As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favour I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:1-2)
Ange and I had ‘the big talk’ again the other night. You know the one! We’ve all been there. The day’s work is mostly done. You’ve just had dinner and you’re taking a moment to relax and spend some quiet time out together, and then the question comes: “Honey, don’t you think that maybe it’s time you stopped fighting?”
Oh, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? Yes, we all know that the day will come when we have to hang up our gloves, and we all know that every day brings us one day closer to that dreaded day, and yet when the question comes the answer is always inevitably the same: “I know I’ve got one more fight left in me!”
And it matters not whether you have been a pugilist since you were a kid or whether, like me, you start relatively late in life (as I didn’t have my first ring fight till I was in my 30’s). The issue is not when you start. The issue is when you stop, as no fighter ever wants to admit that he or she is beat! “Just one more fight!”
Now I mention this today partly because, as I’ve revealed, I am in the process of thinking again about my future as a pugilist, but mainly because, as I read today’s Epistle reading from St Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, I can envisage St Paul having exactly the same conversation with his wife!
Now, of course, St Paul wasn’t actually married (or at least he wasn’t by the time he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians) and, despite his statement elsewhere that he ‘didn’t box as one punching the air’ (1 Corinthians 9:26) he probably wasn’t a sports pugilist as such. Even so, I can still hear that conversation taking place, for Paul was indeed a fighter!
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation. We put no stumbling-block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:2-10)
Paul was a fighter! He was aggressive, focused, fit and determined, and like all great fighters, his took pride in his record!
We often let Paul’s repeated reminiscences of his fight record wash over us, I suspect, as they can seem like simple nostalgia, but there’s something much more significant going on there, I think.
If you look at my business card you’ll see that I publish my list of credentials there, including the numerous black belts that I’ve been awarded. This is designed to strike fear into the hearts of those who don’t know any better. Those who do know better know that having a dozen black belts doesn’t necessarily mean very much.
It’s like having University degrees. Having a degree, in itself, doesn’t mean much at all. It depends on what the degree is in and where it’s from. Likewise, black belts in themselves don’t mean much, but having an established fight record as an amateur or professional fighter – that always means something.
Similarly, when Paul pointed to his authority he always directed people to his fight record. It wasn’t because he didn’t have any credentials but, sadly, all his credentials were in the wrong areas.
Paul was well credentialed as a rabbi. According to his own testimony he was trained under the great Gamaliel (Acts 3:23) and “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee, as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Philippians 3:5-6)
Paul was wonderfully well credentialed as a Jew and, paradoxically, he was also wonderfully well-credentialed as a Roman, having been born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-28), and enjoying all the privileges that came with that citizenship.
Where Paul didn’t have any obvious credentials was as a Christian leader! Paul had not been one of the twelve Apostles. Paul had not been involved in the earthly ministry of Jesus at all. Indeed, Paul had never even met Jesus during his earthly life. And what’s more, Paul did not always enjoy the unilateral support of all of the Apostles, let alone from all of the members of the mother church in Jerusalem.
St Paul was, in his day, a controversial figure, both outside and within the church. Yet his confidence was in Christ and in the fruit of his ministry – in the thriving Christian communities that he had been able to set up right across Europe – and when he needed to point to his credentials he referred his critics to his record: to the troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, hunger and dishonour.
Paul was a controversial figure in his day. It’s worth remembering that as we have subsequently sainted him, which inevitably makes him the epitome of respectability. There is a real danger in that. By canonising Paul we potentially rob him of his humanity, and Paul was the first to admit that he was a very human human being.
Spiritually speaking, he had what, at best, could be described as an ambiguous history. He was passionate to the point of obsession, and we know he had various personal struggles that continued on throughout his life.
Paul talks of his ‘thorn in the flesh’ later in this same letter to the church in Corinth (12:7) and that’s a subject that has fascinated Biblical scholars and academics over many generations. The suggestion that has been made by some contemporary commentators – that perhaps Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was his sexual orientation is, I think, quite plausible.
Of course it is unambiguous in the New Testament that St Paul was celibate during the time we know him. Even so, it seems to me plausible that it was his sexuality that he struggled with, partly because his ‘thorn’ was a subject that Paul felt unable to talk about openly (when he talked about everything else so openly) and partly because he was just such a passionate man that we would expect him to have the sort of high ‘life drives’ that could get him into trouble.
Regardless of where we come down on that particular question, the overall picture with St Paul is clear, I think. He was a passionate, aggressive, committed man, loving and compassionate, but also as weak and as human as any of us.
Now you might be wondering why I’ve devoted so much of today’s sermon to reflections on the humanity of St Paul. It’s because I really want to encourage us all to see Paul as a fellow pugilist in the good fight, rather than as some iconic figure who calls down to us from above.
We are tempted, I think, to see Paul up there on the stained-glass window, shouting down at us – ‘get up off the canvas, Smith. Get back into the fight! What do you think you’re doing?’ I see St Paul more as someone who stands alongside me in the ring. He’s a fellow pugilist – someone who stands on an equal footing to me, someone who bleeds and falls over just as easily as I do, and someone who, like me, is a sinner in need of the grace of God, and is by no means invincible as a fighter.
If I might shift to a military metaphor, I see Paul as one of those soldiers who marches out with us into the battle-zone. He’s not the general who gives his commands from a tent located well behind the front line. He’s like one of the regimental commanders of old who led his troops from the front, facing all the dangers that they did, and potentially suffering the same fate as those he led.
St Paul is a fellow foot-soldier, and it’s as such that he exhorts us: ‘now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation. Now it the time join the battle. Now is the time to put your body on the line. Now is the time to stand up and make a difference!’ For be assured, there is a war going on out there, and you can’t step out on to the front line without being shot at.
Of course it all depends on how deeply you let your faith penetrate your life. If your faith has not greater influence on your life beyond getting you to clean up your language and be civil to your neighbours then the war will pass you right by!
But be assured:
- If you try to love those who struggle with drug and alcohol addictions you will get robbed at some point.
- If you open your home to those who have nowhere to call home, you will lose your privacy and get yourself abused.
- If you speak out in defence of minority groups who are being prejudiced against because of their colour or ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation you will end up being treated with the same contempt as is experienced by those whom you seek to defend.
I’m actually getting hammered somewhat on Twitter at the moment, and this time it’s not even because of something I wrote. It’s because of something Keith wrote that I just happened to recommend!
Keith, in case you’re unaware, published an article recently that connected the story of Noah to the debate over same-sex marriage (a connection that may not be immediately obvious). Of course I re-published the article and recommended it, but still …I wonder if Keith is receiving the same sort of flak himself? (I suspect he is)
Bottom line: if you’re not getting shot at, you’re not in the front line, and now is the time to step on to the front line!
“We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange – I speak as to my children – open wide your hearts also.” (2 Corinthians 6:11-13)
That’s how St Paul concludes his appeal to the Corinthians. I prefer to conclude with two of the most memorable words I remember hearing from one of our professional boxers here in the community – young Solomon Egberime.
We were in the gym and one of our young lads was giving a long and well-reasoned speech to Solomon and myself, explaining why now was not a good time for him to pursue his fight career any further. He talked about his work and his study and his family commitments and went on for quite some time, and I remember Solomon sitting there patiently and saying nothing until the lad concluded his soliloquy, after which he responded with two words: “No. Now!”
Yes, there will come a time when we have to hang up the gloves and stop fighting, and that time will be when we are laid out in a wooden box. Now is not that time. Now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation. Now is the time to take up the fight and put our bodies on the line. Now is the time to step up and to step out. Now is the time!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on June 24, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.