Building Up

11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, signs and wonders and mighty works. 13 How have you been worse off than the other churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong! 14 Here I am, ready to come to you this third time. And I will not be a burden, because I do not want what is yours but you; for children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children. 15 I will most gladly spend and be spent for you. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? 16 Let it be assumed that I did not burden you. Nevertheless (you say) since I was crafty, I took you in by deceit. 17 Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Titus did not take advantage of you, did he? Did we not conduct ourselves with the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps? 19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. 20 For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 21 I fear that when I come again, my God may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.

2 Corinthians 12:11-21

This week we’re going to talk about the things that can destroy a community within the body of Christ, and what can build up. It is helpful to recognize the fruit we bear as a community as this recognition can lead us to repentance and growth in the Spirit.

In lots of ways, this closing of chapter 12 is just a continuation of Paul’s self-defense. He uses a lot of clever rhetorical moves, as in the case of verse 13 where he points out that all churches within the body face hardships, and while they claim that somehow Paul has placed undue burden on them, Paul is just guilty of not asking them to support him. Forgive me this terrible wrong, he says. His sarcasm drips off the page.

Here, it would be easy to get into the back and forth. On a side note, while I very much believe Scripture is God’s inspired word, sometimes the inspirational work of the Spirit is to show us our own weaknesses as revealed in the rhetoric of God’s servants like Paul. It is clear here, and in other places throughout chapters 10-12, that Paul has been deeply hurt by this community. In all honesty, his defensiveness illustrates his own weakness, and he is lashing out a bit. I know he tries to rhetorically deny he is defending himself in verse 19, but the truth is that he is defending himself, whether he acknowledges it or not. You don’t have to have a degree in Bible or psychology to feel the pain of Paul’s words in this chapter.

To put all of this another way, I don’t think we ought to take some of his sharper words and turn of phrases as a model of how we ought to deal with conflict in the church. Instead, this is here to show us that all of us are prone to being wounded. Within the body, we are uniquely vulnerable to one another, and that can lead to deeper wounds.

But the critical thing we are being shown is that, just as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:8, love never ends. Love doesn’t give up. Love stays engaged. Love doesn’t take its toys and go home. Despite the pain he is feeling, what pours off these pages beside sarcasm and defensiveness is a fierce love for this community. Paul is wounded, but he won’t give up. He won’t walk away. He stays engaged. He or she who has ears, let them hear.

And here we come to the crux of this passage, the latter half of verse 19: “Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up.” Yes, there is division within the community. As we read on, people, evidently, are doing terrible things with or to one another. Their treatment of Paul is really just a symptom of a larger and deeper disorder. Here I think we need to balance what I just said about Paul’s own pain with his words in verse 19 about speaking in Christ before God. Yes, he is wounded, but Paul stays engaged because he loves the community, and because this deeply wounded community is in deep need of serious TLC and correction.

And here, I submit to you, we receive a very important litmus test to life in the body of Christ. Here’s the truth: the church, the body of Christ the world over, and especially in your local community, is full of people not like you. Not everyone agrees with your politics, or your passions, or the things you think are important, or a sense of what bothers you that others or the church leadership are or are not doing. Trust me, there are probably very few who agree with you on the arrangement and disposition of the bushes and hedges on the church grounds.

Moreover, there are also lots of stories of deep wounds and trauma playing out in the lives of your brothers and sisters, of which you are not or are only slightly aware. All of this means that the art of being a community centered in the self-giving love of Christ is to live in a way that models Jesus. This means taking ourselves, our desires, our wants, the things we insist on, or even our lack of awareness of a situation out of the center of the frame, and put others there ahead of ourselves.

At the heart of the matter, what we say and do in the body is ultimately measured by the motivations of our words and deeds. Preferences, desires, and opinions need not apply. It is love for others, and the willingness to surrender ourselves to the needs of our brothers and sisters that serves as the true mark of a Christian life and a Christian community. Love doesn’t mean that we compromise truth, just as Paul wasn’t willing to compromise on the things the Corinthian community needed to change in its practices. At the same time, he doesn’t hurl anathemas, curses, or pitch hissy fits, walk out, and insist he is holy while everyone else is going to hell. He stays engaged, and he won’t let go, and he won’t stop loving.

All things, in Christ, must lead with our love, and the greatest hope to which we can aspire is being built up as the people and community of God who are called to reflect the glory of God’s presence to the whole world.

Here, the letter comes full circle. Think back to chapter 3. The ministry of the Spirit that God has entrusted to us and that gives life, well, that ministry, that Spirit transforms and builds in love, self-giving, sacrificial love, so that the image and glory of Jesus Christ might shine from every facet of what we do. This is what it means to be the church, and it has little to nothing to do with a building, program, style of music or performance, denominational marker, theological system, or badges of political belonging. The church is a fellowship of strangers, slowly but surely, who are becoming a family, a circle of deep and true friends.

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