Reflection on 2 Corinthians 5, verses 16 to 21, by Trevor Agnew

For combined Village-St Lukes service

Is anyone feeling weary and under-appreciated?  Criticised and taken for granted?

I won’t ask for a show of hands but I think we all feel that way at some time. Certainly, when we read the two letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we know that he felt that way.

Today’s reading was part of a public but still very personal letter from Paul. He’s feeling the weight of caring for the new churches across what is now Turkey and Greece. He’s feeling the personal strain of his missionary work. He’s feeling concern for the spiritual progress of these new churches. He had just finished a visit to the Greek city of Corinth. At Corinth, there was a new Christian community, a church group which Paul had founded. When he left Corinth, he made his way north to Macedonia.

The travelling wasn’t easy and I think Paul had worries about his health. He was in his mid-fifties and feeling weary. He wrote about how the body wears out like a tent. Paul was a tent-maker, so he knew what he meant when he wrote “When this tent that we live in now is taken down – when we die and leave these bodies – we will have wonderful new bodies in heaven.” [2 Cor 5:1] He knew from experience about canvas wearing out and tents being torn down. And that was how he felt, right then.

Now, I’ve always taken a personal interest in Paul ever since I was in Bible Class in the 1960s, and I was chosen to play Saul of Tarsus in a play we did as a fundraiser in Port Chalmers and Dunedin. It was a good play about the early church, with Barnabas and Mark.  Saul’s persecution of the ‘followers of the way’ as the early Christians called themselves, was followed by his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, which provided a happy ending.

Well as you know, the converted Saul became Paul, one of the leaders of the early church and a key missionary figure, the author of about fifteen books of the New Testament

Just at this difficult time in Paul’s life, trouble boiled up. Back at Corinth, in the Christian community, there were disputes and personality clashes, conflict and sniping.  Paul’s role was criticised by some. There were arguments over whether Paul or other leaders and preachers were greater.

So Paul had sent his fellow missionary, Titus, back to Corinth taking with him a letter – First Corinthians – trying to settle the various disputes, while Paul continued on his missionary travels to Macedonia.

That letter contained some angry passages. In fact the early theologians called it the “stern letter.”  Paul told the arguing factions that they were “baby Christians.” [1 Cor 3:3]

“When you are jealous of one another and divide up into quarrelling groups, doesn’t that prove that you are still babies – wanting your own way?”

Paul had been exasperated when some complained he hadn’t done enough and he admits that he ‘boasted like a fool,’ when he wrote that he had suffered hardships and deprivation, had been whipped and imprisoned, had survived stoning and shipwreck. Yet through all these angry words we can see Paul’s faith shining through.

Our reading today was from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which is much more positive. Titus had returned from Corinth and had met up with Paul in Macedonia, bringing him good news from the Corinthian congregation. Paul’s message seemed to have helped restore order and the disputes had been settled.  So now Paul, greatly relieved, is dictating a letter to the Corinthians, congratulating them and giving them advice on restoring their relationships with each other.

Reading Paul’s letters is a bit like listening to only one end of a telephone conversation, so we have to deduce what had happened. In today’s passage, Paul is talking about achieving reconciliation, bringing people together, after disagreement and misunderstanding.

“Christ changed us from enemies into his friends.”

“God – through Christ – changed us from God’s enemies into God’s friends.”

He reminds the Christians of Corinth that in the past Christ had been judged by human standards, but that was a mistake that they don’t make any more.

Now he calls on them to judge people in a new way – not by their old human standards, not by outward appearance. Instead they are to look inside and see the new person, the person united with Jesus. We are Christians, or as Paul put it, “We are ruled by the love of Christ.”

All very good but what are we as 21st Century Christians, as ‘followers of the way’ in 2019, what are we doing to show that we are judging people in Paul’s new way – not by our old human standards, not by outward appearance. Are we prepared to look inside people we know and people we meet?

This is not easy. Often we seem to have a ‘them and us switch’ in our minds, where we inhabit a comfortable little world of people who belong in our group and anyone who doesn’t fit into our picture of the world – because of the way they dress or speak or pray – must be alien.

You can check if you have a ‘them and us switch’ easily. If you’ve got one, there are three questions you may find yourself asking people.

  1. Where are you from? (Relatively harmless but it is then followed by question 2)
  2. Where were you from before that? (It means you don’t belong in my world picture – where are you really from? Then we come to Question 3.)
  3. Well, where did your parents come from then?

I am not making these questions up. You probably all know my wife Jenny. This year her Sew Hoy family are celebrating 150 years of being in New Zealand. A few months ago, we were in a shop that we’ve been going to for the last 30 years and a shop assistant asked her where was she from? Jenny replied, “Papanui.” So up came Question 2.

“Where were you from before that?”

Jenny said, “I was born in Dunedin and raised in Mosgiel.” (You could see the shop assistant’s bafflement. You don’t belong here but you’re talking as though you do.)

So out comes Question 3. ‘Well, where did your parents come from?’

Jenny, bless her, said, “Well, my mum was born in Temuka but my great-great-grandfather arrived here in 1869.”

All New Zealanders are descended from immigrants. New Zealanders today have their origins in about 150 nations, but if you don’t look or sound British, you’ll be asked the three questions. Even if you’re Maori.

In the last fortnight, we have all endured the consequences of a terrible act of terrorism in Christchurch, and I think it’s made us re-examine our attitudes to other people.

Most news items now mention that the attack killed 50 Muslims. It’s true – they were indeed followers of Islam   attending Friday prayers at mosques – but that ‘50 Muslims’ label is not the whole truth.  Even a brief scan of the papers tells us that we lost 3 women, 43 men and 4 children.

To put it another, more human, way, there were two mothers, over thirty fathers, and nearly ten grandparents.

Five were overseas visitors, staying with families.

There were 5 school and university students.

6 engineers

5 university graduates

2 university lecturers

2 software developers

2 restaurant owners

An agricultural researcher, a farrier, a water desalinator, a dairy owner.

A dentist, an accountant, a doctor, a teacher, a welder, a farm worker.

A trainee pilot, an information technology specialist, a graphic designer.

That’s not complete but it does give the fifty a slightly more human face. They were fifty people who were praying in a place of worship. They should have been safe

In October last year, a New Zealand Muslim women’s group, the Khadija Leadership Network held a conference, warning that the threats against Muslims were increasing. Pakeeza Rasheed, the Auckland chairperson wrote about it last week. She said, ‘We knew this day was coming and we were frantically asking people to listen. We were dismissed and told very firmly that Muslims shouldn’t be talking about these things. These things do not happen in New Zealand and our sort should not rock the boat.’    Pakeeza Rasheed was very disappointed and angry, and she wrote, “We have never really been a part of New Zealand … never embraced, never included, never accepted.”

I think the most heartening and uplifting aspect of this last fortnight has been the genuine outpouring of sympathy from all New Zealanders, after the terrorist atrocity. The leadership has come from the top. The New Yorker magazine’s website had two articles about it last week: One was titled, ‘What Jacinda Ardern’s leadership means to New Zealand and the world.’ The other was titled, ‘Jacinda Ardern has rewritten the script for how a nation grieves after a terrorist attack.’ Our Prime Minister has literally shown us how to embrace, how to include, how to accept.

But what was even more impressive was the way that thousands of ordinary people went out of their way to share their feelings, to show their love and to offer flowers and regret, kindness and sympathy.

As a nation, we’ve come a long way in two weeks. Not all of those involved are Christians but they are all trying to do the right thing. They epitomise what Paul meant about reconciliation, about people putting things right with each other.

“So stop evaluating Christians by what the world thinks about them or by what they seem to be on the outside,” says Paul.  “Once,” he says, “I mistakenly thought of Christ that way, merely as a human being like myself … How differently I feel now!”

This is Paul’s message: that God is making all people God’s friends through Christ.

All people.

All people.