2 Corinthians 5.16-21
Every year in my fraternity in college, we elected a new president. Usually, it was a non-event. The president from the year before was running again, or there was only one person that really wanted the job! But my senior year was different. There were two candidates. A senior…one who had been the president before, and was imminently qualified to do it again. And a freshman…one with obviously no experience, and a lot of growing up to do, but with some incredible gifts for leadership. The vote was taken and the unthinkable happened…a perfect tie. Even numbers for both candidates. The tiebreaker would be used. For the tiebreaker, the faculty sponsor of the fraternity would cast the deciding vote.
Imagine if you were that faculty sponsor. There are good reasons to choose each of these persons. So who would you choose? Senior? Freshman?
Do you know who he chose? Of course you don’t. I am the only one. And I am not going to tell you.
At least not yet.
We conclude our series on trust this week. Over the last couple of weeks, I have made it pretty clear what most of us already know: we don’t trust each other in this country. We don’t trust the media, unless they already agree with us. We don’t trust the government, unless they already agree with us. We don’t trust each other: the people who we meet on the street or even in our own neighborhoods. In a few days, those of you with kids are going to send your kids into your neighborhood, fulling expecting them to be poisoned by your neighbors. Right? How many of you will not look at the candy your kids bring home? Of course we will! We have been taught that we cannot trust our neighbors. We have to check for needles and razor blades and Ecstasy hidden in the Halloween candy. Now, have we ever found needles or razor blades or Ecstasy in our kid’s Halloween candy? Probably not.
But we will check anyway. I will check anyway! Why? Because we don’t trust each other.
As we have discussed over the last few weeks, this is not just a problem of the United States in 2018. Paul seemed to be dealing with the same trust issues in the church at Corinth. Over the last couple of weeks, we have remembered together the division in the congregation there. There were factions, enclaves, disagreements, and basically a splintered community among the Christians at Corinth.
Look at Paul’s answer to this splintering. Throughout the books, he names specific situations and specific strategies. But here, in chapter 5 of 2 Corinthians, he goes big picture. He explains the interaction between God and humanity in broad and theological terms. I see what I call six “movements of trust” in the passage today. You want to know what Paul thinks about God? Follow the trust.
Movement One. God trusts God. We have to cheat a little bit on this one, because we don’t see this language in this passage. But remember when math books had the answers in the back of the book? Last week, we looked at the back of the book of 2 Corinthians and found this Trinitarian language. Like we said last week, this formula is only in this book, and that wasn’t a mistake. Like we said, the nature of God as Trinity suggests that God is eternally in loving, trusting relationship. This is the foundation of reality. Reality is relationship. Divine reality is trust. This is the assumption from which Paul argues – we know because we saw it in the back of the book! God trusts God.
Movement Two. We mistrust each other. Here’s the Halloween candy example. We don’t trust each other. And Paul talks about this same idea. He writes of what the NRSV calls a human point of view, or what your footnote might say is a “fleshly” point of view. Scholars suggest that what he means is that we base our trust on outward appearances. The flesh is on the outside of our bodies, and so when we get caught up judging others based on outside appearances, we fail to trust each other. And we get it, right? How often do outside appearances cause mistrust in our lives? Race, gender, position, ideology, class. If you have the same flesh as me – the same outward appearances and ideology and clothes and class as I do, then you are acceptable. You are valuable. But if not? If you are different, then you are the enemy. Paul is taking their context, their congregational example, and universalizing it: humanity does not trust each other. Every week, we say this confession together, and in it, we are acknowledging this. We acknowledge our brokenness. Our sinfulness. We participate in the brokenness of the world, and so we confess it aloud – and silently – to God. Paul is spiritualizing this idea.
Movement Three. Now things get a little crazy. God trusts…us. What? Does God know us? Does God know us? Surely God doesn’t really know us because we are clearly not trustworthy! But look at the story of the Bible. Again and again, even after we have used up all our second chances and third chances and a million chances, God still trusts us. We call it forgiveness. Paul calls it reconciliation. Usually, when we hear that word, we are thinking about two parties who are in disagreement who come back together to reconcile. Of course, that’s what happens when God offers the terms of reconciliation. Follow me. Be my disciple. Go and sin no more. But it is always an offer. God has to risk us rejecting that offer. And some will. The rich young ruler walked away from Jesus. People walked away from Jesus. It is a measure of trust to offer forgiveness and not command obedience. When God forgives, God trusts.
Which leads to Movement Four. We trust God. Here is the first time that humans are trusting. After God sets the stage with Trinitarian love. After God offers forgiveness in the form of grace. Finally, we trust God. We accept the terms of the reconciliation! We talk about that in every service, too. At the end, I say, “if you are willing to follow the ways of Christ, to make public a decision to follow him, come tell us about it. Make your decision known.” Of course, there is a word for the decision to follow God, and that is faith. The basic definition of faith is trust of God. We accept the grace that has been offered and we follow in a new way. Paul talks about this, too. And so does our back window: “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation.” Scholars dispute if Paul meant “any person” who follows becomes a new creation, or when we are in Christ, “there is a new creation.” In other words, is it individual or cosmic. And a lot of scholars say…yes. That Paul purposely wrote it to mean both. We individually become a new creation, and our “being in Christ” yields a new creation. Both individual and cosmic. Our trust, our faith, allows God to bring about a new creation in our world.
Which leads to trust Movement Five. God trusts us (again). Look at what happens next in this passage. So, God has offered the terms of reconciliation and we have accepted them. Now, look at what God does. So far, we have been using synonyms for trust – faith, reconciliation, etc. – but here Paul uses the actual word: God has “entrusted the ministry of reconciliation to us…we are ambassadors of reconciliation.” We know what ambassadors are. They are envoys. Trusted messengers. A king or a government will send an ambassador to represent it to another group. They are the voice of that king to this other people. According to Paul, that’s what God does. God trusts us to be ambassadors of reconciliation. To take the news of reconciliation to the world. Again, God is taking a pretty big risk here, because, do you know what we are like? We get the message wrong. We aren’t the ambassadors of love and grace that we are supposed to be. And yet, again and again…God trusts us to try it again.
Which leads us to the final trust Movement Six: We trust us. This is perhaps the toughest one for us, but the most important one to hear. God trusts us…to be reconciled. To be ambassadors. Don’t you think that maybe if God does, then we should too? Look to your left and to your right. Those are fellow reconciled, trustworthy ambassadors. Why do we go back time and again to that fleshly way of thinking, judging the other for not being trustworthy enough. God trusts that person…you should too! That’s what this new creation looks like. Reciprocal trust. God-ordained trust. Martin Marty, a church historian who has seen a lot of trusting and a lot of distrusting communities in his work, says that one of the places where “risk and trust meet” is the community where stories are told and heard. We listen to each other. We speak honestly to each other. We trust each other.
Which brings us back to the fraternity president.
Anyone curious who the fraternity faculty sponsor chose? When he walked in, I assumed that he would choose the senior. Here was the voice of wisdom, who knew the importance of stability and continuity. Leadership mattered. Maturity mattered. Cast the vote for the senior and let’s get on with it. But he didn’t. Without hesitation, he cast the deciding vote for the freshman. “Why him?” we asked later? “Why the risk? Why the unknown.”
Potential, he answered. We don’t know until we find out. That senior had already succeeded. He had already been an amazing leader. It was time to empower a new voice. Time to give a new way of being to the organization, and its new leader. He became our next president, led the organization that year and beyond, and is actually now the pastor of the Baptist church across the street from the campus! Maybe he would have been anyway. Or maybe it took that vote of confidence. That anointing. That blessing. For him to understand who he was.
Today, you are that freshman. It is an imperfect metaphor, of course, but I want you to see yourself through the eyes of a God who trusts you. A God who knows full well that you aren’t perfect, but yet trusts you enough to reconcile with you. To end the estrangement of sin. To end the brokenness of our world. To make you an ambassador of Christ, an ambassador of reconciliation, an ambassador of trust.
This week, I want you to make a point to look into the eyes of another. To not just look at the exterior, but look deeper, look beyond. And as you do, say these words to yourself:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.
You are the body of Christ. The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you.
On the contrary…you are the body of Christ, each individually members of it.
And as you do, imagine that the person looking back at you is saying the same thing. Because you, too, are God’s creation. Blessed. Reconciled. Trusted.