Last Sunday I briefly alluded to the fact that other preachers had come to Corinth after Paul left and attempted to undermine him and lead the Christians in different directions. Today’s passage requires much more discussion of this fact, because Paul is defending his ministry in pretty stringent terms that don’t make much sense without that context.
I know the frustration of pouring heart and soul into a congregation and after feeling called to move on to another one watching from afar as it withers on the vine under prideful and ineffective leadership. That is what Paul does not want to see happen in Corinth. He begins this chapter saying, “As we (Paul and his traveling companions) work together with God, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” What does he mean by that?
Well, he means that making a good start doesn’t guarantee a good finish. Don’t accept the grace of God and then get sidetracked by lots of side issues and disputes and leadership quarrels to where you lose sight of the main thing.
Paul cites Isaiah’s quotation of God speaking to the people saying, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” Paul goes on to say, “Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation!” This is not an evangelistic sermon to people who have never accepted Christ – it is spoken to people who have already become Christians. Every day is a day of decision. Will I continue to walk with God today, or am I going to go where I want to?
This is an urgent warning to us today. We have even more distractions than the Corinthians did, more voices calling us to go in more different directions, more spiritual guides offering a greater variety of ways to develop our spirituality. We have everything from house churches to mega churches, and everything in between. We have television ministries we can follow without leaving the den, and many more available on the internet. We have conservative church and liberal church, and we have more and more people who decide they can be “spiritual without being religious” and avoid church altogether. And frequently the way people try to get you to come to their approach is by criticizing yours and make it seem ridiculous.
This is what Paul was experiencing. His relationship with the Corinthians was a bit rocky anyway. After he left following his first ministry there he got word of a lot of problems and wrote a pretty strong letter trying to straighten them out and get them back on the path. He ruffled some feathers and he got word of it and was fearful about how he would be received if he went back.
Then other evangelists came to town. The ruffled feathers provided folks who were ripe for the picking, and the new evangelists knew all the right notes to play. Paul calls them “superapostles.” They had a wallet full of credentials, they were smooth talking and persuasive, and they knew where Paul was vulnerable. They said he lacked credentials – he was not a true apostle, had not known Jesus or walked with him while he was alive so he couldn’t possibly speak authentically about him or his priorities. In chapters ten and eleven we find a pretty bitter section in which Paul reacts to these folks.
He says his opponents boast about being Hebrews and Israelites and sons of Abraham, and he says, “So am I!” And that’s true, but… he was born in Tarsus, he was a Roman citizen, he was a transplant in Jerusalem. There was something different about him, he was an outsider, and the same was true about his place in the Jesus movement. He says they boast that they are ministers of Christ, and he says, “Well, I am a better one!” and goes through a list of the hardships he has experienced in carrying out his ministry.
In talking with the Corinthians and perhaps others about their experience with Paul, the opponents have come up with other talking points about him. Perhaps the worst is that he is different with them in person than when he is away. The experience they had of Paul in person was that he was weak, he was humble, he was not a strong speaker. But his letters were strong and weighty and on the verge of bullying. The opponents, on the other hand, had the complete pedigree including walking with Jesus, they were smooth and persuasive talkers, and they gave assurance of being consistent.
Chapter 11 beginning with verse 3 is a poignant expression of Paul’s fear about losing this church. He writes, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. I think that I am not in the least inferior to these superapostles. I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge; certainly in every way and in all things we have made this evident to you.”
Going back to today’s passage, Paul now lists, if you will, his resume. It is quite different from that of the superapostles. He says, “We have put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry,” and he has three different lists to back that up.
The first list is a list of hardships endured through the exercise of his ministry for Jesus Christ. This credential is that of identifying with the suffering of Jesus. The list: “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.” Paul has paid the price and has submitted to the suffering required by his ministry.
The second list is a list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit exhibited in Paul’s ministry: “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; and these characteristics have been seen whether he was in honor or dishonor, in ill repute or good repute.” If he has been seen as inconsistent in the way he communicates, he insists there has been no inconsistency in the character of his life or the fruits of the spirit exhibited by it.
The third list again brings comparisons with the life of Jesus, expected to be one thing and unaccepted when he was another. This list is a list of opposites. “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet we are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
Paul is seeking to draw the Corinthians’ attention away from the claims of his opponents about their worthiness and credentials and his weaknesses, so that they will judge him by the content of his character and the quality of his life and the personal investment he made in them out of love. All that glitters is not gold and you can’t judge effectively from the exterior.
Paul concludes by telling the Corinthians that he has laid everything on the table with them now and his heart is wide open to them. His love for them is not bound by anything, not dependant on anything. He takes a risk by putting his heart out there like that, knowing that their view of him has been compromised by various things, and he begs them: “open wide your hearts also.”
Maybe you have been in this position before with a child or a sibling or a parent or a spouse or a friend. Your relationship could go either way and you know just how tenuous it is. Somebody has to take the first step, take the risk, lay down the arguments and the defenses and the hurt feelings and say, “Our relationship is too important to let it go down the tubes like this. I love you. Let’s figure it out.”
We don’t really know how Paul’s appeal worked out for him. Since the letter survived, I guess they didn’t just rip it up and throw it in the trash can. I assume it made a difference, to the point that it was kept and remembered and preserved. Paul’s surviving letters are the oldest New Testament writings we have.
The reminder for us is that now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. There is no time like the present to evaluate our lives and make sure we are on the right track. The stakes are too high to hold God at arm’s length because of disappointments you have experienced in life, or because of untrustworthy leaders who have let you down. The stakes are too high to get sidetracked by all the things we like to argue about and take sides over. As Paul says, “We urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” Don’t let yourself grow weary of doing the right thing, of fighting the good fight, of trying to walk with Jesus each day.
One of my pastor friends in North Carolina posted on Facebook this week about how hot it was and had a picture of his car thermometer reading over 100 degrees. There was comment after comment complaining about the heat. I commented, “This may be a good week to pull out that sermon entitled, “If You Think It’s Hot Here…” We had no idea then how hot it would get this week.
Yes, indeed, the stakes are entirely too high to let our lives of discipleship be sidetracked by personality squabbles, party ideology, or old grudges. Be reconciled to God, Paul told us last week, and this week he begs, let’s be reconciled with each other.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 21, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church