So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote you 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.
But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. --2 Corinthians 2:1-10 (NRSV)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week we began our study in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians. We know from our previous study in 1st Corinthians that there has been much conflict in the church in Corinth. And, as we read today’s text, it becomes apparent that, as a result of Paul’s instruction to the congregation, they have acted to discipline someone. Who this person is, we’re not entirely sure, but it appears that it is this person who, during a previous visit by Paul, has mistreated him.
And so, instead of re-visiting them in person, Paul sends a harsh corrective - the letter we mentioned last Sunday that was delivered by Titus. The letter written in-between 1st and 2nd Corinthians, which we do not have.
In this letter, it appears that Paul has instructed the congregation to act to discipline this person - to put them to the “test” as he writes in verse 9, to see if they would obey his instruction.
Now it might seem as though Paul is on a bit of a power trip here. And, perhaps, that’s true. Or, perhaps, Paul, in issuing his instructions to the congregation, is testing the partnership - the koinonos we spoke of last week between the church and Paul, who has been as their pastoral leader called to them by Christ. Can they trust him - do they trust him to tell them the right thing to do, to guide them in dealing with this issue within the congregation? Paul writes in verse 4 that his corrective to them isn’t written to pain them or make them sad. But, that it is written out of overwhelming love for them.
What Paul knows and has written about in the first chapter is that the community’s life is bound up together in Christ. When someone in a community is allowed license to go on sinning with no restraint, the whole community is harmed. Too often, the church - at least in modern times - has been so reticent to cause sorrow, that it has backed away from confrontation and even discipline. And, certainly, at times, the church has made the mistake in the opposite direction. But, Paul’s point is that a balance must be struck. As much as we want to have peace in our community, sin must also be confronted. To do otherwise is to give a weak witness to the world - a witness that says our gospel belief doesn’t really matter.
Yet, at the same token, discipline must not be unending. So, Paul now asks them to forgive and to forget. To welcome this person back into the congregation - to reconcile with them. The word Paul uses here for “forgive” in the Greek is charizomai, which means to “give freely.” It’s also connected to charis, the word in Greek meaning “grace.” It's the same word Paul will use later in the letter when he encourages the congregation to “give freely” to a collection for the poor. To forgive is to give freely of oneself. Paul knows that forgiveness and reconciliation must be the next step. And to do so requires moving towards the person with whom reconciliation is sought. And to give freely of oneself. Because this is the way of Christ, the great Reconciler, who gives freely of himself for the whole world. And before whom we stand as people of God. Just as Paul writes in verse 10, when he says that he and the Corinthians stand together before the “face” of Christ.
On Friday evening, I was privileged to be invited into a sacred space. A place that, honestly, few white people are allowed into - a conversation between black activists from here and Colorado.
What I came away with from that conversation is how many of these young people have given up on the church. Mostly, because they don’t see the church as being out there, standing alongside them in their fight for justice and an end to the systemic racism that continues to challenge our society. Instead, they see the church as complacent. Comfortable. Unwilling to confront sin.
Now, you might claim that this has nothing to do with our text today from Paul’s letter, but I think it does. Because, what I think Paul is addressing here for the church in Corinth and for us, is the veracity of our witness. If we say, as a church, that racism and systemic racism is a sin, what are we doing to confront it? Do we choose not to say or do anything because it might upset our “peaceful” lives? Do we choose not to attempt to understand it and our complicity in it because it makes us uncomfortable? I wonder if this is the witness to the world that Paul, much less Jesus, would expect of us.
I know that, for some of you at least, a few of my positions on different issues in our world make you uncomfortable. And you may disagree with me. Yet, if we can’t take on these hard conversations - if we can’t move into the difficult conversations here within our own community of faith - a community that has Christ at its center, then where can we have them?
This is what Paul is doing and saying in our text. He could walk away and ignore what has happened. But it is out of love that he stays. And, instead of walking away, moves in closer. And challenges. And confronts. With the hope that the Corinth community will trust him. That they will find their way, address the issue, and then be reconciled with one another. And that, in doing this, will provide the most honest and truthful witness to the world of the power of Christ’s reconciling love for each and everyone one of us.
So my prayer on this day is that we be honest in our conversations with one another. That we move towards each other in times of conflict. But, mostly, that we be true witnesses of the love and reconciliation of Jesus to the whole world. May God grant it. Amen.
Preached July 26, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
8th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Corinthians 2:1-10; Matthew 18:21-22