Questions and Reflections

Category: 2 Corinthians

For Our Sake [Sermon Manuscript]

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
   and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’


See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; 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; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet 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.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Pastor Marc's sermon on Ash Wednesday (February 26, 2020) on 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


When I read the Bible for myself, I read it assuming it was written seriously. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t parts of the Bible that are absurd, silly, shocking, or funny. But in my head, I imagine that when the words for the Bible were first written down, the physical act of writing happened in a reverent and serious way. The original authors who recorded or wrote these words probably didn’t know they were crafting scripture that would last thousands of years but I think they must have known they were writing something holy and important. When I read the Bible, I assume the reverence I bring to the text is something the original authors experienced too. 

But my assumption is just that: an assumption. And sometimes a text comes along like tonight’s reading from 2 Corinthians that needs more than just reverence. The text needs passion and energy and a little theatrics because that’s probably how Paul composed this text nearly 2000 years ago. He was caught up in a pattern of writing letters back and forth with a Christian community he founded in the Greek city of Corinth. From what we can tell, Paul had established a shop in Corinth’s marketplace as a kind of leather worker. As people came to his shop to place orders for the different things he could make, he talked to them and eventually shared who he knew Jesus to be. Through persistence, grace, and a lot of help from the Holy Spirit, a group of maybe two dozen people started gathering together for worship and prayer. Paul stayed maybe 18 months before moving on to a new city. But his relationship to the Corinthian community continued. And it wasn’t long before the community started to split into different cliques. People argued about who had the right understanding of Jesus and they started valuing people based on the amount of spiritual gifts they had. These disagreements got so intense that people stopped worshipping together and they kept only to their friends. As these splits grew, someone finally wrote to Paul asking for his thoughts. We don’t have the letters that were written to Paul but we do have Paul’s responses - and they were eventually arranged into what we know as First and Second Corinthians. These two books were his actual responses to actual people trying to figure out what it actually means to follow Jesus Christ, together. Paul didn’t think he was writing the Bible. Instead, he was addressing people who were trying to embody the grace God had already given them. 

And since this grace was embodied, we should see Paul’s words in this letter as embodied too. Because he didn’t physically put these words on paper or vellum. Instead, he probably hired a scribe to write down these words as he said them. So instead of imagining Paul, a Jewish scholar sitting in a quiet room, writing a letter in the most reverent way possible; it’s better to see Paul speaking and how he became more animated as he spoke. He was, most likely, walking around the room and gesturing wildly with his hands. And when he got to the middle of verse 2, he exploded with energy because he knew what it was like to hold onto hope even in the middle of hopeless moments. We can almost hear him speaking faster and faster as he connected so many different and competing experiences with one another. His words rolled off the tongue because he was giving voice to what his life with Jesus was all about. It wasn’t a life that was easy or simple or that focused on his being comfortable. Rather, it was a life that lived into everything it was given because it trusted in a promise: a promise that our life is not evaluated only by our health, wealth, age, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, social class, or any of those things we use to keep our communities apart. Rather, our value is defined by God - and God loves you. 
But God doesn’t only love the best version of you or the version of you that’s always reverent all the time. God loves all of you - including the parts that are over-the-top, passionate, and full of theatrics. God loves the parts of you that you do not like; the parts that don’t work like they should; and all those things that you push off to tomorrow when they really should be taken care of today. God’s love isn’t reserved for the best version of who God wants us to be. God loves you. And it’s a love that makes a difference in the world - and in you. 

Because for our sake, God moved into this world. And in a verse Paul might have rushed through as he geared up for the high energy of verse 2 and beyond, Paul revealed what his experience of Jesus was all about. He knew Jesus as a gift - a gift of love because God came to us. This gift wasn’t something Paul earned after he was already the faithful person God wanted him to be. Rather, Jesus came to him as love incarnate first because that’s just what Jesus does. This love isn’t meant only for our comfort or to make us feel better about ourselves. Rather, God’s love comes with an energy, passion, and theatrics of all its own. Jesus moves us into a new reality where the love we receive becomes the love we give. And this love, like Jesus’ himself, knows no bounds. 
The love God gives us is a love that is always honest about who we are. It doesn’t run away from our faults, our fears, and the ways we don’t love each other like we should. It doesn’t ignore the ways we, as a community, sometimes limit who we offer love too - holding back from those who might not act, or think, or carry themselves in the ways we think they should. This love also doesn’t ignore the ways our wider community- the neighborhoods, towns, state, and nation we call home - acts as if this love from God is, someone, limited. We have no problem saying that Jesus’ love is for us but then we act as if God’s love stops there, letting us remain as we are instead of seeing how God’s love transforms us into something more.

Which is why, I think, we celebrate events like Ash Wednesday. It’s why we will use ashes in just a few minutes to remind us exactly who we are. Yet we are also different because we are marked by the sign of the cross. We do these things, as a community, so that we can help one another realize that Jesus has inserted himself into our lives, helping us be the more generous, more inclusive, more compassionate, more merciful, and more loving people God knows we can be. The love we feel and the love we give is not only for our own personal benefit but it’s also meant to be, like Jesus, a gift given for the world. There will be times when we’ll need to be reverent, serious, and all that those words means. But there are other moments when the love we give needs to be animated and full of energy. We are not the keepers of God’s love. We are the ones called to give that love away. And so tonight, as we remember the whole truth about who we are - we will also remember the new truth that God’s love says about us. And how, through Jesus, God’s love is made visible in our reverent and not-so-reverent lives. 



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Reflection: Talking Ourselves Out of Ourselves

Rev. Dr. Frank Crouch, Dean of the Moravian Seminary in Pennsylvania recently wrote: "We have an astounding capacity to talk ourselves out of new creation -- both in our individual lives and in our communities of faith." Today's reading from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21  is Paul's claim that God is in the business of transformation. This transformation is not small in scope nor incremental. Like a car turning into a giant robot, the transformation God invites us into is a transformation that changes everything. When we are in Christ, we are no longer what we were before. We look at the world differently, we live in the world differently, and we relate to God (and each other) in a radically new way. Life with Jesus is a life that cannot do the same old things. Rather, a life with Jesus will reconfigure who we are, turning us into who God imagines us to be.

God's imagination for what is possible with us is centered in the act of reconciliation. Reconciliation is when two people or groups of people work to mend what drove them apart. The act of reconciliation involves more than one side saying "sorry." Reconciliation requires reflection, honesty, humility, and a willingness to be vulnerable. We have to admit our pain and the ways we hurt others. Reconciliation is not about telling someone else to "just get over it," "I didn't mean that," or "that wasn't offensive." Reconciliation, like repentance, is a process where people and communities are honest about what it means to hurt and to be hurt. The ministry of reconciliation, because of Jesus Christ, is what it means to live a Christian life.

But, if we're honest, we have to admit that we don't always know how we can make reconciliation work. It's difficult to discover how we, intentionally or not, hurt others. We, instead, choose to ignore that hurt and we end up pushing aside those whose stories undermine the vision we have of ourselves. But that vision is not the reality of who we are. We are, because of our baptism and our faith, a new creation. The transformation God imagined for you has already begun. The hard work of reconciliation, of living into a new reality where honesty, justice, and love flourish, isn't just possible; it's exactly what God is up to right now. God's love for you is a love that cannot be limited to only you. Rather, Christ's work of reconciling you to God will end up causing you to reconcile with the world around you. That will require difficult conversations. We will be forced to admit the harm we've caused. We will end up shedding tears for ourselves and for the world. Reconciliation is hard but it's also the way through which our neighbors will finally realize that Jesus loved, served, and died for them, too.


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Reflection: The Third Heaven

I have no idea what Paul is talking about when he mentions the Third Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). Our modern conceptions of heaven do not usually imagine a hierarchy in heaven. But this leveling is a new idea. There are texts in the Bible that imagines heaven as a layered cake where each layer brings us closer to God. Paul, in today's letter to the Corinthians, is playing a game. He's boasting about himself. He does this first by name dropping that he knows someone who ascended to the third heaven. Paul doesn't give us any details but that's because the third heaven isn't the point. Paul is boasting because his opponents are boasting as well.

We don't know much about Paul's opponents. Pau was one of several different missionaries traveling throughout the Roman Empire. These missionaries all had different thoughts (and experiences) about what this Jesus thing was all about. As these missionaries wandered around the Roman Empire, they would form new faith communities. When a different missionary entered these faith communities later on, big disagreements would start. We don't know what Paul's opponents were like since we only have his descriptions to fall back on (and he is not an unbiased observer). Paul described his opponents as boastful, braggarts, who only wanted to see influence and gain power. They bragged about what they knew, who they knew, and why the Corinthians should follow them. Paul is never one to back down from a challenge so he plays their game as well. But instead of boasting about his strengths, he boasts about his weakness.

Now when was the last time you boasted about what you can't do? We usually don't describe that as boasting. Instead, even our humble brags are about pointing out how awesome we are. Paul, however, feels compelled to talk about his weakness. Weakness is defined as something we can't do. But weakness can also mean something else. As Professor David Fredrickson writes, "To be strong means to be self-contained and self-identical, even as the world is falling apart around you. [Weakness - in the ancient Greek], on the other hand, means coming undone. It frequently referred to sickness and disease, but it also points, in a more general sense, to what we know about but can’t quite define: “human weakness,” which might be thought of as the failure of resolve or the lack of fortitude in the face of despair."

Paul is boasting about coming undone. Paul is saying that he has been given a power that isn't about having strength over the people around you. Real power and real strength, as Jesus defines it, is about loving others to the point where we personally come undone. We rarely want to become undone and there is a danger when the relationships we are in causes us to fall apart in unhealthy ways. Yet, when we are in a healthy relationship with each other and with Jesus, we are drawn closer to the one that brings us a full, connected, and generous life. When we boast about Jesus, we're pointing out how he is giving us a new identity: one that celebrates us, loves us, and unites us with the world and every bit of heaven.


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Reflection: Your Abundance

As you read this, I'm exhausted. Today marks the official end of the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, Texas. Coleen, Brendan, and I have been at the Gathering since Wednesday. On Thursday, we spent the day in the Youth Gathering's Interactive Center which is an entire convention center converted into a ministry theme park. We participated in water challenges, physically seeing how far people in the world need to walk to get fresh water. We donated blood and could, if we waited long enough in line, to build a home with Habitat for Humanity. We created faith-based art, played games, ran through an obstacle course, and much more. On Friday, we spent the day with everyone from New Jersey in a fun worship based event. Yesterday was our service learning day. As I write this, I have no idea what our service project will be (we'll discover it that morning) but I know we'll give back to the local community. I know at this moment that I am feeling drained, exhausted, and limited. Yet the Gathering reminds all of us that our God is abundant.

In today's letter from 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Paul is talking to the community in Corinth about money. Paul is collecting funds from the community in Corinth to deliver to the church in Jerusalem. He's encouraging the Corinthians to finish their pledge and send their money to Jerusalem. This request by Paul is pretty amazing because the church Corinth probably had no deep connections to the church in Jerusalem. Both cities were very different. Jerusalem was old, with Judaism at the heart of what it stood for. Corinth was newer, recently colonized by former Roman solders. The church in Corinth was gentile and most were new to the faith. According to tradition, the church in Jerusalem was older, Jewish, and had James as their leader. On the surface, there was no need for the community in Corinth to support the church in Jerusalem.

Yet Paul invites us to look at giving in a very Jesus kind of way. When we give, we're not only saying something about our self; we're also making a very specific claim about God. Our God is a God of abundance. God's creating of the world and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ were acts rooted in God's abundance. When we give, we are not giving out of our limitations (our limited income, time, or talents). Rather, when we give, we are giving out of our abundance. There are plenty of ways our budgets, time, and gifts feel very limited. We are over scheduled human beings, with limited perspectives, and bills that need to be paid. But our faith is rooted in a Jesus whose abundance brought him to the Cross and saved the world. This abundance is why you are part of Jesus' holy family. This abundance is why Jesus loves you. We have a God who is abundant and we are invited to be just as abundant too.


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Reflection: Ambassador For Christ

What's the best title you've ever had? Titles usually matter in the places where we work. At a grocery store, we might be a "cashier" or an "associate manager." At an office, we might be a "clerk" or a "receptionist." Titles might reference our accomplishments (Dr, Ph,D, MPH), letting people know what we've done and what we know. But titles can also be ambiguous and varied. When I built websites for a living, I gave myself a new title almost every month. Every client I worked with required a different kind of a title. I was a "designer," "graphic designer," "web designer," "web programmer," "project manager," or "new media expert." My titles changed all the time but I did keep one that was consistent. On my business cards, I took a joke from the comedian Mitch Hedberg, calling myself  "Marc, Potential Lunch Winner."* 

Titles, however, aren't restricted to what we do. We come with titles the moment we are born. We are parents, children, siblings, and relatives. We are caregivers, care-receivers, senior citizens, and children. Once we enter the world, we are human beings. These titles are not defined by what we do. They are defined by the relationships we are given because we are people in God's beloved world. In the world of work, our worth is defined by the title we have. In the world as God sees it, our worth is reflected in the titles God gives us. We are not limited by the titles God gives us because the the God who created, sustained, and died for us gives us a title of value nothing can take away from us. 

We are, in our baptism, given a title that does not depend on what we do. We are declared as part of the body of Christ. We are made into Christians. This is the title that describes who we are and whose we are. And this is who we are, this title then informs everything else we do. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-6:13, we are made "ambassadors for Christ." As an ambassador, we are Christ's representative in the world. We are called to follow him. We are given his ministry of reconciliation and hope. We love like he did and still does. Today's passage from 2 Corinthians is Paul's attempt to describe what Jesus' ministry looks like. It's centered in patience, kindness, truthful speech, and genuine love. It's a ministry that isn't easy and will often make us (and others) uncomfortable. But we get to do the hard business of love because we are loved. You are Christ's ambassador. May all of us live this title fully and faithfully. 

*I was one of those folks who put their business card in the jar at every business he went to. I really wanted to win one of the free lunches they were raffling off. I never did. 




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Reflection: Not Knowing

What does it mean to "know" God? I use the word "know" to point to a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. This kind of relationship is in our bones, in our mind, and in our heart. Our connection with God is so embodied within us that all our interactions with the world are framed by Jesus, his teachings, and our hope in him. This kind of knowing is very aspirational. We rarely have moments in our lives when we, in the present, notice God in this way. But when we take a look back at our lives, sometimes God shows up in a visible way. The tools of faith (prayer, worship, reading the Bible, caring for each other, and receiving communion) can help us see the God who was with us. In worship, we see who we are and receive God's eternal promises. In prayer, we name our deep needs and listen for the God who is always speaking to us. In reading the bible, we uncover God's story and how our lives are wrapped up in the God who created everything. And through service and a meal, we are fed to continue the work God is already doing in the world. It takes effort, time, and energy to know God and discover just how much God already knows us. 

Paul, in this passage from 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, is pointing to a version of what this  knowing looks like. He is projecting a confidence that looks almost foolish. He is writing to a faith community struggling with divisions and hardships. Members of the church in Corinth are arguing about everything: from how communion should be served, the role of women in the faith community, and what kind of lives followers of Jesus should lead. Over and over again, the fractures in the community imply that there's little that anyone could be confident in. But Paul is confident because he is focused on why the community exists in the first place. Paul trusts Jesus and knows that Jesus changes everything. 

Paul's journey with Jesus changed his life but it did not eliminate the hardships he experienced. He struggled with doubt. He struggled being part of a wider church that didn't always agree with what he said. Yet he knew that wherever Jesus is, something new is happening. Verse 17 in our reading adds a few words that shouldn't be there. Paul doesn't write, "so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation." The greek words he uses are, "so if anyone is in Christ, there NEW CREATION!" When Jesus shows up (and he does in baptism, at the communion table, and when 2 or 3 gather in his name), we are living in that new thing God is already doing. The tools of faith help us see what Jesus has done with us already. Once we see what Jesus has done, we can face the uncertainty of our future with a confidence that Jesus is, in every moment, making everything new. 


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