Eucharist Sermon - 13 June 2021

The Second Sunday of Trinity
2 Corinthians 5:6–21, Mark 4:26–34
The Venerable Jonathan Chaffey, The Archdeacon of Oxford

The NY Times commentator, David Brooks, was intrigued by people who stood apart from the ‘Big Me’ culture - individuals who radiated an inner light and who made a significant difference in the lives of others. He wanted to know what made them so deeply good and how he could be more like them. His conclusion was that such people were made, not born and that they had usually undergone either what he termed ‘a humility shift’, ‘a conscience leap’, or been energised by unexpected and profound love.

You could confidently put St Paul into this category. Just in the few verses of his letter to the church in Corinth that we heard today he makes several striking statements, which suggest a life of extraordinary depth and service – you may wish to turn to the passage again in your booklets:

We are always confident…though while at home in the body we are away from the Lord’
‘We walk by faith, not by sight’ ‘From now on we regard no-one from a human point of view’
‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’
‘We entreat you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God’

Paul’s statements reflect an engagement with existential questions that are pertinent across time and culture. His assertions provoke self-enquiry whatever our circumstances, whether coming towards the end of a university career or reflecting on our experiences through a pandemic; they speak into our heartfelt desires for our families and relationships, our hopes and fears about work and health; and they shine light on how we view the moral conundrums and the spiritual complexities of the world around us and within ourselves.

We are always confident’, Paul writes. That’s a bold statement. So what are the grounds of such confidence? Of primary importance, he was converted. This is where I differ with the analysis of Brooks, for Paul was both born (that is, born again) and made. Of course, for a radical who is morally unhinged or spiritually deranged, conversion can be a dangerous thing, especially when it brings a perspective on life that sees heaven as a greater attraction. Not so for Paul, whose assurance was founded on the love of God, and earthed in Jesus, who had given himself for Paul and all humanity. The death of Jesus on the cross was an offering beautifully described in the Book of Common Prayer as ‘a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’. Encountering the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus Paul discovered ‘an invitation to the strongest hope, the deepest joy, the greatest fulfilment, the most authentic pattern of living, the highest adventure known to humanity… The call of Jesus to have life in all its fullness’ - Words written for a C of E report on Discipleship in 2015 by the then Bp of Sheffield (Steven Croft). Conversion is life-transforming - yet we know that discipleship requires hard work. Conversion can be a single event (that may have been the case for some of us here) but it is also progressive; we need to decide each day whether & how to say ‘yes’ to the call of Christ. My Theological College Principal would make the sign of the cross each morning when entering her office, as a symbol of trust and a declaration of intent: trust because our discipleship is always a response to God’s reconciling grace – indeed Paul precedes his statement on confidence by saying ‘it is God who has made us and given us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee’. And intent because it is our responsibility to make this count, individually and corporately, as the body of Christ on earth.

Paul made his faith count by becoming an agent of reconciliation. He had a specific calling as an Apostle for evangelism and church-building. So Corinth was his territory: a vibrant and cosmopolitan city, connecting the Greek mainland with the Peloponnese. Probably home to more slaves than free, it was full of travellers and traders. ‘From now on we regard no-one from a human point of view’. If you read Acts Chap 18 you see how in Corinth Paul broke down unhealthy barriers of social and religious custom, conversing with paupers and rulers, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, men and women. He implored them all to receive the grace of God and to turn personal salvation into communities of God’s new creation. In the next verse after this reading, Paul writes: ‘We urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain’. Conversion always leads to Commission. I encourage you to reflect on how God is calling you to make your faith count, not least in sharing God’s reconciling work among individuals, communities and institutions.

The work of Reconciliation inevitably provokes opposition. Reinhold Niebuhr, in articulating a Christian Realism in his engagement with American culture 50 years pre and post 2WW identified that grace and grief are intertwined this side of heaven. Paul was speaking into a culture that had gained a reputation for unbridled immorality, hence the association of the ‘Corinthian’ name down the centuries = not an easy place to share a new faith and Paul managed to alienate members of the synagogue before being brought before the civil court. How did he keep going? How do we sustain ourselves as we work to share our faith, break down inherited prejudices, question privilege and power, speak up for those with unequal access? First, he walked by faith, not sight – and, significantly, the Lord encouraged him in a dream to keep going. Secondly, he viewed others not in a worldly way but through the lens of Christian love - ‘for Christ’s love compelled him’. Love and Faith. It’s no accident that discussions in the church today about human sexuality are entitled: ‘Living in Love and Faith’.

So what do you take from this passage? This reading from 2 Corinthians is one of my favourite passages in the NT. That’s because it reflects a profound personal testimony of a man who was compelled, commissioned and sustained by the reconciling love of Christ. How is God speaking to you through this passage? Be encouraged and as we come to communion with him and each other in bread and wine, let us receive his grace and answer his call.