2 Corinthians 6:1-13
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.
The greatest obstacle to people accepting the Love of God is often the Church. Now, some may quibble with me that anyone who is obstructing God’s work is not truly acting as “the Church,” but I disagree. I am still my mother’s son, even when I do something she raised me better than to have done. Yes, we in the Church, even at our most faithful, can obstruct the grace of God which is meant to freely flow upon all the earth.
The Corinthian Church has, by no intentional design of my own, frequently appeared in our Sunday and Wednesday services. The draw of this congregation to our modern eyes is that they dispel any notion of the early church as being perfect. They are not holy beyond belief, not united in mind and heart. They are as divided and unsure as we are. Yet, like us they are full of faith in God – constantly seeking to do what is right even in the moments they are utterly unsure. There is no pretense of perfection, only the reality that we know about ourselves. The reality that we have room to grow.
The Corinthian Church was struggling to define itself, working not only against pressure outside it, but within it. A group of teachers had arrived from Judea claiming authority that was greater than Paul’s – maybe even than any other apostles. These teachers carried letters of recommendation and were sure to list what exactly made them qualified to assume this position over others. The continued conflict in Corinth built upon previous questions of Apostolic authority which began when some people favored Apollos or Paul, one over the other.
Paul returns again and again in 2nd Corinthians to the idea that he and the other workers of the Gospel are not to be identified by anything but the results of their work. The grand gestures of the “super-Apostles,” were empty shows of boasting and their actions worked to split the faithful again and again. Paul counters the well-manicured image projected by his opposition with the reality of Christian living. The true believer is like an earthen jar that carries treasure, they are like a tent easily torn down. The power of Christ – not the vitality or mystique of its bearer – is what makes an apostle authentic or compelling.
The shift in Paul’s writing from re-establishing the authenticity of his work and the work of his peers toward specific instructions is found in our reading for the day. Paul calls on the Corinthians, once again, not to be lost in factions or prestige, but to rejoin the wider communion of the faith. Paul looks at the grand displays that have defined the Corinthian dissenters and refutes them with the troubles he and the other gospel workers have faced. The defining characteristics of evangelism is not praise and accolades, but in trials and tribulations.
Paul would not have done anything exceptional through this comparison, not compared to his other writings. What sets this apart is his discussion of the grandstanding of his opponents as “[an] obstacle.” The word he uses here “προσκοπη” (proskope) is used here in distinction to the similar word, “σκανδαλον” (skandalon) which we usually translate as “stumbling block.” The latter is usually used to describe something difficult, but inherent to a thing. Some parts of our faith – whether they be the crucifixion, the resurrection, or some point of doctrine – can act as “stumbling blocks,” that people struggle to get over. In contrast, an “obstacle,” is something erected specifically to keep people from accessing God’s grace. The obstacle that he cites here, the one epitomized by his Corinthian opponents, is one of prestige and opulence.
There is much about our lives that, if we live into what Christ asks of us, may seem off-putting to the world around us. Sometimes this will be a matter of simple disagreement, other times it will precipitate into very tangible consequences. For Paul, this meant all the various struggles he had cited in this text. These and many more indecencies have been suffered by the faithful throughout history. Many, today as well as then, follow Paul and before him Christ to the ultimate sacrifice of their life for the sake of the Gospel. For those who face persecution, it is clear how they can choose between respectability and sacrifice. Yet, for us today where we stand – in a comfortable place in a comfortable church – how do we live authentically into our faith so that we do not become an obstacle for those who wish to enter into it?
As we have discussed before, the solution is not to seek out or manufacture persecution. The solution is to be willing to give away the abundance given to us by God (something we will discuss in depth next week,) and to remove any pretense we hold of being above other people. The only things, says Paul, that anyone has any right to be proud of in their ministry is the things they have sacrificed in order to serve God. The indecencies Paul lists made him a pariah to many, he gave up any status he may have had, all for the work of the Kingdom.
When I think to those I know who are not part of the Church, it is seldom the Gospel itself that keeps them from the pews. I would go so far as to say that many people never get so far as truly hearing the Gospel even when it is spoken to them. Are they blocking up their ears? It would be easier if they were. Instead, I believe that we who have received the grace of God have become obstacles to those who might hear of it and receive it. We are obstacles in the incongruity of our high calling and our usual behavior. We are obstacles in our love and worship of a poor, homeless Messiah that somehow has not softened our hearts to the poor and unhoused among us.
If we wish to fully live into the grace filled love of God, then we must not be an obstacle to those who might also receive God’s grace. To “receive Grace in vain,” can be understood in two ways. Firstly, the superficial receipt of God’s grace – an appearance of holiness but nothing more. Secondly, an ineffectual reception of grace – we are saved “but only as through fire.” We do not grow and we do not share the Gospel meaningfully with those around us. The Gospel becomes an empty thing, a badge of honor, and old trophy collecting dust on a shelf.
The transformation required for us to truly know the fullness of the Gospel is to welcome discomfort as a colleague and friend. We must be willing to form tangible connections to the world around us. We must not desire to be respectable or proper in the worldly sense. We must be authentic, holy, and down to earth. We are not rulers or nobility; we are slaves of the Gospel. We serve God only so much as we are willing to shed our benefits in life and hand them off to others.
Paul here has made it plain to us, ours is not a life of fame or glory. It is love lived out anyway it can be. The power of God is given, not for us to become mighty, but for us to make much of Jesus. Our wealth belongs to the poor, our time to the needy, our visitations to the sick and the lonely. Only if we can remove the impression so many have of the Church, the great obstacle that is our conduct, will the Gospel come freely into the ears of all. We must not live as a social club collecting members in order to be more prominent. We must live and share the Gospel, we must make disciples through love and forgiveness, and we must look to God for spiritual guidance. If we keep to that, then God will truly make fruitful the Gospel we so often render inert. – Amen.