2 Corinthians 1:1-11
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 11th September 2015
Something horrific happened to Paul. We don’t know the details. Whatever it was it must have been terrifying. That’s how he describes it here in this letter to the church in Corinth, a church near and dear to his heart because he founded it, a church, truth be told, that frustrated Paul. Let’s just say it had issues. Still, he wants nothing but the best for them, that they grow, not only in numbers but also in faithfulness to Christ, grow in their generosity, grow in their depth of commitment. He wants them to be mature Christians. It’s okay to start out as an infant, that’s where we all start, but he expects them to grow up into Christ, into a faith mature and vital and wise and strong enough to face anything the world will throw at them.
And the world threw something frightful at Paul. We don’t know what it was or how long it lasted. We know where it happened: in Asia, modern day western Turkey. If the language Paul uses to describe his ordeal is any indication it must have been intense, awful. Listen again to how he describes it, “…for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8). Crushed. Despair. “We felt that we had received the sentence of death…”(2 Cor. 1:9).
Why was this happening? We don’t know.
Why did God allow this to happen? We don’t know.
Instead of asking “why?” questions—which are often not very helpful, especially since we’ll never know the answers—Paul tries to makes sense out of his ordeal from what he knows. And what he knows from his own personal experience is that God has a way of showing up in places that look dead, God has a way of appearing in places closed off from light (such as a grave), God has a way of showing up in unlikely ways, in unlikely situations; for we know because of a cross and an empty tomb, God uses even death to display the power of God’s love. Paul writes, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death, so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).
Paul knows. Yes, Paul knows. God in Christ rescued him once from the forces of death and God will do it again. Paul discovered that a deeper power was at work in him, a power that did not belong to him, and it’s that power that he had to learn to rely on through this nightmare. That is the foundation of Paul’s hope. And so he draws the Corinthians into his ordeal. Paul asks for their prayers. Why? He writes, “So that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11).
I started with verse 8, about the “affliction” they experienced in Asia. But that’s not where Paul starts his letter. After the initial salutation, Paul begins in verse 3 with thanksgiving, blessing God, which is where we ended the reading for this morning, “so that others many give thanks on our behalf.”
Blessing, blessing God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanksgiving at the beginning of the text, thanksgiving at the end, and in between “affliction” and “despair.” Why thanksgiving? Because Paul wants the Corinthians to know what he came to know. Because he wants the Corinthians to share in the grace he received. Because he wants them to live from the wisdom he discovered in this ordeal. And here it is: God is always faithful to us, no matter what.
After surviving a horrifying ordeal he thanked God. Not because he survived. Although, I’m sure he was thankful for that. Instead—remarkably—he seems to be thanking God for the entire experience! He thanks God because he discovered something about God that he could only have discovered suffering through this ordeal. God is the “Father of mercies,” he says, of compassion, and God is the “God of all consolation” (2 Cor. 1:3). Paul is not saying that God caused the suffering. Instead, he’s affirming that God is perhaps most powerfully present in the midst of our sufferings and afflictions.
Actually, what’s implied here, what Paul doesn’t say (because his readers know) is why he’s in Asia in the first place: he’s preaching the gospel. In other words, his affliction in Asia is the direct result of following his call to preach and teach. It’s the gospel getting him in trouble. Paul actually believes that to be associated with the gospel guarantees that we are put at cross-purpose with the world. This is a tough truth for the church to hear. I know. That’s because the gospel is always. Paul knew that when we are faithful to the gospel there will be resistance to it, and challenges, and afflictions, it might even feel like death. But be of good cheer, for the God of mercy and consolation promises to meet us precisely there!
It’s not surprising, therefore, that compassion and consolation permeated Paul’s ministry in Corinth and elsewhere. That’s because this is part of the gospel itself, that God meets us in our afflictions. This is part of the good news! That’s what Paul wants them—and us—to know.
Why is this so important? Because something of God’s kingdom opens up to us when we discover that when the God of mercy and consolation consoles us in our afflictions—and Paul assumes that we will have afflictions—“we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Cor. 1:4). Paul knows, we know, what the church can truly be like when we are people of mercy, of compassion, of consolation. And all of this—mercy, compassion, sharing in suffering—is possible—we bear witness to it—because we are, right now, by virtue of our baptisms sharing in the life of Christ. Just as the life of God was pouring out through the sufferings of Christ, all the suffering that we encounter, our own or others, can become a sharing, a participatin in the life of God. For Paul, Jesus is more than a distant historical figure that he believed in, Jesus was, is, a presence he knows and lives in and shares his life with because Jesus shares his life with him.
Christ is abundantly present, right now, in the places that need consolation. God meets human suffering with mercy. And because we know that God has and is merciful to us we’re able to respond to human suffering with mercy, compassion. The word compassion literally means, “to suffer with.” Compassion allows us to suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice. Paul even makes a bold, counter-intuitive claim that our own individual afflictions can actually mean the eventual consolation or salvation of someone else, because knowing that God has and is meeting me in my affliction means that I can be prepared and able to meet you more readily in your affliction. It means that when you are afflicted I will stand with you because I know that God’s compassion and consolation will be known there, probably through me or through the community of the church.
This is why Paul has so much hope! “Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know”—we know, not we think or suspect, we know—“that as you share in our sufferings [in Asia], so also you share in our consolation” (2 Cor. 1:7).
I often return to Christian Wiman’s beautiful memoir My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer. A poet, Wiman returned to the faith just before he was diagnosed with a rare terminal cancer. Almost fifty years old, he knows a lot about affliction, suffering, excruciating pain, about despair and feeling sentenced to death. And yet, still, nevertheless—you know, isn’t nevertheless such a grace-filled word, a word that describes what grace looks and feels like? Being a realist and never sugarcoating his life, nevertheless Wiman has come to know and experience God most profoundly as the God of mercy and consolation. Wiman writes, because he knows from his own experience, “Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual suffering… Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible.”
You see, when we share in the suffering of others, even risk entering into their experience, when we do this with the strength and presence of Christ, knowing that he goes there with us, do you know what happens? We are changed. We become different people. And then we help transform the lives of the people we love. Isn’t this what the church is for?
At the end of his memoir, speaking to his son, sharing some of the wisdom he has discovered as a Christian, Wiman writes, “Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter in. It may be the love of someone you have lost. It may be the love of your own spirit for the self that at times you think you hate. However it comes though, in all these—of all these and yet more than they, so much more—there burns the abiding love of God.”
Life tears us all apart at one time or the other, but it’s there, in our wounds, if we have tended them, cared for them, there burns the abiding love of God.