As a colleague of mine and I were writing commentary on this whole sermon series together, she pointed out, “Books of the Bible rarely get much attention, but things were different when Second Corinthians was quoted by Donald Trump, back in January 2016. It made the news because Trump mistakenly called it “Two Corinthians.” He used it in a speech at Liberty University, quoting verse 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (Rev. Lia Scholl at RevGalBlogPals)
While there are a few very well-known passages within this letter (the treasure we hold in clay jars, if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed we have a house not made with hands, if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation), as a whole it is not one with which many of us are familiar as a whole. I had to do some research myself to get ready.
Corinth is a town in Greece; a modern city is still there today, and the ruins of Corinth are one of the few places mentioned in the Bible about which we can say with almost complete certainty, “here is where Paul (or Jesus or Moses) stood.” Paul started the church in Corinth sometime before he wrote the letter that makes up the book 1st Corinthians. By the time he writes the letter that we know as 2 Corinthians he has left the city once, returned, and then left again. During that second trip it seems that a member of the church community hurt Paul deeply and personally. His departure was on difficult terms.
A letter lost to history was written back to the church addressing this pain which must have convinced the church to act. We will see next week, actually, that Paul thinks maybe they have over-reacted or misdirected their reaction, and he hopes that they can swing the pendulum back to forgiveness and reconciliation.
This morning’s reading comes from the opening words of the whole letter. As is often the case, Paul sets out his tone and some of his main idea right from the start. Let’s hear what Paul says to the church in Corinth and listen for what the Spirit is saying to us today.
One of life’s harshest truths is that none of us will escape grief or suffering. None of us. I think that’s worth just sitting with for a moment because sometimes our grief and suffering can feel so lonely. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, illustrates this in a talk about empathy as a single storm cloud hovering over the head of one character when there are no other clouds in sight. From under the cloud the one who grieves or suffers can see the blue skies and sun shining on everyone else, but where she stands everything looks gray. The world is going on all around as if nothing has happened, yet in his world everything has changed.
Many of us, when we are the one hurting, isolate ourselves, not wanting to ruin the day of others, not wanting to expose vulnerability, risk more pain, or bring others down with us. We think we are doing a loving thing or at least a self-protective thing by isolating ourselves, trying to show strength, trying to pull ourselves up by our emotional boot straps. We even buy into the myth that there is a timeline on grief. Have you been told (or told yourself) at the end of a relationship or when you’re mourning a death, “It’s time to move on. Pick up the pieces. It doesn’t do any good to cry about it this long. No one wants to be around you when you’re still moping around.”
And so we hide our heartbreak from the world. We tuck away our tears. We smooth over the rough places of sadness and pretend everything is alright. Or we just hide away from everything and everyone. Both of which are ultimately isolating, because even if we show up we aren’t bringing our true selves where we go.
But this isn’t about victim blaming. These responses make sense in a culture that discourages authentic sadness and anger. A couple whose pregnancy ends in miscarriage is told “at least you know you can get pregnant again.” The only acceptable response to a diagnosis of cancer is a resolve to “just keep fighting.” A house and all physical signs of a family are lost in a fire and we rush to say “at least no one was hurt.” A parent dies sooner than expected and too many of us slip into emotional competition and say, “I know exactly what that’s like, only my father’s sickness was even worse.” Who would want to be authentic when his experience is invalidated? Who would risk having her emotions minimized?
In truth there is no other experience like ours. Others may have loved and lost a spouse, but they didn’t love and lose our spouse. Others may have watched their children’s live take a wrong turn, but they aren’t our children. Others may have chronic back pain, but it isn’t our pain and their life circumstances aren’t our life circumstances. So what can we do? What is an appropriate response? What is helpful, compassionate, even life-giving for the one who suffers, the one who is afflicted?
In the opening seven verses of Paul’s “second” letter to the Corinthians he uses some form of the word consolation ten different times. He speaks of “the God of all consolation who consoles.” He tells us we have the power to console others because we have been consoled by God. He even goes so far as to say that one person’s affliction can have a benefit in that it makes them more ready to offer consolation to others. And in all of this, he also says, we can remember that even God, in Jesus Christ, knows suffering, and “so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.”
So what is this consolation?
First, what it isn’t. It is not sympathy. It is not that sense that we know exactly what another feels because we think we have been through the same thing. We haven’t. Remember? Even if we share a same life circumstance we have not been through the exact same thing because our lives and our relationships and our emotions and our spirits are unique. Consolation is not sympathy.
Consolation is a lot closer to empathy. Empathy is when we put aside our own experience and instead try to tap into the experience of another. Sympathy is about looking for what we have that is the same and often turns the spotlight onto the one who is trying to offer comfort instead of the one who needs comforting. Empathy, on the other hand, is about getting outside of our own situation and honoring the grief and suffering of the other, but trying to see what is happening through their experience. In sympathy we imagine and offer what we would want. In empathy we seek of offer our loved one what they need.
This clip from a Pixar movie, Inside Out, offers a beautiful example. Joy and Sadness, the human-like characters are emotions residing in a little girl’s brain. Bing Bong is the little girl’s imaginary friend still lurking in pre-adolescent mind, but little by little the memories most closely associated with him are being “dumped” from Riley’s imagination. Bing Bong is grieving this change in his own experience and sad about the loss of some of his precious memories, too.
Joy – she means well. She offers what she thinks she would like to receive as comfort. She gives all those standard cultural messages – – Let’s get your mind off of things. Just keep busy. She even tries to physically move Bing Bong, tries to pull him away in the middle of his grief. None of it really help a whole lot, though.
Sadness takes a different approach. She takes the approach of empathy, of consolation of the kind Paul talks about. Sadness knows suffering. Suffering is her thing. It’s what she does all. the. time. whether she wants to or not. At one point in the movie Joy tries to just draw a circle around Sadness to keep all the sadness in one place because she can’t do anything else, and joy just isn’t comfortable with that. But sadness doesn’t take over the situation by spewing her sadness all over Bing Bong, instead as one who has been there, she just comes alongside him. She sets aside her own experience and enters into his, honoring it, listening to it, holding it carefully, and only moving on when Bing Bong is ready to move on.
This is the consolation Paul writes of. The consolation of one coming alongside of another, walking together in affliction – not denying its reality or trying to brush over its existence, not even trying to avoid its presence or run away. Consolation is what we do when we refuse the isolation of grief and suffering and instead move with one another in it and through it.
Paul has been afflicted. He has suffered. He knows the church in Corinth is also suffering deep division and betrayal. Yet he offers thanksgiving to and for the source of his consolation – God who he knows in Jesus Christ. God never leaves us alone – – which I know can be hard to see when we are in the grip of grief or the chaos of catastrophe. I know it can be hard to see where God is working, hearing where God is speaking, and feel where God is comforting in times of physical and emotional pain. And that’s exactly why we have been given one another to console “for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.”
But God never leaves us alone and actually went to great lengths to join us in our suffering, to feel what we feel, to know what it is to be deeply grieved and to offer us strength in our weakness just with God’s presence. God doesn’t hurry us through our affliction. God doesn’t push it aside or pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead God comes right alongside us
- As intimate Creator and Source of Life with both joy and sadness
- As Son and Savior who knows our human existence and condition
- As Spirit and Breath of Life who dwells within us and enlivens us and binds us to Christ and to one another.
With God as our example and our source of strength may we also offer consolation to one another, encouragement, strength, and comfort. May we be signs of Christ to one another with our grace, with our peace, and simply with our presence.