2/26/2020 9:30:42 PM
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.