Vicar's Sermon - 7th June
2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1
How did the emperor feel in the story of the Emperor’s new clothes when it finally dawned on him that he had been conned? The two tailors who had arrived at the court had seemed so convincing. They had measured him for his new suit. They had cooed, and aahed as he tried on the ‘invisible’ garment. ‘How magnificent’...’such light material’...’can you not see the sheen that comes off it?’ The con, for that is what it was, engulfed the whole court. There was no-one in the Empire willing to point out the obvious...no-one, that is, until the Emperor appeared in front of his subjects wearing nothing at all!
As we begin our sermon series on the epistles that will continue through the summer months we jump into Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians at chapter 4. Whereas a letter to the local council (or a short email) might address just one subject in as few words as possible Paul’s letters are a different sort of beast. They wander. They touch on the very specific problems of some of Christianity’s earliest church communities but they also offer truths that speak down the centuries to every Christian Community. It’s well nigh impossible to sum up what 2nd Corinthians is ‘about’ in just one sentence but as we begin the letter Paul has spent a number of chapters defending himself against accusations that he is a fraud – not a real apostle.
The problem, in the eyes of the Corinthians, is that Paul seems so pathetic, he doesn’t cut much of a figure and seems plagued by failure and disaster: how can this man be God’s messenger to us ask the Corinthians? To all intents and purposes Paul, like the Emperor in the story is a fool. And the thing is, the Corinthians had a point.
Twenty centuries on Paul is a towering figure in the church. A staggeringly perceptive theologian who played a key part in the development of the faith and its spread across the Roman Empire. Books upon books are written about him and about his writings. His work, after all, occupies a huge chunk of our New Testament.
But, when you read his letters (and especially when you read 2 Corinthians) you find a man who is pushed to the limits of endurance as he travels across Asia Minor preaching and teaching. We learn that he suffered from some illness that at times laid him very low. He had poor eyesight. He tells us in 2 Corinthians chapter 1 that whilst in Asia (on his way to Corinth) he and his followers were ‘so utterly, unbearably crushed’ that he ‘despaired of life itself.’ His writing speaks of suffering and comfort, of affliction and persecution, of anguish of heart and tears. He describes his experience as an apostle as being like a Roman captive being led to the arena – a one way ticket to humiliation and death. Just before this morning’s passage he explains (2 Cor 4.8ff)
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
Perhaps, to us, this sounds impressive but to his readers all this humiliation and disaster added up to one thing: ‘the man is a failure...possibly even cursed by God and we should disown him.’
To which Paul’s response is this: ‘If I’m not the real deal, then where does that leave you?’ ‘You, the church in Corinth, each one of you changed and transformed by an encounter with Jesus Christ...you are my proof (evidence if you like) that God works through my preaching. And , by the way, have you not yet grasped that if we are to follow a crucified Messiah then it should not surprise us if we too share in His suffering.’ The Corinthians’ idea of a successful preacher or leader was totally flawed. Their model of what a Christian life should look like was also deficient. They wanted someone who would ‘cut a dash’, someone impressive looking, someone with some flair and panache. Like modern football fans they thought all they needed was a change of manager for things to ‘come right’. Paul can’t offer these things. What he can offer though is a life shaped by the cross of Christ...not so glamorous but immensely powerful in an Easter sort of way.
It is tempting for all of us, not just 1st century Corinthians, to see our faith through the eyes of the ‘self help’ movement, a personal ‘spirituality’ that makes us feel good...an ‘insurance policy’ that will protect us from the bad stuff that might just come our way. We want the fruit of the Spirit but forget that there’s a cost. Paul’s experience is that the Christian pattern of death and resurrection sometimes play out in his life at one and the same time – rather than one after the other as we so often imagine. In the verses we read he speaks of his ‘outer nature wasting away’ whilst his ‘inner nature is being renewed day by day’. This ‘earthly tent’ (by which he means the shell of his body) will one day put on another ‘heavenly body’ (or home) but, for now he feels drained, he struggles to keep going, is tempted to give up, and perhaps wonders whether this Christianity business is all it’s cracked up to be.
So what enables him to endure? Two things. Two things for us to ponder and to mull over. Two things to challenge us as we ask ‘do we possess them?’ The first is in verse 14. ‘We know’ says Paul, ‘that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus’. Paul trusts God. Or to turn it around the other way, he trusts that God is trustworthy. How much do I trust God? How much do we trust God? How much do we trust Him to care for His church (which we are forever being told is about to collapse, is ‘one generation from extinction in this land’, is losing adherents hand over fist). How much do we trust Him to provide for His people to do His work in this place. It’s always tempting to do more, to try harder, to become hyper active as churches fearful of decline. We are indeed called to work, we are indeed called to give ourselves in the service of Jesus but so much hyperactivity in modern church life speaks not of faith but of a lack of trust in God. Paul does what he can, he shares in Christ’s work of reconciliation but he is under no illusions: it is God who redeems us, not him. He trusts God’s purposes for good.
And secondly he tells us in verse 16 that he does not lose heart. Why? Because he sees the world through new eyes; from a different perspective. Verse 18 says ‘we look not at what can be seen but what cannot be seen’. He is, to use a gospel phrase, ‘laying up treasure in heaven’. Every act of love, every act of kindness, every helping hand or word of encouragement he reframes as a sign of God’s goodness. We can do this, if only we look with new eyes. What price can you put on a husband’s faithfulness in marriage or the work of those who lead the town scouts or guides? How can you calculate the value of a mum’s listening ear? Paul sees in the lives of even those who have questioned his ministry in Corinth signs of goodness and grace and faith and hope that speak to him of God and point Him towards Gods goodness. And because he sees he lives a life of gratitude, a life that bears witness to ‘grace extending to more and more people increasing thanksgiving to the glory of God.’
Trust in God and thankfulness of life: these things undergird Paul’s ministry and help him to persevere. On the surface Paul as been stripped of everything – he looks a fool, like the Emperor with no clothes – but he knows full well he has not been conned, he is in reality ‘putting on the Lord Jesus Christ’, sharing His life that he might also share his death and resurrection. Why not then try the cut of this cloth?