2 Corinthians 2:16b-3:3
October 11, 2015
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
Pastor Steven Nicoletti
This evening we are continuing to look at Second Corinthians, in an occasional series I began this past summer.
Backing up a couple verses from where we left off, we will begin with the second half of verse 16 in chapter two.
Now, to refresh your memory, up to this point in Second Corinthians, Paul began by speaking of suffering and comfort. He then went into a defense and explanation of his past actions, his directions for an ongoing situation in Corinth, and a description of his ministry.
In much of this he is dealing directly or indirectly with opponents of his in Corinth. These are opponents who are questioning Paul’s authority. They are claiming to be above him. They are saying their ministry is superior to his. And Paul is defending himself against this. It is in light of that dispute that Paul writes our text for tonight.
With that in mind, let’s hear from our text, 2 Corinthians 2:16b-3:3. Please listen carefully, for this is God’s word –
Speaking of his ministry, Paul writes:
2:16b Who is sufficient for these things? 17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
3:1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. 3 And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
This is God’s Word.
As I said earlier, Paul is dealing with the question of how to evaluate the authenticity and genuineness of an apostle. Paul’s opponents have suggested one way to evaluate the genuineness of an apostle, and in our text Paul disputes the criteria they have set up. He says the Corinthians are asking the wrong questions when they try to evaluate whether someone is an apostle. And for Paul, this is not just a technical matter. It actually has deep spiritual implications.
Paul says that there are two opposing approaches for evaluating whether someone is a genuine apostle. But for Paul, these are not just two different apostle tests – it’s not just like the difference between the SAT and the ACT. They’re not just two different methods. For Paul they represent two very different approaches to life and to how we think about ourselves. They represent two very different approaches to spirituality, and to our relationship with God.
And I would like to contend tonight, that if we look at ourselves closely, we can each find both of these approaches operating in our hearts and minds. But what we will learn from Paul is that one approach is good, and the other is not. One is valid, and one is fairly problematic.
And so while in the immediate context of the text Paul is dealing with the question of evaluating spiritual leaders, what he has to say about it applies to us as well. And tonight I want to look at how these two opposing approaches to spirituality are at work in each one of us.
So that is where we are going tonight.
Now, to approach this text rightly, we must remember the central question at hand. It is a question of assessment. How do we assess someone? How do we evaluate someone?
And maybe more importantly for us: When we evaluate ourselves, where do we look? When you evaluate yourself, what do you look to?
I would argue that quite often, when we evaluate ourselves, we look to outward commendations and accomplishments. To outward commendations and accomplishments. Now, what do I mean by that?
Well, we can start by seeing how that idea is at work in our text. In verse one, Paul points to two problematic approaches to proving the authenticity of an apostle: self-commendation, and letters of recommendation written in ink.
Paul asserts that he is not doing the first, and he points out that the second has been the approach of his opponents. In fact his opponents rely heavily on these letters of commendation. In verse one Paul implies that his opponents not only used letters of commendation to prove themselves to the Corinthians, but that they then in turn wanted letters of commendation from the Corinthians for when they left to go on to the next city.
In other words, Paul’s opponents treated the spirituality of an apostle like any other kind of career advancement. You did some work here, got a commendation, moved to the next task, and you worked your way up the ranks by earning and gathering commendations.
For Paul’s opponents, spirituality is about acquiring and collecting these commendations – like merit badges. And if anyone questioned your spirituality, you could point to these commendations or accomplishments to prove yourself. And if you didn’t have those commendations, then your authenticity was suspect.
But Paul takes issue with this. Paul says that this is not how Christian spirituality should be evaluated – and therefore not how our spiritual energy should be directed.
In the introduction to his book The Road to Character, David Brooks discusses a similar issue in our culture when it comes to thinking about virtue.
Brooks puts it like this – he writes:
“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.
“Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the resume virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is too – the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.” [xi]
Brooks uses these categories of resume virtues and eulogy virtues, and I’d like to take them and build on them – and actually use them a bit more broadly than Brooks does.
What we see in Paul’s opponents is that they treat spirituality like building a resume. And a resume is about self-promotion and about acquiring commendations. Building a resume is about listing all of your measurable accomplishments, all of the tasks you have completed, all of the praise you have received.
And that is how Paul’s opponents treat the question of apostleship.
And it is how we often approach spirituality.
And it shouldn’t surprise us that we do that. As Brooks points out in several places, our culture has encouraged us – has shaped us – to live life as resume builders. And it has often made us into people who do that not just in the job market, but in all areas of life.
And we need to step back and reflect on that. Because this resume-building mentality shapes not only how we evaluate ourselves, but how we orient and direct our energy and our life.
One of the reasons it is so tempting to approach life in terms of resume-building is because items on a resume seem more manageable – more objective and documentable. We can take a look at a list and know if we are adequate or not with just a glance.
So we begin to think in those terms. And we begin to live like Paul’s opponents – constantly presenting our past letters of commendation and gathering new ones.
Now, these habits can be public or private. It can be something we do in front of others, or something that just goes on in our head – in our private thoughts, when we ask ourselves how we really measure up.
We begin to acquire this habit early on. It happens in school, and often when we begin working. In these domains the way we get ahead is to gather commendations, and eventually to literally put together our resume. And actually, such an approach is necessary and right in these areas of life.
But then each of us – especially in our culture – is tempted to extend this approach to all of life.
I think that social media can be a great revealer of this.
Now, I don’t know how much social media shapes us into people who do this, versus how much it just reveals publically that we are all already doing this in our heads. I suspect it is a bit of both.
But social media is a great revealer of this because on social media we tend to take the parts of life most unfit for a resume and sort of turn it into a resume.
Think about our social lives, for example. That’s not something you might think of right away as a list of accomplishments, or a tally of commendations. But on social media it often is. On social media we take our social events – whether attending a concert, going to a restaurant, or having coffee with a friend – and we publish them for all to see. And then we can tally how many people commend it – how many people “like” it. And so we not only take our social gatherings and broadcast them to others to show them what we have done, but now we can quantify just how much social approval each event earns from other people.
Family life is another example. A family meal or a special outing between a married couple is not usually thought of as a resume-building activity. But many of us feel the need to picture and post such meals on social media. A cute craft with kids, a special outing with a child – social media gives us the ability to publish these events and receive commendation for them.
Now – I don’t mean to pick on anyone who does these things. I do these things too. I really do. And if you also post these types of things, I’m not saying you are worse than those who don’t use social media. What I am saying, is that as a culture, social media shows that we all are tempted to treat life this way – whether we actually use social media or not. We are all tempted to treat life as an unending resume building project.
On social media it is revealed publically what each of us is doing in our heads so much of the time: We are each building a resume. We are each listing our objective accomplishments, our social connections, our clever comments, our parenting victories, and we are seeing how much praise we can get, tallying it all up, constantly adding to the list, constantly refining the resume, constantly striving to prove we are the best candidate … but none of us really know what it is we are applying for.
And yet we often cannot stop the impulse to think this way. The impulse to tally up our accomplishments and failures. The impulse to compare them to what we imagine others are doing.
But what is it for? What really is the goal? Where does the process end? We’re not really sure. But we keep building the resume. We keep updating it, whether it is online, on paper, or mostly in our heads. And we keep using it to evaluate ourselves.
And more often than not, in our own eyes especially, when we look at that all-of-life resume, we feel we come up short.
Brooks puts it this way – he writes:
“People subtly start comparing themselves to other people’s highlight reels, and of course they feel inferior.” 
We compare ourselves to other people’s highlight reels. And in a sense people have always done that. Many do it today on the internet. But people have always done it in the privacy of their own thoughts. And we do it as well.
And so, we tend to live our lives as resume-builders. And when it comes to the big questions in life – to a holistic evaluation of our life lived before God – whether out loud with others, or in our minds as we lay in bed at night, we turn to quantifiable accomplishments and commendations to answer the question of who we are and how we have done. We write a resume – with ink, with pixels, or just in our own minds. And we pass or we fail.
What does that look like for you? How do you construct that all-of-life resume? When do you review it? And what verdict do you most frequently come to about yourself?
In our text tonight, Paul tells us that this approach is not the best way to make a spiritual evaluation. In fact this is a deeply flawed way to make a spiritual evaluation.
Now – resumes, and letters of recommendation written in ink, and commendations of various kinds all have their place. Paul actually makes use of such letters in 1 Corinthians 16 – in a very different context than what we are dealing with in our text tonight. So they do have a place.
But the place of resumes and letters of commendation are in starting a relationship – not in drawing a final verdict on a person. And that is true whether we are talking about apostleship, as in our text, or reflecting on our spiritual lives, or on our lives as a whole.
A resume is not the proper basis of a verdict on our lives, and as a result, living our lives like resume-builders is a serious mistake.
So if we are not to look to our lists of accomplishments – if we are not to look to our commendations, then what should we look to to evaluate ourselves? And subsequently, how should we orient our lives?
Paul says we should look to our real investments in real people.
Paul directs us to consider how our lives have affected and are affecting other people.
And in a sense, this is how Paul seeks to authenticate his apostleship to the Corinthians. He points to the Christians in Corinth as his letter of recommendation.
That is Paul’s approach. That is Paul’s orientation. That is Paul’s understanding of what it means to serve Jesus.
Paul looks to how he has affected other people.
Let’s take some time to reflect on that and how it plays out in our text to better understand it.
Let’s note five things we can see from Paul in this text about what it means to look to our loving investment in real people as a way of evaluating ourselves:
First, it overlaps with what Jesus says in Matthew 7 about evaluating people by their fruits, and in John 13 about knowing that people are followers of Christ based on their love for one another. Paul alludes to a common principle. And in the same way as it is when Jesus talks about fruit and love, this is a criteria that takes time to show up. Fruit takes time to grow. Love takes time to prove itself. Investment in others takes time to have an effect. The resume-building approach looks for a quickly acquirable list of commendations, accomplishments, or failures. But investing in other people takes time.
Second, we see that lovingly investing in others is both subjective and objective. In our text, while Paul states in verse two that his loving investment in the Corinthians is written on his heart, he seems to say that it is written on their hearts in verse three, and he also says that it is visible to everyone, in verse two. There is both a subjective and an objective component to this loving investment. In other words, on the one hand, it is not merely external. It is not merely a list of deeds Paul did for them, but it is something written on his own heart, and something that became written on the hearts of those he loved as well. On the other hand it is not merely a sentiment. Paul says it was visible to all. That means there was a visible, objective component to it. There were outward deeds of love. It was not one thing or the other – it was both. Real loving investment in others is both internal and subjective on the one hand, and external and objective on the other hand.
Third, this letter written on hearts, this loving investment in others, was written by the Holy Spirit. We see that in verse three. That means it was not a simple task Paul could do on his own. It was not self-produced. It was actually a product of God working through Paul. This kind of letter written on hearts is evidence not of how capable we are, but of the fact that God is at work through us. It is not something we earn, but something God does.
Fourth, this criteria is not easily quantifiable. How do you evaluate the fruit of Paul’s ministry? How do you evaluate his effect on the Corinthians? The process is more like evaluating a meal than it is like totaling a spreadsheet. It is more like evaluating a musical performance than it is like adding up merits and demerits on a check-list. Such criteria requires a palate more than a calculator.
Fifth, and finally, the kind of fruit Paul points to is always imperfect. Paul is asked for his credentials and he points to the Corinthian church – the Corinthian church! The Corinthian church, if you read First and Second Corinthians, is a mess. It has all sorts of problems. It is not a shining example of what we all want our church to be like. And yet, the Corinthian church is Paul’s fruit. And Paul declares here that it is good fruit. Definitely not perfect fruit, but still good fruit.
And so instead of a list of achievements, commendations, and quantifiable measurements, Paul points to how he has affected others. He points to his loving investment in other people. Unlike a quickly assembled resume, Paul points to fruit that takes time to show up in other people. Unlike an abstract list of accomplishments, Paul points to fruit that is both objective and subjective in the lives of others. Unlike a self-sufficient and self-aggrandizing commendation, Paul points to fruit he could not produce by himself, but where he had to rely heavily on God to work in both him and other people. Unlike a series of numerical measurements and test scores, Paul points to fruit that cannot be easily quantified. And unlike a glowing letter of recommendation, Paul pointed to fruit that was obviously, on its face, imperfect.
Paul’s approach to evaluating spirituality is very different from the resume-building approach we are often tempted to take.
Paul’s approach looks more like what David Brooks has in mind when he points to how different it is to build a eulogy rather than a resume.
No one lists a person’s test scores in a eulogy. We all know that a good eulogy of a life well lived will not be a collection of titles and commendations. It will not be a series of abstract or objective measurements. It will be about how they have affected those around them. How they have lovingly invested in friends and family. How they have lovingly served others. How they have changed other people’s lives. And those kinds of effects are rarely achieved through grand gestures. Sometimes they are. But more often they are brought about through common and persistent loving actions. Regular concern for another person’s heart. Ordinary acts of faithfulness. Like daily watering and weeding, it is this that produces a beautiful life that reflects Christ in the long run.
And a fruit tree is another good picture of this. It is one thing to take a fruit tree and measure its trunk, or examine its root structure, or look at the number of branches it has. But this is just an initial evaluation. This is just a resume-like evaluation. This is all that Paul’s opponents want to do. This is often all that we want to focus on. But the real question is whether the tree will grow fruit, and how that fruit will taste. That is what Paul wants us to look for when he directs our attention to the fruit of lovingly investing in other people.
For another example of this difference, you could consider myself and Pastor Rayburn. Now, don’t panic – I am going somewhere alright with this. A little over two years ago a search committee from this church evaluated me to decide whether they should call me here as an assistant pastor or not. And one of the things they looked at was that I graduated from seminary. And with that, they were interested in things like how I did there, what my GPA was, and such. I was starting out, and so my seminary diploma was very important to me. You know you can go into Pastor Rayburn’s office and his seminary diploma, from the same school that I went to, is hanging on the wall in his office. But really his diploma is not very important anymore. It was an important resume item once, but now that it has produced the fruit it was supposed to, it’s not as important in itself. Now that one can look to 37 years of faithful ministry, to the lives of real people that have been changed, and to a church that has been shaped over the course of decades, by his faithful, loving investment in real people – now that you can see that, the commendation of a seminary degree is of much less importance. In fact, if a pastor was still asserting his authenticity as a pastor by appealing to his seminary degree 37 years into his ministry, something is probably seriously wrong.
And so it is with us. Credentials, objective accomplishments, individual deeds and commendations all have their place. But they are all meant to be a means towards an end – like a good trunk on a fruit tree is supposed to be a means towards producing fruit, or a seminary degree is supposed to be a means towards a successful ministry.
Paul’s opponents have taken a means and made it their final goal. Paul has corrected them. And in doing so, he corrects us.
Paul would not have us look to our resumes to evaluate ourselves – whether it be our career-related resume, our family-related resume, our spiritually-related resume, or something else. He wants us to look towards the fruit. And in looking towards the fruit, he wants us to work towards the fruit. And the fruit is blessing other people. Working towards the fruit is lovingly investing in other people.
What does this look like?
It means putting people before our prestige. It means valuing our co-workers not just for what we get from them, but caring for them as people. It means a concern for the good of those we minister to, and not just a desire to receive praise from them. It means we try to find ways to lovingly invest in our spouse, rather than treating them and their accomplishments like a merit or demerit on our personal resume. It means approaching parenting not as a lists of tasks we need to complete to justify ourselves as good parents, but as a daily, difficult, and never perfect investment we make in the members of our family so that they might flourish. It means pouring ourselves into our children for the long-term, rather than treating them like badges of honor when they do well, or marks of shame when they are imperfect. It means not just finding friends who boost our social status, but making friends who we want to care for and give ourselves to.
It means putting away the calculator we are using to constantly try to tally up our own worth, to constantly measure how we stack up to others, and loving others instead. It means household tasks are done not primarily to prove that we are good enough, but to bless those in our family. It means that the things we do, the things we say, the tasks we complete and the care we give, are not about us – but about the other person. It means we live our lives trying to cultivate fruit, rather than comparing the number of branches on our tree versus on the next one. It means we think of life more like cultivating a eulogy which will come from the hearts of the people who know us, and less like crafting a resume that lists our good deeds with paper and ink.
As we think about it, most of us will admit that this is how we would like to live our lives. But it is not easy. And as we seek to orient our lives this way, we need to keep a few things in mind.
First of all, this kind of fruit takes time. It is like starting a farm. Do not plant on Monday and expect to reap on Tuesday. This kind of fruit requires days of ordinary faithfulness, which turn into weeks, which turn into months, which turn into years, which turn into decades. You are not working on a resume, you are working on a eulogy. It takes a lifetime.
Second, we need to remember that we will regularly – we will daily – be tempted to revert to resume-building, especially when we feel threatened, when we feel insecure, when we fail. When you feel inadequate, you will want to go back to thinking of your life like a resume. You need to be ready to combat that. You need to be ready to reorient yourself again and again.
Third, this kind of fruit is always imperfect. It will NEVER be what you want it to be. Your kids will never be perfect fruit. Your spouse will never be perfect fruit. Your friends will never be perfect fruit. The people you minister to, who you pour yourself into, will never be perfect fruit. But whenever you are ashamed or embarrassed or angry that your kids, or your spouse, or your friends, or those you serve, are still imperfect, remember that Paul’s fruit was the Corinthians. And remember that Jesus’s fruit is YOU. And you are not perfect.
And that brings us to the fourth and final thing we need to keep in mind as we try to live this way. How do we handle the fact that our fruit is never what we want it to be? How do we handle our failures? What do we do when we feel like we are not good enough? What do we do when we try to follow Paul’s advice, and pour our lives into other people, but we know we are not up to the task?
It is then that we need to remember that WE are Christ’s letter of recommendation to the world. We are the fruit of HIS ministry.
Jesus says as much in John 17. In John 17:13 Jesus says that the unity and love between God’s people will be the way that the world knows that Jesus was sent by God. He essentially says that the church is his letter of recommendation to the world.
This means a few things. It means that Jesus is at work in us to make us more and more able to do these things – to love others well. It means that Christ already loves us and has claimed us as his own. And the fact that he loves us, the fact that we are already his, frees us from frantically trying to justify ourselves and prove our value. We do not need to justify ourselves because we can rely on God’s justification of us. We do not need to earn acceptance because we already have it in Christ. We can stop frantically filling out the resume in our head because Christ has already accepted us. And because of that, we can see our calling to lovingly invest in others as a mission given by a loving God, and not as a project to construct the basis for our justification.
And with that in mind we can do this. Like Paul, we can rely on God’s help. Like Paul, we can value both the objective and subjective aspects of investing in others. Like Paul we can see the value in the good but imperfect fruit God will produce through our work.
If our focus is on self-justification, then our grasping at commendations and accomplishments is really all about us and proving ourselves.
Instead Paul directs us to pour ourselves into other people – NOT to justify ourselves, but to imitate our God, who has poured himself into us.
And investing in another human being is the most lasting fruit there really is. It’s a more long-term investment than any accomplishment or commendation.
In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” which I’ve quoted from the pulpit here before, C. S. Lewis argues that one of our biggest problems when it comes to relating to other human beings is that we forget that they will last for eternity. We forget the basic Christian doctrine that every human will either be incredibly glorified for all eternity, or, if they reject God, will turn grotesquely inward on themselves for all of eternity.
Lewis puts it this way – he writes:
“The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
What is Lewis saying? Nations rise and fall. Institutions and cultures come and go. But individual human beings will last forever. Their lives stretch on into eternity.
Our heavenly Father has made it so, and as a result he has invested himself in people. He has invested himself in us.
Trusting in his love for us and acceptance of us, let us imitate him, and do likewise – pouring ourselves into others as Christ poured himself into us.
This sermon draws especially on material from:
Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
Illustrations are Drawn From:
Brooks, David. The Road to Character.
Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory.