Sermon for May 29: To All of You

To All of You

Pentecost II; May 29, 2016

II Corinthians 2:1-10

Today I'm preaching from the Narrative Lectionary, and will be for at least the coming year. The summer series begins with II Corinthians through June, and continues in July with the book of Job.

There are pieces missing from the puzzle to make sense of these words. The main theme – punishment and forgiveness – is clear enough without the missing pieces, but it may help you if I talk a little about what those missing pieces probably are. Nobody is certain – since the pieces are missing – but this is possibly the sequence of events.

When Paul was traveling through Greece, preaching the Gospel of Jesus, he stopped at Corinth. He stayed there for a year and a half, teaching people about Jesus, organizing and leading the Church there, and then he left for Syria (Acts 18:1-18). Some time later he received a letter from Corinth, in which the believers asked him a number of questions about the Christian faith. He wrote back in the letter we call I Corinthians, and also scolded them for a number of delinquencies in their life as a church. It's a fascinating letter and we should dig into it sometime.

In that letter he said he planned to visit them and stay for a while (I Corinthians 16:5-9), and not just drop by in passing. But – and here's where the speculative filling in the missing pieces begins – he apparently did stop briefly as he was passing through and visited them. While he was there, someone attacked him verbally, perhaps angry at what he had written, and the other members of the Church went along with the attack. So Paul left, sad and angry, and wrote them a severe letter, rebuking them for going along with the attack. And he canceled his plan to spend the winter with them.

The people of the Church in Corinth replied by disciplining the man who attacked Paul, and Paul heard about that when Titus came to see him in Macedonia (II Corinthians 7:5-9) and told him how sorry the people of the Church were. Paul then wrote these words (II Corinthians 2:1-10, the text for the day).

Although the main theme is clearly repentance, punishment, and forgiveness, today I feel the need to focus instead on a subtheme: Christian community. That secondary theme surfaces a few places in the reading: that the leader takes joy from the joy of the people (v. 3), that when the leader is attacked the harm is done to all the people (v. 5), and that the forgiveness of the people toward an offender becomes the forgiveness of the leader toward that offender (v. 10). When the leader is attacked, the people are attacked; when the people are attacked, the leader is attacked. When the leader rejoices, the people rejoice; when the people rejoice, the leader rejoices.

It's possible to take that too far, of course, and any tendency toward hero-worship does take it too far. Here is a healthy corrective: when the same dynamic applies not only to the leader but to everyone in the community. When one of you is attacked, all of us are attacked; when one of you rejoices, all of us rejoice.

There is a reality about the Christian Church that is true of nothing else on earth: we are not merely an organization, we are not merely an association of like-minded people, we are not merely folks who get together on a Sunday morning to have some songs and laughs and words together. We are the Body of Jesus Christ, the Son of God: a spiritual reality that is not always obvious but is nonetheless true.

That's been on my mind the last several years as we watch so much of our civilization appear to unravel. I plan to say more about that in a later sermon on faith. For now, please reflect on this: we are not special, as individuals no better and no worse than anyone else, but together we are the Body of Christ. Our work is the work of God, our worship is the presence of God, our life is the life of God in the world. No other institution, not even the nation, can make such a claim. And we cannot make such a claim by our own authority, but only because Jesus said it was so, and the Apostle Paul reiterated many times what Jesus said.

A couple of possibly random thoughts appropriate to this Memorial Day weekend. Our choir sang an anthem today with a patriotic theme (Gene Scheer, "American Anthem," arr. John Purifoy). It was beautiful, wasn't it? Some of our choir members decided not to sing, however. Let me take you into this conversation. Our Music Director, Vickie Jones, is sensitive to the needs and wishes of the congregation. She is aware that many members of this Church want to hear a patriotic anthem occasionally on national holidays, and so she tries to accommodate them from time to time. And so she selected this anthem. At the same time, the anthem says nothing about God, and so some members of the choir thought that in good conscience they could not sing it in a service of worship where the focus is on the work of God. It is part of the nature of Christian community that we can have a real disagreement about something, and be honest about it, and continue to love one another.

And hearing these two sides of the conversation got me thinking about the words we sang. The anthem included these lines:

Let them say of me I was one who believed in sharing the blessings I received.

Let me know in my heart when my days are through,

America, America, I gave my best to you.

I believe that is a fitting sentiment and ideal for our commitment to the nation. As Christians, though, should it not be even more true of our commitment to Jesus Christ and his Church? My real hope is that at the end of our days they will say of each of us that we gave our second best to the nation, and gave our best to the Body of Christ, the people of God on earth.

And I hope that in the midst of your picnics or other events tomorrow, you will remember the purpose of Memorial Day: to honor those who gave their lives in service to the nation. As Christians, there are others who are even more important to us, though: those who gave their lives in service to the Gospel. I pray that we will not forget Ana Isabel Sánchez Torralba, a 22 year-old Spanish woman killed July 1, 2003 by a military policeman in Mongomo, Equatorial Guinea as she was traveling with a group of missionaries. She was commissioned to teach literacy to women and girls; the bus driver failed to stop when he should have and the officer responded by shooting the passengers.[1] Let us not forget Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred March 24, 1980 as he said Mass, because of his steadfast proclamation of Christian truth in the face of an oppressive regime. Indeed, whenever I hear us called upon to honor the brave men and women who give of themselves in military service to promote the life of the United States, I agree and I honor them,[2] but I also wish we were even more called upon to honor the brave men and women who give of themselves in mission service to promote the cause of Jesus Christ. Nations are earthly and secular; Christ is divine and the Gospel is sacred.

Well, enough: you get the point. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we are part of something that is not only important and delightful but also sacred. And so the pain of one is the pain of all and the joy of one is the joy of all. In this portion of II Corinthians, Paul applied that reality to a particular offense against him and the way the people of the Church in Corinth dealt with it. You and I can see that reality in many other events as we seek to be the Body of Christ.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Benson Presbyterian Church

Omaha, Nebraska

[1] El País, July 3, 2003 (http://elpais.com/diario/2003/07/03/espana/1057183218_850215.html) [2] I would be a hypocrite to do otherwise: my nephew is in the Army, many dear friends are veterans, and a young man I think of as a nephew is in Air Force ROTC. I honor their sacrificial commitment.
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