“Love of God and Love of Neighbor”
2 Corinthians 5:11-21
July 17, 2016
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Pastor Steven Nicoletti
We are looking again this morning at Second Corinthians. I mentioned last week that 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 is something of an aside about where we are to locate glory, and now, in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, the Apostle Paul picks up some of the themes he had been discussing earlier in the letter.
In particular, he re-engages with the criticisms his opponents had leveled against him, and he presents again a defense of who he is and what his ministry looks like. Paul has to explain why his way of life looks so different from the peddlers of God’s word who claim to be superior to him. And here he will do it by pointing to the relationship between love for God and love for our neighbors.
So with that in mind, please hear from our text, 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. The Apostle Paul writes:
11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This is God’s Word.
So Paul here continues to respond to some of the accusations of those who have opposed his ministry. We see the reference to them in verse 12.
And his central point against his opponents, his central point that he says is evidence for the validity of his ministry, and the invalidity of their ministry, is that they have severed the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor, and as a result they have been left with neither. They have separated love towards God from love towards neighbor, and as a result they have neither. As a result, all that has remained is their love of themselves.
Let’s look at that a little closer.
Paul is dealing particularly with the issue that his opponents seem to be commending themselves based on their personal relationship with God. They commend themselves for being spiritual based on their love for and experience of God, and say Paul does not match them in this area.
Commentator Paul Barnett points out that we can gather from verses 12 and 13 that the Apostle Paul’s opponents were apparently trying to legitimate their calling, and the superiority of their apostleship, but appealing to their elevated relationship with God – their ecstatic states and visions, while Paul spent so much time on other things. In other words, they were the superior apostles because they were focused on their direct relationship with God, while Paul was distracted with his ministry and work with other people.
But the Apostle Paul points out that his opponents have severed their love for God from their love for the Corinthians – their love for their neighbors. For Paul, both his love for God and his love for his neighbor is shaped by the same thing – it is the love of Christ that controls him, he says in verse 14.
But his opponents, he points out, are different. His opponents, we learn in verse 12, are controlled by their need to commend themselves and to boast. In other words, Paul is pointing out that by pursuing a supposed love of God that was divorced from, or that looked down on, service and ministry and love towards the Corinthians, their neighbors, his opponents had not ascended to a higher spiritual plane, but they had actually collapsed into a self-love of boasting and self-commendation. Their religion, at the end of the day, was about them, not about God or other people.
And this is a problem we are familiar with, isn’t it? We see it in the prophets, who denounce Israel for their trust in sacrifices while they mistreat the poor and the powerless. We see it in Jesus, as he speaks against the Pharisees who use traditions – traditions intended to honor God – in order to prevent people from caring for their own parents. We see it in the Apostle Paul, as he describes his life before he met the risen Lord: as a man consumed by a religious zeal that caused him to abuse and imprison the people of God. It is the plot of far too many stories in history, on the news, in books or on screen: the self-proclaimed religious man who supposedly devotes his life to love of God, but fails to love those around him.
And what all of these things show is that a real and a true love for God cannot be severed from a love for our neighbors – from a love for other human beings who are made in God’s image.
When we try to pursue a love of God without loving our neighbors, that supposed love for God is quickly twisted. It is pulled down by our love of self, and soon what was supposed to be the goal, now became the means to another end: ourselves. We use our religious deeds to promote ourselves, or to assure ourselves, or to excuse ourselves. We use God for our own purposes. Our lives might be filled with religious practices that look God-centered, but really they are all about us. They are all about our good. Attempts at love for God, severed from love for our neighbors, are pulled down and destroyed, consumed, in the end, by our love for ourselves.
And that is what was being done by Paul’s opponents.
So we see the flaws of trying to love God without loving our neighbors.
But while it isn’t Paul’s focus, it’s worth pointing out that we can do the reverse too. We can try to love our neighbors without loving God. We can try to live for other people, but in a way that is disconnected from our love for God. And that too, we see, if we look closely, also quickly collapses under the pull of the love of self.
C.S. Lewis addresses this phenomenon in his book The Four Loves. Within his discussion of affection, he speaks of “gift-love” that becomes twisted in on itself.
He gives an example, writing: “I am thinking of Mrs. Fidget, who died a few months ago. It is really astonishing how her family have brightened up. The drawn look has gone from her husband’s face; he begins to be able to laugh. The younger boy, whom I had always thought an embittered, peevish little creature, turns out to be quite human. The elder, who was hardly ever at home except when he was in bed, is nearly always there now and has begun to reorganize the garden. The girl, who was always supposed to be ‘delicate’ (though I never found out what exactly the trouble was) now has the riding lessons which were once out of the question, dances all night, and plays any amount of tennis. Even the dog who was never allowed out except on a lead is now a well-known member of the Lamp-post Club in their road.
“Mrs. Fidget very often said that she lived for her family. And it was not untrue. Everyone in the neighborhood knew it. ‘She lives for her family,’ they said; “what a wife and mother!” […] There was always a hot lunch for anyone who was at home and always a hot meal at night (even in midsummer). They implored her not to provide this. They protested almost with tears in their eyes (and with truth) that they liked cold meals. It made no difference. She was living for her family. She always sat up to ‘welcome’ you home if you were out late at night; two or three in the morning, it made no odds; you would always find the frail, pale, weary face awaiting you, like a silent accusation. Which meant of course that you couldn’t with any decency go out very often […] And then her care for their health! She bore the whole burden of that daughter’s ‘delicacy’ alone […] The girl was to have no worries, no responsibility for her own health. Only loving care; caresses, special foods, horrible tonic wines, and breakfast in bed. For Mrs. Fidget, as she so often said, would ‘work her fingers to the bone’ for her family. They couldn’t stop her. Nor could they – being decent people – quite sit still and watch her do it. They had to help. Indeed they were always having to help. That is, they did things for her to help her to do things for them which they didn’t want done. […]
“The Vicar says Mrs. Fidget is now at rest. Let us hope she is. What’s quite certain is that her family are.”
Now what is Lewis’s point here? Well, most of us have seen this somewhere – haven’t we? Love for others, that, as Lewis explains, is more about the one doing the loving than it is about the ones who are supposedly being loved. Love that seems to mean well, but that, in the end, is more about itself than others.
It is an odd thing to see – and even more odd to try to confront. But as Lewis points out, it happens, and it happens easily. Love for others, all by itself, can easily be pulled and twisted to serve the love of self. Soon our deeds of love for others become, really, about us – whether they are good works of charity, our kind and giving disposition to others, or how we serve our family. Love for others, on its own, easily collapses under the pull of love of self, and becomes self-centered.
And so what we see here is that by themselves, severed from each other, love of God, on the one hand, and love of neighbor, on the other, cannot stand up on their own. Pursued them by themselves, they quickly become twisted by the pull of our love of ourselves. Our love of God becomes about self-righteousness. Out love of neighbor becomes about self-importance and a need to be needed.
What then are we to do? If, in practice, we see that each of these pursuits, on their own, collapses into love of self, how are we to do what God has called us to do?
And what we see here in our text is that, while they often seem to be in conflict, in day-to-day life, the love of God and the love of neighbor are actually inseparable from each other.
Let me say that again: While often they seem to be in conflict, in our every day lives, our calling to love God, and our calling to love our neighbor, are actually inseparable from each other, and they need each other. It is only together that they stand against our love of ourselves. In other words, you can’t have one without the other.
Let’s break that down a little bit. We’ve said that our pursuit of loving God and loving our neighbor often seem to be in conflict. And that’s in our text. That comes out in verse 13. Paul writes “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” In other words, Paul sees that the call to love God and the call to love the Corinthians seem to require different things of him – even opposite things. He cannot be in an ecstatic state, or having a spiritual vision, focused just on God while also ministering well to the Corinthians. And if he is ministering well to them, he cannot be focused only on God. The two appear to be in competition in Paul’s day-to-day life, in how he allocates his time and energy.
But while there is tension between them, while they both press him in different directions, Paul is also emphatic that they are not working against each other, but for each other.
And I think we see this in other areas of our lives, don’t we? Most of us have callings that appear to be in conflict, but that are really inseparable from each other.
Parenthood gives some good illustrations. Consider a parent who goes to work. I leave my children to go to work most mornings. Usually, it makes them sad. My two-and-a-half year old is especially clingy right now, and so some mornings I tell her I have to go and she clings to my leg and says “But Daddy, I love you!” But even so, I tell her I need to go. Now, do I do this because I don’t love her? Of course not. I work, in large part, to provide for her. If I did not go to work, if I quit my job to stay home with her, I would soon not be able to feed, or house, or clothe her. While in the moment my calling to work and to parent might appear to be in conflict, they are actually inseparable from each other, if I am going to do them well. If I focused on work to the exclusion of my relationship with my kids, then my job would become about me, about my success, and not about other people. And if I quit my job to be with my wife and kids all the time, I might feel better in the moment, but it would not actually be for the good of my children. They need me to work to provide for them. And so these callings, that often look and often feel in conflict, while they might have some tension, that tension actually helps hold them up together.
And the same is true for a parent who stays home. Not long ago my wife showed me an article by Rhiannon Giles, shared with her by a friend, which was titled “The Dishes Can Wait, and Other Lies.” It was about how mothers of young children are often told to not worry about the housework and just enjoy being with their young children. The lines the author heard again and again were “They’re only young once. Dishes can wait. Enjoy every moment.”
And while she admitted there were some good impulses behind this line – one can run the risk of putting housework above a relationship with one’s kids – the advice was still misleading. Because it presented two callings as if they were in opposition, when really they needed each other.
So in a humorous way, she imagined what her home would be like if she really followed this advice, leaving not only the dishes, but everything else. She imagines that “while the dishes are waiting, the floor is getting covered in sticky grime. While the floor is waiting, the bathroom sink is collecting toothpaste. While that toothpaste is waiting, Mt. Laundry is growing in elevation.” But “at least you got to play that extra round of hide-and-seek with your kids. Unfortunately, one of them tripped over the waiting vacuum and broke his arm. You make a makeshift sling out of the dirty underwear on the living room floor. When you find yourself weary at the end of a long day, you don’t have to walk all the way to your bedroom — you can curl up right there on a pillow made of dog fur, stickers, and other miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam.”
Now what is Rhiannon Giles’s point? She is saying that while the two callings of housework and child rearing are certainly in tension, while they might feel on a daily basis as if they are in conflict or competition with each other; in fact, they are not really in opposition, and far from that, they are inseparable from each other.
Of course it is true that a parent can make a clean house an end in itself and so fall short in their relationships with their children. But it is also true that to eschew housework would not be loving to one’s children either. The two callings give each other meaning, purpose, and help them from collapsing into selfishness. We could pursue a clean house for our sake. We could shrug off housework to only play with the kids, for our enjoyment. But if we are to truly love our children, we need to simultaneously pursue both.
And so it is with our calling to love God and love our neighbor.
Pastor Rayburn pointed me to a helpful quote by John Duncan a while back, that captures this idea. Now Pastor Rayburn did use this quote in a sermon 15 years ago, and I know how good memories can be here at Faith Presbyterian Church, so please forgive the repetition.
But Duncan put it like this – he said: “If the stones of an arch were to become animated and speak, the stones on the right hand side would say, ‘Right-hand pressure is right pressure;’ and the stones on the left hand would say, ‘Left-hand pressure is right pressure;’ but by pressing in opposite directions they keep up the keystone of the arch.”
Now Duncan was speaking of antinomies when he said this – of Biblical truths that appear to be in contradiction to our minds, but in reality, are not. But the same illustration of the arch could be used for the callings God puts in our lives as well.
An arch works – it holds up the central key stone, because each side of the arch pushes in an opposite direction. It is the tension itself of each side, the pressure from both sides of the arch pushing against each other, that holds up the key stone. If all the stones push right, the arch collapses. If all the stones push left, the stones collapse. When they are pressing in opposite directions, in tension, not contradiction, that is when they can actually stand. That is when they hold up the key stone.
In the day-in, day-out course of life, our call to love God and our call to love our neighbor often feel as if they are in opposition. The needs of others may pull us away from prayer or Bible reading, or the peace of quiet contemplation. The demands of God may keep us from a constant devotion to others. But in fact, the two callings need each other. The two callings need each other to hold up the Christian life.
As we said earlier, attempts to love God and attempts to love our neighbors, when severed from each other and isolated by themselves, soon collapse under the pull of the love of self. They become about us.
What we see here in Paul is that those two callings, those two loves, actually need each other if our Christian lives are to stand upright. Love for God must be expressed in love of neighbor. Love of neighbor must be motivated by love of God. It’s only then, with those two callings, those two pressures, combined, that we can stand up and resist the constant tug of our hearts to fall back into the love of self.
What then should that look like in our lives?
Let’s look at each side of the arch, and consider how it is shaped by the other.
First, is our love of our neighbors motivated by our love for God?
We’ve already talked about what our attempts to love other people look like if they are severed from our love for God. We’ve already considered how they are twisted, and eventually collapse under the pull of our love of self. So where do you see that in your own life? Where do you see your love for others twisting into a love of yourself?
Maybe as Lewis described, it is in parenting or being a spouse.
Or maybe it’s in how you relate to someone else: A parent. A friend. Someone who lives close by. A fellow church member. Someone you serve in a ministry. Someone you are helping financially.
Are those deeds in your life severed from your relationship to God? Paul calls us here to see those relationships in a larger context – to see them in the context of our relationship with God. It is only when those relationships are seen, in our mind, as being primarily about God that we can keep them from being primarily about us.
The way to avoid parenting that turns your kids into trophies or other forms of self-validation is to see your project, ultimately, as raising disciples for Christ’s kingdom.
The best way to be a good friend is to see your friendship as something there to help you and the other person grow closer to God. Let’s put it this way: If your friend begins to do something sinful or foolish, then if your friendship is not founded on your love for God, you will do a self-centered cost/benefit analysis about whether you should confront them. You’ll ask: What might this cost me? What’s the best outcome for me? But if your friendship is about God, you will confront them, lovingly, when they begin to make foolish or sinful choices. And that will make you a better friend to them, not a worse one.
The best way to avoid treating the people you serve or minister to like little projects, like de-personalized boxes you need to check off, is to see your relationship in terms of your love for God. How does God see those people? How does God want you to interact with them? They bear God’s image – does your thinking about them reflect that? Or are you using them to feel better about yourself?
To truly love others, our love for our neighbor must be built on our love for God. So it was with Paul. That was why he could say tough things to the Corinthians, even when he knew it would hurt him personally. His ministry to them was not about him, but about God. By combining his love for them with his love for God he withstood the pull of twisting that relationship into love-of-self. His opponents did not.
So that is the first question we must ask: Is our love for others motivated by our love for God?
But second, we need to ask: Is our love for God driving us out to love others?
And this is the point Paul focuses on in our passage. He concludes that because of his union with Christ, who has died and risen again, so he too has died to his old way of life – of living for himself – and now he lives for Christ. But what does that look like?
Well, in verses 18-20, he explains. It means that he joins the ministry of his Lord. It means that he imitates the ministry of his Lord. Paul looks at God, he looks at Christ, and what he sees is a God who is fully devoted to the work of reconciling the world to himself. Paul sees a God who left the safety of heaven to go out into a hostile world, even to die on a cross, and then be raised, all because of his desire to reconcile the world to himself. And Paul decides he must follow God’s example, and be a part of that work. He must look to Christ and follow in his footprints.
And so Paul too has chosen to live a life where he leaves the safety of his former life, going out into a hostile world, in order to die to himself, and maybe even die literally, in the work of reconciling the world to God. Paul sees that this is how the God he loves relates to the world, and Paul wants to be like him and do the same. Paul sees the work of God in Christ to reconcile the world to himself, and Paul jumps into the midst of that work. God loves Paul’s neighbors so much, he desires to be reconciled with them so much, and so, if Paul really loves God, how can he not jump into service, into being a part of making that happen?
And we see this pattern in other areas of life. When we love something, we want others to love it too. When something has been a tremendous benefit to us, we want others to benefit from it too. It’s part of the nature of love.
When we fall in love, we think the object of our affection is amazing. But we don’t just think that to ourselves. We want everyone else to think so too. We extoll the virtues of the one we love to friends, family, anyone who will listen. If anyone told us they didn’t like the person, we would try to convince them otherwise. That is the nature of love.
But we do it with other things too – even fairly mundane things. A diet that has been working for us lately. A book we are really enjoying. A movie we just saw. A TV show we have been binge-watching. When we really like something, we want others to as well. We tell them about it. We try to win them over to it.
Love never stays private. Love always wants to direct others to the object of its affections, and wants others to, in some sense, be reconciled to the thing we love.
So do we see that in our relationship with God? Do we see that with our faith in Christ?
Now, it’s easy to just hammer the guilt note on this subject, but that’s not my intention. Most of us know we should be sharing our faith more. But the question here is about what our struggle to do that reveals. It reveals that we need a clearer picture of God: both who he is to us, and how he feels about the world.
First, we need a clearer picture of who God is to us. How do you view God? Is he distant, exacting, and mildly disappointed in you? Is he looking elsewhere and not very interested in your life? Is he passive and there if you want him but fine if you don’t?
Paul’s view of God was always through the lens of what Christ had done for him. As one commentator puts it: “Paul’s understanding that Jesus, in his death, loved him was now the controlling force in the apostle’s life.” [Barnett, 289]
How often, do you set before you, in your mind, the fact that Jesus, that your God, loved you so much that he went to the cross to have you as his own? With that image before us we cannot begin to question how much God loves us. And with that sense of how much God loves us, of what he has done to make us his own, we cannot but want to please him. To want to love what he loves. To work for what he works for. To want to be a part in his reconciling the world to himself. To want to tell others of this incredible God, and his incredible love.
Yes, we should love our neighbors and share our faith because God calls us to do it. But we do it better when we have a clear view of the one we are proclaiming. Then we will want others to know of him.
But we also need a clear vision of how God relates to the world. And Paul gives that to us here. In verse 19 we see that Paul’s vision of God’s relationship to the world is one where God is giving himself, in Christ, to the work of reconciliation. God wants his creatures to be reconciled to himself. He has given himself over to that work. It is what he desires. And, we learn, it is what he calls his people to.
Paul was an Apostle, of course, and our calling is not identical to his, to be sure. But God works through his whole church to reconcile the world to himself.
It is easy for us to see the world, or at least certain segments of the world, as hostile to our God and therefore hostile to us. And often they are. But Paul sees God’s response as reaching out to the world in Christ, and offering reconciliation. Do we see God that way?
Our world right now is increasingly shaped by a vision that sees those who oppose us, in any setting, as monsters we must destroy rather than enemies we should seek reconciliation with. Each political movement in our country easily identifies those “other people” who must be stopped, who must be defeated. Cultural disputes are no longer matters for discussion or debate, but battles where each side tries to crush the other through the courts and the law. Islamic terrorists see secular Westerners as enemies to be eliminated, while many secular Westerners see Muslims in about the same way.
Now, my point is not to say there are no win/lose situations, or to deny some of the realities of domestic politics or national security. My point is that we are used to seeing our opponents in terms of containment or elimination rather than reconciliation.
We are used to seeing our enemies like zombies. Have you ever seen a zombie movie? You don’t reconcile with zombies. You don’t try to win them over to your side. You can’t cure them from their disease. All you can do is contain them or eliminate them.
But Paul says that how God relates to the world is different. He relates to it as a physician relates to a deeply sick world, a hostile world to be sure, but one that can be cured. And he sees us, his Church, the institution founded through his Apostles, as his medical mission. A mission of goodwill to offer both reconciliation and healing through Christ. And Paul says if we love our God, this is how we will relate to the world as well. We will get caught up in this ministry. If we devote ourselves to Christ, we will also devote ourselves to the life of those around us.
Now, this doesn’t mean we become foolish. For one, it doesn’t mean we let down our guard. The world IS a hostile place; that is why it needs reconciliation! We must be on guard. But we must step out nonetheless. God did. Paul did. How should we?
It also doesn’t mean we spread the gospel in foolish, cookie-cutter ways. Paul, in the book of Acts, was careful, thoughtful, and sensitive to every individual in how he shared the gospel. It was not a one-size-fits-all approach. He showed the love of God in a variety of ways, depending on the need, and he presented the gospel in a variety of ways, depending on the people.
But what should it look like for us? We can start thinking about those close to us, of course. Family, children, friends, fellow church members. How can we love them? How can we preach the gospel to them in word and deed?
But then it also calls us beyond those safe circles. Jesus stepped out of his throne room. Paul stepped out of his safe Jewish world. Where might God be calling us to step out? Where might he be calling us to be agents of reconciliation, ambassadors of the gospel? Where might he be calling us to love our neighbors, with a love that is motivated by our love for God?
We take these things one step at a time. They are not easy. We do not want to move foolishly.
But Paul reminds us of the inseparability of our love for God and love for neighbors, both near and far. Let us not pursue the safe kind of love of neighbors, that is pleasant and comfortable, but ultimately self-serving, and refuses to direct that neighbor towards God.
Let us also not follow the error of Paul’s opponents and pursue a love for God that is separated from love of neighbor, or that only connects to us loving those we already like and feel safe around. Let us not pursue a love of God that is really just about self-comfort, and self-improvement, and that helps us have the kind of family or life we personally want. Such a love for God turns out shallow, and collapses into our love of self.
Let us instead look to our Lord. Let us see his love for his world. Let us see the love that motivated him to die for us. Let us see his love that desires the reconciliation of the world to himself. And let us ask where we fit into that mission. Let us ask how we can likewise pursue the love of God with one hand, and the love of our neighbor with the other, that the two might meet, thereby pointing upward to our God and away from ourselves.
This sermon draws on material from:
Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
Bruce, F. F. 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, CO: Eerdmans, 1971.
Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Sources for illustrations and examples:
Duncan, John. Quote from Recollections of the Late John Duncan, L.L.D.: Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages, New College, Edinburgh. Compiled by Alexander Moody Stuart. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1872. Accessed online: https://books.google.com/books?id=mYUXAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA212&ots=0-1Zm6xU2g&dq=arch%20antinomy%20left%20pressure%20right%20pressure&pg=PA212#v=onepage&q=arch%20antinomy%20left%20pressure%20right%20pressure&f=false
Giles, Rhiannon. “The Dishes Can Wait and Other Lies.” The Huffington Post. Posted March 24, 21016. Accessed at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-dishes-can-wait-and-other-lies_b_9292628 [Contains coarse language.]
Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis. New York, NY: Inspirational Press, 1994. (p. 239-240)