If I had to pick one word to sum up what life was like in the church of Corinth, it would have to be this: messy. This is a messy church, in a pretty messy city. The native Greeks had been joined by an influx of retired Roman Defence Force personnel, and a bunch of Jews who had been kicked out of Rome in AD49. Because it was a port city, with a booming financial centre, the immigrants kept on flooding in. It was an obvious place for Paul to visit, and seek to plant a church. And it will hardly come as a shock to discover that when he did, the church that sprung up was, well it was a bit messy. And Paul’s relationship with the messy church he had planted in this complex city was… yes, you guessed it, messy.
Paul came to Corinth around AD51 – the events of that original fairly lengthy visit and the birth of the church are recorded in Acts 18. But after Paul left, things went pear-shaped very quickly. So about 12 months on, whilst he was in Ephesus, he wrote them a quick letter telling them that sexual immorality in the church isn’t on (that letter is mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9). Paul’s note didn’t have the desired effect, so about a year later (probably AD 53), he wrote a very long letter, which we call 1 Corinthians. 6 months after that, Paul’s apprentice, Timothy, passes through and finds that the church is in a complete mess. In fact, it’s in such a mess, that Paul drops everything and makes what he refers to in 2 Corinthians 2:1 as ‘the painful visit’. It was a disaster. In fact Paul left Corinth thinking that the church might actually implode, because they were losing their grip on the gospel. At that point, he sent Titus with the short letter he describes in 2:4: 4For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. This third letter seems to have had some positive effect, and so several months after that, a couple of years after the church plant began, and a year after writing 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians (which is actually at least the 4th letter he’d written them and sent it with postman Titus once more. Which all goes to explain Paul’s complicated relationship with the Corinthians.
I think it’s fair to say that Paul loved the Corinthians and was driven nuts by the Corinthians in equal measure. He writes more to the Corinthians than any other church. And 2nd Corinthians in particular is more passionate, more intense, more vulnerable, more pleading than anything else in the New Testament. The battle for hearts and minds is still on in Corinth. The church is divided. The leaders are struggling. The church is still in a mess. So Paul writes to them (again) to encourage them, and help them to stay on track , and to bring them back to the gospel of the Lord Jesus in all its richness.
And that’s why we’re looking at this letter over the next few months. By any standard, life in MPC over the past couple of years has been pretty messy. Painful at times. Confusing, even bewildering, at others. But whether this morning you are feeling mystified, or drained, or discouraged, or disheartened, or damaged or relieved, hear these words of God to his much-loved, messy and occasionally infuriating people in Corinth.
In the first 11 verses of this letter, Paul wants to make sure that whatever they are going through, whatever their issues may be, no matter how messy life in church may be, that they have got the fact that God himself is more than able to cope, and to work in the chaos. He is still is the foundation of life and ministry. In this passage, Paul sets out a vision for moving forward which is radically God-centred, and rests on three pillars. You’ll see the first in verses 1-2.
GOD IS STILL IN CHARGE (1:1-2)
Look with me again at how this letter opens: 2 Cor. 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of Godand Timothy our brother, To the church of Godin Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.At the risk of stating the obvious, 2 Corinthians starts with God. Undergirding everything that Paul writes in this letter and every other letter for that matter, is the fact that God rules and provides for his church. Things may be messy, BUT GOD IS STILL IN CHARGE.
The church is not our project, but God’s. The church is not our community but God’s. I think we can even go as far as saying that ultimately the church is not our responsibility, but God’s. And that makes a HUGE difference. It takes so much pressure off us, particularly at a time like this, when the messy realities of life in church can weigh heavily on us.
For Paul, who knew plenty about the weight of responsibility, it was so important to remember that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. He doesn’t come on his own authority, nor is he pursuing his own agenda. The word ‘apostle’ comes from the the Greek translation of the OT, where it’s used to describe the prophets as God’s messengers. So Paul says that he has been appointed by God himself to bring a message from God to God’s church. The Corinthians may be all over the place, but God is still in charge. And in particular, he appoints and sends ‘leaders’.
That’s actually pretty important for us to remember right now as we go through the steps of appointing new Elders, and seeking a new Senior Pastor. Leadership is not something we grab or plot to achieve. It is not something we have by right. Character, convictions and competencies are all really important, but even these things don’t entitle us to lead. In the church of Jesus Christ, leaders are ultimately appointed by Jesus Christ and are accountable to Jesus Christ. When any local church appoints leaders, in effect, all it is doing is recognising what God has already done in equipping and shaping leaders for his church. God remains in charge from start to finish.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but occasionally, leaders disappoint us. They get it wrong. Let us down. But the great thing is, we don’t need to panic, because ultimately, God himself stands behind them, and he is the real leader, which takes some of the pressure off. We don’t need to demand perfection, and they get to sleep at night. But in another sense, it ramps the pressure up quite considerably: because the role of Christ’s assistant leaders is to shepherd the church of God. And that’s a serious – even a scary thing. That’s why we need to take appointing elders so seriously – because they are given the responsibility of caring for the church of God that is at Mitchelton. At the end of the day, we are part of his church rather than him sponsoring ours! Which is why Paul can say what he does in verse 2:Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In every letter that he writes to a church, Paul opens with this deceptively rich phrase. This little formula encapsulates all that God the Father holds out to us in the Lord Jesus Christ through the gospel – undeserved, tender kindness, and the relief of restored relationships – both of which were in short supply in the turmoil of Corinth. But where God is in charge, we have every right to expect to find – and experience – grace and peace.
Here’s how it works. God speaks to us constantly in the Lord Jesus Christ. As we hear the gospel, allowing the full scope of what he has done for us to sink in, we’re reminded that God has chosen us and rescued us, has changed, is changing and will change us simply because he loves us. He has shown us grace – and that should soften us beyond measure, and make us as people who have received grace, the most accepting and forgiving communities on the planet. And the fact that we have been accepted by God, forgiven, credited with Jesus’ righteousness, sealed with the Spirit, and given the guarantee that he will never let us go, should cause us to heave a collective sigh of relief, and relax and bask in his peace. Our lives as God’s people, our life as the church, is to be a life of grace and peace, because God rules and provides for his church. This is what happens when God is in charge.
The church – this church – belongs to God, he’s in charge, and our God provides for us, his church in every way, holding out grace and peace in the Lord Jesus, even in the middle of the mess. As we enter this new phase in the life of MPC, that’s where we need to start – whatever has happened, whatever may happen, God is still in charge, and he holds out his grace and peace to us. In the rest of our passage, Paul simply points out a couple of marvellous implications of this foundational reality. A couple of specific ways in which God provides for us, for his church, through the gospel – you’ll see the first in verses 3-7:
GOD’S COMFORT IS ALWAYS ON OFFER (1:3-7)
Paul writes this in 2 Cor 1:3-4:Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. The thought of God showing us grace and peace moves Paul to rave about God’s tenderness and kindness to us – our God and Father is literally the ‘Father of mercies’ – in other words, he showers us with kindness. He is also the God who offers us ‘comfort’ in every conceivable situation.
Now I confess that I have a cultural problem reading this text. When I hear the word ‘comfort’, I am hindered by the fact that the number one brand of fabric softener in the UK and Ireland is called, you guessed it, Comfort. The word instantly conjures up hazy images of fluffy towels gently brushing perfect skin, and Labrador puppies gently frolicking in a sea of softness. Comfort is a warm and fuzzy word. But for Paul, and for the rest of the NT, this word ‘comfort’ is a long way from warm fuzziness. In the NT, ‘comfort’ takes in everything from an arm round the shoulder to a kick in the pants. One commentator explains:
‘The comfort that Paul has in mind has nothing to do with a languorous feeling of contentment. It is not some tranquilizing dose of grace that only dulls pain but a stiffening agent that fortifies one in heart, mind and soul. Comfort relates to encouragement, help, exhortation. God’s comfort strengthens weak knees and sustains sagging spirits so that one faces the troubles of life with unbending resolve and unending assurance.’
To ‘comfort’ someone is to do or say whatever it takes to help them to live out the gospel. That’s why in John’s Gospel, Jesus himself used this word to describe the Holy Spirit – the ‘paraclete’ – traditionally the comforter – but even better the ‘encourager’ – because he does what it takes to help us to love for Jesus – the Spirit convicts us of sin, strengthens us, emboldens us and transforms us. That’s the kind of comfort Paul is talking about. You can see that in verse 4: who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
This comfort is so much more than giving us a Kleenex, and it definitely isn’t protecting us from bad stuff. Paul assumes that the Christian life is one of suffering and strengthening, of setbacks and small triumphs, of struggle and joy. This is the rhythm of life this side of the new creation. But it’s in the middle of all this that we experience God’s comfort. It’s in the mess that we taste and see God’s grace and peace – and we get to do it together.
Do you notice the pattern that Paul describes here? We face difficulties. God encourages us. Out of God’s encouragement of us, we encourage other people. Repeat. This is what church is supposed to be like. God comforts us in all our troubles, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. If you want to be of any use to God, then welcome to the rest of your life. God’s comfort – his encouragement is on offer – but it’s really only found in one place. It’s found here – in the church of God. That’s why we need each other so desperately. Because God has set it up so that the supply of personally-shaped encouragement he has for each of us is only available through other people.
That’s why it’s so important that right now, we take a step towards each other as those who are united by faith in Christ. However we’re feeling about the events of the past couple of years, whatever we think about the review, and those endless congregational meetings, and the Campbells’ departure, and the sins and mis-steps and misapprehensions of the past, if we are to move forward, we need each other. For comfort, encouragement is to be found nowhere else. Of course, church has been and is and will be hard – but it is right here in this place of pain and struggle and brokenness, is the very place we will receive the encouragement of God through Christ in the gospel.
But let’s make sure we get how this works. There are two steps – we can only share what we have received ourselves. If I can put it slightly differently, if we are to serve Christ by serving each other, then the comfort of the gospel has to be real and fresh for us. From day to day, and week to week, we have to walk this path of struggle and encouragement, so that others who watch us and listen to us, will be freshly encouraged in the muck of life. That’s why we need to keep reading the Bible, and engaging in growth groups, and listening to God’s word preached, so that we hear the comforting voice of God speaking to us for your encouragement that we might encourage others. Don’t cheat yourself, and don’t cheat others, of fresh encouragement by starting to coast, because God is at work in you and me for the benefit of other people. This is the way God works to make sure that his encouragement is always on offer – even when life is really hard. In fact, if anything, the tougher it gets, the better it is for us! It’s astonishing but it’s what Paul says.
Look with me at verses 5-7: 5For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings [which come from being associated with] Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. Whatever we go through, God turns it into encouragement. He spells that out in verse 6:
6If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we stick with Christ through suffering, it will encourage you. Then this: if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. If we are encouraged, then it has a knock-on effect for you. Basically, Paul says God has set it up as a win-win situation. Whether we are pressing on under pressure, or have made it out the other side, we’ll be able to encourage each other. God’s comfort is available on tap right here in the church, which is why Paul can be so optimistic in verse 7: 7And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
This is one of the things I love most about this letter – is life hard? Is the church in a bit of a mess? Paul says ‘Don’t Panic!’ It’s always going to a bit like this, but God is still in charge and delights in working in the mess. Now this must have been pretty hard for the churches in Achaia to take in. Every fibre of their Corinthian bodies screamed at them that life was about climbing the ladder of honour, respectability and financial security (fancy that!). Paul is much more realistic than that – he says that life in church is always a bit of mess, but that because God is still in charge, together we can find immeasurable strength and unimagined encouragement! This has been Paul’s lived experience – he knows this is how it works – and he calls them and us to join him in living realistically with and for the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. And why does he do it? Because he knows God will see us through this.
GOD WILL BRING US THROUGH THE MESS (IN THE END) (1:8-11)
I think it’s fair that the Corinthians struggled with the messiness of life. The pressure to impress was just part of the air they breathed – to be a Corinthian was to look good, to sound good and to enjoy the good life here and now. When all Paul could offer them was comfort in suffering now, and the future glory that comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus, it didn’t really appeal to them. But the apostle knew that if they were going to stick with the gospel – and with him – they needed to get the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection changes everything, and not only frees us up to be honest and realistic about the present, but completely revolutionises our future. If we are to live for Jesus, we need to be utterly convinced not only that there is purpose in suffering now, but that there is hope beyond suffering. And that’s where Paul goes in verses 8-11.
In his letters, Paul tends to avoid talking about himself, but not here. In verses 8-11 he does exactly what he has just described in verses 4-7. He shares what God has taught him for the encouragement of others. And why does he do it here? He makes a point of telling the Corinthians that he was falling apart, facing death because he knows that given any opportunity they will slip into thinking about the Christian life in terms of success and giftedness and honour and impressiveness – so he reminds them over and over again that living together for Christ is all about encouragement in suffering, an encouragement which ultimately flows from the fact that God will rescue us from this body of death, to live with him forever.
Look with me at what Paul writes in verses 8-9: 2Cor. 1:8We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. Paul is not just saying he was having a rough week. He is right on the edge. But look at how he goes on:
But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. God has delivered me – he will deliver us – he will deliver us!
Paul says that our regular experience of God working in the mess of life, working in and through our suffering, rescuing us time after time, until we get to the point that he calls us home, is the guarantee that our future is utterly secure in Christ. It is through life in the mess that God reminds us over and over again, that our hope rests in God alone, and that one day, rather than helping us to cope through our suffering, or rescuing us from the mess we have created, he will bring us out of suffering to be with him forever.
Whatever else we need to learn from the past months, we need to get this: God allows us to go through pain and suffering – even when it is partly our own fault – to teach us to put our trust in God. The church in Corinth because of the air that they breathed, was prone to thinking that with gifted people and good preaching they can pull it off. They aren’t entirely sure that Paul, with all his downbeat talk about suffering, and his plain speaking and lack of rhetorical polish was the kind of man they needed as a leader. So what does Paul do? Paul says ‘Yes – you’re right – I got nothing. You want an impressive CV? All I can show you are my bruises. All I can do is list the occasions I’ve been run out of town. All I can boast about is the fact that God has rescued me from death. But it isn’t about me – or you for that matter. It’s about our God, who shows us our weakness, encourages us through weakness, and will rescue us through the gospel of the Lord Jesus. God alone can bring us through this mess – and he will do in the end So have you got that? Are you with me?’
You know there is nothing like panic and helplessness to strengthen our trust in God our rescuer. There is nothing like suffering and danger to remind is that God alone is our hope.
Calvin expresses this beautifully: First, the fleshly confidence by which we are puffed up is so obstinate that the only way it can be destroyed is by our falling into extremes of despair. For the flesh is proud and does not yield willingly so that its pretensions cease only when it is forcibly constrained. We are not brought to real submission until we have been laid low by the crushing hand of God. Second, we should note that the remnants of this disease of pride linger even in the saints, so that they too often need to be reduced to extremities in order to be stripped of all their self-confidence and learn humility. The roots of this evil are so deep in the human heart that even the most perfect among us are never entirely free of it, till God confronts them with death. We may gather how much our self-confidence displeases God when we see how, in order to cure it, we have to be condemned to death.
But Paul walks them through all this so that they get the fact that God alone is our hope. Why has God allowed MPC to go through these difficult months? In part at least to teach us to rely on him.
Which is why, unusually at this point, Paul asks the Corinthians to pray for him:On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many. In a way, this in an example of what Paul was talking about in verses 4-5. When we get what the gospel-shaped life is all about, then we’ll be eager to pray for each other, as we suffer for the gospel in the mess. As we pray for each other, we’ll be quick to talk about what God is doing for us, strengthening us to live for him as he has promised, so encouraging one another, until that day when God brings us home together.
Verses 8-11 then really sum up what Paul is saying to the Corinthians in this letter – he is pleading with them to commit to each other, and to commit to praying for each other, as they sign up to live for the sake of the gospel in the long haul. And that, I think, is what God is asking of us today, at this crucial moment in the life of MPC. In the mess, God is reminding us that we are in this together. We need each other – to pray for one another, to encourage one another, to learn from one another, to love one another, to spur one another on, for a day is coming when God will deliver us together to enjoy God together forever. This is what it means to be part of his church – the church of the living God, the God of all comfort, the God who will bring us home.
So this morning, what God asks of us is really quite simple – let’s remember that God is in charge; let’s receive his comfort, and let’s recommit to each other, seeking to encourage one another in the gospel, praying for each other, and for God to bring glory to Jesus through us as his people here at MPC. Amen.