Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon June 7, 2015
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
13But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. 16So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
5For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
“EVEN IF OUR BODIES ARE BREAKING DOWN"
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Sisters and brothers, this morning we are going to go deep into Paul of Tarsus. I begin by mentioning that our brother Paul not only had a “thorn in the flesh” – which he mentions in his 2ndLetter to the Corinthians – he was very much “a thorn in the flesh” for many in the early church. He was considered a heretic by more than a few, especially over the issue of observance of Mosaic Law.
His arrest in the Jerusalem Temple – an arrest that led to his death around the year 64 by Emperor Nero in Rome – may have been arranged by some of his Jerusalem detractors. The days of the early church were not all sweetness and light. There were battles galore and Paul was involved in many of them!
As the historian Garry Wills writes in What Paul Meant: “Paul is a mystic and a deep theologian, but also a (volatile) street fighter, a man busy on many fronts, often harried, sometimes exasperated.”
Sisters and brothers, reading Paul can be a taxing endeavor as most of us already know. He has been likened to a theological Scarlet Pimpernel. Here is an apt description of Paul from the religion historian Donald Akenson: “Paul, as revealed in his letters, was (like) a feral creature. He would appear in one town or city after another, sometimes leaving footprints the size of craters, at other times, no marks at all, save a half-sentence in a later letter as the only mark of his coming and going …”
And here’s an interesting way of looking at our brother Paul: “At times, Paul reminds one of a vice-principal of a large, urban high school who has to teach a daily class in calculus to the college-bound stream (of students), then, as head of discipline he breaks up a fight in the hall, and next he finds that he has to fill in for a shop teacher who has gone home with a migraine.
“After school he coaches the offensive line of the football team, and finally at night he has to appear before a special session of the city council and give a polished argument for continued funding of the art and music classes. So we honor the canon of Paul’s letters by accepting their sometimes-distracted, sometimes-staccato quality as part … of their authenticity, the words of a man on a mission.” (Akenson)
Brothers and sisters, I admit that for much of my professional ministry, I’ve struggled with Paul and his letters. While I had read and studied all his letters in my graduate studies, I had trouble warming to Paul. His words at times are brilliant. But his words have also been used by some to support suppression and even oppression.
As Wills writes: “Paul’s letters have (been) the place to go, over the centuries, for attacks on women, gays, and Jews – especially Jews … the deep anti-Semitism of Christianity comes in large part from Paul.” Now this is truly confusing because Paul always considered himself a Jew.
It was always easier for me to embrace the Gospels and leave the chaos of Paul behind or place Paul to one side. But Paul cannot be left on the side. In the seven years that I’ve served this beloved community, I’ve grown considerably in my embrace of Paul and what he brings to our common faith. The truth is that we, Protestants, are much more beholden to Paul than are our Catholic brothers and sisters are.
Yet it’s not easy understanding Paul’s letters. For one reason only 7 of the 13 letters attributed to Paul were probably written by him. And take, for example, the letter from which today’s preaching text comes: the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians. This letter is not one letter – according to our best Scripture scholars – but a compilation of at least two and possibly three separate letters that were later pressed together – fused into the letter we now know as 2ndCorinthians.
I reread 2nd Corinthians this past week. It is an extraordinary letter – filled with evidence of struggle and pain as well as religious ecstasy. I hope everyone here has read it as some point. While there has been and will always be debate about when it was written, it seems to be the fourth of Paul’s letters. As we may know, every one of Paul’s authentic letters was written well before the first Gospel was written.
Let me pose a question: which was the first book of the New Testament to be written? Paul’s 1st Thessalonians! And which book, by the way, is the last book of the New Testament to be written? The second letter of Peter – written around the year 120 – is considered to be the last New Testament book. The Book of Revelation was probably written sometime in the early 90’s.
But let’s get back to our brother Paul. Paul, as we know, is the one who brought Christianity to the Gentiles – to those who were not Jews, those who were pagans. But we should remember that Paul always thought of himself as a Jew – a Christian Jew, to be sure, but a Jew nonetheless. During Paul’s time there was no separate group of believers known as Christians. The early Christians were understood as a part of the Jewish faith.
At the time of Paul, there were some 6 million Jews in the Roman Empire, comprising about 10% of the total population. Most of them were spread throughout the Empire and were known as Diaspora Jews – Jews who lived away from the homeland of Palestine. Paul was such a Jew, born in Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey. He was born around the same time as Jesus and he had his famous conversion experience of the Risen Jesus 2 or 3 years after Jesus death and resurrection.
Brothers and sisters, the early Christian communities were all very small – with the exception of Jerusalem. Most of the early house churches – there were no church buildings until at least a hundred years after Paul – were fifty members or less.
The house church in Corinth, about 50 miles from Athens, was founded by Paul around the year 50. Paul spent a year and a half there at that time. Then he left for a few years in Ephesus. In Paul’s absence, the church was becoming split over issues of marriage, eating meat sacrificed to pagan idols, taking one another to court, the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, and the use of spiritual gifts.
Some other missionary teachers had come to Corinth after Paul left and had disturbed the believers by attacking Paul and causing great confusion there. In short, the church at Corinth was being tested by every kind of human frailty. Paul felt great agony over Corinth.
Sisters and brothers, it’s this agony of Paul that speaks to us. It’s this anguish over the fractures of the Corinthian church that radiates through the pages of 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Paul’s humanity is greatly in evidence – but also his courage and his unswerving confidence in the God who raised Jesus from death to life.
Let me read from 2nd Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 23 to 28. Here he is responding to those who have come to Corinth to attack Paul. “Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman – I am a better one: with far greater labors, with countless floggings, and often near death.
“Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, dangers from my own people (meaning the Jews), danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”
Whew! Talk about a curriculum vitae! Paul has grown on me – especially as I march stoutly into the time when my own body is showing signs of weaknesses. I embrace my brother Paul who had so much turmoil and trouble – who three times asked God to remove his “thorn in the flesh.” But three times as Paul recounts in 2nd Corinthians 12:9, God said to him: “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Brothers and sisters, this truth from Paul may be one of the most important truths coming to us from this feisty, Spirit-filled, servant of God. Many in our world seek power! Many in our world want to lord it over others. Many in our world over-inflate themselves – puffing themselves up with feelings of prestige, feelings of privilege, feelings of religious righteousness, feelings of being better than others.
Paul faced this same dynamic in the church he founded at Corinth. Why should it be any different today? Do we not still have to face the arrogance that comes when power is grasped rather than shared? Do we still not have to face the sense of being entitled that often fractures our human families as well as our churches?
Paul, in chapter 11, verse 22, of 1st Corinthians writes how the people in the church of Corinth “despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing.” The wealthier people in the church have been treating the poor with disdain when it came to the Lord’s Supper. This behavior Paul cannot allow to continue unchallenged.
But, brothers and sisters, where in our wounded world – where in our sin-plagued world, are there people who will burst the puffed-up pride of the really wealthy among us? We applaud wealth in this country of ours. Nothing is applauded as much. We, too, like the people in Corinth, can often shame those who have nothing.
Our country is divided not only by race. Our country is clearly divided between the rich and the poor. And what is the solution? I don’t know – but I do know the solution has something to do with who we are together in Jesus Christ. As our brother Paul teaches us in 2nd Corinthians 4: 7: “But we have this treasure in clay jars (or the older translation – we have this treasure in earthen vessels ) we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” Amen!