Sermon: "Going Forward Together"

Delivered August 6, 2000 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 13:11-14
11 Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
13 All the saints send their greetings.
14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

If you would turn with me now to 2 Corinthians 13. It is the very last section of 2 Corinthians, we will find here the scripture lesson for today. I am reading from, as I believe you are, the New International Version.

"Finally, brothers, goodbye. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints send their greetings. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.".

You may think it odd in an interim's second week to start with a passage that says "Finally brethren goodbye." But in fact, I think there is a better translation as we will soon see. And we all know that some of the most important things that we can communicate with one another are communicated when time is running out. In those final moments, in those goodbyes, we say things that are most important and that's what Paul was doing with his Corinthian friends. And he has something very important to say about relationships as he closes out his letters to his friends.

This morning, we began with a classic hymn . . . Holy Holy Holy, God in three persons, Blessed Trinity. In that hymn, there is a line that says "of God: perfect in power and love and purity". The trinity, relating, interacting, submitting perfectly amongst the Godhead. Wouldn't it be wonderful if God's children could do the same? And yet, because of our old nature, we don't. We fail many times in our relationships. One day in the fullness of the kingdom, our relationships will be in perfect harmony. Until then, we struggle and it's not always easy.

I often have said, I believe one proof of the reality of God is that the church still exists. I think if God wasn't in the midst of it, we would have blown ourselves up a long time ago. But God keeps us together and that is one sign that he is with us. One of the greatest temptations for any congregation, especially in a transitional time like this interim period, is for the congregation to disintegrate, to pull apart rather than stick together. If any family as we know is subjected to enough stress, no matter how large or how small, it is not unusual for the family members to have their relationships ruptured or ended. It is like cloth. In fact, one translation of this text where Paul says here in the New International, "aim for perfection", in one translation it says "mend your ways". Relationships are like cloth. If you put enough stress on that cloth, it will tear. And so I want to ask you this morning, how are your relationships? In what state are they? In cloth-terms, are they intact? Are they being pulled? Are they threatening to tear or are they being restored? Are you thinking about discarding them? I learned from a Goodwill truck driver something I never knew. That even the oldest piece of cloth when it is contributed to Goodwill goes to a huge shredding machine and they still make something out of the thread. Where are your relationships today?

In today's text, Paul says aim for perfection, mend your ways, restore yourselves to good relational condition. Stick together. Another place where this word is used in Greek literature describes the setting of a bone and the implication of setting a bone is that it is going to be restored and that is what Paul has in mind today as he ends out with the Corinthians. He said restore yourselves, stick together, mend your ways. Now if you know anything about the Corinthians you know that it was this group of people that needed to hear this probably more than anyone. So, in the ending of his epistle, he not only speaks to the Corinthians, but he speaks to the people at Central Church and I think here it is probably more preventative maintenance than it was in Corinth, which was a total overhaul, but chances are, all of us are in relationships that could use some mending. If you are among the fortunate few to whom that does not apply, then that's good, but it might change, so listen to this text because in these final words of Paul, I detect at least 3 characteristics or qualities of a mature Christian when it comes to relationships, especially those that might be coming apart. Here we go:

1) He says finally brothers, finally brothers. A mature Christian determines to do their part. Have you ever heard anybody say I am not going to take a step towards them unless they first come to me? That is not Paul's attitude. Actually, his relationship with the Corinthians was such that he would have been justified to say finally blockheads! I mean, they gave him such a hard time. They said he wasn't an apostle, they denied his authority, they made fun of the way he looked and he says finally brothers. Paul was determined that he would not cut people off. And we know that in all human relationships, there is freedom of action and so, it may be that other people will cut you off or it may be that you are tempted to cut them off. And we can't always have relationships the way we want them, but Paul in saying finally brethren is saying I am determined to do my part to make sure this relationship stays intact. It's like a comedian I once heard, he had a friend he said was married twice and he was unlucky in both relationships. His first wife left him and his second wife wouldn't. Need a rim shot on that. Okay. Our relationships involve other people's choices is basically what I am trying to say and we can't control other people's choices, but we can control our own. And in fact, if we will determine to do our part, when we ask God to help us take that step towards somebody, sometimes an attitude change comes over us in such a way that the other person picks it up and it actually greases the skids, as it were, so that things might get better. But as long as we stay hard and say I am not going to do anything unless they come to me first, then the chances are that's the way it's going to stay. Paul was determined to do what he could and if you are determined to do what you can, it pleases God even if the other person doesn't respond. I remember failing at this not too many months ago, maybe a little over a year ago. I had completed a 12 year pastorate in Pennsylvania and in a 12 year pastorate, you can offend just about everybody and so I asked forgiveness and I wrote notes and there was one particular couple that I wrote a note to and got no response. And we were going out to dinner and we came to Wendy's and you know Wendy's , you can see who's in there from every conceivable angle of the restaurant and there they were. And a part of me was saying, " doggone it, you go in there and you try one more time" and another part of me was saying, "let's go eat somewhere else". And we ate somewhere else and to this day, I feel like, you know what, I failed. Yeah, I did write the note to them. They could have responded. But I feel like I didn't come up to what Paul was saying here, finally brethren, try to do all that you can, even if it means rejecting other people's rejections. Perhaps we can both learn from my past mistakes.

2) A second quality of a mature Christian is that they cultivate a hopeful outlook. Now this is where you have to stay with me as you look at this text. He says, finally brothers, actually, instead of goodbye, it could be very well translated as rejoice. It's just like he said to the Phillipians, rejoice always. And he starts to get very hopeful, very positive, especially in these relationships that haven't been so strong. And then after he says finally brethren (what could be rejoice) and aim for perfection, instead of listen to my appeal, it could be better translated and other translations do translate it as "be comforted". Receive comfort that in fact, I think what Paul is saying is I don't hold any grudges. It doesn't matter what you said. Be comforted that our relationship can get off to a new start. So I think a second quality of a mature Christian is that they are hopefully believing that it can be better. Even if it may not because of human freedom, at least we are trying. In other words, tears in relationships can lead to something even stronger, just like the mending of bone; it is stronger where it is mended. And a ruptured relationship can even come about to become something positive. But we have to re-frame things and be hopeful and believe that out of a negative can come a positive. I came across a little bit of a poem, maybe you've heard it before. I love it. It just kind of says it in verse:

Two frogs fell into a deep cream bowl.
One was an optimistic soul.
The other took the gloomy view.
I shall drown he cried and so will you.
So with the last despairing cry,
He closed his eyes and said goodbye.
The other frog with a merry grin said I can't get out, but I won't give in.
I'll swim around till my strength is spent for having tried I'll die content.
Bravely he swam until it would seem his struggles began to churn the cream.
On top of the butter at last he stopped and out of the bowl he happily hopped.
What's the moral, it's easily found:
If you can't get out, keep swimming around.

That is the call of Paul. Be comforted that something positive can take place, that God can churn something positive out of a mess. I wish I had time to tell you the story of my own experience in terms of my parents and maybe one day I will, how a reconciliation took place there. But that's the second quality. A mature Christian cultivates a hopeful outlook as well as being determined to do their part.

3) Thirdly, a mature Christian seeks to work for true peace. That's what he says. Be of one mind, live in peace, agree with one another, another text said. Agree with one another as I am sure you heard before does not mean you all or we all have to agree the same thing. Dissent is welcome. Paul is speaking about dissension. In an interim time, it just seems in the vacuum of leadership, dissension seems to try to take more of a foothold. Be of one mind. Literally the translation is think the same thing and exactly what is that same thing we ought to be thinking? Here it is: What does Jesus want? What does Jesus want? Not what do I want. Does Jesus want me being a thorn in the flesh of the body? Maybe. And if we do it well and harmoniously and we are the loyal opposition fine, but not to the point of dissension and tearing relationships. Think the same essential thing: What does Jesus want?

Going forward together doesn't mean agreeing, it means loving, because that's what he wants. You know when it says greet one another with a holy kiss, we usually shake hands in our culture, but you know, the holy kiss in other cultures is a sign of reconciliation. The sign of mending relationships. Even you see when they have these peace talks in the Middle East, even the leaders of the most bitter enemies, they come and they give that holy kiss, the couple of kisses on the cheek. That's a sign of reconciliation, a sign of resolving old divisions. You see, relationships are eternal. Besides our relationship with God and others is really all that's going to last. It's like a group of soldiers who were released from prison camp at the end of World War II. And here they were at this port and two of them who had been through everything together were told that one of them had to stay on the port. Everybody had been previously told you could only take one bag, that's all the ship will carry, one person, one bag and they pointed to these two guys and said you've got to stay here and you can go. You have to wait for the next ship. Without hesitation, the soldier who was told that he could go took his duffle bag and dumped it out on the port. He lowered it and he told his friend get in. He got in, pulled him up and strenuously carried him on the ship. That soldier was smart, because he knew that relationships last forever. Things won't. So that's what Paul is saying to us today. I think that's what the spirit is saying to us today. Do your part, stay hopeful, work for true peace. And what's the reward for all of that? And the God of love and peace will be with you. The God of love and peace will be with you as you do these things. Everything might not work out in a nice package, but the God of love and peace will be yours. If you don't work on these things like this, what does it say? God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. People who do these things go forward together whether they be in Corinth or in Baltimore.

Let's Pray. Lord, we thank you for your word. We thank you that as this text ends, it speaks of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and we know that your body cannot be all it is apart from these things being true. We need your grace, we need your love, we need your fellowship, your communion and we thank you that we can gather for communion today to remind ourselves that we are one. Regardless of how you call us, regardless of the challenges that come to our relationships, we are made one in Jesus Christ. So seal this word to our hearts that we might be your faithful disciples. We pray it in Christ's name. Amen.

© 2000, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org