“Think But This” Sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:11 - 6:2 by Joe Ellis — July 4, 2021
The passage we heard this morning is about how in Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself. Paul locates himself within this mission — he has a ministry of reconciliation, to bring all humans into reconciled relationship with God — and by extension into reconciled relationship with our neighbours and with creation. This is because, as we’ll see in this passage, God’s reconciliation is all encompassing — reconciling relationships between neighbours, creation and with God himself. There are, of course, different models of reconciliation.
One of my favourite models has stuck with me ever since I performed in Shakespeare's A Mid Summer’s Night’s Dream in grade 7. The play ends with the character Puck saying, “If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended: that you have but slumbered here; while these visions did appear.” Puck basically is saying, “If you didn’t like our play, if we’ve offended you, just pretend it was a dream and all’s well!” What a nice approach to reconciliation — let’s just think it was a dream. On this first Sunday with no imposed restrictions, how nice it would be to just think this last year was simply a strange dream induced by eating cheese too close to bedtime, and get on with normal. In this last 18 months, where relationships have been strained to breaking, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just say, “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended.” — and return to normal.
We’ve actually heard a lot of “think but this” over the last 18 months from a lot of different people. “Think but this” — Hearing “If only you would think this way,” never seems to help strained relationships much. A deeper reconciling is needed in our community.
In the wake of record breaking heat waves, and utterly devastating wildfires — wouldn’t it be nice if reconciliation with creation were as easy as “think but this and all is mended.” No matter what we think is the cause of such extreme temperatures and fires, the community of Lytton is still reduced to ashes and human relationship with creation is deeply in need of reconciliation. Despite our theories on what’s wrong with the environment, saying “think but this” doesn’t seem to be getting us very far on the road to mending.
First Nation communities and our entire country, are reeling from the discovery of nearly 1000 unmarked graves of children at former residential school sites. “Think but this and all is mended” will not wake anyone up from that nightmare. Saying “think but this” is not helpful when what is thirsted for is action. Reconciliation is much deeper than words — I’m so hesitant to even mention this, as words have fallen so short that to even mention the fact that words are insufficient is terribly insufficient. We need not hear “think but this,” we need reconciliation in action.
We need reconciliation in action within the closer level of broken relationships that we have with our friends, family, neighbours, and land— all of which are pervaded with some degree of brokenness - brokenness that doesn’t make the news feed, but is significant in our own life nonetheless. Brokenness in the normal everyday way of brokenness. We get stuck in broken relationships. Sometimes we are stuck because others won’t “think but this” — If only they would “think but this” they wouldn't be such idiots! If only they would “think but this” their life wouldn’t be a train wreck.” And so we offer helpful “Think but this!” advice, or “Look on the bright side,” Or “Forgive and forget”, or “If you could just do this instead.” — But nobody seems to realize our brilliance (at least not our family).
Christians have specialized in a “think but this” mentality. That’s what we do. We write books and blogs. We read books and blogs. We get together to discuss them. “Think but this!” If only they would “think but this”.
Sometimes, we’re not sure what to think, so we read some more. I love books, and while reading is hugely helpful, we can often become perilously close to reducing our faith to just “think but this” or telling someone “you need to think but this”. A case in point is the way we can often prioritize the sermon as the high point of the worship service. Every Sunday I’m saying — “think but this”. For many, doing the faith becomes learning what to think. To be sure, thinking is important — I love thinking — sometimes I even do think. But this passage is about action — reconciliation in action. Thoughtful action, but action nonetheless.
Before going on, let me just remind us of the dictionary meaning of the word reconciliation. Reconciliation is re-establishment of an interrupted or broken relationship. When a relationship is broken — reconciliation is what is needed. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are letters of reconciliation — his relationship with the church in Corinth is strained to say the least. That’s why Paul has written all these letters, he’s hoping to bring about reconciliation between himself and this community, but more importantly, between this community and God. Often, when reading Paul’s letters, you can get the impression that Paul is saying again and again, “Think but this! Think but this! Think but this!” Of course, it is not my intent to throw intelligent thinking under the bus! Paul does say “think but this”. Yet as you read Paul, you’ll notice that Paul’s thinking is often coupled with talking about action — whether it is God’s action, his own actions, or the actions to which he is challenging the churches. So, too, in our passage — Paul is highlighting his action as the embodiment of reconciliation. Paul is not just talking about reconciliation, he is embodying reconciliation.
How so? A regular criticism that the church in Corinth had against the ministry of Paul was that he wasn’t polished — Paul often appeared weak and unimpressive. They wondered at Paul’s constant suffering, his constant experience of persecution, his appearance of humiliation, his lack of impressive sermon giving. In short, the Corinthians were fairly unimpressed with Paul. So in this passage, Paul uses intelligent thought to explain his actions — what’s disturbing them so much is the fact that they are seeing reconciliation in action. The way Paul lives is the embodiment of reconciliation.
“Think but this,” Paul says, “the suffering, the weakness you see that characterizes my life — that is the way of the Messiah, that is the way that the Messiah has brought reconciliation to the world — through suffering and weakness.” Paul is just imitating Jesus.
So, how did God begin the work of reconciling the world to Himself through a crucified Messiah? Why are suffering and death the vehicle for reconciliation? The most helpful metaphor I have right now is through the language of bearing pain. Christ bore the pain of the broken relationship. Sin entails breaking relationship with God, neighbours and creation. Breaking relationship entails pain. When relationships are broken, there needs to be justice, a reckoning, a repayment. That is what judgment is — it is returning the harm back to the person. It’s a recompense, a repayment. Harm done elicits a repayment of harm in return. It creates a perpetual cycle. But Paul tells us that Christ died for all. Christ bore the harm inflicted. He who had no sin, bore the harm of our sin. So that we who are sin might not have our sin counted against us, and so returned to us. Christ bore our harm so that we might not have the harm we’ve done given back to us. The Messiah bore our harm — in bearing our harm, the Messiah broke that vicious cycle of Harm / repayment of harm; Harm / repayment of harm; Harm / God’s justice; Harm / God’s justice. In bearing the harm we’ve inflicted on God, neighbours and creation, the Messiah began a new healing cycle. The cycle looks like this— Harm / bearing harm; Harm / bearing harm. This makes reconciliation possible. This enables a new cycle of: Asking forgiveness / receiving forgiveness; Asking forgiveness / receiving forgiveness. With that, all sorts of new cycles are made possible. God makes us a New Creation / We live a New Life; God gives us the Spirit / We live in Holiness. God reconciles us to Him / We live lives of reconciliation. So many new possibilities are opened to us because of the way God relates to us in Jesus Christ. The cycle of Harm / repayment of harm is broken.
Notice the difference is not just thinking differently. Reconciliation comes through action. This is not simply a “think but this” approach to reconciliation. God did not just “think” he would forgive and not count our sins against us. God did not just “think” reconciliation between Himself, His world, and His People. God acted. God acted in a way that was faithful to His covenant promises. God acted and bore the pain, the harm, the sin of our actions. That is God’s reconciliation in action. No doubt, the divine thought behind the crucifixion is enough to take your breath away — but the beauty is the way that God’s thought couples with God’s action.
Paul not only explains God’s action in these terms — Paul uses this language to explain his own actions. He explains that he is an ambassador, an ambassador of the Messiah. As an ambassador of the Messiah, he is living the message of reconciliation. Paul is not only speaking words of reconciliation — he is embodying that message of reconciliation. Paul says, “The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So that we might embody God’s faithfulness."
Look at that — embody God’s faithfulness.... God’s reconciliation is embodied. God did not just think reconciliation into action — God embodied it. By suffering, absorbing the harm of our sins, Jesus became the embodied way by which God showed himself faithful to His covenant promises of bringing about reconciliation. Remember the cycle? Harm / God absorbing harm; Harm / God absorbing harm as they way the Messiah embodied reconciliation. Paul frames his ministry in the same way: "The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to His covenant." As an Ambassador for reconciliation, Paul similarly becomes the embodiment of reconciliation.
Remember that broken relationships create a cycle of Harm / repayment of harm; Harm / repayment of harm. The Messiah broke the cycle through bearing the harm — Paul now in the Messiah, does the same thing: Harm / Paul bearing the harm — Harm / Paul bearing the harm. That’s why in the next section, 2 Corinthians 6:3 - 10, Paul immediately goes on to talk about his sufferings and hardships. He says, “We put no stumbling blocks in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity understanding, patience, and kindness; in the holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and through dishonour, in bad report and good report; as genuine believers, yet regarded as imposters; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten and yet not killed; sorrowful ,yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Paul does not just talk about reconciliation, he embodies it. He bears pain for the sake of reconciliation — to break the cycle of Harm / repayment of harm.
It’s safer and it’s more appealing to stand outside the fray shouting, “Think but this! Think but this!” It is even more appealing just to talk in our own circles and say, while shaking our head, “If only they would ‘think but this’.” We are called to speak and embody God’s message of reconciliation — and as Paul says, embodying reconciliation entails bearing pain, absorbing pain.
We need to distinguish the type of bearing pain that simply perpetuates harm and actually prevents reconciliation. Being a doormat for Christ is not what Paul is talking about. But seeking reconciliation will entail bearing pain: entering into relationship with others, experiencing their pain, absorbing pain for the sake of forgiveness, standing in solidarity in pursuit of justice, being willing to suffer for a neighbour with whom you have nothing in common, being willing to advocate for the rights of someone with whom we have no common purpose. That, I believe, is the road to reconciliation. Along the road we will certainly say, “I think this”, but it’s our embodiment of reconciliation that will give greater power to our words.
The scope of this reconciling mission is breathtaking. Paul’s says he is imploring all people, on the Messiah’s behalf to be reconciled to God. God’s work of reconciliation extends to all creation. Paul is not simply concerned about growing particular churches that he’s planted. Too often I have the perspective that the point of church is to grow the church. God has reconciled the world to himself in the Messiah. Paul says, if anyone is in the Messiah, there is a New Creation! Old things have gone, and look—everything has become new! And what characterizes that newness? What does being a new creation look like? Reconciled relationship with God. No longer being enemies, but being intimate friends, beloved children. It looks like reconciled relationship with our neighbour, our family, and strangers. Reconciled relationship with creation. In this next season of our church’s life, I’d love it if our mission statement were: Ambassadors of Christ in the Bulkley Valley: Learning to embody reconciliation to God, neighbours and creation. That is who we are.