Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Open Hearts

Open Hearts
2 Corinthians 6:1-13[1]
As I look at our society, it seems to me that one of our fundamental problems is that we are filled with anger. Bitterness, hatred, and meanness seem like a virus that spreads and grows day by day. We can get so angry so quickly these days. All you have to do is accidentally pull out in front of someone to experience road rage. Or bring up the subject of politics at the local donut shop or coffee house spot. We get pretty hostile pretty fast. And we start throwing all kinds of hateful words at each other. We shouldn’t be surprised at this, since that’s the way very visible people behave—from politicians to news commentators to social observers of all stripes. The level of nastiness in the way we speak to and about each other can be overwhelming. And we’re shocked that our news cycle is continually filled with acts of violence!
What’s perhaps more disturbing is the fact that we in the church have adopted this approach for dealing with our differences. We seem to have lost the ability to sit down across the table with someone who holds a different opinion on a matter that concerns us deeply and have a conversation that is based on mutual respect. Instead, we are like those around us, our anger ready to come spilling out at any moment. And when it does our words can match the intensity of the “talking heads” in our world—they can be bitter and mean, if not positively hateful. [2]   My brothers and sisters, to borrow from Scripture, in the Body of Christ it ought not be so!
In our lesson from the St. Paul for today, we find the Apostle dealing with hostility that has arisen in one of his beloved churches. The church at Corinth was founded by Paul. He had served them faithfully until he was forced to leave. And after he left, other teachers came along and began to call into question whether he was truly worthy of the respect due to an Apostle of Christ.[3] Apparently, they criticized him for his looks, for the way he talked, and even for the content of his teaching. The end result was that this church which owed its very existence to Paul’s labor of love began to fracture and turn against him. It would seem, in fact, that on one of Paul’s visits, he was publicly humiliated by one of the ringleaders among those who had decided to turn against him.
Not only was this damaging to the church’s health, it was also damaging to the cause of Christ in general. Paul likened it to yeast that could spread its way throughout a whole lump of dough. Since they didn’t know about viruses in that day, it was probably the best analogy he had. But I think a better one is the image of a virus. If left to spread unchecked, it will eventually destroy whatever body it has infected. And Paul knew that to be true for a church as well: bitterness, anger, and nastiness can poison any church and kill it.
Paul’s approach to this problem was to tackle it head-on. Some in his day (and perhaps also in ours) might say this was the wrong approach to take.[4] Nevertheless, Paul insisted that he had been an open book to them. He had not tried to deceive them or manipulate them in any way, but rather had served them in love. In our lesson for today, he says it this way, “We have spoken frankly to you …; our heart is wide open to you” (2 Cor. 6:11). Even though he says that many of them had “closed their hearts” to him, his heart remained open and full of love and concern for them.
If you’ve ever been in a situation like that, you’ll know how difficult it is to keep your heart open. When we come under fire our tendency is to protect ourselves by closing our hearts. But I’m afraid that’s the first step toward hardening our hearts to others. And that leads, in turn, to bitterness and the anger that we may verbalize in ways that aren’t so kind. We can see this at all levels of church life especially when we disagree about the convictions we hold dear. When we take that protective and defensive stance, it’s hard to recognize that our convictions may not necessarily be the final truth, and that others might have some valid points to make, even if they hold different views.
Again, Paul’s approach to this problem is the direct one. He appeals to the people of the church at Corinth straightforwardly: “It is not we who have closed our hearts to you; it is you who have closed your hearts to us” (2 Cor. 6:12, TEV). And so he asks them directly: “open wide your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:13)! This is where some might fault Paul in his approach. And yet he goes straight to the crux of the problem: they had hardened their hearts and had broken their relationship. Since Paul has just explained to them the importance of being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, he now applies that message to the broken relationship between them: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2). Of course, he’s talking to believers, so he’s not inviting them to the new life in Christ.[5] Rather, he’s inviting them to take the opportunity to be reconciled with him that the present moment affords.[6] And the way to do that is for them to open their hearts to him.
We live in a world where it can seem foolish to live with open hearts. Those who make themselves vulnerable in that way inevitably come under attack. And yet, the way of the open heart is the only way for us in the church.[7] After all, it was God who opened his heart toward us in the first place, pouring out his love and grace and mercy in our lives. And it was Jesus who opened his heart and made himself vulnerable enough to die for us on the cross. In that light, I don’t see how we can do anything less than to follow Paul’s example and open our hearts to all those around us, even those who may disagree with us, even those who may attack us. The way of Jesus is the way of love, the way of the open heart.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/21/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Our situation reminds me of Thomas Merton’s comment in New Seeds of Contemplation, 73-74: “Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. … . It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.”
[3] Cf. J. Paul Sampley, “The Second Letter to the Corinthians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:97: “Paul’s apostleship has been one of service to others, not self-service and self-aggrandizement, perhaps to the chagrin of some Corinthians who see in him a person of attenuated status, too diminished to be considered a true apostle.” Cf. also Glenn T. Miller, “2 Corinthians 5:11-6:13,” Interpretation, 54 (Apr 2000): 188: “In a passage filled with irony and pathos, Paul rehearses the charges against him in antitheses that contrast his opponents' views with what the Corinthians know to have been the case: "honor, dishonor; good repute, poor repute; imposters, truth-tellers; known, unknown; dying, yet alive; punished, not killed; sorrowful, rejoicing; rich, poor (6:8-10).”  Cf. further, J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 56–57: “The authentication of his apostolate is given by Christ himself, who reveals himself in his apostle’s cross. Because he follows the mission of Christ, Paul takes ‘his’ cross upon him and reveals the power of Christ through his weakness and the life of the risen Christ through his daily dying.”
[4] Cf. Sampley, “Second Letter to the Corinthians,” NIB XI:102; cf. also 107: “Frankness, now as then, is best suited for strong friendship relations. Outside of friendship, frank speech is likely to be perceived as meddlesome at best. But even among friends, speaking frankly is a delicate undertaking that requires caution as well as a sense of timing and proportion.”
[5] While this is certainly the case, Ernest Best, in Second Corinthians, 58, reminds us that “Just as there is a continual need to be reconciled to God (see 5:20), so there is a continual need to accept salvation day by day, ‘now is the day of salvation.’ No group of Christians can think itself so firm in the faith that it does not need to go back again and again to examine itself lest it accept in vain the grace of God, the gracious way he has acted in Christ.”
[6] Cf. Sampley, “Second Letter to the Corinthians,” NIB XI:98: “Reconciliation is at the heart of life’s business. If the most important single factor about any of our lives is God’s having reconciled us to God’s very self, then the proper celebration of our reconciliation is to share it with others by fostering reconciliation and atonement whenever we can.”  Cf. also Miller, “2 Corinthians 5:11-6:13,” 187: “This is how reconciliation works. First, God reconciles us to God's self through the cross, and we become new creatures. Likewise, others also are made anew. And the fact that we recognize Christ's work in each other means that we have to relate to each other in a new way.” Cf. further Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, 169, 188. See further, Merton, New Seeds, 67: “Love comes out of God and gathers us to God in order to pour itself back into God through all of us and bring us all back to Him on the tide of his own infinite mercy.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 22: “When we see only demons within ourselves, we can see only demons in others, but when we see God in ourselves, we can see God also in others.” Cf. also ibid, 47, where he speaks of the Dalai Lama’s freedom from “any hatred or bitterness toward the Chinese who ravaged his land and murdered his people. He says, ‘They too are human beings who struggle to find happiness and deserve our compassion.’”

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