| 2 Corinthians 1:18-22
||Sun, February 20, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Paul is in hot water. He has let his friends in Corinth down. They have been expecting his visit. He had promised that he would come. And then - without explanation - he had ignored them, bypassed them. At least, that is how it seems to them. Now some are suggesting that the preacher's message is as unreliable as the preacher. After all, who can count on what Paul has said if he is himself unreliable? It is an apostle's worst nightmare. Trust me. As an apostle sent by the small 'c' catholic (universal) church to proclaim the message in this Uhillian congregation I know. Because if you, my friends, begin to suspect my motives or intentions then how can you ever believe that I mean what I say from this pulpit.
Paul is in hot water. So he begins his letter to the Corinthians by addressing the issue at hand. "Was I vacillating", he asks, "Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say 'Yes, yes' and 'No, no' at the same time?" (II Cor. 1:17) . In Paul's rhetorical questions we hear the accusations that have come in the letter from Corinth that likely lies in front of him as he dictates a reply. The congregation in Corinth thinks that Paul is no different than all the others ... promising one thing and delivering another. They suspect that Paul's 'yes' really means 'no' ... that he really has no intention of visiting them again. In reponse Paul writes that he has not returned to Corinth because he fears "another painful visit" (II Cor. 2:1). There is trouble between Paul and the church that he planted in Corinth. In the past his visits caused them to argue with one another. Now when he stays away they use the postal service to carry on their disputes.
It is more than a little surprising, don't you think, that this correspondence that the records conflict within the church has become our scripture: the "Word of the Lord - Thanks be to God". Yet today's correspondence from Paul is just such a surprising Word. Paul could, of course, go on at length to establish his own trustworthiness in the eyes of the people in Corinth. Explanations, reference letters, proof are to be expected. Instead he writes not about himself but about the absolute trustworthiness of God ... and in doing so captures the entire Christian gospel in a single word: "Yes".
"In spite of what the evidence suggests", says Paul, "I am not saying 'yes' and 'no' to you. You want to know why you should trust me. Remember the promises of God. Remember that God has promised to judge the nations with equity. Remember that God has promised to destroy the power of Sin and to save all of those - to save all of you - who are captive to its seductive powers. Remember that God has promised to give Israel as a light to the gentiles ... that Abraham's offspring will yet be a blessing to the entire world. Remember the promises of God which have for so long seemed to many to be but empty promises. Remember how so many have given up on God ... imagining that the promises of God are false promises without substance in the 'real world'. I am not the only one who has been accused of saying 'yes' but meaning 'no'. This is the accusation that the world brings against God: that even God's promises can not be trusted."
"Jesus Christ”, Paul carries on, “was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” (II Cor. 1:19-20). This is the very heart of Christian faith ... expressed in a few short sentences in the midst of a heated exchange of letters between a pastor and his congregation. Imagine the lengthy, even tedious sermons (heaven forbid) not to mention the snappy ‘relevant’ sermonettes being delivered today in more than a few churches with nary a ‘Word of the Lord’ to be found. Then see how a church conflict can give rise to this, one of the finest expressions of Christian theology that can be spoken in a few brief sentences. Maybe this will encourage us to become a little less fearful of our family ‘squabbles’ within the church. They - not our sermons - may be the place where we are forced to speak the Word of God with clarity and power.
And Paul says it clearly: In Christ the promises of God are fulfilled. The Cross, which on Good Friday looms as the ominous question mark hanging over all of human history, becomes on Easter Sunday, the surprising exclamation mark affirming the God who is utterly faithful. 'Yes' affirms the Cross, God will redeem the suffering and the sorrowful ...'Yes' it says, God has overcome the forces of oppression and injustice. Paul can hear the Corinthian's response already. "Proof", they must be asking, "where's the proof that you ... or this God ... is so reliable?" After all, what kind of proof is a symbol like a Cross or a story about the Christ? How can one be expected to believe in God's incredible promises on that basis alone?"
Notice Paul's answer. Where is the proof that Christ is the great 'Yes' to the age old promises of God? It is right here. The proof is in the pudding of Paul's life ... and of the life of the little church in Corinth ... and in the life of countless congregations like this one gathered here this morning. "It is God", writes Paul, "who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment" (II Cor. 1:21-22). It is that last phrase that caught our attention this past Wednesday morning in our 'Text to Sermon' study group. Our Bibles translate the Greek word 'arrabon' differently. Some say 'first installment', others use 'guarantee', still others write 'down payment' or 'pledge'. Paul uses the jargon of economics to speak of the proof that God will not default on God's own promises. How can we see that God's 'Yes' is really a 'Yes' and not a 'No'? Because God has called out a community of people who have been anointed with a calling and marked with God's seal and given the inexplicable Spirit of new life. This community which has been caught up into God's work in the world ... which finds itself inspired with hope and faith and love ... which counts among its number all sorts of women and men whose broken lives are being made whole in Christ ... this community is proof of what God intends for all people, everywhere. The church is, in other words, God's security deposit ... God's down payment ... God's engagement ring ... with the world. The church of Jesus Christ is the living embodiment of God's promise to keep God's promises. It is God's living, breathing 'Yes' to the world.
Now, to be honest, this is a lot more than we are used to claiming for the church. After too many years of self-righteously claiming far too much for the church we are, understandably, cautious about making claims for its unique place in the world. In fact, in a pluralistic world we seem increasingly unsure if the church has any unique role to play among the world's diverse faiths, nations and peoples. Given this, it will be fascinating to hear what two renowned guests will say at UBC this coming week. Perhaps you have noticed that the subject matter of the lectures to be offered by both Stephen Lewis (who will be on campus as a guest of VST and Green College) and Neil Postman (who is being invited to UBC by Regent College) is essentially the same. Lewis, out of his international experience with the UN, will address questions of the role of communities of faith in international political relations. Postman, speaking from his position as a cultural critic, is to consider the central place of formative narratives, such as the one that is believed and lived by Christians, in a technological age. As far as I know neither of these men is a Christian ... yet they are being sponsored on campus by Christian institutions because both are willing to engage the whole university community in conversation about what the church is for.
One suspects, however, that neither of them can come to the conclusion to which Paul is driven. They may well say that the church (with other communities of faith) is important leaven in the present milieu ... critical to civilizing an easily uncivilized international community and technological culture. This seems to be a good and worthy reason for the church to exist. But it does not explain the kind of faith embodied by Paul and the Corinthian church. Their’s is a faith that leads to acts of courage and of sacrifice that go beyond the logic of such modern, rational thinking. Their’s is a faith perhaps more akin to that of the Christians living today through unspeakable persecution in the Sudan than to our faith here amidst the comfortable temptations of Canada. Their’s is a faith that sees in Jesus Christ much more than a meaningful narrative for spiritualising a post-modern society or a valuable role model for contemporary international relations. This faith is a deep and surprising trust in God. We sense it as we, too, find ourselves actually beginning to believe that the primal force giving life to our existence as a congregation really is the living Spirit of Jesus ... and that this same Jesus is the Christ, the One in whom God’s promise to “make a new heaven and a new earth” is being kept.
"For this reason", writes Paul, "it is through him that we say the 'Amen', to the glory of God" (II Cor. 1:20). The church exists in the world, Paul seems to say, as a great, surprising and spontaneous "Amen". We have, you will have noticed, taken the spontaneity out of the saying of 'Amen' over the years. Christendom has worked hard to teach the correct - and incorrect - places to speak and sing aloud this liturgical word 'Amen'. In the process we have forgotten that this single word is all that is required in order to answer the question: "What is the church for?". The word 'amen' is the Hebrew for 'that's the truth' or 'I agree' or, simply, 'Yes'. The life of the church is one great 'Amen' ... one lived 'Yes' ... to the good news in Christ that God's promises are true ... that God has not said 'Yes' and meant 'No'.
We see in Christ that God is already shaping a new creation out of this old world. Our lives and life together cannot help but say 'Amen'. When asked by the surrounding culture to prove it ... when asked by others what all the noise is about ... the only proof we have to share is that we believe this story to be true. In the end, the only evidence we can offer the court of world opinion is the testimony of our lives and of our life together ... life that is prepared to place its trust in the promises of God ... the One who has said 'Yes' in Jesus Christ. Amen!