Rev. DeeAnne Lowman, Associate Pastor
“Living in the Faith”
Sunday, May 18, 2008
2 Corinthians 13:5-13
Throughout my ministry I’ve heard people talk about the tests that God has given them in life. I am reminded of my grandmother’s favorite scripture passage – also from the Apostle Paul – Romans chapter 5. Paul wrote that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.[i] I always appreciated his perspective that suffering leads to hope, but not directly. Hope is not a direct result of suffering; rather it draws hope to us as we go through the experiences of life. As we live in the faith of peace with God, we live also with the realities of our earthly bodies. In Romans Paul is asking us to endure so that we might have hope, not so that we can have a reason for suffering.
The passage from 2 Corinthians that we’ve just heard is talking about a different source of tests – not life’s pop quizzes or more serious occurrences like illnesses or hardships that arise and help us to uncover a sense of hope, but testing ourselves to ensure that we are living as Jesus taught and Paul wrote about. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith.” This is not the kind of examination that occurs as a result of external events, but rather a testing of ourselves and how we measure up to who we say we are.
It appears that part of the reason Paul wrote
this letter was that he was going to be visiting soon and he didn’t want to
have to admonish them while he was there. He wanted to have a good visit with
the people. That makes sense for us as
well, particularly for those of us who live far removed from the daily
contact with our own families. We want
the visits that we have with family and friends to be good. Unlike Paul, however, it is not recommended
that we issue such decrees when we go to visit. Rather, it is probably helpful for us to
take a look at what Paul recommends to the church at
At the end of the letter, the Apostle provides a short list of how one might check oneself and make sure one is continuing to live in the faith. This is not a test to be applied to others by us, but a check on ourselves to make sure we are living as a true disciple of Jesus. Living in the faith is different than living the faith. If we are living in the faith – the Way as the Gospel writer John might have put it – we are enveloped in and surrounded by the state of grace and love and mercy. How we live in that place is the struggle, the challenge. If we practice the testing of ourselves, it can change the way we live with one another, and help us adjudicate the differences that arise in our relationships. Here’s the short list.
First: put things in order. Make sure that part of your examination of your life includes getting your personal stuff together. Look to the choices of your own living and make sure they match with what you believe God is hoping for you and what you want for yourself. Getting your stuff together also might entail ridding yourself of stuff as well. Many of us hold onto things and situations that keep us from truly see what life has to offer us.
There is a wonderful little story about two monks who lived together in a monastery for many years; they were great friends. Then they died within a few months of one another.
One of them got reborn in the heaven realms, the other monk got reborn as a worm in a dung pile. The one up in the heaven realms was having a wonderful time, enjoying all the heavenly pleasures. But he started thinking about his friend, “I wonder where my old mate has gone?” So he scanned all of the heaven realms, but could not find a trace of his friend. Then he scanned the realm of human beings, but he could not see any trace of his friend there, so he looked in the realm of animals and then of insects. Finally he found him, reborn as a worm in a dung pile... Wow! He thought: “I am going to help my friend. I am going to go down there to that dung pile and take him up to the heavenly realm so he too can enjoy the heavenly pleasures and bliss of living in these wonderful realms.”
So he went down to the dung pile and called his mate. And the little worm wriggled out and said: “Who are you?” “I am your friend. We used to be monks together in a past life, and I have come up to take you to the heaven realms where life is wonderful and blissful.” But the worm said: “Go away, get lost!” “But I am your friend, and I live in the heaven realms,” and he described the heaven realms to him. But the worm said: “No thank you, I am quite happy here in my dung pile. Please go away.” Then the heavenly being thought: “Well if I could only just grab hold of him and take him up to the heaven realms, he could see for himself.” So he grabbed hold of the worm and started tugging at him; and the harder he tugged, the harder that worm clung to his pile of dung. [ii]
How many of us are attached to our own pile of dung? Sometimes it is necessary for our friends to name our dung – to help us let go of the stuff of our life that, while comfortable, may not be healthy or positive for our living. But in order to let go or get our stuff in order, we need to be aware of what our stuff really is. As hard as another pulls on us, it is we who must let go.
Second: agree with one another. Obviously this is not something we can work on alone, but this needs to be lived out in community. Paul was always telling those to whom he writes to “agree with one another.” This is not easy to do – we all know that. But it comes more easily to us the more perspective we have about our own living. Listening to one another is easier when we have listened to the stirrings in our own hearts and souls. We are then better able to hear the other, and perhaps learn to agree on the things of this world that matter. I think of my recent experiences at General Conference. It is still clear that as a church we don’t agree on everything. It is painful to realize this; even more painful to live in it and with it. It would seem that the best solution for these kinds of ongoing conflicts is to admit that we don’t agree, and that there is pain and separation as a result of these disagreements. The hope I have from General Conference is that we are beginning to see the wisdom of setting aside the things that aren’t essential and agreeing with one another on the things that are. It is, however, an ongoing challenge for communities to decide what the essentials are.
Live in peace is third on Paul’s list. Again, this is another admonishment that Paul leaves with many of his followers. Paul isn’t asking us to relinquish what we believe or how we live in order to have some kind of fake truce with one another. He is requesting that these Christians find a way to live holy lives with one another – perhaps modeling peace that other communities and people would find attractive, even desirable. This is not peace that represents the absence of war or conflict. It is God’s peace – a peace that encompasses charity, mercy, compassion. I heard someone say recently that compassion is a luxury we can’t live without. While I can understand the sentiment, the very definition of a luxury is something we can live without. Compassion allows for true peace to happen. Paul is talking about true peace – peace that allows us all to live in a state of charity and mercy that is genuine and real. This is not a false truce, but a powerful place of gentleness and grace.
Paul’s last “test” is to greet one another with a holy kiss. A holy kiss was an outward sign that someone was, in fact and in practice, a follower of Jesus. It was more than a greeting – it was a physical sign that said, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.” This was the most important part of the self-examination – living in the faith means living out of our faith and in a demonstrable way. I’m not sure what the equivalent to a holy kiss would be for us these days. Perhaps we might develop a Foundry handshake or a something that identifies us as members and friends together. But what Paul was calling forth from the early Christians was an actually sign of commitment to Christ’s Way. Paul was telling folks that they needed to go public with their commitment. What is your witness – your outward sign of you living in and surrounded by the faith?
None of this is a onetime exam – it is to happen again and again throughout our lives as we continue to learn and grow while we are living. This isn’t like the SATs that provide us with a score we report to others. It is an ongoing process that invites us to reexamine what we do, how we live and how it is that we live as followers of Jesus. And it is not a test we can take or administer to ourselves in a vacuum. This is a private examination that we must take in community.
Now I am not a big fan of self-examination that leads us to what some affectionately have called belly button gazing. This is not about looking at ourselves so that we can say that we are in check, or a time for us to “focus on me.” The reason Paul encouraged the church to examine itself was not a matter of pride, but of survival. Paul thought it good that we each be aware of the places in our lives where we succeed, and where we fall short. Paul prepared the church for his visit by asking them to take account of how they were doing, not so that they could report their success to him upon his arrival, but so they could focus on other things when he did come.
Many of us preachers preach most what we need to hear, so perhaps Paul was working on his own self-test while he was traveling toward his beloved church. Paul knew that, deep down, self-exams are the hardest ones to pass. We have, as Garrison Keillor says, “a backstage pass” to our own lives. We are the only ones who can fully test ourselves – and if we cheat, we are the only ones who know we did. Being examined and “passing” so to speak frees us to focus outwardly. It removes barriers that can keep us focused on the wrong things and leads us toward that which God has laid out before us. We can see more clearly what’s next for us.
I invite you to develop a practice of self-examination – a practice that is not a one-time thing, but an ongoing assessment of how we are doing. This could be a weekly conversation with a friend who encourages you, a small group who covenants together to habitual times of reflection and self-evaluation, or perhaps you are most keenly motivated when you commit some time on your own, maybe before you head to work in the morning or to bed at night, then check with others with who you are in community with. Remember that I said that pastors often preach most what they need to hear most themselves. I, too, am challenged by Paul’s words. I trust Paul and the first followers were, too.
remember, the assessment we are asked to do begins by looking at our own
lives. Get our stuff together (or “let go of our dung piles”), agree with one
another and seek the essentials of life together, live in real peace, and
greet one another with a symbol of our commitment to living in the
faith. We are then freed to look
beyond what we see in ourselves to what God sees in us all, as individuals
and as the