A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 24, 2012.
Psalm 107:1-9; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
I doubt that any of us enjoys being around pushy people... which makes me wonder if we would have cared much for the Apostle Paul. Frankly, I think the closest any one of us would want to be to him is by means of reading his epistles in the scriptures. To have known him personally would probably have tested our patience at times. Paul could be pushy, to say the least, and pushy people get on our nerves.
But sometimes people need to be pushed. Those folks over in Corinth certainly did.
Paul had begun that church... had started it, seeded it, watered it, and grown it. He had nourished, pastored, and loved it. But it was a love/hate relationship, to say the least. They didn’t act like a church is supposed to act, didn’t represent well in their community the presence of Christ. Instead, they behaved like a bunch of children let loose on a country club without adult supervision. They wrote the rules as they went along, and whoever happened to be in charge at any given moment were the ones who authored the rules. All this happened, of course, after Paul left to go take his missionary ministry elsewhere.
The folks in the church at Corinth were indeed like children (or maybe teenagers) who, once the parents have gone out of town, throw a party to end all parties. And when Paul hears about all that is going on (did they really think he wouldn’t hear about what they were doing?), he feels betrayed. They know better than this, or at least they should. Hadn’t they learned anything he taught them?
It would have been tempting to throw up his hands in despair and wash those same hands of the whole bunch. But he has too much invested in the church just to let it go. So he writes several letters to them in an attempt to get them to shape up and fly right.
During my years as a pastor, when I left a church, I left it. I did not try to remain a source of influence, feeling that whoever succeeded me, while not doing it exactly as I had done, would still lead the congregation in a way that was appropriately in keeping with the true nature of that church. Besides, my leaving meant I was assuming the reigns of another church and would have enough issues to deal with in my new congregation without trying to keep my nose in the one I had left.
Paul didn’t have that luxury.
You are aware, aren’t you, that Paul wrote more than two letters to the church in Corinth? Well, if not, let me assure you... Paul wrote more than two letters to the church in Corinth. We don’t know how many he sent them, we just know that there were more than two.
2 Corinthians, as we know it, is a compilation of different fragments of letters. Some of what Paul wrote has been lost, so at best we have pieces that have been put together to form what we know to be one epistle. Paul refers to a letter he wrote them as his “letter of tears” (2:4, 7:8). We don’t have that letter, but we can guess that what he had to say to those folks wasn’t very pleasant. It evidently gave him great pain to write it and it wasn’t received happily by those in the church who knew he was talking about and to them. There is little doubt that, as far as they were concerned, Paul is just being pushy.
But you know what, pushy people get things done. If you’re going to apply the definition of that word to others, you might as well start with Jesus. You might as well end with Jesus too, and doing so doesn’t take us long to figure out that sometimes being pushy can get you nailed to a cross.
Paul reminds the Corinthians of all he has endured in order to fulfill his calling as a proclaimer of the grace found in Christ. There have been afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors (which I take to mean that he is referring to plain old hard work). There were sleepless nights and hunger. He and his fellow ministers had been treated as “impostors,” as he puts it, and as liars. And sometimes that’s been the opinion expressed by other followers of Jesus who have come in after Paul left and had some pretty ugly things to say about him. Yet, Paul has endured all that has come his way. Evidently, this is his way of letting the congregation in Corinth know the sacrifices he and his friends have made on their behalf.
And, Paul is setting them up... setting them up so he can make a request of them. He wants them to open wide their hearts, as he has done to them. And now – right now – Paul says, is the “acceptable” time for them to do so.
Say what you will about Paul, when it comes to the gospel in general, and the church at Corinth in particular, he carries a passion deep in his heart. He wants the folks in Corinth to do the same, not just for himself, but for the One who has called him to be a proclaimer of the gospel. He wants them to open wide their hearts and be passionate about the grace that is in them.
Where does your passion lie? Are you passionate about anything? If so, what is it? If you find it difficult to answer that question, allow me to be pushy for a moment and suggest to you that it may be because you’ve been taking more than you’ve been giving.
William Sloane Coffin reminds us that “in the Holy Land are two ancient bodies of water. Both are fed by the Jordan River. In one, fish play and roots find sustenance. In the other, there is no splash of fish, no sound of bird, no leaf around. The difference is not in the Jordan, for it empties into both, but in the Sea of Galilee: for every drop taken in one goes out. It gives and lives. The other gives nothing. And it is called the Dead Sea (my emphasis).”1
Out of his fear that his beloved church in Corinth might become as the Dead Sea, Paul writes to them (again!) and asks them to open their hearts. It is the only way to find life in all its abundance. It is the only way to live.
And it is the only way to come to the Lord’s Table. It could be said that the bread and the cup speak of death, for we all know what they represent as Christ’s broken body and shed blood. But in God’s way of doing things, death is but an entrance to a new and eternal way of life. To see that you must open the eyes of your heart and be passionate about what we are about to do at this table. Are you willing to do that? If so, come to the table of our Lord.
Lord, if you have to push us to get us to this table, so be it. If you have to push us to open our hearts to you, then by all means do so. Whatever it takes for us to give our lives to you all over again, do it we pray, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
1William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 15.