Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
You’ll remember from the last few weeks that this is a letter from the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, a community he helped found, and oversees. If you remember that, you’ll also remember that things ain’t so great between them. Not only has Paul offended the Corinthians somehow, the community isn’t interested in his ministry anymore. Paul is physically unimpressive. He’s poor, not much of a speaker. But there are these other people. People who Paul calls “Super-Apostles” who dazzle and impress in every way. Making Paul look bad. The relationship is broken. Things have pretty much fallen apart.
The problem is that Paul’s tried everything to fix it. No matter what he says, no matter what compromises he makes. No matter the depth of the apology. No matter what does, the Corinthians won’t budge. They don’t want anything to do with him. Neither his ministry. Nor the bald head that runs it. They’ve pretty much written him off.
Now, no doubt each of has been in a similar situation. A broken relationship, seemingly beyond repair. With your parents. Or your children. Brother, sister. Friend. Who knows, might even be at church.
We’ve all been in Paul’s shoes at one time or another: that there’s been someone who you’ve hurt, or someone who’s hurt you. Regardless of if it’s your fault or not, you’ve done everything right to to fix things. But still the person you love or care for has a bit of Corinthian in them. No matter what you do, they don’t turn back. My sense is that parents experience this a lot. That we understand, we do what’s best, try to do what’s right. But still they turn away. Walk away, even.
No matter who we are, there’s a fractured relationship floating around for each of us. Whether we find ourselves in Paul’s shoes. Or on the other end. In Corinthian sandals.
Now, when I first read his letter, I imagined myself as one of Paul’s friends. With Paul asking me for advice. Here he is, writing another letter. Still trying to fix things.
I imagined this, and what popped into my head was way back in junior high, when I asked a girl out for the first time. The girl (surprise) said no, but I kept moping and desperately trying. Asking again and again. My advice to Paul would have been the same advice my mother gave me: “Just give it up already—it’s not worth all the trouble.”
PAUL, I’d say. Look, Paul. You’ve done everything you can. You’ve done everything right. But just give it up already. They’re just not worth all the trouble. They’re a lost cause. Call it a day.
But the thing is—Paul’s not me. He’s not me, because he follows a different logic.
Because for Paul, Jesus has changed everything. If you remember last week, just the chapter before we heard one of the key phrases when it comes to Paul’s understanding of what God is up to in the world. “God was in Christ,” he said. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them, and entrusting us with the ministry of reconciliation. We are ambassadors of Christ, and God is making his appeal through us.”
No matter how much we screw up. No matter how broken we are, Jesus is proof that God is not hostile to humanity. That at the heart of the universe isn’t cruel judgment. Nor is it cold indifference. But no matter how much we turn away, God refuses to turn away from us. For Paul, reconciliation, the healing of broken relationships, the ending of hostility between people—that’s his core understanding of who God is. This means that he does his best to see people the way God sees them. To see everything, to see everyone, through the eyes of Jesus.
No matter how the Corinthians insult him, and no matter how misguided they’ve become in following these false prophets, these Super Apostles. He won’t give up on the Corinthians, because God hasn’t given up on them. Or him.
In the end, Paul’s important here because he gives us something to aspire to. Not that we want to become more like Paul. Paul’s not perfect, but any stretch. But here Paul shows us what it means to give our whole lives over to following Jesus. He shows us how we can navigate broken relationships that seem to be hopeless. Beyond repair.
And I’ve broken down this model into three parts.
First of all, never write off anyone or any relationship.
Paul encourages the Corinthians not to “receive the grace of God in vain.” Even though they’ve turned their backs on him, Paul knows that God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, doesn’t cease. God’s love and mercy continue to flow through creation, even if we like to stand idly by and let it run down the drain. Even if we waste it, God never turns off the taps.
This means that there’s always the possibility for reconciliation, however remote. Paul quotes Isaiah from the Old Testament saying that God is ready to help and deliver. “Today is the day of salvation,” he says. Salvation, healing, reconciliation, Paul says, is a possibility new with every morning. For us, this means that the mending of our relationships is always possible. God is always at work, bringing life out of death. Because even if the chance is microscopic, we can’t close the door. The seemingly impossible is always possible with God.
There are obviously times where we have to pull back, distance ourselves. But In order to be ambassadors for Christ, we can’t close the door on each other. Because God won’t close the door on us. Our relationships might never be the same. A marriage, for example, may be over. But hostilities and antagonism can cease. So take heart in the fact that the day of salvation is today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Even if you can’t see it. Don’t write off any relationship, or any person. Because God’s never written you off. Or them, either.
Second, do your best to get out of God’s way. Do your best to get out of God’s way.
“We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way,” Paul continues. “So that no fault may be found with our ministry. But as servants of God, we have commended ourselves in every way.” He then goes through a long list of him and his friends’ accomplishments. They’ve been beaten up, thrown in prison, chased by crowds, left hungry. All for the sake of Jesus. And in the face of those who persecute them, they have responded with nothing but “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit and genuine love.” Just like Jesus.
Basically, Paul and his companions have modeled Jesus’ own ministry. They’ve taken up the cross. They turn the other cheek. They forgive, they love their enemies and bless those who persecute them. This doesn’t mean that they let people walk all over them. But they’ve given others no reason to reject them and their message based on their own behavior.
When we remove the obstacles to healing in ourselves. When we meet anger with kindness. When we respond to stubbornness with patience. And hatred: when we respond to that with genuine love. In doing so, we become instruments of God’s peace that help to soften hearts. Rather than hardening them.
So as an ambassador for Christ, look at yourself first. Examine yourself and your own actions for spite, vengeance, and bitterness. Then you can learn to push these spiritual barriers aside for your sake and the sake of others. So you can get out of God’s way.
Finally, keep your heart and arms open. Keep your heart and arms open.
This one sounds like a cliché. A platitude. But it’s harder than it sounds. Paul ends our passage this way: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians. Our heart is wide open to you. There’s no restriction in our affections, only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.” Paul sets himself up as a fatherly figure to the Corinthians. One ready to receive his wayward children at any time.
Maintaining an open heart and open arms is making it absolutely clear to the person or people you need to reconcile with that you are on their side. You’re ready to go. It’s showing them first that you aren’t writing them off. It’s not just about making sure you’re not at fault, that you’re squeaky clean. Or morally pure. But that you love them, and you won’t give up on them. You desire nothing but their good.
To be an ambassador for Christ, to be a minister of reconciliation. Keep your heart open. And your arms open, too. Because people probably don’t know that the prodigal son can always return to his Father’s house. But you can show them. Your heart and arms can always be open, because Jesus’ heart and arms are always open. It’s the way God is. And the way we’re suppose to be, too.
Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. We live in a world of such profound brokenness and heartache. And so much of it has to do with our connections to other people. Which are, in many cases, so broken themselves that they just seem totally lost. Beyond repair. No matter what we seem to do.
But we can take courage. We can take courage in Christ, through Paul’s example, and his posture towards the Corinthians. In Jesus, we see that God was in Christ reconciling the world to herself. That the work of God in the world is primarily the work of healing. The mending of relationships, and putting an end to hostility between God and us, and between us and our fellow human beings. Each of us has been created for harmony, communion. With God and each other. It’s how we’re built. How it’s supposed to be.
May each of us, each of you, never write off anyone ever again. May you be willing to look at your own soul, removing any roadblocks in you that get in God’s healing way. And may you live with an open heart, and open your arms, to friend and enemy alike.
After all, if followers of Jesus can’t reconcile with each other, what hope is there for everyone else?
Each of us have been called and set apart to be conduits of God’s work of salvation. Instruments for making the broken whole. Just as God has done, and is doing with us.
Because in Christ there is a New Creation. And the day of salvation is today. Today!
And for this, thanks be to God.