of the shadow of death. He, after all, trusts that the Lord is with him.
While the kind of strength and power that characterized Goliath and the Philistines impress our culture, our text reminds us that God sides with oppressed and powerless people. Yet some of the people to whom we proclaim 1 Samuel 17 feel no more recognized or appreciated than David.
This gives those who proclaim our Old Testament lesson’s gospel an opportunity to reflect with our hearers on how our mighty God walks with us into our valleys to face our giants. God even walks with us into and through the valley of the shadow of death. Our only hope finally rests not in any kind of might or violence, but on God’s gracious determination to carry out God’s good purposes and plans for us.
In his inimitable style, Frederick Buechner describes Goliath: he “stood 10 feet tall in his stocking feet, wore a size 20 collar, a 9 1/2 inch hat, and a 52-inch belt. When he put his full armor on, he looked like a Sherman tank.
“Even stripped to the bare essentials, he had plenty to carry around, and flesh and bones were the least of it. There was the burdensome business of having to defend his title against all comers. There were the mangled remains of the runners-up.
When he tried to think something out, it was like struggling through a hip-deep bog. When he tried to explain something, it was like pushing a truck uphill. His dark moods were leaden and his light moods elephantine. He considered under-arm deodorants a sign of effeminacy.”
Author: Stan Mast
In the Greek version of the Old Testament, Psalm 9 is treated as one Psalm with Psalm 10. There are multiple textual evidences for the validity of that connection, not the least of which is the fact that together they form an acrostic, an alphabet Psalm, in which each successive verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It was a fairly common literary form in Hebrew poetry, sort of the Hebrew equivalent of the 14 line English sonnet. Psalm 9/10 is not a perfect acrostic, leaving out a few letters, but the literary format suggests very strongly that this was originally one Psalm.
A second, and homiletically more significant, indication that these two Psalms are really one is the theme of terror. Both end on a terrifying note. “Strike them with terror, O Lord; let the nations know that they are but men (9:20).” And, “in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more (10:18).” All preachers know about the so-called “texts of terror” scattered through the Bible, those stories and pericopes that speak of terrifying realities, whether the rape of the concubine in Judges 19 or the defeat of the Great Whore in Revelation 18. Preachers tend to avoid those texts of terror like the plague. But Psalm 9/10 provides us a tailor made opportunity to speak a Good Word to the terror in the world. This is a Psalm of terror, proclaiming judgment on those who terrorize and grace to those who are terrorized. The Bible doesn’t get much more relevant than that.
Scholars characterize Psalm 9 as a Psalm of praise, full of confidence, and Psalm 10 as a Psalm of lament, full of perplexity. There is much truth in that summary of this Psalm, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s true that Psalm 9 opens with 8 verses of praise to God for his wonderful deeds in defense of God’s people and particularly the writer, perhaps David (see the superscription). But the tone changes at verse 9 and things get more complex.
Our lectionary reading begins at verse 9 not only because of the mood shift there, but also because verse 9 gives us the theme of the whole Psalm. “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” That objective truth is followed by a subjective application of that faith to those who seek God (verse 10). “Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, O Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”
We have a readymade sermon title in that second line of verse 9, “A Stronghold in Times of Trouble.” We find the expression “times of trouble” only two times in the whole Old Testament, here in verse 9 and in 10:1. Make it a preaching point in these times of terror. The expression, “a stronghold,” so popular throughout the Psalter, conjures up an image of a fortress built on a commanding, easily defensible height. Think of the fortress so lavishly pictured in the movies based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. trilogy. That’s what God is for those who are terrorized by “the nations.”
After those theme setting verses, it is difficult to discern any logical progression of thought. That is probably because the needs of the alphabetic structure dictated the flow of thought. But there are 3 very clearly identifiable thoughts intermingling in the rest of Psalm 9 and 10—the suffering of the oppressed, the violence of nations, and the justice of Yahweh the enthroned Judge. The message of the combined Psalm is that the terror visited on the weak by the strong will be avenged by the justice of the King when he lets the violence of the wicked rebound on their lives. That’s a message that takes some unpacking.
The biggest issue surrounding the “weak” is, who are they? The NIV translation of Psalm 9 uses three words, “oppressed,” “afflicted,” and “needy,” but the Hebrew has four different words which are translated differently in different places. So, is the Psalmist talking about Israel, which is often referred to in these kinds of terms in the Old Testament? Or is he describing those who are economically, socially, and politically downtrodden, the kind of people whose cause is championed today by the BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements? Or is all of this to be spiritualized, that is, is Psalm 9 about those who are “poor in spirit,” and oppressed by the Devil, and in need of saving grace?
We need to guard against both an easy identification of the “weak” with today’s social justice movements and an easy dismissal of that identification by those who are only interested in “spiritual” matters. It will help to remember that Psalm 9/10 was originally addressed to ancient Israel, in which the spiritual and the social were intricately connected. After all, the First Commandment was “Love God above all,” and the second was “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And remember how the Beatitudes are stated differently in Matthew 5 (“blessed are the poor in spirit”) and Luke 6 (“blessed are the poor”).
The key to the identity of the weak is found right in the text, beginning with verse 10; “for you, O Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.” That expression, “those who seek you” is found 5 times in this Psalm, though it isn’t always translated that way in the English. The oppressed, afflicted and needy to whom God gives aid are those who seek God in their distress. Robert Davidson puts it succinctly; these are people who “feel crushed by life, who recognize their own need, and who seek refuge in God.” This doesn’t rule out any of the categories mentioned above, but it does emphasize what the Psalm and the Gospel emphasize, namely, the importance of seeking God when we are terrorized by the nations.
That brings us to the second major issue, who are the nations? It is natural to think of the nations who surrounded and often bedeviled ancient Israel. But is the writer referring only or mainly to such geopolitical entities? Is this a word for, say, Babylon or Assyria, or Iraq or China? Or are the “nations” a symbol or examples of humanity organized in opposition to God and God’s cause and God’s people? Are the “nations” shorthand for humanity in rebellion, whether constitutionally organized nation states or a ragged band of terrorists or a carefully structured multi-national company or an amorphous amalgamation of cultural biases?
Again, we must be careful not to automatically identify the nations with America or Russia, just because we see parallels between Psalm 9/10 and what is happening in those nations. On the other hand, we must not, out of strong patriotism and blind loyalty to certain leaders and causes, excuse our beloved country and our favorite causes from the strong words of Psalm 9/10. The key to identifying “the nations” who terrorize today is, again, found right in the text. If the weak are those “who seek the Lord,” the nations are those who “forget God (verse 17).”
While the “nations” might say they believe in God (might even say, “In God We Trust”), they are, in fact, practical atheists. In their daily conduct of life, they forget God. Here Psalm 10 is very helpful, as it details what the life of a practical atheist looks like. “In his pride the wicked does not seek [God]; in all his thoughts there is no room for God. He says to himself, ‘Nothing will shake me; I’ll always be happy and never have trouble.’ He says to himself, ‘God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees.’” (verses 4, 6, 11) Because the “nations” have forgotten God, they naturally prey on the weak. As Davidson puts it, “The wrong in human relationships is rooted in alienation from God.” Or as Dostoyevsky famously said, “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”
But while the nations think they have gotten away with it, Psalm 9 preaches a forceful message that is very relevant to our day. “Sing praise to Yahweh, enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what he has done.” There is a greater authority, a higher throne, and the one seated there is not inactive. He has acted and he will act again. He will bring justice for those who seek him and against those who forget him. Indeed, the Psalmist uses very strong words to describe the justice of this King in verse 12. “He who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted.” Wonderful news for the afflicted, terrible news for the persecutors.
Is there no justice in the universe? Why do you ignore our suffering? How long will this go on and on? Those are the cries of the oppressed. Or as Psalm 10:1 cries, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” That may seem a strange question in view of the certainty of Psalm 9, but that’s how life goes, doesn’t it? Sometimes we are filled with confidence and other times we are overwhelmed by circumstances.
But regardless of our subjective faith, the overwhelming message of this long Psalm is the objective message that there is justice. Indeed, “Yahweh is known by his justice….” We all have our favorite divine attribute—mercy, grace, love, wisdom, beauty—but Psalm 9/10 highlights justice. It reminds us that the universe and each individual life doesn’t make sense without justice. Things must be balanced, wrongs must be righted, the weak must be protected, and evil must be punished. Without justice, things are just plain wrong. Psalm 9/10 assures us that there is ultimate justice because there is a higher Judge enthroned in Zion. So, “the wicked return to the grave, all the nations that forget God. But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish (verses 17-18).”
Psalm 9/10 gives us a very helpful insight into the workings of God’s justice. Given the frequent miscarriage of justice in the world today, it is natural to dread the whole idea of judgment as something arbitrary or unfair or even vindictive. But the Psalmist assures us that God’s justice is absolutely right, because in the execution of his judgment he simply gives people what they gave the world. “The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden; the wicked are ensnared by the works of their hands (verses 15-16).” As Romans 1:24 puts it, “Therefore, God gave them over” to their own sinful desires and schemes. Sin rebounds on the wicked. They sow what they reap; “evil carries within itself the germ of self-destruction.”
But this idea of judgment as rebound should not be taken to mean that God is passive in the affairs the “nations.” Psalm 9 ends with a resounding prayer that is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. “Arise, O Lord, let not man triumph; let the nations be judged in your presence. Strike them with terror, O Lord; let the nations know they are but men.” The use of “men” there is a reference to the rebellion of humanity that began in the Garden, when the first humans took the fruit in the vain hope that they could be like God. Humanity in rebellion fancies itself in charge, able to manage its own affairs, capable of making its own paradise. “God is you and you are God.” It is a deadly folly and the Psalmist begs God to finally rise up against the rebellion and show people that they are simply mortal.
There is a place for terror, says the Psalmist, but it’s not in the hands of mere mortals. It is in the hands of the God who wants us to trust him. Indeed, he demonstrated his trustworthiness when he sent his Son into the ultimate terror. “My God, my God, why….” Yes, some modern Christians want to take the terror out of the cross, especially in this terrorized age. The story of the crucifixion is, indeed, a text of terror. But isn’t that exactly what our righteous Judge intended, so that in a time of terror, we could be sure that “the hope of the afflicted [will never] perish.” After all, Christians of all traditions have always proclaimed that a key part of the Good News is the message that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
An old hymn by John Newton (of “Amazing Grace” fame) helps me see the Good News in the Final Judgment. I’ve quoted it on these pages before, but I find it so stunning that I’m going to do it again. The hymn is entitled, “Day of Judgment, Day of Wonders.” The second stanza goes like this:
See the Judge, our nature wearing,
Clothed in majesty divine;’
You who long for his appearing
Then will say, “This God is mine!”
Gracious Savior, Own me in that day as thine.
In April (4/19/18), GQ magazine stirred up quite a storm by putting the Bible on a list of classic books that aren’t worth reading. The Bible is “foolish, repetitive, contradictory, and boring.” Novelist Jesse Ball writes, “The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it, but who in actuality have not read it.” When I read Ball’s comments in the light of our little study of Psalm 9, it’s clear to me that he is the one who hasn’t actually read it. How can a Psalm about terror be boring in this age of terror? And this is a Psalm that surely belongs on a list of seldom-read-parts of The Bible.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
Ouch! We have been noticing recently that 2 Corinthians can be a hard letter to read. There is so much personal, professional, and pastoral pain in the background for Paul. But at the end of this Lectionary selection Paul brings the hammer down pretty hard: he is being perfectly loving toward the Corinthians—as he always has—but they have closed off their hearts toward him.
“Look, we have opened wide our hearts to you but you toward us . . . not so much. So fair is fair and it is high time you reciprocate back to us by opening your hearts.”
Hard hitting stuff. But you need to loop back to the opening two verses to see the real punch behind all this. Because Paul framed up this entire section of the letter by saying that “Now is the time of God’s favor” as his gracious salvation has been announced. But it was in verse 1 that Paul really set things up for where he wanted to go: “See to it you do not receive God’s grace in vain.” In other words, if God’s grace has really taken root in your hearts and you really understand how his salvation works, then this had better show up in your lives. And, oh by the way, a really good indication that this has taken place would be if you open your hearts toward us and stop believing the people who have trash-talked me and the gospel I preach.
In between Paul provides one of many lists he wrote in his letters of the trials and travails he and his companion have endured for the sake of Jesus. It would be easy to miss the connection between what Paul writes in verses 3-10 from this business about the Corinthians not being loving toward Paul anymore but take another look. Paul is making it clear not only that working for Jesus is a rough and tumble business in this brutal world but he is also spelling out how Paul and company react to all of that.
However, most of this seems to be code for at least some of the ways the Corinthians have begun to regard Paul and others who work with him. True, they have never beaten Paul or jailed him or done any of the other physical things Paul talks about. But Paul makes it clear along the way that he is truthful, that his love is sincere, that he is bearing the Fruit of the Spirit all over the place and yet he is regarded as an impostor (a key charge the false teachers in Corinth have leveled against Paul and that at least some Corinthians had bought into). He makes it clear that although everything that can be known about him is plain to see, some treat him as an unknown commodity anyway (and again, precisely this was happening in Corinth).
So Paul is sincere, truthful, loving, genuine. He is patient, kind, and good. He rejoices when others would weep and lament over tough times. He has no worldly goods but feels rich in Christ and so gives away to all that Gospel Good News he has to share. In return the world does nothing but heap abuse and scorn and false accusations on his head. And all of that is bad enough when it comes from pagans, Romans, and unbelievers of all stripes.
But Paul knows that the Corinthians know that he is including them in this litany of woe as co-conspirators with all the other opponents Paul is talking about. The people who are dear to Paul’s heart and to whom he has always opened wide his own heart have now allied themselves with the same people who can legitimately be called the enemies of the Gospel and of Christ Jesus himself. And you can slice and dice that nascent accusation any way you want but it will not come out very nice—the Corinthians are really getting Paul’s full-court press here. And since Paul opened this chapter with the urging that they not receive God’s grace in vain—which I would conclude is tantamount to saying they had perhaps not really received that grace at all—it is clear that the spiritual stakes here are exceedingly high. This is not small disagreement with their founding pastor. This is life and death. Eternally.
Although none of us who preach today can claim the same apostolic mantle or authority that Paul and the other original apostles possessed, one thing we do share is Paul’s pain at the betrayal of the very people whom he loves and who are supposed to love him back in Christ. We know what it is to do our best as pastors only to be scorned by the very people we love and were trying to help. Many of us know from personal experience—or we have heard the sad testimony of fellow pastors—that sometimes the other leaders in a congregation with whom we work are very good and highly adept at making life as miserable as possible for us. Just recently I spoke with a pastor who clearly cares deeply for the flock under his care but who is getting slapped around plenty good by his own elders who keep changing rules and expectations in ways that seem calculated to accomplish only one thing: keep him under their thumb and just a tad miserable.
Why? Why do Christians who have received the grace of God unto salvation sometimes treat each other—and often treat their leaders—with so little affection or grace? Of course, the temptation is always to lash back, hit back. Reading 2 Corinthians 6 we might also wish we could accuse our congregations as directly as Paul accuses the Corinth congregation here even as deep down we wish we could dangle the threat of judgment in front of the people who are making ministry a trial for us.
Again, we none of us today is Paul or any other apostle. So we’d best not assume we could adopt his tactics and expect to succeed. (Then again, we don’t know finally how this played out even in Corinth or whether Paul’s heartfelt pleas had any effect.) But what we can and perhaps must say is that when things like this happen in any given congregation, the grace of God and the gospel itself is at stake.
When people close off their hearts toward one another—or toward a pastor—for whatever the reason, the likelihood of anyone’s being able to see Jesus clearly in that church starts to lessen. If we are supposed to be living temples of God’s own Holy Spirit and filled with love and grace—the same love and grace we all have already freely received from God—then conflicts and disputes and unloving actions calculated to make someone else unhappy are never neutral affairs. As Paul said in the 6th chapter of also his first letter to the folks at Corinth, when we engage in bad behavior—like still sleeping with prostitutes in the case of 1 Cor. 6), we always bring Jesus along with us into all that tawdriness and we always bring that same Jesus low.
Perhaps no message is more needed in churches everywhere today in these divided, hyper partisan times. We need the message and the truth of what Paul says at the outset: do not receive God’s grace in vain. Too much is at stake for the church to look no different from the rest of the world these days. Before we start lobbing accusations at one another or at our pastoral leaders; before we start knocking each other around in the same rough-and-tumble spirit that is animating the larger body politic today, we had best take a good, long look at our Savior Jesus Christ and wonder whether by our actions and words we are not perhaps rendering the grace of God in our midst a vain thing after all.
Something of Paul’s pain and disappointment in the church itself reminded me of these lines from near the end of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
“Let me rush on to mention my other disappointment. I have been disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand this past Sunday in welcoming Negroes to your Baptist Church worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Springhill College several years ago. But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel who loves the church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
I had the strange feeling when I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery several years ago that we would have the support of the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be some of our strongest allies. Instead, some few have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows. In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.”