In Luke 20, the chief priests and the scribes came to Jesus with a question. They asked him, “Should we, the Jews, pay taxes to Ceasar?” It seemed like an innocent question, but it wasn’t innocent at all. They were trying to put Jesus in a no-win situation. If his answer was, “Yes, you should pay your taxes”, that would make the Jews mad. And if he said, “No, you shouldn’t pay your taxes”, that would make the Romans mad. Either way, Jesus was in trouble. It seemed like a no-win situation. But, of course, we know that Jesus showed great wisdom in his response. He said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”
If you have ever found yourself in a no-win situation, you know how frustrating it can be. I heard about a husband who came to breakfast one morning in a grumpy mood. His wife very gently said, “How would you like your eggs cooked, dear?” He said, “I want one fried egg and one scrambled egg.” She fixed his eggs and put them in front of him, and he got upset. She said, “What’s wrong?” He said, “You fried the wrong egg!”
Have you ever been in a situation where, no matter what you did, you couldn’t do the right thing? It can happen in our families. Or it can happen at work. Maybe you get fussed at for not giving the customers enough attention, but then when you spend more time with them, you get fussed at for not spending enough time doing something else that you’re supposed to be doing.
And we even experience no-win situations in the church at times. A a preacher, I’ve been criticized for spending too much time in the office studying and I’ve been criticized for not spending enough time in the office studying. I’ve been criticized for not using enough scripture in my sermons and I’ve been criticized for using too much scripture in my sermons. Sometimes, you just can’t win.
And, as Paul was writing the letter of 2 Corinthians, he found himself in this kind of a situation. He simply couldn’t win. In the past, he had tried to correct some serious errors in the church at Corinth, but they didn’t appreciate his rebukes. So then, Paul backed off to avoid further confrontation with the Corinthians, but they didn’t appreciate that either.
In this no-win situation, Paul needed to explain himself as best as he could, and try to convince the Christians in Corinth that everything he did was motivated by his love for them.
I talked last week about the fact that dealing with people in the church can be messy. When I graduated from Freed-Hardeman, I was somewhat naïve. I thought I would go to work for a church somewhere and rally the troops and we would all love Jesus, love each other and change the world! But there were some things they forgot to tell me in my preacher training classes.
The first church I served was a little country church, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that it was a mess. For about two years, I worked with this dysfunctional group of people. And during those two years, I often found myself thinking — they didn’t warn me about this in my college classes!
But what I’ve learned over the past 47 years is that ministry is messy — it just is. You can be in the most wonderful church — I honestly can’t imagine a more wonderful place to be than this congregation. This church has the most wonderful people I’ve ever known, but we still have some messes. Because wherever there are people, there are going to be messes; that’s just the way things are.
Many of us here this morning could tell our own story of times when, with the very best of motives, the best of intentions, we got involved in a situation that turned out to be a mess and, as a result, we got hurt. Maybe you were unfairly treated, maybe you were falsely accused, maybe you were taken advantage of.
And it’s easy to come out of an experience like that and say, “I’m never going to do that again.” But we have to! To use last week’s language, if you’re going to be a Traveller and not a Balconeer, you’ve got to accept the fact that sometimes things get really messy. Broken people reaching a broken world means dealing with messes.
Well, the apostle Paul found himself right in the middle of a mess with the Corinthians, and out of his experience I think we can learn some things that will be helpful to us as we try to process the messes we deal with in life. We’re going to be in 2 Corinthians, chapter one, this morning. If you weren’t here with us last week, we started a sermon series through this letter.
And, as we said last week, the church in Corinth was pretty messed up. There was sexual immorality, there were false teachers; the church was filled with spiritual arrogance and there was quite a bit of tension between Paul and at least some of the members of that church. Apparently, the false teachers were trying to discredit Paul so that they could discredit his message. And so, they accused Paul of several things that we’re going to look at in just a moment.
But the first thing Paul does is to examine his motives:
Verse 12, “We can say with confidence and a clear conscience that we have lived with a God-given holiness and sincerity in all our dealings. We have depended on God’s grace, not on our own human wisdom. That is how we have conducted ourselves before the world, and especially toward you.” (2 Corinthians 1:12, NLT)
Paul begins by examining his own motives. He says, “My conscience is clear on this matter. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that when we were with you, we operated with honesty and integrity. We behaved with sincerity.” You may have heard that the Latin word sincerus, from which we get our English word “sincere” literally means “without wax”.
There’s a story that’s told, that there were many fine pottery makers in the Roman world, and it was a lucrative business. The pottery would be formed, then placed into an oven to cure. The well-respected potter would inspect his pottery after firing it, and if any cracks were found, the vessel would be discarded and he would start over. Naturally, this would increase the overall price and value of fine pottery.
Given the same situation, other less reputable potters would take the blemished vessel and rub wax into the crack, then paint over the imperfection and sell it as if it were pristine. These individuals could sell their pottery for cheaper prices, thus undercutting the sincere pottery makers.
This prompted the honorable pottery makers to hang a sign over the entrance to their stores: sincerus … meaning this store has pottery without wax. Now, it’s debatable whether those stories of the ancient pottery makers are true or not, but I do think that helps to illustrate the meaning of the word sincere.
You see, some of the false teachers in Corinth were trying to say, “Paul, he comes across one way, he pretends to love you and he pretends to care about you, but that’s not really who he is. He’s got ulterior motives. He’s trying to hide what he’s really all about.” And Paul says, “No, no, no, we’ve always been sincere in our dealings with you. What you see is who we are.”
And then Paul says, “We didn’t operate according to human wisdom but by the grace of God. Human wisdom is all about self; it’s all about what I do and how what I do is better than what you do. Human wisdom is all about being competitive. But operating out of a system of grace puts us all on the same level. It allows us to genuinely think about other people.
You see, if you get your sense of value, your sense of significance, based on your performance, then for you, life is defined by competition and comparison. Everybody wants to be better than everybody else. So, when you find yourself in the middle of a church dispute, your insecurities start to flare. You find yourself becoming defensive and, at that point, it’s all about protecting me.
But in a grace-based system, you understand that your significance, your sense of value comes not from what you do but from being connected with God through Jesus Christ. And when I understand that, then if I find myself the middle of a church dispute, there’s nothing you can do to destroy my value, so I can keep my insecurities in check. I don’t have to get defensive and I’m actually set free to think of others as being more important than myself. Paul says, “That’s how we conducted ourselves when we were with you.”
Verse 13, “Our letters have been straightforward, and there is nothing written between the lines and nothing you can’t understand. I hope someday you will fully understand us, even if you don’t understand us now. Then on the day when the Lord Jesus returns, you will be proud of us in the same way we are proud of you.” (2 Corinthians 1:13-14, NLT)
Apparently, Paul’s critics were saying, “You’ve got to read Paul’s letters between the lines; there’s a hidden agenda that he’s trying to press.” So, Paul says, “Hey, there’s nothing between the lines; there’s no hidden agenda. It’s not that hard to understand what I’m saying to you.”
But he says, “I don’t just want you to understand the words that I’m writing. I want you to understand me. I want you to understand how much I love you and how much I care about you. And I really hope that we can get to the point where we can understand each other and we can come together, so that when we stand before Jesus, you can be as proud of us as we are of you.”
For whatever reason, there always seems to be this thread in Christianity of negativity — this idea that it’s our job to pick at each other, to judge one another, to criticize one another. And sometimes we defend what we’re doing by saying, “Well, I’m just being faithful.” But sometimes it’s not being faithful; it’s something that Satan uses to create a division within the body.
What if Christians, by and large, instead of being negative and critical and picky, celebrated one another — actually cheered for one another, actually felt deep in their hearts, “Hey, I’m on your side! I understand, you’re not perfect, but neither am I. But God is in the process of changing us and making us like Jesus and when we stand before God, I want to be proud of you and I want you to be proud of me — because of what Jesus has done for us.”
There’s no question but that this world can be pretty hard — more often than not, it just kind of beats the stuffin out of us. But what if there was a place that you could go where you always knew people would be there for you? People would cheer for you; people would celebrate you. There would always be this sense that, even if you messed up, these people still love me and we’re in this together. What a remarkable place that would be! If there was a place like that, everybody would want to go there because that’s what everybody wants; that’s what people are looking for.
Paul goes on in verse 15 to talk about the specific accusation against him – “Since I was so sure of your understanding and trust, I wanted to give you a double blessing by visiting you twice — first on my way to Macedonia and again when I returned from Macedonia. Then you could send me on my way to Judea.” (2 Corinthians 1:15-16, NLT)
So, here was the plan – after Paul left Ephesus, he planned to make his way over to Corinth and then up to Macedonia. And then, after he finished at Macedonia, he would come back down through Corinth and head back to Judea. So, Paul’s plan was that he would get to see the Corinthians twice — a double blessing. But something came up and that didn’t work out so now, so now some of the Corinthians were criticizing Paul for not doing what he said he was going to do.
Verse 17, “You may be asking why I changed my plan. Do you think I make my plans carelessly? Do you think I am like people of the world who say ‘Yes’ when they really mean ‘No’?” (2 Corinthians 1:17, NLT).
Paul’s critics were saying, “You can’t trust this guy; this guy is fickle; he can’t make up his mind. He doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do.”
Which seems rather harsh. We all have times when we need to change our plans. But you need to know something about Roman culture. The Romans had very strong feelings about people that vacillated; they had no tolerance for people that were fickle. If you’re a leader, you need to make a plan and you better stick to that plan. And if for some reason that plan ever changes, you better have a really good reason why or you’re going to be discredited as a leader.
So, it’s against that kind of backdrop that some of the Corinthians were saying, “What’s up with this guy? Paul is fickle, he can’t make up his mind; you can’t trust him. And if you can’t trust him about something as simple as coming to see us, how can we trust anything he says? Maybe his whole message isn’t true.” They were trying to discredit Paul so they could discredit the message.
Paul responds to that in verse 18, “As surely as God is faithful, our word to you does not waver between ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ For Jesus Christ, the Son of God, does not waver between ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ He is the one whom Silas, Timothy, and I preached to you, and as God’s ultimate ‘Yes,’ he always does what he says. For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’” (2 Corinthians 1:18-19, NLT)
Paul’s response here is significant. In essence, what his critics were trying to say was, we’ve got some issues with the messenger, so we’re thinking maybe the message isn’t true. Paul responds by saying, “No, no! The message stands alone; it’s true.” Whether you have a problem with the messenger or not, the message is true because it’s true. God is faithful. He always does what he says he will do. God promised for hundreds of years that he would send a Savior, and Jesus was the complete fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus was God’s “Yes!”
Paul says, “The message we preached to you is right, not because of who we are but because of who God is. God always does what he says he will do.” And so, when God says, “I’m going to send a Messiah who will save the world”, that’s what he did. “All of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’”
It’s easy, though, for people today to dismiss the message because they’ve had a bad experience with the messenger. Sometimes people will say, “All Christians are hypocrites.” Or, “The reason I don’t go to church is because all they ever talk about is money.” Or, I think every preacher I’ve ever known is a conceited, arrogant windbag.”
Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that all of these things are true. How does any of that in any way change the historical facts of the message of the gospel? You can’t throw out the message just because you’ve had a bad experience with the messenger. Some of you here this morning, you’ve been wounded by churches; you’ve been wounded by Christians; you’ve been wounded by preachers and Christian leaders. And there’s a temptation for us to throw away the message because we’ve had a bad experience with the messenger. And Paul says, “Wait a minute; the message stands alone; God is faithful. This message is true regardless of what you may think about me.”
And then, Paul concludes this section by explaining why he didn’t go back to Corinth a second time:
“Now I call upon God as my witness that I am telling the truth. The reason I didn’t return to Corinth was to spare you from a severe rebuke. But that does not mean we want to dominate you by telling you how to put your faith into practice. We want to work together with you so you will be full of joy, for it is by your own faith that you stand firm.
“So I decided that I would not bring you grief with another painful visit. For if I cause you grief, who will make me glad? Certainly not someone I have grieved. That is why I wrote to you as I did, so that when I do come, I won’t be grieved by the very ones who ought to give me the greatest joy. Surely you all know that my joy comes from your being joyful. I wrote that letter in great anguish, with a troubled heart and many tears. I didn’t want to grieve you, but I wanted to let you know how much love I have for you.” (2 Corinthians 1:23-2:4)
Paul said, “The reason I didn’t go back to Corinth a second time is because the first time I went, it didn’t go well; we all went away hurt.” And Paul believed that if he stopped by Corinth again, it would only make matters worse, so he felt it was best at this time not to make another visit. He wants the Corinthians to know, “I didn’t say the harsh things I did because I wanted to upset you. It wasn’t my intent to hurt you, but to help you. And I want you to know that everything I said and everything I did was because I love you.”
I read recently about a dentist who said, “When a patient has a toothache, I’m his best friend. But when he has no pain and I tell him we have to drill, I’m his worst enemy.” You see, dentists sometimes have to inflict pain in order to help us to avoid pain. Which makes them people we want to avoid, but it also makes them people we run to for help.
I think Paul must have felt like a dentist when he was writing these words. He had inflicted pain on the Corinthians by correcting them and telling them they weren’t doing what was right, but they didn’t like it. It was painful. So then, Paul avoided visiting them to keep from upsetting even more, but they didn’t like that either.
So, with a heart filled with compassion, Paul tells the Corinthians that everything he did for them – the sharp rebukes as well as avoiding them — it was all for their good. They may not have liked what Paul did, but he did it because he loved them so much.
Whether you’re a leader in the workplace, or a leader in the church, or a leader in your home, sometimes we have to deal with difficult stuff and often when we do, people want to question our motives. That’s what happened to Paul.
And so, he says the reason I didn’t come is because it would have been just too painful for you and too painful for me; it was just going to make things worse. He says, “You’re the very people that should make me happy. But instead, there’s just this tension; we just keep butting heads.” And Paul felt like he needed to give it some time to cool off or it was just going to make matters worse.
I think part of the message for us here is that when we’re in the middle of a conflict, sometimes the best thing we can do, at least temporarily, is walk away, just let things cool down. Sometimes the harder we try to fix something, the worse it gets.
It’s true that we’re supposed to admonish one another and confront one another, but the end goal is that there might be reconciliation. And if you get the sense that you’re just making things worse, what’s the point of continuing to do that? Sometimes the best thing you can do is just back off, give it some time and prayerfully ask God to change things so that, at a future time, there might be reconciliation.
Paul was in the middle of a mess, just like we sometimes find ourselves in the middle of a mess. As the church, we go out into the workplace, we go out into our neighborhoods, we go out into the schools. And wherever there are people, there are going to be messes. And often, people are going to criticize us, they’re going to question our motives. So, what do we do?
The place to start is this — we have to examine ourselves. We start by looking in the mirror, to make sure that we’re operating according to honesty, according to sincerity. There’s no hidden agenda — we’re truly trying to act in love and encourage one another. We’re here for one another. This isn’t about me and my ego; it’s about trying to help one another, and the only way we can do that is to operate according to grace.
Let’s make sure that we’re not the problem before we try to fix someone else. It’s so easy to deceive ourselves. I know some Christians who, everywhere they go, everyone they associate with, there’s some sort of conflict! There’s always a fuss about some issue and somehow, they always justify what they’re doing by saying that they’re being faithful and it’s somebody else’s fault. At some point, we’ve got to look in the mirror and say ourselves the question, “Is there something in my life that I need to deal with?” So, we start with ourselves and make sure that we’re operating with integrity because we don’t want to hurt anyone; we only want to help.
But, on the flip side, some of us are dealing with people who have hurt us. Perhaps some of you here this morning have been deeply wounded by a church, by another Christian, maybe even by a preacher and, as a result, your tendency is to reject the message because you’ve been wounded by a messenger. No matter what a messenger has done to you, it doesn’t make God’s message untrue. The gospel stands on its own.
Sometimes it feels like we just can’t win. No matter what we do, we get criticized. People question our motives. They accuse us of all sorts of stuff. It just makes us want to give up. What’s the use? But Paul reminds us that we need to hang in there and continue to do what is right because that’s what God has called us to do.