Pastors and Paradox: Sixteenth after Pentecost, First Sunday of Luke

(2 Cor 6:1-11; Psalm 68/69; Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

Our faith is full of mysteries, and requires us to hold together ideas that may seem, on the surface, irreconcilable.  After all, we worship the God-Man, glimpse a God who is utterly beyond us while unthinkably close by the ever-present Spirit, and understand ourselves to be creatures given the command to become like God.  Our epistle reading for today reminds us not only of the general mystery of our faith, but of the particular paradoxes experienced by those who have been given to us as pastors.

The apostle Paul has, in his instruction to the Corinthians, spent time talking to them about the wonder of being transformed, with open faces, into the very image of God (2 Cor 3); he has reminded them of how together we have seen the holy God in the face of Jesus (2 Cor 4); he has pointed them forward to the new creation and resurrection, and back to the marvelous exchange on the cross, whereby the sinless One took on sin, that we might become God’s very righteousness (2 Cor 5).  Now he bares his soul to them, appealing to them as one who is “working together with God” (2 Cor 6:1). What an astonishing thing to think, that human beings can be co-workers with God!  But in claiming this, the apostle is simply filling out what Jesus said when he promised that we would be no longer servants, but friends of God (John 15:15). And he is taking to heart the assurance from our gospel reading this week that Jesus gave to Simon Peter, who was well aware of his sin:  that he should take heart, because his job was that of “catching human beings” (no longer fish) for God (Luke 5:1-11).

Listen to this marvelously transparent passage, taken from 2 Cor 6: 1-10:

We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left,  by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.

Here we see St. Paul, the pastor, in all his humanity and compassion.  Though clearly in difficulty himself, his main concern is for his people, that they will not have received God’s gracious gifts in vain.  At the very opening of his letter, he has said, in confidence: “Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort” (2 Cor 1:7), and then he has gone on to describe them as “living letters” who testify by their lives that his apostleship is genuine (2 Cor 3:1-2).  He is quite sure that they, with him, have “seen” Jesus, that they are called to be transformed, and that they have begun, by the Spirit, to live in the new creation, looking forward to the resurrection.

But here in chapter six, because of the difficulties that he and they are facing, he also calls attention to the dark shadow-side of our faith—that of suffering, being misunderstood by others, and even being slandered.  Before he gets into this nitty-gritty, he reminds them of Psalm 68 (69 Hebrew), a Psalm quoted by Jesus on the cross, and full of images of suffering. The Psalmist calls out, in the midst of his sadness, the very comfort of God: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You.”  This psalm, though sobering, retains God’s promises as its foundation.  The Apostle, too, is aware that being a co-worker with the Incarnate God will involve suffering, but that this does not call into question his confidence in the care of our saving God.  He remains sure of the appointed moment of God’s action, the Kairos-moment of salvation, and wants us to hold on to this, as well.

And then comes the list of paradoxes:  what the one working with Christ might seem like, and what he or she really is.  Like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, those working for God may seem small, of no significance, weighed down with the cares of this world, weak through fasting and wakefulness, in distress, and even punished by those in authority. Of that holy Servant, the prophet says, “Many were astonished at you— his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind… He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 52:14; 53:3) But in all this humility, there is strength: “by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left.”

Those who are besieged have been given the very armor of God, both for the right side, the strong side, and for the left, the weak side, because human daily life is messy.  They will appear to be dishonored, they will be slandered as if they were dishonest, they will look to be in the process of dying— but God uses death to trample down death.  And so, they are honored by God for sharing Christ’s sufferings. They may be chastened by circumstances, but this will be to their benefit. They may look poor according to this world’s standards— but in fact, in Christ, they own everything.

Of course, this is true of any devout Christian.  It is important, however, for us to take to heart that Paul’s “we” in this passage is especially the “we” of the pastor—those who are “out there” in ministry for our sake, and for the sake of those who will join us.  Our delight and responsibility should be to pray for them in their special role as showing forth the love and vulnerability of Christ.  Elsewhere Paul invites his congregation to copy his life-style, BECAUSE he is imitating Christ (1 Cor 11:1).  Pastors are, so to speak, living icons of the LORD, given for the building up of the Church—some He gave to be apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors, so that we, too, could engage in ministry (Eph 4:11-12).  They are, we could say, God’s “first responders.” And so they need our cheerful honor and concerted prayers.

Let’s look more carefully at the Psalm that the apostle quotes, and surely has in the back of his mind as he reminds the Corinthians of his role and their responsibility to them. Here are some selections from that Psalm. Listen for the ministry of Christ Himself in this, and consider that this may be the experience of your priest and bishop in these difficult times, though they may not tell you.  After all, they are trying to follow Christ, who did not “open his mouth” even when slandered and maligned:

Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.  I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.  I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.  More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies….. O God, thou knowest my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from thee….. For it is for thy sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons.  For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me…. I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.  But as for me, my prayer is to thee, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of thy steadfast love answer me. With thy faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.  Let not the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me…. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink….. I am afflicted and in pain; let thy salvation, O God, set me on high!

This psalm, like the entire contour of the Biblical story, plunges down, but then rises up, to a point higher than it even began.  It looks in confidence to the God who raises us on high.  And so it is the joy of our pastors to remind us of our hope week-by-week, just as it is our privilege to bring this hope to a depressed and lack-luster world.  The final verses of Psalm 68 hold out this light, just as St. Paul does for us in this chapter that reminds us of his apostolic suffering.  Here is the victorious conclusion of the Psalm:

I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving…. Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive.  For the LORD hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds.  Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves therein.  For God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah; and his servants shall dwell there and possess it; the children of his servants shall inherit it, and those who love his name shall dwell in it.  (Psalm 68; 69 Hebrew).

In the end, of course, it is this “rebuilding” of God’s community to which our bishops, priests, and deacons are called.  The new creation involves many of those whom the world thinks of as poor, foolish, and of no reputation.  But all these shall be lifted up, revived, and changed, together, so as to show forth what God is really like.  We are all co-workers in this redeeming of the world, and of time.  God’s humility is such that He uses us all for His purposes.  This week, however, let us remember the special sacrificial calling of our pastors, and thank them for their work among us, knowing that God works with them, and with us all, in ways that surprise us.

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