2 Corinthians 1.23-2.11
Last week I was quoting Winston Churchill. And there is no doubt that he was an absolute past master at the put down. To prove my point let me give you a few examples which are often quoted. For he once said – An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Atlee got out. Of Lord Reith of BBC fame, he remarked – there he stalks, that wuthering height.
On Neville chamberlain he quipped –
He looked at foreign affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe.
More famously still was the exchange between Lady Astor to Churchill: “Winston, if you were my husband I would flavour your coffee with poison”
Churchill: “Madam, if I were your husband, I should drink it.”
Surpassing that in familiarity has to be his verbal battle with Labour MP Bessie Braddock which started with her saying “Winston, you’re drunk!”
Churchill: “Bessie, you’re ugly, but tomorrow morning I shall be sober”
Well such jests are all good fun I am sure. Certainly, the ability to think on your feet is at the heart of great oratory and low stand-up comedy. Since each must cope with the heckler, the offside remark and the attempt to wound.
Moreover, if you are like me you would give your eye teeth to have this ability. Because time and time again after receiving some barbed comment, I fail to get my own back. Even more galling is that hours later I think out what I should have said to deliver the knockout blow.
Needless to say, even later, I realise that I have been given a great non gift – the inability to verbally swing back.
Paul however I suspect was not so ungifted. I believe he was pretty nifty at getting the oratorical blows in. Similarly, he knew how to demolish an argument and an arguer on paper. For there are times when his pen did not take prisoners.
And that brings us to this morning’s portion from his second letter to the Corinthians. Now obviously he is under attack from a heckler or vocal opponent. He has already made one visit to Corinth that did not go well. So understandably he was not keen on a repeat experience. Thus the temptation to take his adversary out on paper – more correctly papyrus – must have been almost overwhelming. Yet he did not. Instead he stated his sense of hurt and then offers and counsels forgiveness. Put simply, he chose to walk in the way of Christ.
Yet we could ask what was going on in the Corinthian church?
Well we really don’t have the facts of the case before us. But we do know that an individual has in some way transgressed against congregational discipline and been admonished. As a result, he has repented and sought forgiveness. This however was not forthcoming and the miscreant was still under a cloud. Paul requested clemency but was roundly and vocally rebuffed.
Here then is a pretty universal situation in Christian fellowships and the wider world as well. Since it seems in any group, the desire to ladle out justice is greater than to eke out redemption. Or as it has been said – love without justice is sentimentality – justice without love is abusive harshness. What better time to review in our own minds the words of Jesus when asked that question by Peter? What better time to think of seventy times seven as the number of stars in the universe or the sand grains on the shore. What better time to think ourselves as the servant and not the master?
Yet how does Paul’s concept of forgiveness and justice, working hand in hand, play out in practice? Is there an example that can instruct us from our today? More to the point, why does the idea of justice and forgiveness, wrapped inside each other, please God?
Alan Greaves was a church organist. On Christmas eve of 2012, he was on his way to play at a midnight service in Sheffield. He never arrived, for he was set upon and battered to death with a pick axe handle. Throughout his murderers’ trial, his wife astounded the nation by finding forgiveness for her husband’s killers. Or as she explained at a memorial service the following Christmas Eve:
“I can’t bear the thought of remembering Alan walking in the darkness alone last Christmas Eve, so having as many people present with me will be a great comfort.
“Celebrating the light of Christ at Christmas time was what Alan was intending to do last year, but never made it. This year we can do that for him.
“As we celebrate light at Christmas, I’ve asked that we also pray for Jonathan and Ashley, who killed my husband.
“I want them to know that light will always overcome darkness and to find that light for themselves”.
Here then is the reason we need to follow Paul with our own life decisions and in our insistent calling out to the world around us. Since it was his way to follow Christ’s way. That meant not responding in kind but seeking forgiveness in justice. That meant his guided the Corinthians back to God’s grace for themselves and the transgressor. That indeed meant light overcoming the darkness.
And so Christ’s way should be our way as well. For, it is our practicing justice within forgiveness that prevents a souring bitterness which will overwhelm our very beings. It is our seeking of forgiveness and justice that offers the only way towards Christ’s mediation which heals even the most grievous wounds. Above even these is our need to laud to the world the scales of justice and mercy. Since to do so it not to put Jesus’ kingdom in the balance. Rather we make it God’s most gracious reply.