2 Corinthians 1:1-11
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
What is the Christian life supposed to look like? How are we called to live together as the people of God who bear the name of Christ? What are some of the characteristics of life in Christ? If the confusion and noise in the church and the world today has you asking questions like that, then these next six weeks are for you. Today we begin working our way through Paul’s Second Letter to the church at Corinth, a letter that has a lot to say about those fundamental questions. Before we dig in, though, a word about why Second Corinthians is a good place to turn to find clues about being members of this community.
I mentioned the confusion that is swirling around us at present. It turns out that the church at Corinth was having a crisis of its own at the time of this letter. The church had been established sometime between the years 50 and 52 AD by the preaching of the apostle Paul, and, in his absence, had found itself divided on the question of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-13), confused about the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15), and infiltrated by a rival group of preachers who questioned the legitimacy of Paul’s ministry among them. Many in the congregation had been persuaded to doubt the message Paul had preached among them, and to see him as a false teacher who was leading them astray. The letter before us, though it is commonly called Second Corinthians, may have been fourth or later in a series of letters sent by Paul to restore that congregation to relationship with him and to the truth about Jesus Christ. Over the course of this letter, Paul has challenging words to say about what defines Christian identity and community, words that, I would venture to say, the church of today needs to hear just as much as the church at Corinth did in the mid-first century.
So let’s get to it, starting with the opening of this letter. It might seem odd for us to begin with “consolation” as a key characteristic of the Christian life, but that’s precisely where Paul jumps in with both feet. He acknowledges that both he and the community at Corinth have experienced significant pain, both in their relationship with one another, and in their lives as citizens of the Roman Empire who dared to be followers of Jesus. In a very real sense, their presence in society and their identification with Christ marked them out for suffering – if not physical suffering, then certainly the kind of social isolation that made life as a citizen more difficult. There was all kinds of pressure to make accommodations, to deny their life in Christ to make their lives in society easier, and yet Paul urged them to stand firm in their faith, and to trust in the promise that their suffering would be eased by the consolation that comes from God.
That message of comfort and consolation has continued to be important for Christians throughout the centuries. Whatever we might face, we share Paul’s conviction that God in Christ will be present to us by the Holy Spirit, soothing us with his boundless mercy and love. Part of what it means to be Christian is to trust in the Spirit’s power to grant us what we need to hang on and step forward in faith – whether our need is for consolation, comfort, or encouragement. Paul doesn’t stop there, however. Notice the reason that he blesses God in the opening verses of his appeal to the Corinthians: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, 4who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NRSV) This consolation, comfort, encouragement, is not just something that we receive from God, but something that we are called to extend to one another as members of God’s beloved community.
On the one hand, being a caring presence for others is a matter of basic human decency; in a way, it’s what we expect people to do if they care about us at all. What makes this such a critical part of our life together as Christians is that it is a reflection of the character of our God. With Paul, we bless God – “the Father of mercies – for the consolation we receive in our time of need. With the church, we give thanks to God for the obedience of Jesus Christ, who became human and suffered both alongside us and in our place so that we might know the grace and love of God that surpasses our understanding. With all the baptized, we experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who continues to make God known to us and present to us in ways that defy our comprehension and our ability to speak about them, but which are nevertheless powerful markers of the life we share with God in Christ. All three persons of the Triune God are in the business of consolation, and as people who have been invited into relationship with one another and with God, we are now part of a community that carries that work forward.
That’s why I’ve been so adamant about the fact that the Christian life is about so much more than God and me. As important as that relationship is, we are created to be in relationship with others, both within the community of faith and outside that community. Our faith moves us to care about the suffering of others, to offer prayer for the sake of the whole world and not just ourselves, to be mindful of people in need around us. It’s not just a nice thing to do. It’s who we are, and who we are called to be in the world, and, believe it or not, it something that people notice. Through the work of Lutheran Disaster Response, we have a reputation for being among the first groups of people on the scene when disaster strikes, and among the last to leave. Because of the ELCA Youth Gathering, the cities of New Orleans and Detroit have experienced what it means to have a committed group of Christians take the time to listen to the stories of people in need, to live among them, and to commit to working as partners to help bring healing and hope in situations of hardship and struggle. This congregation has also shown the importance of caring for those in need in ways large and small, from serving luncheons to grieving families to offering expressions of support and encouragement to one another in times of trouble, and many others. Consolation is part of our DNA, and to the extent that we commit to extending this great gift – a gift first given to us in Christ – to those around us, we bear witness to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to bring healing and wholeness out of suffering and loss. As Paul writes, 5For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:5, NRSV)
Next week, brothers and sisters, our survey of the Christian life leads us to reflect on forgiveness. Until then, let us pray that God might lead us to grant consolation to one another and to our neighbors as we have opportunity, and let us bless God for the consolation that makes it possible for us to face each day in confidence and hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.