11Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men; but what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. 12We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to be proud of us, so that you may be able to answer those who pride themselves on a man’s position and not on his heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. 17Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation;[a] the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling[b] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2For he says,
“At the acceptable time I have listened to you,
and helped you on the day of salvation.”
Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 3We put no obstacle in any one’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 assorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
11Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. 12You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. 13In return—I speak as to children—widen your hearts also.
Tom Long was once asked to preach at what was billed as a special “family worship service.” It was a great idea . . . on paper. The notion was to hold the worship service not in the sanctuary but in the fellowship hall. There, families would gather around tables, in the center of which would be the ingredients for making a mini-loaf of bread. The plan was to have the families make bread together and then, while the sweet aroma of baking bread filled the hall, the minister would preach. When the bread was finished, it would be brought out and used for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It was a great idea . . . on paper. But it didn’t work well. Within minutes the fellowship hall was a hazy cloud of flour dust. Soggy balls of dough bounced off Rev. Long’s new suit as children hurled bits of the dough at each other. Husbands and wives began to snipe, nerves were frayed. Then the ovens didn’t work right and it took forever for the bread to bake. Children whimpered, babies screamed, families were on the verge of falling apart. But finally, and mercifully, the end of the service came. The script called for Long to pronounce the normal blessing saying, “The peace of God be with you.” Too tired and irritable to ad-lib anything, Long just said it straight out, holding limp, flour-caked hands to the air and saying, “The peace of God be with you.” And immediately, from the back of the trashed fellowship hall, a young child’s voice piped up, “It already is.”
When we come to worship, we do so coming from the broken mess that just is our life in a fallen creation. Maybe we’ve reconciled what we can and, by God’s grace, perhaps we will be able to do still more. But it’s not all fixed, not yet. Much though we might like to, the fact is that we still can’t shake hands with some folks. And over the chaos of it all come the words, “The peace of God be with you.” The good news is that somehow, some way, it already is. Because once upon a time God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. A recognition of God’s work of reconciliation should allow us to be focused upon ecclesial health – that is the health of the body of Christ – because of what Jesus has already done for us and the church -the ECCLECIA!
Ecclesial health is about: 1) Why we gather as a church community 2) How we practice being church together. It is about whether our mission, vision, and values match up with the ways we live together. It requires continual attentiveness, awareness, and assessment in asking “are we who we say we are?” And more importantly, “are we who God is calling us to be?” Prayer and discernment are at the heart of ecclesial health, and a recognition that we are called to the work of reconciliation because Christ has done the work prior.
So in this second letter to the Corinthians Paul, with grit teeth sometimes and through tears at other times, has to defend himself. At the conclusion of this fifth chapter, Paul’s desire to clear his name combines with his effort to repeat the true gospel, resulting in a sublime passage of great power. The centerpiece is reconciliation. By grace alone and because of Jesus, God has reconciled us to himself.
The result of this cosmic reconciliation is that we now look at everything differently. We look at everything and everyone through the lens of reconciliation. We are ambassadors of reconciliation as we call others to believe in Jesus and so find themselves in a good relationship with God. But it’s not just about the vertical dimension between God and us. Being caught up in God’s salvation changes everything on this human, horizontal plane, too.
“Once upon a time,” Paul writes, “we regarded Jesus only from a human point of view and when we did, we didn’t think much of him. But now we see Jesus and everyone in a divine perspective and it changes everything.” In the Greek, Paul talks about regarding Jesus and each other kata sarx, which literally means “according to the flesh.” If we look at Jesus as no more than just another flesh-and-blood human being among the billions of other flesh-and-blood people who populate this globe, then there’s nothing remarkable about Jesus. If Jesus is only human, then to worship him is idolatry. But Jesus is also the Son of God, so we are right to worship him. You cannot look at Jesus only according to his human side.
But Paul makes a parallel between looking at Jesus in a complete way and looking at each other in a complete way. But none of us is divine, so what is the parallel here? Well, the parallel, according to Paul, is that because we are all “in Christ,” we are more than just human, too–there is more to us than meets the eye!
We are the bearers of God’s saving grace with the Holy Spirit living inside us. Of course, we don’t treat each other like pieces of meat! Of course, we do not ever think that broken relationships are no big deal. No! We are caught up in the grip of God’s cosmic reconciliation in Christ. Jesus died so that fractured relationships, dysfunctional families, lost friendships, and ruptured social circles could be restored.
From a purely human point of view it’s easy to see alienation among people and chalk it up to just the way life goes. Things like that happen, we might conclude. One friend says the wrong thing to another and that’s it. Romances break up, friends drift apart. In congregations, as in corporations, people come, people go. Some people like each other, some people can’t stand each other. The person to whom you were once close is now the one you cross the street just to avoid. Happens all the time. It’s the same all over.
But the gospel screams God’s thunderous “NO!” to that kind of casual dismissal of alienation. Paul knew that in his own lifetime he had gone from being God’s number one enemy to God’s beloved apostle. There was a time in his life when if someone mentioned the name “Jesus” in Paul’s presence, Paul (who was then called Saul) turned purple and began to sputter profane vindictives about that name Jesus–a name he was intent on wiping from the face of the earth. Even years later Paul no doubt sometimes awoke in the dead of night, cold sweat running down his forehead, because of the nightmares in which he remembered the Christians he had run through with a sword, the dear women he had dragged away by their hair, that look on Stephen’s face just before the last stone hit his forehead and took his life. Paul knew from his own experience that reconciling former enemies is the main reason Jesus died. He was a living example of that!
A contemporary theologian who has done a tremendous amount of thinking about reconciliation is Miroslav Volf. He once wrote that in God’s heavenly kingdom, it cannot be just impersonal forces of evil that are done away with. It cannot be just the entire creation, broadly conceived, which gets reconciled with its God. No, Volf says, it has to get more specific than that. Before we can all dwell happily together in the shalom of God’s kingdom there needs to be real reconciliation between earthly enemies. Perpetrators and victims must embrace. Those who have lived in conflict need to have that conflict put away if there is to be shalom. It’s not just the lion and the lamb that need to learn to curl up next to one another but all of us who have lived as the human equivalents of lambs and lions in how we have treated each other. There can be no peace in God’s kingdom so long as there is anyone there who would just as soon cross over to the other side of a golden street in order to avoid you.
To be reunited with former friends is our hope. Of course, we also hope for other things, like a day when sickness and cancer will be no more. But even as for now we are not done with tumors, so for now we may also never be fully reconciled with everyone. There are many reasons for that. Sometimes it’s sinful stubbornness which blocks the fixing of things. Other times there is nothing we can do as there is too much hurt such that our efforts to be kind are rebuffed or just make matters worse. Still other times the kind of hurt and psychological damage we have sustained is too intense to overcome. In short, there are times when there is not a blessed thing we can do to repair what’s broken in life.
As Barbara Brown Taylor has written, in the Lord’s Supper the minister holds up a whole loaf of bread as a reminder of the whole, perfect presence of God among his people. But then that loaf is shattered, broken, torn, and the crumbs fall onto the table. It is a reminder that our perfect wholeness, that peace for which we yearn and pine, is not behind us but up ahead yet. Wholeness is coming, but the broken loaf reminds us that it is coming not through what we’ll do but through what Jesus already did. His brokenness is what will one day put our lives back together whole and complete, relationships and all.
Such was Paul’s message of hope to the Corinthians from the midst of that messy, hurtful situation. Such is God’s message to us from the midst of the messes of our own lives. There is a reconciliation, a wholeness, and a peace which endures.
The challenge is to continue to ask the questions about Ecclesial health: “are we who we say we are?” And more importantly, “are we who God is calling us to be?” Reconciled people through Christ seeking reconciliation with other human beings!
Commentary provided by Tom Long, Scott Hoezee, David Fredeickson, Holly Hearon, John C. Lentz, and Karen Chakoian.