2 Corinthians 13:11-13
O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth, Who hast set thy glory upon the heavens!
In the verses following the Pentecost story in Acts, we see a model of the church, as it was in the beginning. Luke tells us that the believers did everything together, shared all their possessions and worshipped constantly. "And day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved."
The fruit of the Spirit was evident in the lives of those early Christians, so much so that the people around them were drawn into their fellowship. They were filled with joy and peace and praised God for everything. Non-believers wanted what they had, and they sought out the believers to hear the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. We often commiserate over the fact that the church is so divisive and filled with difficulties today. We fear tomorrow because we do not know where we are going.
But things were not perfect in the early church. Our epistle lesson for this week is a closing reminder from the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth. By the time he wrote this letter to the congregation, they were already suffering from multiple struggles between the people. The book of Acts is filled with stories about the disagreements between different sects of the Church. Peter and Paul did not always get along. Others were teaching only part of the message or were teaching a false Gospel. Some did not give everything. There was confusion about what was expected of the Christians and what they had to do to be saved. It was a new and growing movement that faced persecution from outside and trouble from the inside. The letters from the other apostles in the New Testament deal with different problems that existed in specific churches and in the whole movement.
Paul tells the Corinthians to amend their ways. The NIV version translates that line "Aim for perfection" and NRSV says, "Put things in order." ASV, the translation I normally use for this writing says, "Be perfected." I like this particular rendering because it helps us to see that we are moving toward something, something that we will not completely achieve in this life. We will not be perfect, but we are being perfected throughout our Christian journey. Paul wrote to the Corinthians because they were a new congregation who had to figure out how to live as Christians in the world. You'd think after nearly two thousand years we would have it right. However, the world keeps changing around us, so we are still being perfected.
Paul also asks the Corinthians to listen to his appeal. He just wrote a lengthy note sharing his concerns about the difficulties they were facing. He offered them encouragement and advice with his writings. However, he also faced a problem with the church at Corinth in that some of the believers did not accept him as an authority figure. We don't know the full story; Paul was not specific enough for us to see what was going on in that church. However, we can surmise from the writings that someone had questioned his authority and he wrote about his credentials so that the people could believe that his word was true and his power given by the grace of God.
Paul says, "Listen to my appeal." He has asked them to test the Spirit – to discern who is from God. Paul's authority comes from outside himself, unlike those within the early church who tried to take control of the situation for their own benefit. His hope is that they will see that Paul and his companions can't do anything against that which they've been given – they can't go against the truth of Jesus Christ. They hope that the people will recognize the authority that has been given to them not because of anything they have accomplished in this world, but because it was God's good and perfect will.
We often hold up the early apostles as being super-Christians, even thinking that perhaps they have reached that perfection we are encouraged to aim toward. They've been given the title of Saint, perhaps deservedly so. They were incredible witnesses for the Gospel; they died for Jesus' sake and for the sake of the Church. Without them, where would we be today? But were they really perfect?
I find great comfort in the words of today's Gospel lesson. After the resurrection, Jesus spent forty days giving the disciples His final instructions, showing them the scriptures from a new perspective – from this side of the cross. Everything was different because now Jesus had gone through death and the grave and was raised to new life. The world was changed on that one weekend and all of God's good creation was redeemed. Yet, despite the risen presence of Christ, the disciples still were unsure about what was happening to them. Jesus told them to go to a mountain and they followed. Matthew also tells us that they worshipped Him, "but some doubted.”
We would love to believe that we would have been different than those early Christians. How could they doubt when they stood in the presence of Jesus Christ? Did they not see what He did or hear what He said? It is a natural response; we do it daily when considering the authority of people all around us. How we see our leaders is dependent on how we perceive their authority. We can say this about our political leaders, our bosses at work and even our pastors. Children question the authority of their parents and their teachers. We should test the authority of our leaders because there are those who, like that one person in the church at Corinth, try to take authority without having the right kind of power.
However, I think we have taken this too far. Children reject their parents, going out into the world on their own because they think they know better. Discipline has become a dirty word and leaders do not know how to deal with rebellion. Teachers have no control in the classroom because there is no value for their position. We expect our leaders to earn our respect and if they are not perfect we discard them. We question their right to lead and doubt the power they have, limiting their ability to accomplish the work they have been called to do.
I don't think the disciples doubted that Jesus was the Messiah or that He would do what He said He would do. I think the doubt has more to do with their inability to accept that He was leaving them with the work He began. How could they accomplish such great things? They were no bodies, really. They were ordinary men from an ordinary place. They didn't have any authority. They had no education, except that which Jesus had given to them. They had no position which would be respected. And their leader, Jesus, did not even have the respect of the world in which they were being sent. No wonder they doubted.
Yet, Jesus said to them, "All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth." The only one able to give such authority, the authority in heaven and on earth is the One who created it all. We see His goodness in our Old Testament lesson where the story of the Creation is laid out so poetically. We see how He takes nothing but chaos and transforms it into the light and the dark, the sky and the water, the land and the sea, the plants and the animals. Then God spoke mankind into existence, making him in His image. Man was created last, not because he was to be the least of all, but because he was to have dominion over all of the creation. God blessed them, made them part of the whole creative process and gave them the authority to care for the earth.
The Psalm for today almost questions God's thinking in this decision to give mankind rule over the whole earth. "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him but little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor." When we look at the majesty of God's creation, it is easy for us to doubt our ability to rule over it all. In recent times we have come to a much greater understanding of many parts of God's creation. We have men living in space, cameras visiting planets millions of miles away. We can see stars that are farther than we can imagine. We can study about particles that are so small they are invisible to the naked eye. Our world has expanded both outwardly and inwardly beyond that which the Psalmist could ever have imagined.
Yet, we have not come even close to fully understanding the wholeness of God's being or experiencing the fullness of His glory. We can't answer all the questions we have or comprehend the reason and purpose for everything that happens in the world. All too often we feel we have no authority, no power. After all, if we really were in control, would we not try to stop suffering or find a way to end pain?
The trouble occurs when we try to be the ones in control. We tempt reality by thinking of ourselves as the Creator. Though we have been given authority of all God's world, we are just creatures, imperfect and fragile. Any power we have has been given to us by God and our authority is in His name.
In the Great Commission, part of our Gospel text for this day, Jesus tells the disciples to "Baptize into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Our faith in Christ brings us more fully into our identity in the image of God. The world is not as God intended. Sin and death were not what He wanted for His creation. The Creator was separated from the creation He loved and He was the only One who could remove the chasm that had formed between heaven and earth. Just as He created the world out of nothing, He would have to bring order out of the chaos it had become. When the time was right, Jesus came in flesh to bring redemption and reconciliation.
When we were created, we were given the authority to take care of the entire world, to continue the creative work of the Father. In Christ, through our baptism, we are given a new authority – the authority to bring forgiveness and grace into the lives of those who are living in darkness. We are called to continue the redemptive work of Christ, to make disciples and teach them all that He commanded.
Paul ends the Second Letter to the Corinthians with a blessing that we still use in our liturgy today. "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all." We get our authority not because we have done anything to deserve respect or power, but because we have been made part of the body of Christ through our baptism. We have been given this authority by the power of the Triune God, in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.
The first apostles might have doubted, but they went forth in faith that Jesus would be with them to the end of the age. They may not have been perfect, but by the power of the Holy Spirit they were being perfected daily as they walked in the hope of the fulfillment of all God's promises. They passed that faith and hope on to us through their witness to that first generation of Christians who then went out to make more disciples.
We are called not to live in doubt, but to go out in faith, taking hold of the authority we have been given in Jesus' name. The world will not believe we have such authority, but we should not be stopped by their rejection. We have the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will work through our lives bring redemption to this world until the day when we will see fully the glory of God.
O LORD, how majestic is your name in all the earth! By His name the world is created and recreated until the day when it will be perfected and we will bask in His glory for all eternity. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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