I had the privilege to preach in a worship service yesterday. I’m not a pastor at present, and so I don’t preach regularly in any setting. But since I am a preacher, by calling and gifting, I generally appreciate any opportunity I have to serve the church and the Kingdom by using my gifts in this way. Yesterday was somewhat different in that regard, however, and here’s why.
When I was a pastor in the Free Church tradition, I preached mainly series of sermons drawn from an extended passage of Scripture—an entire book, perhaps, or a portion of a book, such as the Sermon on the Mount or the Upper Room Discourse. There are numerous advantages to that approach to preaching in worship, and if, in the future, I ever preach regularly as a pastor in a congregation, I will likely take up that practice again.
In the meantime, as a once-in-a-while preacher in mostly Anglican settings, I have committed myself to taking as my sermon text one of the lectionary readings for the day. Most Anglican churches use the Revised Common Lectionary which lists four readings—Old Testament, Psalm, NT Epistle, and Gospel—for each Sunday.
Up to now, it has been fairly easy to do that. Each time I’ve had occasion to preach in a worship service, I’ve turned to the lectionary readings for the week, and either the Gospel lesson or the Epistle lesson (and sometimes both) has called out to me, “Preach me! Preach me!”
Not yesterday’s readings, however. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I struggled with the preparation of a sermon the way I did with the one I preached yesterday.
I used to teach homiletics (the art and craft of preparing and delivering sermons) in seminary, and I always told my students: “Preach only because you have something to say, and never just because you have to say something.” Last week I had to work hard not to violate my own counsel.
For a variety of reasons, I was not drawn to yesterday’s Old Testament, Psalm, or Gospel lesson as a possible sermon text. That left, then, only the Epistle lesson as a text for the sermon, if I was to honor the commitment I had made to preach from one of the lectionary readings. And I almost could not do it.
In the case of the Epistle reading, however—from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10—it wasn’t so much the text that posed the problem. It was me. I’ll say more about that later, but once I understood that fact, I knew that I had to give the Spirit of God an opportunity to say something about this important text through me, if He wanted to. And, apparently, He did.
St. Paul, the Apostle, wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament. They are all letters—eight of them to churches he had planted or at least visited, one (the letter to the Romans) to a church he hoped to visit in the future, and four to individuals (Timothy and Titus, his proteges, and Philemon, a close friend).
Paul first visited the city of Corinth (in Greece) on his second missionary journey (probably 50-52 AD), and Luke records details of that experience in Acts, chapter 18. As a result of his 18-month stay in Corinth, a church developed in that city.
A year or so later, during his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in the city of Ephesus (in what is today’s Turkey) across the Aegean Sea from Greece, and while he was there he got word that there were problems in the church in Corinth. He wrote a letter to the church, our New Testament book of 1 Corinthians, addressing the problems there, sent it off to them, and waited for a reply.
When word came, it appears that the problems in Corinth were still so severe that Paul had to travel from Ephesus to Corinth to make a pastoral call on the church. It apparently did not go well, and after Paul returned to Ephesus, he wrote a letter back to the Corinthians, which has been lost, and then waited for Titus (who had delivered the letter) to return to Ephesus and tell him how the church had reacted to the letter.
When Titus finally returned from Corinth, the news he brought was mixed, at best. The church had responded to Paul’s letter in a good way, but Titus observed that another problem had arisen. The church in Corinth had been invaded, as it were, by false teachers who were attacking Paul’s character and his credibility. Here’s the way he describes them in 2 Corinthians 11…
4 (I)f someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the (Holy) Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. … 13 (But) such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.
Our New Testament letter of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s response to these guys who had moved into Corinth and were determined to take control of the church there by attacking Paul and leveling accusations against his character, his integrity, his leadership style, and his authority as an Apostle.
Second Corinthians is the most personal and practical of all of Paul’s letters. It is rock ’em/sock ’em, down ‘n dirty, no-holds-barred Christianity. In that regard, then, it is precisely the kind of message that the twenty-first century American Christian community needs to hear.
But that is just the problem. Just because we need to hear this message does not mean that we are eager to hear it. In fact, much of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians is framed in language that is foreign, if not offensive, to our twenty-first century American sensibilities. For example…
From chapter four,
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
And from chapter six,
4 (A)s servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; … 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
And a final example, from chapter eleven,
22 Are they (meaning his accusers) Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ?… I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.
24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.
27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
Now I’m fairly sure that you won’t hear too many sermons in twenty-first century American Christian churches based on passages like these. That’s especially true of those churches and preachers who promote something that has come to be called the “prosperity Gospel.”
That is the teaching that, if you are a Christian, and if you have enough faith, God will transform your life, materially and financially as well as emotionally and spiritually, so that you will enjoy financial wealth, physical health, emotional stability, and, in general, a life of abundance and prosperity.
To which I can only respond, “Well, Paul didn’t.”
I’ll take this up further in the next post, where, from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, we’ll discover how to impress God. Thanks for reading.