As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
How did Paul do it? How is he able to write with passion and enthusiasm after what he has experienced in his ministry – the beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger he’s undergone because of sharing the good news about Jesus? And how did he manage to get through all that with virtues like purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, and truthful speech? It would be easy to hear Paul rattle off this list and think: Yeesh, that’s intimidating. Paul must have been something special. That’s not me. I’m an ordinary person. We need another super-leader like Paul who’s got the magic sauce to come along and show us what it looks like to be a hero in times like these.
I’ve been learning a little more about liberation movements this last year. And I’ve come to realize that my way of reading this text reflects the way I grew up understanding movements for justice: as super-human stories of remarkable heroes leading the way. It’s the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. up front making the speech. It’s Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus. It’s Jesus, teaching the Sermon on the Mount on the top of a hill alone as a powerful orator. And that idea of “the charismatic superhero we need to lead the way” fits with the white, American, “rugged individualism” narrative so many of us were formed in, right? The story of the lone wolf, born with nothing, who makes it with their own hard work to the top. The hero on the promotional poster for the new Disney movie – strong, charismatic, and standing there out in front of everyone else as the star of the show. These examples say so much about the way we’ve been formed to see the root of positive change – as grounded in individual and solitary efforts.
But, as Alicia Garza, one of three Black, queer women who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement, writes about in her recent book, “The Purpose of Power”, this lifting up of individual heroes in our society won’t take us where we want to go. “Visible leadership within the Black liberation movement has historically skewed male, heterosexual, and charismatic,” she writes, “like the iconic trio of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Huey Newton. Each of these leaders oversaw decision-making and strategy for their respective organizations… However, when each of these leaders was assassinated, so in large part were the movements they led. The struggle continued, but those specific movements, without their most recognizable leaders, were never the same.” (Alicia Garza, “New Movements, New Leadership,” The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, pg. 162.)
With this in mind, I went back to this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, talking about the obstacles he faced in his ministry. And I realized that my individualistic, American brain read some things into this text that weren’t actually there, specifically that Paul was talking about things he alone had experienced as a “hero” of the Gospel. But you know what word comes up more than just about any other in this passage? “We.” As we work together with him… we urge you… We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way… we have commended ourselves… We are treated as imposters, and yet are true… we are alive… and on and on. Paul’s ministry was never a solo act. Even in this letter, in the very first verse of chapter 1, Paul introduces himself as a writer with a co-author, “Timothy our brother,” (Jane Lancaster Patterson, “Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13.”) the one who had co-labored with him all this time. And even in Paul’s language about God at the beginning of chapter 6, we see that Paul writes “As we work together with him [God]”, calling attention to the way in which God chooses to work in the world: in partnership with each one of us. As commentator Ana Yelsi writes, Paul is saying, “‘I am God’s co-worker’ – not God is my manager; but a claim suggesting co-laboring, and equal sharing of the responsibility… God worked with Moses, Miriam, David, Deborah, Elijah, and Ezra,” Yelsi writes, “to care for their people, fight for justice and speak truth to power. God could have done all those things on their own, but for some reason, God invited humans into the process.” (Ana Yelsi, Liturgy that Matters: June 20, 2021: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13.)
What I take away from all this, friends, is both an encouragement, and a challenge. The encouragement, as we face so many unfolding crises in our world and our community, is that we are never called into the movement of God’s liberation by ourselves. We are always called as a community. God doesn’t call heroes. God calls everyday people into communities of faith to say ‘yes’ to bringing heaven to earth. It’s easy these days to live in our heads, with minds and spirits saturated with the anxiety coming through our screens, highlighting the latest insurmountable crisis. But how did Paul weather these crises? According to our text, he refused to face them alone. He found people, co-laborers, to weather the storm with. Maybe that sustenance I thought was the “magic sauce” of Paul’s personality, the stuff that got him through the trials and tribulations he listed, wasn’t magic at all, but instead the mystery of God’s grace embodied in intentional community. The people next to us in the trenches, with God peering out of their eyes into our own on the hardest days. Perhaps Paul mentions that being treated as an imposter had become bearable because his sibling in the fight was holding his hand in the face of derision. Perhaps Paul felt the courage to go places as an unknown quantity because his village of people knew him so well. Despite everything around him working to kill his body and soul, he says they were alive and maybe that’s because they took turns carrying the heavy load. Because remember, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was surrounded by other civil rights activists who linked arms with him in the marches. Rosa Parks was but one of hundreds who put aside their daily work to act in resistance along with her. And Jesus chose 12 disciples, dear friends who prayed with him on even the most agonizing nights of struggle. The good news today is that we are never called as solitary heroes, but as partners with the triune God, whose favorite way to work in the world is through us, through community, where everyone gets a chance to rest because we take turns, where no one gets burned out, where everyone has a role, and together, we move for liberation.
And here’s the challenge: We are the ones we have been waiting for. The God who loves being in partnership with us is not waiting til the right charismatic leader comes along to save the day. There is no silver bullet for any of the challenges we are facing. The tools are in our hands. My friend Pastor Allison Mattocks said it this way last week: “If there is one grain of rice in your shoe, that foot can just keep on walking. But with a cup of grains of rice in that shoe, now that foot has to stop.” Movements for liberation can only change the course of the world when many small parts become a collective, little individual grains of rice saying ‘yes’ to jumping in that shoe together. Maybe this is why Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” He is inviting the Corinthians, he is inviting us, not wait another moment. The time is now, friends – what community of resistance, what movement of liberation is the Spirit inviting you to join with today? Will you say yes to your part in the glorious whole? Amen.