2 Corinthians 6:1-10
And working together with Him, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain – for He says, "AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU"; behold, now is "THE ACCEPTABLE TIME," behold, now is "THE DAY OF SALVATION" – giving no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited, but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.
Sermon for Invocavit Sunday 3/06/22
The Paradox of the Faith
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
When I was in college, I was introduced to the theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg by a professor who was a fervent disciple of his. Pannenberg was known by his disciples as the theologian of hope. He taught that God didn't exist yet, that God had reached back in time before He existed to create the world and mankind, and that when everything finally comes to the end of creation, there we will find God, waiting for us. He talked about prolepsis - casting a piece of the future into the past - like a prophecy, or like Christ. One of his memorable sayings was that "in the end we shall know that it was always so".
Pannenberg was focused on paradox - that things seem not to be what they are, but rather appear to be just about the opposite. Of course, the Christian faith does have paradoxes built into it - or at least seeming or apparent paradoxes. Paul talks about some of them in our Epistle lesson today. I invite you to consider our text with me, this morning, under the theme, the Paradox of the Faith.
It goes without saying that not everything in our Epistle lesson is about paradox. Paul writes that he urges us not to receive the grace of God in vain. He doesn't actually tell us what that means, except, perhaps, by example. He goes on to describe his life, his ministry, and his receiving of the grace of God. There is nothing really paradoxical about most of it, except that we tend to think of the grace of God as making us special, which it does, but to our human way of thinking that means privileged. What Paul describes is far from what we would normally call "privileged". Rather, it looks like extra responsibility.
Paul writes, "giving no cause for offense in anything, in order that the ministry be not discredited, but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity." The grace of God laid upon Paul the duty to get himself out of the way of the message. He was to make himself as inoffensive as he could be in order not to discredit the ministry. That means that he gave up his rights. He had a right to his opinions, and a right to do things that others might not be pleased with - but he gave that up, so that the only thing people had to be unhappy with Paul about was the Gospel.
Mind you, they were upset about the Gospel. He commended himself as a servant of God by enduring all the assaults that were part of being the Apostle Paul. He describes that part of ‘not receiving the grace of God in vain' with words like, "endurance, afflictions, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, sleeplessness, and hunger." And he responded to it all with purity. Receiving the grace of God did not make him privileged in the sense we normally think of privilege, it made him persecuted. It made him tired and abused. It cast him in prison and required him to work harder than most under extremely unpleasant and challenging circumstances. And so He did, and he did it with his head held high, holding himself to the most exacting ethical and moral standards he knew.
Remember the last time you were beaten because you wanted to tell someone about Jesus? Me neither. Remember when your faith made people avoid you, lie about you, get you thrown out of your home? It is happening to Christians all over the world today. Why isn't it happening to you? When was the last time you lost a job for being one of those "Lutherans"? How often has your faith caused you to have to go hungry for a couple of days?
Those things are not common in modern America, yet. They are coming. Pastors are being arrested in formerly free countries for preaching against Islam, against abortion, or against homosexuality as a sin. When was the last time you were even looked at askance for saying that abortion was a sin, or homosexuality was an abomination, or that Islam is an evil enterprise and not really a religion that anyone should tolerate. Even conservative politicians fall all over themselves trying to draw the imaginary line between the sweet and kind Muslim who follows the blessed religion of peace, and those hateful Islamic extremists who practice jihad? The truth is that the religion of Islam is vile, violent, and evil – and dedicated to eradicating all other forms of religion, by violence if that's what it takes. Our enemies in the American social culture actually use the same words to describe true, faithful Christians as it does Islamic terrorists – "extremists", "radicals", "fundamentalists". Rosie O'Donnell famously said that Christianity was as dangerous or more so to America than Islamic terrorism, and her ratings went through the roof. That was, of course, before her bizarre behavior brought them through the floor.
But if we listen to the talk around us and, as a result, slip our Christianity into silent mode and let our confession fade from the sight and hearing of others just because we know that they don't necessarily want to hear it, and will consider our confessing our faith to be rude or impolitic, we may find that we have received the grace of God in vain. Look at it this way, if being a Christian means hardship and afflictions, what does it say about us if we have none? Now, remember, Paul doesn't tell us to be obnoxious deliberately or to go looking for trouble. He says that we give no cause for offense in anything – except the offense the Gospel creates on its own.
As we bear the grace of God, Paul says we are to do it not only in purity but also in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left. We are not asked to ‘go it alone', but to live by the power of the gifts of God, and with His Holy Spirit going right along with us. Paul writes of knowledge. We need to know our faith – the enemy does, and they will twist what they know against us unless we are so clear in our own understanding that we can answer them with the truth. In patience reminds us that this battle is a long battle, pitting the truth against error, and God's grace against the flesh. We are not commanded to win. Victory is Jesus' responsibility, and He has already won it for us. Our duty is to stand, and stand faithfully. Since we have the victory and are secure in the grace of God, we can afford to be kind - and so we receive the grace of God in kindness. What have we got to lose?
We also walk in the love of God, and so we are to walk with genuine love toward one another - and yes, even toward those who would stand in our way and be our adversary, because we know that they are but slaves of the real enemy, and they need salvation as much as we do. But chiefly, this genuine love is for one another, fellow combatants in the good fight of faith, and brothers and sisters in Christ, in the household of God.
The fight is fought with divine weapons - Paul calls them weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left. These weapons are the Word of God and the power of God as it works in us and through us. The paradox here is that these weapons seem like nothing. People dismiss the Word of God as soon as you speak it, and we almost never have a sense of possessing or wielding the power of God. We don't do miracles, at least not the kind the world around us recognizes. We don't heal people. Mountains do not leap about in front of us at our command. But the battle we are engaged in is not for real estate in this world, and magic tricks with trees and hills will attract a crowd, but will not bring people to faith – only God working His Word does that. His Word is our power - and our weapon.
The thing is, we are not here to do what seems to us like it needs doing. We are here to serve in the body of Christ and to accomplish what God wants done. His aims are known to us only in broad outline, and the path to accomplishing what He desires to have done is usually other than the way we think it should be done. That is what leads to the paradoxes I referenced as I began our sermon.
[B]y glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.
What a list! We serve in glory and dishonor. The world will give you one and then the other to try to tame you. By evil report and good report means that if they like what you are doing at the moment, they will be nice. But let their agenda cross yours and they will say ugly things. They will regard you as a deceiver because you are holding fast to the Word of God which they reject. Nobody will know you, and you will be singularly insignificant - or so they will make you feel - and yet the fact that your faithfulness will be known as you approach them and are hated by so many tells you that you are, in fact, well known. You will hear about how the faith is dying out, and how you should let go too. Today faithful Lutherans are told they need to change to meet the new culture and sell the faith - and faithful pastors are clearly not welcome in many places even in our own church body today! Persecution from outside of the church and inside will raise its head higher and higher - and yet we will endure to the end of time. The demise of our faith has been written about in every generation, and yet, here we are!
When persecution limits our lives or causes us to be physically attacked, we will simply be living out what Jesus promised would come eventually - and what has come to others throughout time and even in our modern age. We won't like the way it feels - so we will be sorrowful - but just as surely, we will rejoice all the more in the confident hope of the resurrection and everlasting life, so we will be always rejoicing, just as Paul said. He said that we will be poor. We have accomplished that as a congregation already - and yet to everyone who hears the Word of the Gospel, we offer - and God will bestow on some, the riches of forgiveness, life, and salvation, just as He has poured out those riches on us already. We may not have much, but all things belong to us - and we shall live forever! That is the inheritance of the saints in light in Jesus Christ.
So we look humble, and yet we have the glory of God. They speak evil of faithful Christianity, but angels sing about us, praising God. They call us deceivers - and try to package ancient heresies in new clothes and sell the world lies about Christ and the church, but we speak only God's truth and love. No one wants to know us, but everyone does - and when they need us, they come by God's invitation. They persecute the faithful and proclaim the end of faith and "superstition", and yet we have survived as Church for these twenty-some centuries, and actually, we will live forever. The pain and persecution are real and awful, many times awful beyond description, but God gives us the strength to go on. We rejoice in Him even as we suffer and sorrow under the cross. We are nobody in this world, and yet we have the greatest treasure to share. These are the paradoxes of the faith.
This gospel is the grace of God. It is the news and the gift of the forgiveness of your sins, won by Christ on the Cross, poured out on you in Baptism and through both Word and Sacrament. Your sins are forgiven, and God loves you! And you have just received it. You have heard it. That is one form of receiving. If you heard what I just said and did not believe it, or did not apply what Jesus did and gives to your sins and your guilt, then you would have received the grace of God in vain – you would have received it as if it were empty and worthless and powerless to save. It would not matter whether you dismissed it, or simply did not make the connection between Jesus' death and your life, you would have treated the grace of God as either a lie, or a meaningless fantasy – having no relevance to your life. Either way, that is what "in vain" means.
The greatest paradox is that while we try to be faithful and do all that God has given us to do, it is not accomplished by our power and doing. We know that it is His gift and His power that makes us able to receive, and able to hold fast to the gifts of salvation and grace. He does it, and He is doing it today. "[F]or He says, "AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU"; behold, now is "THE ACCEPTABLE TIME," behold, now is "THE DAY OF SALVATION".
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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