The God of love and peace be with you

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.

2 Corinthians 13:11

I’m currently working my way through a massive pile of Common Entrance examination marking. My Year 8s are sitting their mock exams this week, and it’s fallen upon me to mark the evidence section of the History exam. Most of them are pretty good, but there are some that could be better. What I find particularly dispiriting is that some of my pupils, having been taught by me for two and a half years, still aren’t following advice on how to answer the questions. It pains me to read through work that could be so much better if only the child concerned had listened to my advice. Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. Maybe the advice that seems simple and straight forward to me is not easy for a thirteen year old child to follow. Perhaps it’s not as easy as I think it is!

That’s similar to how I feel about the verse above. I’ve just finished reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Towards the end of this letter he offers this parting guidance to his recipients. Strive for full restoration, he says, encourage one another, be of one mind, and live in peace. This is good advice that we should all try to follow. Upon first reading, it struck me as a simple instruction that would help us as we strive to live as citizens of God’s kingdom. On further reflection, though, these instructions don’t seem quite so straightforward.

Firstly, we have the question of what “striving for full restoration” even means. The New International Readers’ Version of the Bible has this as “try to be perfect,” which seems to take up Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:48, to “be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Suddenly Paul’s request doesn’t seem quite so straightforward! How can we possibly be perfect? Surely that’s impossible? Well, yes, it probably is whilst we live in a fallen world afflicted with sin, but it certainly shows that we should set our sights high as we strive to live for God! It certainly shows that we need to take our faith seriously, and aim to live as Jesus did. We need to try to live out our lives as if the fall had never happened, as if sin had never entered the world.

Perhaps Paul recognised just how difficult this instruction was, since his next request was that the Corinthians “encourage one another.” This brings to mind a verse that I particularly like, Hebrews 3:13, which says, “but encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” As we aim for perfection, or full restoration, we should be able to rely on the support and encouragement of other Christians, our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a two way street, though. If we are to rely on the support of other Christians, we need to ensure that we are playing our part in the support network of the Christian church, and are encouraging those around us in their daily lives. I don’t think that it is particularly common for Christians to do this. I know of some churches where they encourage members to ask each other how their “journey of faith” is at the moment, but in my view this kind of questioning is not particularly helpful, since answers tend to be mainly half truths or attempts to brush away the question as quickly as possible. Other churches and Christian groups encourage “accountability partnerships,” in which two or three people agree to hold each other accountable, particularly in areas of their life that might see a particular struggle against a specific sin. Such partnerships can be invaluable, but are generally focused inwards rather than outwards, to the wider body of Christ, to others in the Church. Perhaps if we are to adhere to Paul’s exhortation we need first to build tighter bonds within and between Churches, and to deepen our relationships with other Christians. Perhaps this is the only way in which we will be able to effectively “encourage one another.”

Paul’s next instruction is to “be of one mind.” It doesn’t take even a second glance to understand that this plea is difficult. Very difficult indeed. The Church is heavily fragmented around the world. Different denominations exist that put a particular spin on some scripture – or even on what scripture actually is. Even within a single congregation there will be differences of opinion, theologically, theoretically, practically. Should we baptise (christen?) babies? Should gay people be allowed to marry? Has God predestined some people to go to heaven, and others not? Should we have PG Tips or Tetley tea? I’ve heard some Christians urge “unity, but not at any cost.” I’ve heard others say, “unity is only necessary around the key points of the Gospel.” But what if we can’t decide what the key elements of the Gospel actually are? Perhaps we need to accept that being “of one mind” is fraught with difficulties, but if it is a plea in God’s word, we need to try to do our best-to talk to people we disagree with, to establish why we disagree, and reflect on if and how we can “be of one mind.” Perhaps we need to look for areas of agreement and work together in those areas and see where that gets us. Perhaps, most of all, we should pray for the Holy Spirit to move through God’s people and help us to “be of one mind.”

“Living in peace” clearly has a link to the instruction to “be of one mind.” Understanding each other, and striving for unity and agreement will clearly help us as we strive to live in peace. If we can’t manage to live in peace with our fellow Christians, it will be very hard for us to be God’s messengers of peace to the wider world.

The final section of this verse must be more straight forward. “And the God of love and peace will be with you.” A simple statement, surely? But is Paul saying that if we do these things then the God of love and peace will be with us? Or is he saying that the God of love and peace will be with us as we strive to do these things? It depends, I suppose, on if you think that we have to work to earn God’s favour, or if you believe that he freely bestows his blessings upon us, even if we do not deserve them. Personally, I believe very strongly in the latter. God loves all his people and showers his love and peace upon us all.

If God is with us, then perhaps we might be able to make a stab at following Paul’s instructions after all. Otherwise, just as my guidance to my pupils might at first seem easy to follow, the exhortations that Paul urges the Corinthians to adhere to, which at first glance look straightforward, might be rather more difficult than we thought.

The judgement seat of Christ

For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

2 Corinthians 5:10

A few years ago, I had my only run in with the law – to date! It was a very minor incident, so please don’t think I’m about to tell you anything particularly exciting! I was driving out of London heading to Sussex on the A23, when I appear to have inadvertently entered a bus lane. I didn’t even realise I had done it until a week or so later, I got a letter telling me I had to pay a fine, with a picture of my car in a bus lane! It seemed pretty conclusive. I had broken the law, so I paid the £60 fine and tried to forget my first motoring offence. That’s how the law operates in most countries – if you break the law, you take the punishment. Provided the laws are just, it’s a fair system that for the most part works very well.

In today’s verse, we see that we are all to appear before Jesus Christ to account for our actions. The Bible lays down the code that we should live by, and, since the code is fair and just, we must be prepared to pay the consequences if we do not live by it. If we have done bad things whilst “in the body,” we will have to account for those actions to Jesus when the day of judgement comes. Jesus will also judge us for all the good things that we have done – the instances of when we have followed the code God has given us.

This might seem to present a rather bleak picture. We all fall short of God’s expectations. We all disobey him, and break his rules and laws. As a consequence, we might expect to be punished for our actions. As Christians, however, if we accept Jesus is our saviour, he has taken that punishment for us. When we stand before Jesus on judgement day, we can stand firm in the knowledge that whilst we are not worthy to approach God on our own merits, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we can do so.

Give thanks today that in Jesus we have a fair judge. Praise God even more, though, that Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and taken the punishment that we deserve in our place.

Be Separate

“Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”

2 Corinthians 6:17

Yesterday evening I had a bath, and whilst I was in the bath I watched ‘Gavin and Stacey’ on the BBC’s iPlayer. After my bath, no doubt inspired by an integral part of the sit com’s story, I felt like getting an Indian takeaway, so I duly drove to my local. Whilst there, I saw an advert for a new gym that has opened in town, and so went to have a look. Although I do need to exercise more, I thought that rather than joining a new gym, I should make better use of my membership at my local swimming pool.

I’m always surprised these days that when you go swimming, you have to have a shower before you get into the pool. I don’t remember having to do that when I was a child. I guess it’s a good idea, though, since it washes all the dirt and grime off our bodies before we get into the nice, clean swimming pool.

In today’s reading, Paul emphasises one of the verses from our current Isaiah reading (Isaiah 52:11). He tells Christians that we should come out from unbelievers, that we should separate ourselves from them, and that we should touch no unclean thing. It sounds rather difficult, especially if, as most Christians do, we have friends who are not Christians! The point Paul is making, though, is that if we spend time with people who do not follow God’s path of righteousness, we risk being drawn into their sin, and being tainted by it, when we should be striving to lead pure and blameless lives. Just as a dirty person getting into a swimming pool can dirty the water and spoil it for those people who appreciate a nice, clean pool, so mingling with people who freely sin without thought of the consequences can make our thoughts, words or actions impure. It can sometimes be necessary, then, to take a stand; to not involve ourselves with people who might cause us to sin, or who might take us to an environment in which sin is routinely committed.

It’s very difficult, and I know that I am just as much at fault at this as the next person. Ultimately, it’s worth it, though. The Lord promises to receive us if we follow these three commands.