We really are blessed. And as if to remind us not to take that blessing for granted, our epistle for this morning gives us a glimpse of Paul’s troubled relationship with the Christian congregation he founded at Corinth.
We can’t know the whole story. But we know a good bit.
On his first trip to Corinth, Paul spent a year and a half at the city—a long time for him. He established a relatively large and flourishing Christian community. But soon after Paul left, things got complicated.
Now is not the time to go through all the complications. Suffice it to say, there were rival factions in the Church, divided leadership, genuine confusion about the Christian gospel and life, and deep personal conflicts.
Paul couldn’t go in person, so he tried to resolve the conflicts by letter. You can probably guess how that went. Not well! We don’t have the Corinthians’ answer to Paul’s letter. But Paul’s feelings were clearly hurt by some of the things they said.
And so in our reading for this morning, we get this: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.”
Paul thinks of the Corinthians as his children in the faith, as himself as their father in Christ. But where there should be affection, there is estrangement.
Probably we all have experienced something like that. In maybe 9th grade, David Haas was one of my best friends. We did all the things that good friends do. Then the next year, we didn’t. We didn’t fight. We just drifted apart. At some point a year or two later, I remember looking at my erstwhile friend and longing for our old intimacy.
I wasn’t mature enough to act on that longing. Paul was. In our reading Paul makes himself vulnerable. Paul expresses his affection and his longing for their love.
We don’t know how the Corinthians responded to this appeal. But there is reason to speculate that they were reconciled with Paul. By contrast, my friend and I were not. We lost touch after high school, and I haven’t seen him since. That’s OK. Ours was a brief friendship.
But sometimes we feel that unfulfilled longing for intimacy and honesty in the relationships that matter most.
I recently read a book by Ira Byock, a doctor who attends people at the very end of their lives. He says the primary concern of the overwhelming majority of people as they face their own deaths is their important relationships. And, again in the overwhelming majority of cases, they had unfinished business. They had work to do to make things right. Like Paul, they needed to open their hearts and find some way to invite others to do the same.
That is what Dr. Byock’s book is about. He identifies four things that need to be said in virtually every relationship, even the best ones. (1) I forgive you. (2) Will you forgive me? (3) Thank you. And (4) I love you.
In healthy relationships, people have said—or at least communicated somehow—all four along the way. Even then it can be hard. But the stories Byock tells are mostly about dysfunctional relationships where expressing forgiveness, gratitude and love seem virtually impossible. He describes a daughter sexually abused by her father, a son neglected by his father, a husband repeatedly betrayed by his wife.
Now the “guilty” party is dying. In each case, Byock encouraged the surviving partner to say the four things: forgive me; I forgive you; thank you; I love you. All three resisted. How could they possibly say those things? How could they forgive or thank or love the people who have hurt them so badly?
The story that stuck with me was the son who had been so neglected by his father. The son did not owe his father anything. And no one should feel any obligation to submit to abuse or to condone it.
So, should the son make himself vulnerable? Why should Paul open his heart to the Corinthians? Why would we consider opening our hearts to people in our lives who may not deserve it and may not reciprocate?
Byock answers that it is the best way to experience true emotional healing.
In this case, the neglected son opened his heart to his father. He apologized for not being the kind of son his father wanted. He acknowledged his regret that he and his father had never had the kind of relationship they both longed for. He even expressed a hesitant love for the man his father could have been and never quite was.
And it worked. I don’t mean that his father responded appropriately. I mean the son experienced healing and growth. After his conversation with his father, he told Dr. Byock that he felt freed from a huge burden he had not realized he was carrying. He said that he became aware of ways he was repeating in his own family the destructive patterns he had learned from his father. He said working on his relationship with his father liberated him to be a better father and a better human being.
Byock leaves it there. But as Christians, we can fill in the story.
God’s grace and love is what drives reconciliation. God’s grace and love makes the whole impossible thing possible.
God’s grace and love empowered Paul to open his heart to the Corinthians.
God’s grace and love gave Byock’s young man the strength to open up to his father. God’s grace and love healed that young man of some of his bitterness so that he could approach his father and experience even more healing. God’s grace and love gave that young man the strength to forgive and even love his father. In the process, God’s grace and love opened this young man up to grace-filled and loving life.
That same grace and love empowers us to do the same, to open our hearts to the people around us, to reach out in love even to those who don’t deserve it, to live lives of forgiveness, gratitude, and love.
That is already a valuable lesson.
But we can take it a step farther and apply it even to our relationship with God.
Sometimes we don’t feel all that grateful to God. Sometimes we don’t feel all that loving to God. Sometimes it even seems like God needs our forgiveness, and we don’t want to give it. We look at our world and we look at what is happening in our lives and in the lives of the people we love, and we get angry at God who doesn’t seem to be doing much about it.
In those times, everything that Byock says about our important human relationships applies even more to our relationships with God. Even when we don’t much feel like opening our hearts to God, maybe especially when we don’t feel like opening our hearts to God, we should work at it. We should do what we can to cultivate our repentance, and our gratitude, and our love, and even our forgiveness. That’s our part. And God’s grace takes it from there, and we can know reconciliation and healing and love. We can know a new and deeper intimacy with God and with the important people in our lives. And that is a blessing indeed.
Thanks be to God. Amen.