2 Corinthians 13.4-13
Has anyone ever had a trust problem? Someone in your life doesn’t trust you, for one reason or another. And try as you might, you cannot get them to trust you. Trust is a hard thing to build, and if it is lost or suspected for any reason, it becomes even more difficult to reclaim.
Paul had a trust problem. He had started the church in Corinth and had spent a relatively long time with them, living with them and among them, teaching them about the faith. Then he left. Moved on to continue his ministry. And everything fell apart. Into the leadership vacuum stepped some other leaders, but they were not just like Paul, obviously. So it made for factions – some supported the new leadership and others still supported Paul, and felt like they needed to choose. Out of these factions, there were some in the Corinthian church who started to mistrust him, critics who felt like they needed to pick a side and run down the other side. Paul still exhibited authority in the church, but others didn’t trust that authority. He had a trust problem.
Throughout both I and II Corinthians, we read Paul’s side of the argument. He works to exert his authority, but it is a delicate balance. First, he isn’t there, and it is more difficult to show his authority when he is writing letters and sending messengers. Second, and more to the point, Paul is trying to balance authority with authoritarianism. Remember last week’s sermon – Paul’s version of the Body of Christ dismantles the idea that the Church is supposed to be run with a top-down, authoritarian, hierarchical mindset. His ecclesiology – his idea of how the Church should be run – is that all are gathered together under the head of Christ. No one is more important than the other, or more honorable, or more critical to the working of the Body than the other. So, Paul cannot very well say now, “I am the only one who knows what’s right, so I’m the boss so you have to listen to me and do everything I say.” He just told them “the eye cannot say to the hand I don’t need you.” So, Paul has to be delicate with the balance between authority – asserting himself and his beliefs – and authoritarianism – telling everyone “my way or the highway.” We see this delicate balance throughout Scripture, because so many people love their authoritarianism. The people told Samuel they wanted a king like everyone else had. The disciples told Jesus they wanted a Messiah who would kick butt and take names. And now Paul is fighting the same request.
In the passage I just read, Paul keeps talking about testing, or some translations might say “proving.” This is a direct response to the critics in Corinth. They have demanded that Paul prove his worth. Prove that he is worthy to have a voice in the church. Prove that he is strong enough as a leader and a Christian. Prove his power. Prove he is not a weak leader. He knows, and they know that he is coming for a visit. So they demand ahead of time that he better be ready to prove himself to them, to show them his power and strength.
I think that we live in a world of Corinthians today, do we not? There are a lot of Americans, and really people throughout the world, who act a lot like these critical people of Corinth. We have a history of loving the John Waynes and the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the world. We love it when someone comes in and says, “it’s my way or the highway.” It is human nature at some level to feel safe and protected by that muscle-bound Terminator, or cowboy with their six-shooter, who will come in and save the day. George Lakoff talks about this mindset at the “Strict Father” ideology. A lot of us think that we want that strong, unwavering, brash, bossy, “kick butt and take names” person in our lives. When we feel small and unworthy, we can kind of glom on to their confidence and gain a little of it for ourselves. Sure, they may put us down and even abuse us in the process, but we’d still rather have that person in our lives – large and in charge – than not.
I read an article this week about a CEO of a company who believed that this was the way to run his company. He had read philosophies about self-reliance and competition and authoritarianism that suggested that we are best off if we live in this way. So, he made that a part of his company’s DNA. He pitted one division against the other, rewarded those who overpowered the weaker ones, and legitimized abusive behavior. He doubled down on the philosophy, even when early problems resulted. But over years and years of insisting that this Strict Father ideology was going to work, those problems got worse. And just this past week, that company – Sears – finally declared bankruptcy, after years of financial struggles. Now, Sears might still turn things around, but the biggest irony is that this corporation that championed ideology of self-reliance and “kicking butt and taking names,” is now asking for forgiveness of loans, begging for a handout, dependent on others to bail them out.
But Paul wouldn’t allow himself to be suckered into that way of thinking. His argument throughout the letters, and especially here at the end, demonstrates his rhetorical genius. Let me start at the end and work backwards. Look again at the way he ends the letter: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” A Trinitarian formula here, speaking of all three persons of the Trinity. Seems pretty standard, doesn’t it? It’s not. Of all of the letters that we are pretty sure that Paul wrote, this is the one time that he ends his letter in this way. He almost always ends his letters “in the grace of Jesus Christ.” But here, he seems to intentionally use all three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. Why does this matter?
Let me back up and share a little Trinitarian theology for a minute. The Trinity is tough. It is a difficult theological concept, and I think it is one of the things that we struggle the most within the Church. We have a difficult time making sense of how three substances are actually one substance. How three persons are actually one person. Anyone else struggle with this? I know that I have. And theologians for centuries have struggled with this, as well.
But in the last few decades, theologians have started to reclaim some ancient language about the Trinity, that doesn’t spend as much time worried about the substance of the Trinity – how one thing is actually three things. Instead, it focuses on the relationality of the Trinity – how Creator and Christ and Spirit are all eternally relating to each other. Sometimes called the doctrine of the social Trinity, it has been reclaimed as the way that the earliest Church seemed to understand God. I know that a couple of Sunday school classes have been reading Richard Rohr’s book Divine Dance, which explores this relational idea of Trinity. For Rohr, the relationship of the Trinity is more important than the substance of the persons. Relationship is the most significant building block of our reality…it’s the way that God works. But, says Rohr, this ideology of the Strict Father leads us astray:
The Christian God’s power comes through his powerlessness and humility. Our God is much more properly called all-vulnerable than almighty, which we should have understood by the constant metaphor of “Lamb of God” found throughout the New Testament. But unfortunately, for the vast majority, he is still “the man upstairs,” a substantive noun more than an active verb. In my opinion, this failure is at the basis of the vast expansion of atheism, agnosticism, and practical atheism we see in the West today. “If God is almighty, then I do not like the way this almighty God is running the world,” most modern people seem to be saying. They do not know that the Trinitarian revolution never took root! We still have a largely pagan image of God.
Wow…ouch. Rohr steps on our toes a little, doesn’t he? But I appreciate his point. The failure in our world to trust is tied to this failed ideology. The Strict Father ideology was never Biblical, never Christological, never Trinitarian. It is and was always a pagan ideology.
So if this is what the ancients believed, what Paul believed, then maybe it starts to make sense why he is using this Trinitarian formula at the end of a letter to a church that is divided and untrusting. Basically, Paul’s underlying point is that the nature of God, and thus the most foundational and basic nature of reality, is relationship and vulnerability and trust. This is the nature of Divinity.
So, in these final words to the Corinthians, this is the basis of Paul’s argument. We started at the end of the passage, but you see this theology of relationality and vulnerability reverberate throughout the passage:
- 4. Jesus was “crucified in weakness.” He was anything but a Strict Brute, but instead showed that vulnerability is the greatest strength. The ultimate power is the ability to stand before your enemies and let them show off their brutishness, never changing who you are and what you stand for. That’s what Jesus did, and that is what made him strong, says Paul. Vulnerability is strength.
- 5. “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” Paul makes this point a couple of times throughout the passage. Not only is the relationality of the Trinity true for the Trinity, but it is true for us, as well. That is how God has made us to relate to one another. In trust and vulnerability. Paul doesn’t just say that trust is something that the Godhead has within itself, beyond in the eternity of heaven. But he says, “Jesus Christ is in you.” You are made to trust in the same way. You are made to be in relationship in the same way.
- 10. “I come…using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.” Here is Paul’s answer to that delicate balance between authority and authoritarianism. Like Jesus, Paul means to be unwavering in his character, not changing who he is and what he stands for. But he makes it clear that he is not going to come in guns blazing against anyone who disagrees with him. His authority, his strength, is in building up, in love, in community, in the diversity and trust of the Body.
- 12: “Greet each other with a holy kiss.” Does anyone else remember the time that Bill Arnold was the liturgist and told us to greet each other with a holy kiss? I don’t know that anyone did it, but it is interesting to note that this is the symbol of greeting that Paul chooses. There is something pretty vulnerable about a kiss. Our culture gets squeamish about this, because we oversexualize the meaning, but many cultures greet each other with a kiss. It is more vulnerable than a handshake, or even a hug. I don’t think it was an accident that Paul suggested this language as a way to create trust and vulnerability.
- And finally, in v. 13, Paul ends his correspondence with them with this Trinitarian formula. His message is clear: This is who God is. This is who God has made you to be.
Paul would seem to suggest that the reason we have a trust problem in our world is that we have failed to understand who we are truly made to be. Again, Rohr makes this point:
Love is not something you do; love is someone you are. It is your True Self. Love is where you came from and love is where you’re going. It’s not something you can buy. It’s not something you can attain. It is the presence of God within you, called the Holy Spirit—or what some theologians name uncreated grace.
There is a different company that I want to tell you about. Instead of the Strict Father ideology, they ran their company very differently:
- Instead of self-reliance, they believed in taking care of each other. To that point, they made sure all their employees had health insurance, even creating a separate company so they wouldn’t be beholden to others.
- They had a heart for the little guy and so they revolutionized the way that we buy things. They felt for small business owners who couldn’t take the time away to buy things in person, so they mailed them, keeping business people and farmers working instead of shopping.
- Instead of competition and cutthroat behavior, they believed in cooperation and trust. They gathered their employees together in one place, so that they would have a family atmosphere, supporting each other, taking care of one another, building each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Any ideas who that company was? Interestingly enough, that was Sears, too. Begun in 1886, with a very different mindset than the one that has led them to bankruptcy, Sears once was a company that believed in building up their employees like family. A hundred years ago, their motto was “We solicit honest criticism more than orders.” A picture of honesty and vulnerability. They built the Sears Tower, what was once the largest building in the world. A symbol of support and community. And success, for generation after generation.
Paul would say, “of course.” That is how we are made. That is how God exists beyond humanity, and how God has programmed humanity to work best. Building up. Love. Grace. Vulnerability. Trust. It’s the way God made us!