Sunday, June 16, 2024

As simple and alarming as that

 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

When we moved into our house 19 years ago, we found a stash of letters from the 1940s tucked into the eaves of the garage. They were short, unsigned and cryptic, mostly asking for money and promising not to write again, and in our minds we made up a sordid story a secret affair followed by years long blackmail. The truth turned out to be far more tragic. The man who had lived in our house his entire life had a photographic memory – according to our neighbor who knew him later in life who would ask the man directions to obscure places and he could tell her off the top of his head from having seen a map. During World War II he served as a CIA agent, and when he left the service, they did experimental electroshock therapy on him so he wouldn’t remember the secrets he knew. It worked so well he forgot his family, and his wife and twin daughters left him. He lived alone and reclusive for the rest of his life, every few years a letter arriving, asking for money, and promising it would be the last time. This isolated man hid these letters away in an unfulfilled yearning for reconciliation that never materialized.

I tell this story for two reasons. The first is that reconciliation is the longing within us all. To be in right relationship with God, one another, and with our own selves and the world we live in is what we’re made for. And when we are alienated from this connection, we cry out to be reconciled, whether or not we know that’s what we’re doing.

The second reason I tell this is that having one-sided letters, with gaps between them at that, invites imagining stories. But when the person writing is very long-winded and detailed, like the Apostle Paul, it’s much easier figure out what the story is. Today we read from 2 Corinthians, which is Paul’s fourth letter to the church in Corinth. The first and third are lost; the second we call 1 Corinthians. 

I find it a tiny bit delightful to imagine the other two letters  one day discovered hidden in the cranny of some ancient cave.  Because Paul, who is human, got pretty peeved with the Corinthian church. They’re this savvy, diverse and cosmopolitan group of folks who tended toward arrogance, petty squabbles and blatant misbehavior, after many of them met Paul in person at his first visit after planting the church some years before, their high opinion of Paul evidently plummeted. They insulted him and questioned his authority. Paul was the kids say, “butthurt,” (translation: dramatic, over-the-top, offended), and vowed in anger not to visit Corinth again. 

His missing third letter Paul called his ‘painful letter.’  So, maybe it’s good it got lost. Nobody wants screenshots going around of their text fight with their spouse, or to be caught on film throwing a tantrum at their kid in public.  Let’s just say, only two Corinthian letters ended up in the bible as the trustworthy and authoritative word of God. And we know that at some point – some think in the middle of writing this letter - the Corinthians apologized to Paul, ejected the troublemakers, and they were reconciled. 

 God’s love is what’s real, it’s where our hunger points, our longing originates, and our purpose finds its fulfillment.  But we’re so easily knocked off course from being connected, or reconciled, to God, our deep selves and each other. The desert mothers and fathers from the 3rd and 4th centuries were the first to unpack how everything we’d call sin can be grouped into two piles: either aggression or greed, that is, either “a reactive and excluding fear” or “the urge to consume and absorb.”   

If we view the world through resentment and rage, shaped around narratives of victimhood and blame, we will live guarded and hostile, alienated.  If we view the world through competition and self-advancement, striving for bigger and better, or more unique and singular, always trying to be somewhere—or someone—that we’re not, we will live hollow and famished, alienated.  There is no end to ways we can turn the ditches of aggression into yawning chasms, and the potholes of greed into slippery caverns of alienation. 

But, as Rowan Williams says, 

Love is what happens when you stop being aggressive and greedy, and stop to look with your whole self, from the centre of who you are. It’s as simple and alarming as that.

Love has room to flower when you stop either pushing reality away or making reality serve your purpose. In that space, love grows. God…whose life is the ultimate definition of love, has neither aggression nor craving in the divine nature. God is not afraid and God is not greedy. It sounds blindingly obvious, perhaps, put like that; but if we say that the love of God is, in the divine life, the same thing as the absence of aggression and greed, this ought to make us think that perhaps it tells us something of how love works and fails to work in us too. (Passions of the Soul, xxxiii).

God, in love, already claims us and is reconciling the whole world to Godself and each other.  But we humans are wobbly, weak, and easily distracted. And to complicate things, we live in what Williams calls, ‘an entire human environment where, bizarrely, mysteriously, saying no to God feels easier than saying yes.’

So we are to both take sin very seriously, and also have compassion for ourselves and each other around it. Walking this human path, we can’t not tumble into the ditch of aggression and faceplant in the pothole of greed, and striving to avoid them becomes just another way of stumbling into one or the other. What saves us is only God’s grace.  

This is what I kind of love about 2 Corinthians.  Whatever aggression or greed filled Paul's painful third letter, there’s plenty of both left over for this one. But even though he uses parts of this letter to prop himself up, he also admits to it. He keeps throwing himself back on the grace of God and letting himself be reoriented to the real, and then reorienting us there too.  We see him living in real time what he is also teaching: that we have died in Christ and been raised to Jesus’ complete connection to God and all others, and so even though we keep succumbing to these temptations, they are not ultimately what define us or direct our lives. 

It reminds me of the story told by desert fathers and mothers of frustrated demons shuffling dejectedly through the desert, complaining that they can’t draw the monks into sin, but neither can they force them to anguish over their sin. When they try, the “‘great, old men and women’” just say, “‘Of course I’m a sinner! So what! I rely on the mercy of God!’” (Williams, 16) and go back to seeking a reconciled kind of life, that is, praying, serving others, practicing living from and for love in ordinary, unimpressive ways.

So what are we to do? Paul demonstrates in his fourth letter the simple but profound prescription of the desert monks that left the demons shuffling dismally in the wilderness, once we recognize we’ve stumbled into sin we’re to be honest about it, hand it over to God, and get on with our lives. Literally, that’s it. 

We don’t wallow in it. We don’t dwell deeply on our division, examine extensively our fears of one another, ponder relentlessly our selfishness, or probe exhaustively how appalling we’re convinced we are. We have died to sin and been raised to new life. To act as though, by the might of our own understanding, the strength of our own efforts, or the force of our own egos, we could pull ourselves out of sin and alienation, is just to fall back into it.

Whatever exciting or bland ways ‘our reactive and excluding fear’ or ‘the urge to consume and absorb’ is being expressed in us in the moment, we’re to look honestly at it, give it over to God, then we simply get on with it, whatever it is that God would have us get on with. We pick up where we left off, practicing living from and for love in ordinary, unimpressive ways.

God reconciled the world to Godself in Christ, and does not hold our trespasses against us, Paul says. Which is to say, God does not look at us with disgust or condemnation and neither is God convinced to love us because we are so impressive or interesting. God’s view is that we are inherently loveable. Like a new grandma stunned by her tiny grandson who does nothing yet but eat, sleep and poop, utterly loved for simply being and nothing more.  God holds us in love, and transforms us by grace to do the same for one another. 

So from now on we regard no one from a human point of view. When we’re resting in God's affection for us, it’s impossible to view others with hostility or fear. Instead, we find ourselves participating in the reconciliation of Christ, becoming instruments of God’s love, ambassadors of reconciliation. When we know ourselves to be held in love, we will love others. 

 So, we live our lives, in the moments we’re in and the people we’re with. We sin, we confess, we give it to God, and we go back to seeking a reconciled kind of life. Because to be in right relationship with God and one another is what we’re made for. It’s the longing within everyone, and the boundless gift of God in Christ, for us all.


(I'm grateful for Rowan Williams' Passions of the Soul for the  direction of this message and insights about the desert fathers and mothers!).

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