June 15, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
For men ostensibly accustomed to being out on the water, 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 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”!
Sebastian Junger’s best-selling book—later made into also a movie—The Perfect Storm reminds us of the power of storms at sea. Experienced sailors—like those aboard the Andrea Gail fishing boat whose story makes up the core of The Perfect Storm—know that on the ocean, there comes a point where physics takes over and sailors are helpless to do anything about it. If a boat heads into a wave this is higher than the boat is long, the boat will almost certainly “pitchpole,” which means go end over end to its doom. Or, if a wave hits a boat from the side and if that wave is higher than the boat is wide, the boat will capsize, flipping upside down. As Junger narrates the true story, we learn that although the Andrea Gail was a 72-foot-long boat, it eventually encountered swells higher than 72 feet and so as the boat headed into those swells, it pitchpoled to its doom, sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic.
The sheer physics of the situation means you cannot keep a boat afloat in certain conditions. Unless, that is, you know someone who is able to say something like, “Peace, be still!” and get results!
I Samuel 17
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some years ago when last the Lectionary included this famous story, I consulted my son’s “Student Bible” as it was the handiest Bible to grab while I worked at home that day. This particular version of the Bible inserts some textual explanations and elaborations into the biblical text inside little colored boxes. Midway through I Samuel 17 one such little box is titled “Deadly Rocks” and the explanation claims that the “five smooth stones” David picked up from the riverbed probably were larger than baseballs and could probably have been hurled by David at speeds in excess of 100 MPH.
I suppose that’s a helpful little explanatory comment but ironically it is almost completely at variance and cross-purposes with the text! The idea seems to be, “How did little old David take out big, bad Goliath? Well shucks, if you got clocked in your temporal lobe with a baseball-sized piece of granite going 100 MPH, you’d probably keel over dead as a doornail, too!” Major league ball players drop like shot elephants when a fastball at 95 MPH nicks them in the shoulder or hits on their strong helmets. Goliath didn’t stand a chance.
In short, there’s a perfectly logical explanation here. It’s all a matter of simple physics meeting up with simple physiology.
The whole arc of this narrative is precisely to say that what brought Goliath down was not David’s skill with the slingshot nor the precise flight path of his smooth-stone projectile. Rather, it was all the work of the LORD God of Israel that won the day and made all the difference in the world. David’s skills were not insignificant—and it’s not as though Goliath collapsed from some divine-induced cerebral stroke of some kind—but the whole point of David’s confidence was not his talents but the presence and work of Yahweh, the God of Israel. As David says in verse 47, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
It was Yahweh whom Goliath had defied and insulted, not King Saul and not Israel’s soldiers or people. What Goliath could not see was who his true opponent was (and how outmatched little old Goliath was on account of that truth, too). It’s not an uncommon problem in the Old Testament. Pharaoh had the same difficulty back in Exodus 5 when, having heard Moses plea for the release of the Israelites, Pharaoh responded “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him?” The rest of the Book of Exodus is God’s extended answer to Pharaoh’s question.
Goliath would learn the same truth but in shorter order and in far more brutal a fashion than even Pharaoh did.
But the question is less about why the likes of Goliath didn’t know this truth and more why the people of Israel—from King Saul on down—didn’t know it. This Old Testament lection is paired in the Year B Lectionary with Jesus’ calming the storm at sea in Mark 4:35-41, and it’s not difficult to see a connection between the Israelites being unaware of Yahweh’s power even vis-à-vis someone as big as Goliath and the disciples being unaware of Jesus’ power vis-à-vis even a big storm on the Sea of Galilee. The people of God seem forever unaware of the power of their God and of his ability to take care of his people.
Of course, knowing that and acknowledging that is no guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to God’s people in this life. The history of the church is not exactly free of persecutions, martyrdoms, and dreadful accidents befalling even those who are actively engaged in God’s service somewhere. Being a believer is not a ticket to a pain-free, accident-free, completely safe life (sorry, Joel Osteen, but you’ve got it wrong, pal). But being a believer does mean having the faith that says that however God works it out, at the end of the day God’s purposes will not be thwarted ultimately. God will accomplish what he sets out to do, and though he may use us and our skills and our efforts to get it done, at the end of the day the glory is all God’s because it is the almighty working of God that is able to do far more than we can imagine (or accomplish on our own no matter how hard we work).
What kind of a difference would it make in the life of the church if more of us did have this kind of a firm faith in God’s ability to take care of himself and his own people? Certainly it ought not lead to laziness in the church or elsewhere in life. Knowing that all is in the Lord’s hands has never meant letting our own hands go idle. But it might mean doing our work on God’s behalf with greater joy, with greater confidence, with a firmer sense that God can and will prosper our work (and so we don’t have to work ourselves to death or toil to the point of exhaustion in the arrogant belief that it’s finally up to us to make the church successful or to make this or that church program effective).
And it might also mean that our posture over against the wider culture is likewise one of hope and grace. Too often church leaders come off as a little desperate, a little too worried that the atheists of the world—lately those of the Richard Dawkins variety—are somehow going to win the day because their bully pulpit is larger, their voice louder, their anti-religion opinions more strident. And so sometimes when some in the church respond to cultural forces or the foes of the faith, they come across as flailing around a bit in a kind of panic and anger that characterizes those who have forgotten that truth—and the God of all truth—is on their side.
Like the Israelite troops who cowered in their foxholes day after day when Goliath and his shield bearer sallied forth with the daily insult, so too many in the church today hang back in their pews and shake their heads over this or that cultural movement, political proposal, or atheistic screed, wishing that someone would do something but evincing precious little confidence that much can be done. Or, worse, someone does try to do something, does try to fight some kind of a battle, but then does so on the world’s terms, exchanging the cross of Christ for the culture-war equivalent of machine guns and hand grenades (or in the case of I Samuel 17, swords and spears). We just cannot believe the Word of God alone is strong enough to get the job done, that the Holy Spirit can use our witness and the force of our Christ-like examples of humility to accomplish much worth talking about.
In I Samuel 17 and in Mark 4 we see the same thing: terror in the eyes of God’s people. And in both cases David and Jesus come to those people of God with the same question, “Where is your faith?” It’s a question we need to keep asking.
In his fine book on David, Leap over a Wall, Eugene Peterson states that the image in the David & Goliath story that most arrests his attention is the one of young David kneeling down by the brook to gather up his five smooth stones. Peterson thinks that the whole David saga is finally about becoming human, about awakening to the reality of a God-infused world. David begins to show just this awakening to reality in this scene. As Peterson puts it, “While David knelt by the brook, the world was bounded on one side by the arrogant and bullying people of Philistia and on the other side by the demoralized and anxious people of Israel. To the north of the brook the powerful but stupid giant; to the south of the brook the anointed but deeply flawed king. No one could have guessed that the young man picking stones out of the brook was doing the most significant work of the day . . . The only person fully in touch with reality that day was David. The only fully human person in the Valley of Elah that day was David. Reality is made up of mostly what we can’t see. Humannness is mostly a matter of what never gets reported in the newspapers. Only a prayer-saturated imagination accounts for what made holy history that day—the striking immersion in God-reality, the robust exhibitionism of David-humanity” (Eugene Peterson, Leap over a Wall, Harper-Collins, 1997, pp. 44-45).
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 9:9-20 (for help with the other psalm appointed for the day, Psalm 133, please consult the April 6, 2015 starter)
It’s regrettable that the Lectionary appoints only the verses 9-20 of Psalm 9 for this particular Sunday. It’s not just, after all, that it offers only part of Psalm 9 for our consideration. It’s also that Psalm 9 and 10, as Old Testament scholar James Limburg suggests, should be considered together because they were likely originally one psalm.
Yet by inviting us to consider only verses 9-20, the Lectionary does highlight God’s promise to be “a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (9). This is appropriate because that’s the beating heart of this psalm of praise. It’s the theme preachers and teachers want to constantly hold before their listeners.
It’s hard to detect much thematic development in Psalm 9. Perhaps that’s because the psalmist feels bound by the acrostic formed by the combination of psalms 9 and 10. That is, taken together, each line of the psalms is begun with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Those who preach and teach this psalm may even want to remind listeners of how difficult that makes it to present this psalm’s ideas in any kind of cogent way.
Even those committed to following the Lectionary’s suggestions will at least want to address the verses 1-8 that fall outside its parameters. So we note the psalmist’s commitment to praise the Lord because of all the “wonders” (1) God has done. In fact, the poet addresses verses 1-6 directly to the Lord. In them she describes some of God’s “wonders.” The poet also frames her description of those wonders by referring to her “enemies (3, 6) whom God has turned back (3) and overtaken (6).
In verses 7-10 the psalmist shifts his focus from God’s past wonderful deeds to concerns about the present and future. God, he insists in verse 7, reigns over the whole universe. God rules and judges the world’s nations (8). As a result, the psalmist can profess in verse 9’s heart of the psalm, “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” Because God is a “mighty fortress,” the poet tells the Lord in verse 10, “Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”
Even God’s adopted children naturally assume we need to protect ourselves, or have our government or nation protect us. Nations and people invest a great deal in various means of protection. But, of course, despite all that investment, people, governments and nations sometimes fail to protect. They sometimes prove to be less than adequate defenders and protectors.
Yet God’s protection never fails. Because God is a stronghold in times of trouble, God’s people can trust in the Lord. God, after all, never abandons the Lord’s people. God walks with God’s sons and daughters through the valleys of the shadow of death. God stays with God’s children as they walk through deep water and fiery trials.
This affirmation, however, requires some careful explanation. Even the psalmist, after all, experiences persecution. His enemies “persecute” (13) him, perhaps even bringing him to death’s doorstep. Verse 18 at least suggests the needy are sometimes “forgotten” and their hopes sometimes “perish.” Evil “men” and “nations” sometimes “triumph” (19).
Our own experiences also show that bad things sometimes happen to God’s adopted children. We too suffer loss, heartache, grief and misery. Certainly God’s currently oppressed people in places like the Middle East and other parts of the world know what it is to suffer.
So those who preach and teach Psalm 9 will want to explore just what God’s protection entails. We note, first, there is a wisdom element to the poet’s profession. That is to say, the psalmist has observed how God serves as a stronghold and refuge for the oppressed she knows. She has seen and personally experienced how trustworthy God is.
Moreover, Psalm 9’s preachers and teachers will want to note that even the misery God’s people sometimes experience cannot separate them from God’s abiding love in Jesus Christ. Even when God’s people walk through various fiery trials, deep waters and dark valleys, God stays right with them.
What’s more, the enemies of God and God’s people will not get the last word. The needy may be forgotten on this side of heaven’s curtain. The afflicted may cry out. Hope may die. Yet in the end God will swallow up Satan, sin and death at the return of Jesus Christ. In the new creation there will be no room for oppression, misery, suffering and weeping. It will, instead, forever resound with the sounds of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Finally, God’s protection of those God loves invites God’s children to walk alongside the oppressed and others who are enduring times of trouble. Psalm 9 implies an ethics of care for those who are beleaguered, especially those on society’s margins. It invites God’s adopted children to help serve as a kind of refuge and stronghold for those unjustly treated.
Those who preach and teach Psalm 9 may want to note its thematic links to the other lessons the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. In the first lesson, I Samuel 17, God is a refuge and stronghold for the young David in his confrontation with his enemy Goliath. The Second Lesson, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, refers to Paul’s experience of God’s help and salvation when he underwent various “afflictions, hardships and calamities.” Mark 4’s Gospel Lesson also refers to God’s help in times of trouble such as what Jesus’ disciples experienced during the storm that threatened to drown them.
As I write this, news of the hacking of millions of American federal workers’ most sensitive data seems to be getting worse and worse. Despite the government’s best efforts to protect that information, the hacking seems to have left millions of people vulnerable to financial fraud and theft.
Currently no one knows just who invaded the “stronghold” that is the American government’s computer network. But it’s interesting that “nations” are currently blaming at each other
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Author: Stan Mast
This is a tough text to preach, because it is so very personal and situational. It’s all about Paul’s ministry and it is obviously addressed to a specific church (see verse 11, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians….”). Whenever we preach on an epistle, we are reading someone else’s mail. But this particular pericope feels so personal that it is not easy to see how we can translate it into a sermon relevant for 21st century congregations in North America. How can we make this ancient preacher’s passionate plea to the Corinthians and his embarrassingly personal profession of integrity relevant to lay people today?
The answer lies, I think, in those difficult words in verse 1 about “receiving God’s grace in vain.” Is it possible to receive God’s grace in vain? As a Calvinist, I believe the Scripture teaches that God’s grace is irresistible and, thus, triumphant always. Is it really possible that someone could receive God’s grace, but then so resist God’s grace that it all proves to be useless and empty in the end? Of course that’s possible, answer my Arminian friends. It happens all the time and that’s why Paul says this.
But I suspect that Paul would say, “I’m not talking about the doctrines of irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. I’m talking about the way people respond to the preaching of the Gospel.” In the last verses of chapter 5, Paul, the ambassador of Christ, uttered that stirring call to be reconciled to God. Now he says, you’ve heard that message from me and from many others. What are you going to do with it? You have to do something with it, or you will render the Gospel worthless and unprofitable. An inactive response makes the offer of grace vain or empty (the word here is kenos, the word at the root of the Kenosis passage in Philippians 2).
What response is Paul looking for? What is he urging them to do with the offer of grace in the Gospel? Well, he has just talked about being reconciled to God in chapter 5. If that’s what Paul is urging the Corinthians to do, we could preach a rousing evangelistic sermon on this text, passionately calling our people to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. However, the focus of this chapter seems to be somewhat different. The last words of our pericope are a passionate plea to them to “open wide their hearts” to Paul in the same way as he has opened himself to them. Remembering how divisive this congregation was (according to I Corinthians) and knowing how Paul’s opponents had tried to undercut his authority, it is likely that Paul was estranged from this church. So a textually faithful sermon should be a heartfelt plea to be reconciled to each other as preacher and congregants. If we don’t respond to the Gospel by being reconciled to each other, we have received God’s grace in vain.
When we look at this text that way, it is very easy to move from the “then and there” to the “here and now.” A number of years ago, my denomination’s “Pastor to the pastors” told a gathering of pastors that 1 in 6 churches had significant problems between pastor and congregation. I have no doubt that the numbers are the same or higher today. And I can tell you as a 40 year veteran that the frequency of disputes between congregants is probably higher than 1 in 6 in many churches. Many of our congregations need to hear Paul say, in effect, “Enough! Stop it! Now!”
That’s the intention of his quote from Isaiah 49:8 in verse 2. This is the day to respond to God’s call to be reconciled to each other. You can’t let this fester for months and even years. You can’t let this estrangement linger until it drives out the minister and divides the congregation fatally. “Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” Do it now! It will take a great deal of courage to confront a church that has turned away from you or a church that is full of dissension, but this text gives you a perfect Word from God on that very difficult subject.
Paul shows us how to broach the subject. He talks about the way he has done ministry among the Corinthians. His opponents had accused him of being an underhanded, dishonest, greedy fake, not a good man, let alone a genuine apostle. So Paul unabashedly says, “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.” This kind of appeal to our own integrity is a risky thing to do, but Paul does it often. He knew that the character and behavior of the messenger is crucial to the message itself. The “Me” of the preacher can get in the way of the “Message,” even if the preacher is highly skilled and intelligent.
But as we call our people to reconciliation, how do we defend ourselves without sounding boastful? Apparently Paul’s professional opponents had pointed to their qualifications and accomplishments as “super apostles.” (II Corinthians 11:5) That might impress some people, but it was not the way of Paul. Instead, he pointed to his “great endurance” in verse 4. That seems to be the general heading for all that follows. In other words, he commends his ministry to this estranged congregation, not by pointing to the number of people converted under his ministry or to the impressive buildings erected or to the increase in giving (the infamous “butts, buildings, and budget”), but by reminding them of how patiently he had endured the hardships of ministry.
It is risky to talk about what you have endured in your ministry, so you don’t want to do it too often. Paul actually does it three times in this one letter (4:8-12 and 11:21-12:1 as well as here). One is tempted to say, “he protests too much.” But he doesn’t do it to draw attention to himself in an effort to earn praise or gain sympathy. We’ve all heard ministers do that, and it is disgusting and demeaning. Paul lists his sufferings and his endurance for one purpose—to ensure that his Gospel is not discredited and discarded. As he says elsewhere (II Corinthians 11:16ff), he “makes a fool of himself” for the sake of the Gospel.
But he is very careful how he does that. What follows in verses 4-10 is a masterfully constructed, almost poetic recitation of the way Paul did ministry. It should be an inspiration to everyone who does ministry of any kind. He begins with 9 hardships, continues with 8 gifts and 6 conditions, and concludes with 7 contrasts. The hardships (verses 4b-5) are presented in 3 triplets, each of which is introduced with the Greek word en. The gifts or graces (verses 6-7a) are in the form of doublets, introduced with that same proposition, en. The 6 conditions (verses 7b-8a) are introduced with the Greek dia, translated “with” or “through.” And the 7 contrasts (verses 8b-10) are preceded by the Greek hos, translated “as.” I note these grammatical and stylistic niceties to point out how seriously Paul took this self-defense. He didn’t just mount the pulpit and vent. He thought about it very carefully, because the stakes were so high. If his opponents could undermine Paul’s ministry, they could destroy the life giving Gospel of grace. And his congregation would be lost in error and disagreement.
I won’t go over each word in Paul’s poetic self-defense, but here are some salient points. In his listing of hardships, the first of the triplets is general, while the second is imposed by humans, perhaps law enforcement authorities, and the third is self-imposed (“hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger”). The longer list in II Corinthians 11 spells out in great detail how much Paul had suffered for the Gospel. He wasn’t in this for the earthly reward, as his critics claimed.
His listing of the spiritual graces he displayed as he ministered among the Corinthians could be taken as self congratulatory, except that he attributes them all to the Holy Spirit and the power of God. What commended his ministry was (sexual?) purity, a thorough understanding of the Gospel, patience under criticism, a kind spirit that made him easy to get along with (unless you attacked the Gospel), sincere love for all, and a faithful proclamation of the Truth. Wouldn’t you love to hear people attribute those things to you at your retirement party?
The contrasts with which Paul ends this testimony capture the paradoxical character of the Christian life. Or as an old minister once told me, “all truth is elliptical.” Here are the two apparently contradictory sides of the Christian life, the two poles of the elliptical truth about all of us who follow Christ. On the one side, we are regarded as imposters, but on the other side we are the real deal. We are unknown in the world, and yet we are well known where it counts. We are always one step away from death, but we live on. Paul continues until the end, where we are regarded “as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” What a word for a church living in a wealthy, consumerist culture! Paul reminds his church that appearances can be deceiving. The truth about me is quite other than my opponents claim. I may look like a loser, but I am the genuine article, a faithful minister of Jesus Christ, a true apostle. As such, I have everything I’ll ever need.
How can we preach this to our congregations? We could hold up Paul as a model of the Christian life, moving through his testimony and challenging our people to be just like that. That would be the easier way to use the text. Or we could use this testimony as Paul did, as part of his appeal for reconciliation. Reconciliation was so important to Paul that he was willing to go out on a limb, put himself out there, and open himself up to even more criticism. That’s what he means when he says in verse 11, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened our hearts to you.” And he is heartbroken that his openness has not been reciprocated by the Corinthians. “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding your from us.” This is heart wrenching (or gut wrenching, since the word “affection” here is the Greek splangchna, intestines, where our deep emotions reside). Being reconciled to his congregation and seeing them reconciled to each other was a matter of gut level importance for Paul.
Here we can press the message home to our congregations. If it mattered that much to the Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, the author of so much of the New Testament, the minister who was willing to give his all for the church, we must be reconciled to each other, NOW. I’m willing to give my all for you. “As a fair exchange (as an exact equivalent), do the same for me and open your hearts also.” As I said before, it will take a lot of courage to preach this to a church that is struggling with its minister and with each other, but, as Paul said, we don’t want our churches to “receive the grace of God in vain.”
I should warn you that this appeal didn’t work for Paul, at least not immediately. By the end of this letter, Paul seems to be fighting the same battle with his critics. In fact, the tone of hostility seems to have risen. That is a realistic reminder that success in ministry comes not first of all and not finally from our best efforts, but from the grace of God.
Here’s an obviously fictional (and more than a little heretical) story that stresses the urgency of acting on the grace of God today. Rather than putting off reconciliation, do it today, “now is the time, now is the day of salvation.”
Walking down the street one day, a United States Senator is hit by a truck and dies. He arrives in heaven where he is met at the pearly gates by St. Peter. “Before you settle in,” says Peter, “you’re going to have to spend one day in hell and one day in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.” With that Peter puts him on the elevator and down he goes to hell.
The door opens and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and in front of it are all his friends. Everyone is happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him with hugs. They play a round of golf and then dine on lobster and champagne. Also present is the devil, who is really a very friendly guy who has a good time dancing and telling jokes. The man has a wonderful time, but then he has to go.
The elevator goes up and up and opens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him. “Now it’s time to visit heaven.” So, 24 hours pass, with the senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing harps and singing. They have a nice time, and before he knows it, his day in heaven is over and St. Peter returns. “Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and a day in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”
The senator reflects for a minute and then answers. “I would never have said it before. I mean heaven is delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.” So off he goes, down the elevator. The door opens and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with filthy waste and smoldering garbage. He sees his friends, dressed in rags, picking up trashing and raking through garbage as more filth falls from above. The devil comes over and puts his arm around the senator’s shoulder. “I don’t understand,” stammers the senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a clubhouse and we played golf and ate lobster and danced. Now there’s a wasteland and all this garbage and everyone is miserable. What happened/”
The devil looks at the senator, smiles, and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning…. Today, you voted.” Now is the day to vote. “Now is the day of salvation,” the day to get reconciled, both to God and to each other.