5/29/16 – Forgiveness and a New Category – 2 Corinthians 2:1-11
Posted on May 31, 2016 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Pastor Daniel’s sermon for 5/29/16
Text: 2 Corinthians 2:1-11
So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
It’s hard to know why exactly any book of the Bible was written. But we can guess. And my guess is that Paul wrote 2 Corinthians because he had that uneasy feeling in his stomach.
The story behind this letter is as interesting as it is confusing. Paul funded the church in Corinth, and stayed in touch with them afterwards through the mail. But things weren’t going so well.
See, there was someone in the Corinthian congregation who was really opposed to Paul. We don’t know what he was saying, but most likely he was proposing some other form of Christianity. Maybe it had to do with what the church was. Maybe it had to do with who Jesus was. Maybe it had to do with what it took for God to love us. Who knows? Whatever it was, it was big enough to cause a fight and to get Paul really going.
Surely this guy needed to be stopped! You have to remember, the church, the faith, was really young at this time. The four gospels telling the story of Jesus weren’t even written yet. It was all by word of mouth. And you can forget about ideas like the trinity, sacraments, or which version of the Lord’s Prayer to use at worship! All they had was this simple yet profound idea that in Jesus – in his death and in his resurrection – in Jesus there was God loving us, loving us all.
But this guy in Corinth had a new idea. A new doctrine. And he was pushing for it hard, and it was working. There’s danger in that. Danger in a new idea. That’s why they put Jesus to death, after all. The ones in power saw danger in the idea that God’s love could be for all people, no matter what. So they killed him. But death couldn’t keep God down. Death couldn’t stop that idea.
But now with this new idea, Paul saw a new threat, a new danger. Paul worried that this idea might take off and what he knew about Jesus could be lost. Paul knew the church could lose it’s central, formative message about Jesus and move over to this or some other new idea. And it was starting to happen. This guy was getting folks on his side.
So Paul sent another letter, one we don’t have. At the time, he was likely in the town of Ephesus, on the other side of the Aegean Sea from Corinth. We don’t know what this letter said, but it was harsh. It called out this rebel-rouser directly, and it called the church in Corinth to do be done with this guy and his new idea. Paul told the church to put a stop to it.
And then Paul sealed the letter and handed it to his friend Titus to take it across the sea to Corinth, which I guess is what they did before FedEx. And then he got that feeling in his stomach.
You know the feeling. The one where something isn’t quite right. The feeling we all get when we’ve made some mistake, or done something that we’re pretty sure is a mistake. Like when you hit send on an email and immediately think, “that wasn’t the right way to say it.” And then, for half an hour, you hit refresh on your screen over and over fearfully waiting for an angry reply. Paul would have hated email.
That feeling is the feeling of regret. There may also be fear and anxiety and shame, but the primary ingredient is regret. Paul won’t admit it, but I think it was there, because, well we’ll see.
Now often when we get that feeling we try to ignore it. Hope it will go away. Hope we were wrong, and that there wasn’t a mistake after all. Go on with our day.
But that wasn’t happening for Paul. In fact, after a while Paul leaves Ephesus and starts to travel north along the sea, stopping in every town to see if Titus is there, to catch him on his way coming back from Corinth.
Paul wants to know what happened after his letter arrived. And, to his surprise, the letter did not insult the Corinthians. Whew! What a relief. Except, that feeling didn’t quite fade away. Then Titus tells Paul that the Corinthians were so compelled by his letter that they punished that guy with the new idea – which probably means they publically shamed him and expelled him from the church. No more danger there! Yet, the feeling in Paul’s stomach grew worse. Because, sometimes, even if you’re right, you’re wrong.
See, if Paul’s greatest fear was that some new idea could supplant the core idea that in Christ God’s love is for all, then what are they saying by ostracizing someone? If you have to shame and expel someone to keep safe that idea that from God’s perspective no one should be shamed or expelled, well then you’ve already lost. As Paul traveled up the coast searching for Titus, he was afraid that his harsh words were going to drive the Corinthians away from him. But once he heard from Titus, he discovered a much worse result: his words worked so well they undermined the very message they were meant to protect. Enter that feeling in the pit of your stomach. Enter regret.
How did this happen?! You could argue Paul might have taken things too personally and was too forceful in that letter he wrote. You could argue that it is human nature to turn on someone, and the Corinthians didn’t need much beyond a brief letter to do so. Both of these seem likely.
But Paul blames it on something we aren’t too comfortable with: Satan. Paul claims Satan’s crafty ways were at work in this whole mess.
And the craftiness of Satan is to foster winners and losers. Winners and losers of arguments, of wars, of elections, of a conflict of ideas. Winners who gloat and take home the spoil, who get put in charge and get to decide how things go from here on out, who get power. And losers who are shamed, ostracized, stripped of their power and their rights, and expelled from the community.
And Satan works to convince us that there is always a winner and always a loser. That there must be! Satan’s setting us against each other. Turning us into enemies. And once convinced, I have no other choice but to try to be the winner, which would make you the loser.
I don’t know if I believe in Satan, not the same way Paul might have, at least. But I do believe that something pushes this winner/loser thing on us. Something convinces me that those categories are set in stone so I’d better be sure to get on the winner side. Something tells me that that’s just the way the world is.
But then Paul goes and tells me there is another way.
“So now, instead [of punishing him]” Paul writes to the Corinthians about his theological competitor, “You should forgive him.” Forgiveness – that’s the other way.
Forgiveness, we usually figure, is a way to wipe the slate clean. It’s a beautiful image. It’s like you can almost go back in time and undo what’s been done. But I think forgiveness is about more than that. Which is a good thing. Because, even when I’ve forgiven someone, or when I’ve been forgiven, it never feels like the slate’s been totally wiped clean. It never feels like the forgiven deed or word has been erased from the past. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the first time forgiven or the seventy-seventh time, the past can’t be undone.
Instead, whenever I’ve forgiven or been forgiven, it feels like a whole new set of rules are being laid out. An alternative reality, almost. And I think that’s what Paul had in mind for the Corinthians. Forgiveness is not just about saying “it’s ok” or not holding a grudge. Forgiveness is creative. It creates something new. A new way to live. A new way to be together. An alternative to the crafty designs of Satan and his categories of winner and loser.
With this new letter, Paul is rebelling against Satan, and creating something new. Which is exactly what they needed back then in Corinth. These people had been stuck thinking in terms of winner and loser for so long. They had thought up so many ways to categorize one another. And Paul realized that even he had fallen into that crafty trap. But he also knew a way out, an alternative that started with just one category, one big wide category, one big enough for all of us to fit in: beloved of God. And forgiveness was how he planned on creating an alternative based on that new category in Corinth.
This same alternative was created in South Africa, when forgiveness took the name “truth and reconciliation” and blacks and whites learned to live together. This same alternative was created in our own country, when forgiveness took on a unique form in President Lincoln’s second inaugural address after the civil war when the north, when south became one country again.
We still need this alternative today. We still need forgiveness in our world. Probably even more than seventy-seven times, if I might be so bold. Because I don’t know if it’s Satan doing it, but we just can’t shake the need to be winners and expel losers. These categories are like a cancer which is sucking the life out of our families and neighborhoods and cities and the world.
But there is an alternative, one based on the truth that the most important category of all is beloved of God. It feels naïve. It feels impossible. It feels like we need to see it to believe it. Which is why we are all here.
Because I believe the alternative Paul was creating with this letter was the church. This place where all receive grace at the altar, and all are washed in the same waters. This place where the wideness of God’s mercy crowds out Satan’s crafty designs to pit us against each other. This place, where you come and know, without a doubt, without qualifications, without expirations: You are beloved of God. And so is the guy sitting next to you. In this place, that is the only category that matters.
My prayer is that the church, this place, would not be the sole location of this alternative, but rather that it would be a seed. A seed of forgiveness. A seed of a whole new way of being. A seed planted in ground that sure needs it.
May God plant that seed, and water it. Amen.