2 Corinthians 6:1–13 (NRSV)
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says,
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
11 We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. 12 There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. 13 In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.
What is faith in God? What does it mean to be a Friend of truth, of God, and of man? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What is the purpose of the Church? I hope that these questions have risen in your heart and your mind a few times as you have personally walked along the pathways of faith. I hope that you have questioned your faith for a reason. If we do not question our faith, if we do not challenge ourselves or our beliefs, do we actually believe anything?
Paul tells the people of Corinth not to accept the grace of God in vain. To me he is also challenging them to question or examine their faith. The term vain is an interesting word. It means without content, hollow, useless and careless. So when Paul speaks to these people he is challenging them to examine their lives of faith, to take a look inside themselves and their community, to investigate their actions and motives to see if they are hollow or filled.
This very idea probably scares many of us, frankly it scares me, because it requires that each of us must face the truth of ourselves and humbly walk before God. What if when we gaze into our lives of faith we find a void? This prompts many of us to fear self-examination, to neglect it, and we begin to live a life of vanity. A hollow empty existence, where we have lied to ourselves about our faith and devotion of God, while in reality there is nothing there.
This is the very thing that the early Friends challenged their countrymen about when they began forming their religious society. I am reminded of George Fox’s testimony of his spiritual journey, he eagerly sought direction and encouragement from the religious leaders throughout his travels each gave advice to quiet his passions yet all left him empty and hungry for more. One advised him to find himself a wife to divert his attention and to fill the void he was feeling with the passions and responsibilities of a family. Another told him to seek mental care through the use of tobacco and bloodletting. While the third flew into a fit of rage because George stepped off of the pathway in the garden and crushed a leaf of one of the precious plants the priest was tending. Each of these men were respected individual within the religious community, they were people that George himself thought would be the ones that could answer the questions he had about his spiritual life. Yet their spiritual direction was distractions. Make a family, do drugs, or find fulfillment in temporal and material pursuits.
I imagine that the young George Fox probably felt as if the whole idea of faith was empty if the best advice given by the spiritual leaders is the same advice he could have received from anyone on the street or in the pub. He took his Bible and he walked out into the fields, broken, searching, and wondering.
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” Paul reminds the faithful of the words that God spoke to the prophet Isiah centuries before. Centuries before even the life of Jesus. And yet those words speak not only to those faithful from the Hebrew believes but also to the gentiles among the community. Fox described this as a day of visitation. A moment in time where the spirits of man and God brush together, a crossroad at which those journeying must make a decision of which direction they will proceed. Paul tells the people of Corinth that they are at one of those crossroads in faith.
Our spiritual journeys are filled with several of these crossroads. At times it seems as if every moment of every day is yet another day of visitation challenging us to make some sort of decision. It should not surprise us that so many in the faith communities question, examine, and decide to either stay or leave communities of faith.
This is where the Church is important. Those days of visitation can be very difficult to endure. The Church as a whole is probably one of the greatest days of visitation it has ever faced. We as individuals and a communities are facing pressures from within and without the church demanding attention. Does this mean we need to withdraw and retreat? Not in the slightest. It means we need to examine ourselves and our church meetings to determine if maybe we are being vain or being honest. We need to come back to the center and focus again on the most important aspects of our faith traditions and stop trying to be things we are not.
Paul explains this as putting out no obstacles, this is a very confusing term because on the surface we would assume that these would be legalistic rules that keep people from finding acceptance within a community. Hoops of requirements that we require people to jump through before they are found acceptable. This might be the case, but it goes deeper than that. This term is one that is personal; causing one to stumble, causing spiritual hurt, or causing offense. Think about that for a moment. The obstacles that Paul is speaking of are relational or the lack there of. Some might consider this to be liberal in theology, watering down the truth or even succumbing to the world, but before you jump to that conclusion remember who these people were that were reading this letter.
The people of Corinth were fixated on the feeding of their own personal desires. They worship the goddess of love, the partied around athletic events, and their livelihoods depended on trade and the servicing of the traders. Yet Paul says to them do not become offensive when you participate in the ministry of God. The call of God and the call of the culture are on very different edges of the spectrum of life for these people, but do not be offensive do not cause pain, or someone to stumble. In my mind I cannot really grasp how Paul expects us and them to not provide an obstacle to these people. It is impossible to preach the gospel and not be offensive to the world, without relationship with God and humanity being the goal.
Paul is urging them to go out in ministry, go out living the love of Christ with other, build friendships with the people of the world and show them a different lifestyle. Friends would call this living a sacramental life, fully devoted to God. Speaking through our actions as well as with our words. If we fail to live the love of Christ with others we will always be an obstacle, our words will fall on deaf ears because we have not given them a reason to listen. Without building a relationship, an authentic relationship where we accept them for who they are first and then encourage them to walk with us as we follow Christ, we are empty of the truth and they will only see us a judgmental bigots.
Paul then provides a testimony as to how to live life with others; endure the hardships, face the riots, the beatings, go hungry so others might have something to eat. In essence he is saying sacrifice all your security, and all of your comfort so that you can speak the truth to those around you at their level. Siding with the exploited ones, demanding justice for those who have been wronged, giving to those who have need. Yes the ministry of the church is social justice. Our hearts should break whenever and where ever we see inequality, prejudices, and exploitation. I say this because this is the ministry that Jesus himself started. And when he taught his disciples to pray they were to pray that “thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” On Earth as it is in Heaven, quite literally means that we should be striving to make heaven on earth. What would that look like?
This is an extremely difficult passage to really grasp. It feels as if Paul is speaking in two different directions when we know we can only go in one. This is why the church is so extremely important. It is the community of faithful that come alongside those that are experiencing those days of visitation, to provide encouragement to the ones that are struggling. It is the community that will help us discern the various voices calling us to different paths in life. The church is the place and the community that supports our ministries. It is the church that encourages us to adopt the holy lifestyle that Christ taught us, the life of prayer, worship and ministry. Without the church there is not a community, there is not support, and we are left alone trying to make vain attempts to fill a relational void yet having nothing to fill it.
How are we doing as a church? Are we vain, empty of all that really matters or are we filed with the love and grace of God? Are we putting obstacles before people or are we helping them walk around the very things that cause them to fall? Are we living the love of Christ with others? Paul closes this section of scripture by telling the people of Corinth that his heart is open to them. That he loves and accepts them for who they are. They should know this because he had spent so much time with them prior to him writing these two letters to them. He endured so much with them and yet they hesitate. They look to him with some contempt because they had hardened their hearts, they had slid back into previous lifestyles and they are seeing Paul as judging them instead of loving them. It is not Paul who has changed but them. It is their hearts that have hardened and forgotten how to love. They are the ones that have engaged in the obstacles and cooled the devotion. So Paul says “Open wide your hearts.”
As we enter into this time of open worship I encourage each of us to Open wide our hearts, to examine our faith and allow the Spirit to examine us as well. Have we became vain? Have we emptied ourselves of God’s grace and become obstacles to those that are seeking the acceptance of God? Is there room for improvement? We are in a day of visitation, and our salvation is just before us. If we earnestly seek Him He will be our ever present teacher and guide, He will lead us down the right paths even if our wisdom fails. So as we examine let us also seek that direction, let us ask that that very spirit will fill the areas of emptiness with grace and let us be moved to encourage those people whom God leads us to encourage.