I preached on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 three times last weekend. Sadly, I forgot my voice recorded, but this is roughly what I said...
Last year, just after the US Presidential Election, the Daily Telegraph ran a cartoon on its front page. In the background was the White House in Washington, with the lawns in front of it. And in the foreground, was a fountain in the grounds of the White House, with a little sign stuck in it. The little sign said this “Do not walk on the water.”
The reason that cartoon is funny is that we only tell people not to do things which it is possible for them to do. So we tell children not to step out into the road, or not to touch a hot saucepan or not to talk to us in that tone of voice. I taught in secondary schools for 6 years. Some of the teenagers I taught were quite naughty. But I never once told them to get down off the ceiling, or not to fly to the moon on giant pink rabbits. We only tell people not to do things if there is a possibility they will do it.
Which means that when we read today's passage, and see St Paul warning the church in Corinth that they should not receive God's grace in vain, alarm bells should be going off in our heads. Because if Paul is warning them not to, that means it is possible to receive God's grace in vain.
I'll say that again. It is possible to receive God's grace in vain.
This comes straight after one of the most glorious passages in all Scripture, where Paul tells us that he is compelled by Christ's love, that Christ died for all and therefore all died, that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God and that if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation.
Paul assumes that they've taken all of that on board. They are, after all, the Church in Corinth. Paul is preaching to the converted. And he warns them not to receive God's grace in vain. Literally, he says to receive God's grace, but not leading to emptiness.
You see, it is quite possible to go to church regularly, even to lead a church regularly and to do it in vain, leading to emptiness. It is quite possible to receive communion every week in vain. It is quite possible to believe that God made Jesus to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God, and if it makes no difference to our lives, then we are doing it in vain, into emptiness. That is why Paul urges them not to receive God's grace in vain, because it is possible to receive God's grace in vain.
In the second half of chapter 6, and on into chapters 7-10, Paul elaborates on what it looks like for the Corinthians to receive God's grace, and not to do it in vain. But for the rest of today's passage, we see what it looks like for Paul not to receive God's grace in vain, and how he goes about trying to persuade them.
But before we look at that in more detail, it is important to explain exactly what Paul is doing here. He isn't saying “This is what you need to do to earn God's favour.” He isn't saying “This is how we get into heaven.”
What Paul is saying is that God is offering us a free gift – Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God 5:21. Or in verse 2 of today's reading, God says “In the time of my favour I heard you and in the day of salvation I helped you.” We can't earn God's favour or his salvation because he has already shown us his favour and accomplished his salvation. Jesus takes the punishment that we deserve. He died for us all, as 5:15 puts it. And as a result of that, God makes those who are included in Christ into new creations 5:17.
So what Paul is saying here is that it is possible to look like a new creation, but for it to be empty.
When I was a little child, I used to love Cadbury's Creme Eggs. And one year, I saw a Cadbury's Creme Egg easter egg. It was big, and it looked just like a massive version of a Creme Egg, with the same wrapping and everything. And the next year, my parents got one for me, and it was really disappointing. I had been expecting that the middle would be filled with all that sickly sugary goo that you get in Creme Eggs, but it wasn't. It was empty.
That's a bit like what God is saying here. If we are new creations, we should be new creations on the inside as well as the outside. It should really make a difference to our lives. But some people just look like the real thing – there isn't any real transformation where it counts – on the inside. They receive God's grace in vain – into emptiness. This isn't what we do to earn salvation or to make God like us; this is about what we do with the salvation that God is offering to us. Do we really receive it, and let it change our whole lives so that we are new creations through and through, or do we just take the outward show? And Paul is warning us and saying here that the outward show is no good. It is empty, and it leads to being empty and at the end of the day all that is left is horrible emptiness.
So what does it look like for Paul? In verses 3-10, Paul is telling the Corinthians how he goes about his ministry, and he does it partly to set himself up as an example, to show what it means to be transformed by the gospel. There's loads here, and I just want to draw a few things out.
First thing, it means endurance. We're English; we're pretty good at endurance. We keep going, sometimes we complain a bit, but generally we're pretty stoical. But that isn't the sort of endurance Paul is talking about here. Paul is talking about the sort of endurance that comes from knowing where he is going. It's what comes from 4:18 “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” It's not so much the slog of trudging through a marsh to get it over and done with, as the pain of labour, that mothers go through because they know the joy of seeing a new baby born. That's the sort of endurance Paul's talking about. It's like Jesus, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” And Paul had to put up with all sorts of things because of Jesus – here he lists troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger. It's that sort of endurance. And I don't think we're very good at it.
Here's an example. I used to be a secondary school teacher. And when I was just starting out one of the big issues I had to deal with was whether or not to talk to my pupils about Jesus. Probably the most common view I found among other Christian teachers was that it was unprofessional, that people might complain and I might even get sacked. Well ok. I will do the best job of teaching that I can, but am I willing for people to think of me as unprofessional, to have people complaining and even for me to be sacked for telling people about Jesus? Am I willing to endure that?
Are we willing to do things that are uncomfortable for the sake of Jesus, because of the amazing and wonderful glory of knowing him? Are we willing to welcome people into our homes, to speak to people we don't know, even to lose friendships for the sake of Jesus and because we know that in him we have received every spiritual blessing and we will one day inherit everything? Are we willing to endure? Sometimes I am; sometimes I'm not. But I know I should be, because I know in my head that what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal; I know that what I have in Christ is far greater than anything I can lose in the world, I just don't always live it out.
Second thing it means to be transformed by the gospel is purity. Verses 6-7. In purity, knowledge and kindness, in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love, with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.
Lots of people have puzzled over what it means to have weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left. I think it's quite simply this. We don't have any other plan. In my right hand, says Paul, I have righteousness. But if that doesn't work, in my left hand, I have righteousness. There isn't any room for me to hold another weapon. Paul doesn't have anything up his sleeves just in case. He is going to try loving people sincerely, with purity, knowledge, kindness and the Holy Spirit. If his church doesn't grow with that, he's not going to try gimmicks or tricking people. He's not going to try hiding from the world or lying to save his own skin. He's going to carry on preaching Christ and loving others sincerely. Yes, he might find different ways to use those weapons – he might find that it's the slaves or the widows who particularly need loving, or that the best time to preach is at night or in the early morning, but Paul isn't going to change the fact that he lives with righteousness and he works for God with righteousness. If there's a big recession, Paul isn't going to try some clever pyramid scheme or running off with the church's money. He is going to keep fighting, with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.
Why does Paul do this? Why does he keep going despite the situation. Why does he stick to only ever using weapons or righteousness? The answer is that as Paul points out, there's so often a tension between what we see now and what the eternal reality is.
So in verse 8 – glory and dishonour, bad report and good report. Would we rather have people saying bad things about us and God saying good things about us, or the other way round?
Genuine yet regarded as impostors. If it came down to it, would we rather have other people think we were genuine, but God knowing we were faking, or would we rather have people thinking we were faking, but God knowing we were genuine? Known, yet regarded as unknown. Would you rather be known by people or by God?
Dying and yet we live on. Blunt question. If it came down to a choice between this life or the next one, and we could only keep one of them, which would we choose? Jim Eliot, the American missionary and martyr famously said “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Do we live like that?
Beaten and yet not killed; sorrowful yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Part of what it means to be a Christian is acknowledging that what we see out there is not the ultimate reality. This outward life, the things we have in this world, the respect from people that we have in this world, is so insignificant that it isn't worth comparing to what we have in the inward life, to the blessings we have in knowing Christ, to the fact that we are new creations inwardly, to the amazing reality that we can have in part now, and will one day have fully if we are in Jesus.
I guess there are some people here who want to sit on the fence. I know that often I do. We want to have the old life and the new one. We want to receive eternal life without seeing that it involves dying to ourselves. And what I want to say to you, and to myself, today, is that we need to decide. Make sure that we do not receive God's grace in vain; make the decision that we are going to let God transform our lives by the recognition that if we are Christians this is not our home any more. We can endure anything in this life, because this life is passing away, and what we are receiving in Christ is eternal. And we aim only ever going to fight with weapons of righteousness. There is no plan B just in case being godly doesn't work out.
And we do this, not to earn God's favour, but because that is what it means to receive God's amazing grace, to recognise that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God, to live as God's new creations in Christ. This is what God will do in us, if we let him.