Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
Lent 4, 6th of March, 2016
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Today’s reading from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, or at least the second letter of his to them that we have, is full of quotable quotes. We frequently use the two verses about our reconciliation with God through Christ as Declarations of Forgiveness. The verse about all those in Christ being a new creation is also a suggested Bible verse for the service at a cemetery or crematorium; while the Uniting in Worship ‘Service of Healing for Those Whose Marriage is Ending or has Ended’ (did you know we had one?) also suggests using it as part of the letting go of the marriage relationship. So the words of this reading are undoubtedly familiar.
What does it actually mean? It’s a wonderful piece of theology, which is why parts of it are used so often, but to understand it we really need to understand its context. And as with the beautiful passage about love in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which Paul wrote to reveal just how far the Corinthians were failing to love each other, this passage is written because Paul is having problems with the church at Corinth. As I’ve said before, we’re lucky that the Corinthians were so badly-behaved, or Paul wouldn’t have been so inspired.
Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth, a church that he had founded, was falling apart. After Paul had founded the church and moved on he heard from ‘Chloe’s people’ about divisions within the community. The church also wrote Paul a letter full of questions, and it was in response to those divisions and questions that Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians. It’s an amazing letter, but it obviously didn’t solve all the community’s problems, or there would be no second letter to the Corinthians in the Bible. Apparently a group of people that Paul referred to sarcastically as ‘super apostles’ (2 Corinthians 11:5) had moved in and were undermining everything that Paul had done. Paul now has to justify himself to the very church he founded – and hence the letter we hear from today.
As a minister I have to say that I find it fascinating to read about the reasons for Paul’s problems with his community. First, it seems, he promised to make two visits to the church at Corinth, on his way both to and from Macedonia. But then he changed his mind and didn’t come. He had broken his promise; how could the Corinthians trust him? So Paul writes to them: ‘Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ (2 Corinthians 1:17b-19) Paul explains that he changed his mind to spare them a painful visit, having just written them a painful letter – one that we don’t have, but one that Paul says he wrote ‘out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you’. (2 Corinthians 2:4)
It wasn’t just his failure to visit that was causing Paul problems. Paul also lacked the powerful presence that the Corinthians had come to expect of apostles. Apparently the super apostles were saying: ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’ (2 Corinthians 10:10) I love that! I find it so reassuring to know that even the Apostle Paul was seen by some people as weak and contemptible! Paul is sarcastic about his apparent weakness: ‘For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!’ (2 Corinthians 11:20-21)
So this is the context of the passage we heard today. In the midst of Paul’s justification of his ministry to the Corinthians, Paul writes to them of what he believes, and why they should be reconciled to him. The super apostles are convincing the Corinthians to judge Paul by human standards, but Christians are no longer to judge anyone by those standards. ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.’ Paul’s unimpressive presentation doesn’t matter. Paul himself once judged Jesus by a human point of view, saw a Jewish teacher executed by the Romans, and persecuted those who followed him. But after the world’s first ‘road to Damascus’ conversion experience Paul recognised in Jesus the Christ through whom God had reconciled the world to Godself. Having been reconciled to God through Christ, Christians, including Paul, are to be agents of reconciliation themselves and it is as one of Christ’s ambassadors that Paul is now speaking to the Corinthians, urging them to be reconciled to God. If the Corinthians continue to judge people by a human point of view, ignoring what God has done in Christ by reconciling the world to Godself and making sinners righteous, then they are not just unreconciled from people like Paul. They are unreconciled from God.
‘From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ We say this; we believe it; but it is so hard to live it! We do still regard people from a human point of view. We do still divide people up on the basis of race and gender and culture and class and sexuality and age. We do still judge people by their appearance and what they do, just as the Corinthians judged Paul. We have had God’s message of reconciliation entrusted to us, but like the church at Corinth the church today is full of divisions and the same sort of quarrelling that Chloe’s people reported to Paul. Anyone who watched Cardinal George Pell give evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse knows how far we Christians are from being ‘the righteousness of God’!
And yet that is what Paul tells us we are. This is what Paul wrote to the Corinthians, with all their faults. It’s another case of the ‘already – not yet’. Just as we live in the time when the kingdom of God has already come but has not yet been fully realised, so we are both new creations in Christ and profoundly fallible human beings. We are to regard no one from a human point of view, but that is difficult when we are aware of all the ways in which we ourselves fall short. We are the righteousness of God, but we are also aware that we are mired in sin. But we are called to live into what God has already done for us. Despite the ways in which we fall short and fail, we are still to see ourselves and others as God sees us, and act as ambassadors of reconciliation.
This is why the context of this passage is so reassuring. If Paul had been writing to a church that was perfect there would be little hope for us. But Paul is writing to a church in a mess, and still beseeching them to live out their calling. If Paul can still tell the Corinthians that they are a new creation, then the same thing is definitely true of us. For us, too, ‘everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ This is our calling, to live as those who have become the righteousness of God.
And if this ever seems impossible and too hard for people like us, just remember the Corinthians. Amen.