Sunday, July 19, 2020

Who We Are: Consolation

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We have returned to Corinth, where we were in the spring, as we worked through portions of Acts and 1st Corinthians. Today, in the first of five weeks, we move to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. But, before we begin, let’s check in about what we remember about Corinth and, particularly, about the church that Paul planted in Corinth. 

We know that Paul first arrived there in about the Year 51. Paul was there for about a year-and-a-half, working in both as an apostle and as a tentmaker, which was his trade. After this time, he then moved onto plant a church in Ephesus. 

Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city, located on an important isthmus. It was a strategic political and military location for the Romans, including being the governor’s seat for the entire region of Achaia. 

We know that the church in Corinth was beset with division. There were many, many issues. Most of them, if you recall, revolved around status. Some of the conflict was between believers who had been converted by different apostles and claimed superiority over others. There was also an issue around economic status - those who were wealthy refused to eat with those who were poor, including for the weekly agape meal. 

The divisions resulted in frayed and shattered relationships within the Corinthian church. So bad, in fact, that Paul made a trip back to Corinth from Ephesus, where he had been moved. And, apparently, based on evidence we find in 2nd Corinthians, during that visit harsh words had been exchanged. 

Even after that visit, things were not resolved. So, Paul sent Titus back to Corinth with a letter - one that we don’t have but that is referenced in Paul’s writing. This letter was a harsh and corrective communication from Paul. The result was that there was a deep sense of woundedness between Paul and many in the congregation. Much of this woundedness revolved, once again, around status. But, this time, it was about Paul’s own status as an apostle. His status and integrity had been challenged by other apostles arriving in Corinth from Jerusalem. Who these other apostles were, we don’t really know. However, by the time this fourth letter, which we know as 2nd Corinthians, is written, Paul is calling them “false apostles.” 

In writing his letter, Paul does not address it to these false apostles, but to the congregation at Corinth. Because it is with them that Paul seeks reconciliation - something that is important to him because he views them as co-workers - as partners - in this ministry of reconciliation, in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation.

It is here where we begin. Paul opens gently. We read from 2nd Corinthians, chapter 1.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. --2 Cor. 1:1-11 (NRSV)

I want us to take a closer look at the central portion of today’s text - verses 3 through 7. In this section is something that Paul often does as he begins a letter. He starts with a prayer or a blessing where he lays out before God the main theme he wants to get across to his readers. This is what Paul is doing in these first verses of 2nd Corinthians.

Do you notice anything interesting about this paragraph? We’ve talked before about the importance of repetition. If we take a close look at these verses, we see that Paul uses the word, consolation, or some form of it, ten times in these five verses. What’s interesting is that Paul only uses this word 25 times throughout the entire letter. But here, in just five verses, he uses the word ten times. So, what’s up with this?

If we dig deeper into the Greek, the verb that is at the root of all of these words is the word parakaleo, which means to instill someone with courage or cheer. To comfort them. Or to encourage them. Particularly, it means to come near. 

Paul’s approach at reconciliation is not to insist that he is right. Or to command the Corinthians how they should act or respond. But, instead he addresses them using the word, consolation. His desire is to overcome the strain that has taken place. The way to do this is to come near and speak words that will change the mood or the situation. This will then give courage, or a new hope, or a new direction, or new insight into what the future may look like. In using this word, Paul is intentionally meeting the Corinthians where they are. Just as God meets us where we are.

Contemporary theologian Ben Witherington writes that Cicero once suggested that “‘the ability to placate or reconcile was a sign of greatness in human character.’ If this is so, then perhaps 2nd Corinthians, more than any of Paul’s other letters, reveals his largeness of soul.” These words of encouragement, of comfort, of cheering up, of coming near are Paul’s way of affirming the Gospel message of a God - of our God - who raises up the dead. Just as human conflict led to Jesus’ resurrection, God’s own message of resurrection is a refusal to let human conflict dictate the future. 

Paul believed that failure to achieve this reconciliation would endanger the very Christian identity of the Corinthian church, since Paul was Christ’s agent - Christ’s apostle - to this church. To be alienated from Paul was to be alienated from the One who sent him. So, it is not only the heart of Paul’s ministry that is at stake, in his mind, it the very heart of the Corinthians’ faith that is at stake.

But there are a few more repeated words in this passage that we must pay attention to. We might think that the same Greek word would be used for affliction and suffering, given their similarity in meaning. However, in this passage, this is not the case. In fact, there are three different Greek words that translate in English as either affliction or suffering. Let’s look at each one separately.

The first word is thlipsis. This word, like consolation, is mentioned more often by Paul than any other New Testament writer and more so in 2nd Corinthians. It can refer to either external suffering or internal suffering. Specifically, it refers to suffering that has been experienced.

The second word used for suffering or affliction is pathema. This word generally refers to the suffering that Jesus experienced. His tribulation here on earth.

The third, and final word, is pascho. Notice that this word is only used once. It’s a word that Paul uses rarely and in different ways. In 1st Corinthians he uses it to describe the general sense of suffering that any Christian might know. In Galatians he uses it to describe a general experience of suffering. In 1st Thessalonians it refers to persecution. But here, as in Romans and Philemon, pascho is used by Paul to refer to the suffering that we share with Christ. Yet, this is different from how the word is used in other parts of the New Testament, where it is never used to refer to the suffering of believers, but only of the suffering of Jesus himself.  So, what is Paul doing here?

In connecting his suffering with that of Christ, Paul is connecting the Corinthian church to that same suffering. He’s emphasizing to them that there is a partnership or koinonos in both the suffering and consolation that is experienced by members of the body of Christ. He is bound to the congregation just as he is bound to Christ. 

When Christ suffers, we, as the body of Christ, suffer. When one of us suffers, the whole body of Christ suffers. Through our baptisms into the body of Christ, we are all interconnected - brought together in our suffering and our consolation.

This is important to Paul, and to us, because what is not promised is immediate relief from our afflictions or our suffering. But what is promised is that they can be endured. Specifically, they can be endured when they are understood as the sufferings of Christ, and the same sufferings that the apostles have known. And through which the gospel has been proclaimed. These are the same sufferings shared by the whole body of Christ. As members of this body, the Corinthians - and we - are called to be conformed to Christ’s own life-giving death. And to live obediently in expectation of the final glory that is to come. 

Paul’s hope for the church in Corinth, as with us, is that we will be members of the body of Christ who live out that partnership. Who understand that in sharing in the suffering and consolation of Christ as with one another, we also share in the final glory of Christ.

What hope this gives us in this time in which we are living! Knowing that as we suffer, whether it is from division, or physical illness or disease, or anxiety, or whatever affliction we experience, we are not alone. But we are partners with Christ, claimed by him, and brought into community with one another. So that we might be comforted. And that, together, we might endure. And find hope in the overwhelming power of God to bring life out of death. 

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached July 19, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Corinthians 1:1-11; John 14:25-27

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