In a couple of weeks, you’ll see that the altar flowers will be in memory of my mother. She passed away a little over five years ago, as many of you know, from Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve been thinking about Mom this week as I reflected on Paul’s words to the Corinthians—that he was treated as though he had nothing when, in fact, he possessed everything.
By the end of Mom’s life (and actually for years before that), she appeared to have nothing. The home she had bought and made her own after Dad died had been sold, along with most of her belongings. She was living far away from where she had lived all her life and the many friends and activities she had enjoyed there. She was unable to move or speak. She couldn’t show any emotion in her face, either with smiles or tears. We didn’t know how well she could see, or even if she could still see. We could only guess about whether she was hungry or thirsty or in pain. We had no way of knowing if she was aware that she was surrounded by people who loved her.
But, as Mom’s disease progressed over those years, I began to wonder if, as the world around her intruded less on her thoughts and spirit, she was able to see God more clearly without the clutter that we all have to wade through. Her faith had long been an important part of who she was, and I wondered if she had begun to experience God’s presence more directly, no longer clouded by all the doubts and questions that we are often burdened by. I wondered if she was able to simply be quiet in God’s presence, experiencing a kind of long Sabbath without the clamor of appointments and obligations and to-do lists. I wondered if, when she was no longer able to name and explain, she was able to experience, like none of us yet can, the unnamable, unexplainable love of God. I wonder if, like Paul, when it appeared that she had nothing, in fact, she had everything.
Our passage today is part of what is actually Paul’s fourth letter to the Corinthians. As I mentioned last week, Paul had first sent them a letter with some advice about how to live faithfully. They wrote back with some questions, and he responded with what we call 1 Corinthians.
Sometime after that, the relationship between Paul and the church at Corinth soured. Paul was hurt when someone committed some wrong against him, and the church didn’t rally to his side. It hurt him so deeply that he chose not to make a planned trip to Corinth. Instead he sent them another letter, which is mentioned in Chapter 7—what is often called the “painful letter.” His decision not to visit as planned caused some grumbling among the Corinthians; some saw it as a sign that Paul was undependable.
Fortunately, Paul’s “painful letter” did bring the Corinthian church around. They disciplined the person at the heart of the conflict, and Paul’s colleague Titus was able to report that the rift seemed to be healed. The letter we’ve read from today is Paul’s attempt to strengthen their reconciliation.
Paul encourages the Corinthians not to allow the grace they’ve received to be for nothing. He communicates a sense of urgency as he proclaims the nearness of the day of salvation. Then he explains how he and his co-workers have done everything they can to help the Corinthians realize the fruit of the good news he had brought them. He lists all the hardships he and his companions had endured for the sake of their ministry—natural disasters, suffering delivered by human hands, and the stresses and strains that simply come with the territory in ministry—hard work, sleepless nights, and missed meals.
Then he makes a second list—one that tells of how, in spite of all that he and his co-workers have endured, they have conducted themselves in grace-filled ways. And, he adds, they have done this no matter what circumstances they found themselves in.
Finally, Paul includes a third list—one that is meant to reinforce something he addressed earlier in his letter—that appearances can be deceiving. So, Paul says, even when he is treated as a phony, he remains true. Even if he is dismissed as a nobody, he is well-known. Even if some people say his ministry is dying, it is very much alive. He may carry a heavy burden of sorrow, but he rejoices. He may be poor in things, but he has the treasure of the Good News which makes many rich. When Paul says he is seen as having nothing, he means he is seen as having nothing and no one at all. But Paul knows a different reality. People might think he has nothing, but he knows he has everything.
Scripture passages like the one we read today can seem very foreign to us. We are in a very different place than Paul. We’ve never planted a church in a hostile environment and then had someone try to undermine us. We’ve never lived through the kinds of hardships Paul did—imprisonment and beatings for our faith, riots that occur because of our witness and evangelism. There are those in the world who do suffer those things today, but we, thank God, do not. And so, we may have a hard time identifying with the list of Paul’s hardships.
When we encounter a passage that seems so distant from our own lives (and with all Scripture, really), it’s important to learn all we can about its origins. We think about who the writer was and what we know about him as an individual if that’s possible. We look at the language he used to expand our understanding of his meaning. We explore the society the writer lived in and the concerns of the community he wrote for so that we understand what his words would have meant to them. By doing this, we avoid the distortion Scripture’s original meaning that happens when we look at it only through our 21st century eyes.
But we also believe that Scripture is a living thing. It’s not simply a document from the past. We expect that God will speak through it to us today, where and how we live now. Even though it was written for particular people with their own unique problems in specific times and places, we can find intersections with our own lives that strike a chord deep within us. The words of Scripture can speak to us as poetry does, in ways that don’t depend on the author’s life, and they offer instruction and wisdom and comfort for our own lives today.
We may not be able to identify so much with Paul’s first list of hardships. But, his third list—ths list of the ways in which people see him—is a different story. Like Paul, there may be times in our lives when our integrity is questioned. We may feel like others see us as insignificant. The circumstances of our lives may lead others to see only sorrow and need, and they pity us. We may not be living through the exact same situations as Paul, but we can experience the same feelings he had.
We also draw strength and comfort from the same source Paul did, and which he summed up in one short sentence. At the very beginning of our passage, he says, we have been reconciled with God, because “God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake, so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.”
In our Lenten Bible Study, we talked about how the list of our sins has been nailed between Jesus’ hands and the cross, covered up by his body and his blood, so that when God looks at us, God sees only the righteousness of Jesus. Jesus, who had everything, became as nothing for us so that we could have it all—forgiveness, acceptance, righteousness, and eternal life.
Just a few verses before our passage, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the world changed with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. He reminds them that in Christ, God has reconciled the world—has reconciled us—to God’s self, not counting our trespasses against us. And, when we have been reconciled with God through Christ, everything changes. Things are no longer what they seem—people especially. Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Who you are and what your life truly means are determined by your relationship with Jesus, and your life holds much more than what the world may see.
When we are in Christ, nothing in our lives looks the same as it did. When people question our integrity, we know that God sees our hearts, and we are encouraged to remain true. Pain and sorrow still exist in our lives, but we know that God is with us through them and we can rejoice in God’s presence with us. The world may see us as poor in material things, or poor in other ways—because of serious health problems, a tragic loss, or difficult problems in our families. But, we know that the richness of our lives is not determined by these temporary afflictions, no matter how serious and difficult may be.
It’s not easy, of course, to remember what we have when we’re looking into the face of all that we’ve lost or stand to lose: when we’re pondering a bank statement that shows too little in it, when we’re staring at read-outs on a hospital monitor or gazing at the empty seat at the table. That’s when we need each other to help us remember what we have. That’s when we need the comfort of Scripture to remind us that there is nothing that can take away the riches we have in God’s love: not the fear or reality of death, nothing this life can throw at us now or in the future, not individual people nor systems or institutions that seem to hold all the cards. That’s when we need to cling to Paul’s words—that though it may look like we have little or nothing, we have everything that makes life in its truest sense possible.
The world may look at us and see defeat, sorrow, and suffering, just as the world looked at the cross and saw only death. But in his resurrection, Jesus showed that he has everything, and he shares it all with us–God’s presence, God’s grace, God’s strength, God’s peace. And, when Paul says that, through Christ, he possesses everything, he doesn’t just mean that he passively accepts what is showered down on him. He claims it as his own. He seizes it as his rightful possession—as the inheritance he shares as a child of God.
When we, like Paul, claim the riches of God’s grace as we freely and willingly give ourselves up to God, our lives are transformed by the resurrected Christ, and where there was nothing, we are given everything. That’s why we can make Paul’s second list our own—the list that describes a life rich in God’s love. Because of God’s love and grace, given to us through our faith in Jesus, we can show the world a different reality—the reality of an abundant life. We show this through lives marked by “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and righteousness.” We can show the world that we have the power of God strengthening us and enabling us to live as the new creations we are.
This is why we can confidently pray the words of John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer that are printed on the cover of your bulletin: Let me be your servant, under your command. I will no longer be my own. I will give up myself to your will in all things. Lord, make me what you will. I put myself fully into your hands: put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and with a willing heart give it all to your pleasure and disposal.
We can, with confidence, put ourselves into the hands of Christ who lived, died, and rose again for our sake so that we might be reconciled to the God who loves us. We can be certain that God will use us and all our experiences for the good of the kingdom when we willingly offer it all to God. Using John Wesley’s words, we can pray to be like Paul—to be God’s servants no matter what life brings. Because, even when it looks like we have nothing, we are a people who have it all. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young