The Final Exam
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
June 7, 2020
2 Corinthians 13:5-14 NRSV
5Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! 6I hope you will find out that we have not failed.
7But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. 8For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect. 10So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.
11Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. 13The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
It was time for the final exam in philosophy 101. The class was already seated and ready to go when the professor picked up his chair, plopped it on his desk and wrote on the board: “Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.”
Fingers flew, erasers erased, notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class however, was up and finished in less than a minute. Weeks later when the grades were posted, the rest of the group wondered how he could have gotten an A when he had barely written anything at all. His answer consisted of two words: “What chair?”
Although most of us have graduated from any school or training for our work or careers a long time ago, I wonder if you can remember the hardest question you ever had to answer on a final exam. I tried to think of one but honestly, I couldn’t, so don’t feel bad if you can’t. I have titled this message, “The Final Exam,” but that’s a bit misleading. Many Christians believe there will be a “final exam” at the end of our lives, a test to “get into heaven.” Many believe that all one has to do is say, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” and that is the only answer God wants to hear. Maybe. In our Bible Study Thursday night one of our wise Zoom participants pointed out that in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells the parable of the “sheep and goats,” and how the sheep were admitted into the heavenly fellowship because of what they had done: they had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoner, and more. The goats failed because they had not done any of those things. It seems to turn the whole “salvation by faith alone” on its head. But all that is a bit moot in relation to the Scripture we read today. Although Paul says, “finally brothers and sisters,” he is really using finally in the sense of saying he was at the end of his letter to them. So if you were a bit anxious about the pass/fail option on this test being final, take a breath.
Now, Paul does urge the Christians in Corinth to test themselves. Let’s talk about what he means without making this something it isn’t. Paul was the founder of the Corinthian church. He had gathered the people, taught them the basics of the Good News of Jesus Christ, nurtured them for a short time, then he was off to another place to start another church. Paul was in a sense the first traveling Christian evangelist. But just because Paul was their preacher and founder of their church, doesn’t mean it was the perfect church. In fact, they were quite the opposite.
From reading “The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians,” we gather they were quite fractured from internal divisions. They were divided about who was the better Christian. Some said they were because they spoke in tongues. Others claimed they were the best because they could prophecy, and others because they had special spiritual knowledge, and others because they had been baptized by Paul or some other famous first Christian. And a lot of them were evidently claiming they were free to do anything they wanted because the Spirit “set them free.” The problem was one person’s freedom was causing another Christian to fall away from the faith and another insisting on his rights over the others was fracturing their fellowship.
Both of the letters we have from Paul were basically telling them that they needed to set aside their individual “rights,” and their “freedoms” for the sake of the good of the whole. His famous “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13 in summary says, whatever we claim is our right or our freedom or our special privileges that makes us better spiritually is worthless if we aren’t acting out of love for other persons. Love is the true measure of faith.
So while that was all in the previous letter from Paul, this one sums it up at the end by challenging them and us to test ourselves to see whether we are “living in the faith.” He says, “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you – unless you fail to meet the test.” So we don’t have to wait for some “end of life” circumstance to see whether we are living a life that is acceptable to God and faithful to Jesus Christ. We can examine ourselves all along the way. Are we living as if Jesus Christ is in us? I suppose it might be almost as simple as that famous question that everyone was remembering a few years ago: when it comes to our actions we should ask ourselves “What Would Jesus Do?”
Paul sets the example of putting others first and wanting others to succeed more than ourselves by claiming he prayed they “do what is right” even if so doing somehow made people think Paul himself failed the test. Paul, of course, was in no danger of failing, but he was continuing to put the definition of real love before them – that love is doing everything one can to put the other person first before demanding what we believe we deserve.
Now, I want to be real careful here and ask you to listen to this: in our current social unrest, chaos, and even violence it is real easy for those of us white people to say to others – “you ought to… or you ought not to.” Do not use this passage or my words to mean that. The reality is that in demanding that others not upset our apple cart when they don’t even have an apple is not what Paul means by love. Nor is it what Jesus would do. But be careful – Paul is not saying to those who are being unjustly treated to stop demanding what is right. Paul is not saying to those who are powerless to let those with all the power keep doing what they are doing until they feel like sharing power.
The Christian church, from the minute it stopped being oppressed, and took power over the Roman Empire, has used its power far too often to control and keep people powerless rather than stand with the powerless to change the structures that cause suffering. That’s just reality. That’s just historical fact. That has to change. The church has to reclaim being on the side of the suffering because, and here is the test that Paul is pointing to, Jesus Christ is and always has been on the side of the one who is suffering.
When Paul says, “Put things in order, … agree with one another, live in peace,” he is not saying “keep things as they were.” He has already said, “do not do anything that is wrong… do what is right.” Things are not right in our world, in our country. We should be on the side of those who are suffering. When we demand that “they stop” doing this or that, or that “they should” do this or that before we demand that our nation, its laws, and those who enforce its laws do what is right, then we are doing wrong ourselves. That is one thing all of us can do to change what is. Let’s start seeking to understand what it means to suffer because that’s what those who “have Jesus Christ in” them should do. Then let’s work side by side with them to change things. Let’s stop being afraid that giving someone else their rights means we will lose our rights. Rights are equal. Most of those who object to giving others their rights are afraid of losing their privileges – and they don’t even realize they are privileged.
So let me end with this: Paul prays that the “communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” While he isn’t specifically talking about the Sacrament we call Holy Communion,” this is part of what the sacrament is about. Let me invite you to think theologically with me for a moment. To be in communion with the Holy Spirit is to seek to be one with that Spirit that has the power to make us one with God and with each other and to reach the “perfection” that Paul talks about when he says he prays for us “to become perfect,” in verse 9. This perfection means wholeness. It means to be whole as God intends creation, and humanity and individuals to be whole – to be perfected. And that perfection, that wholeness is when we are all in right relations with one another, not just in the church, but throughout all of creation.
So what we do when we share “Holy Communion” is we share a prayer, a promise, and a purpose of being whole, of being perfected by God. In the most common of human actions – eating and drinking, as natural and essential to life as breathing itself – God has invited us to envision and enact what God intends. God has given us a symbol. In sharing food and drink, even just a morsel of bread and a drop of juice or wine or whatever, we are acting out God’s prayer, God’s promise, and God’s purpose. God’s purpose for our lives is to discover we are in communion with one another and with all of creation and that we are called to work with God to bring it to reality. God’s promise is that God is working for this, will work for this, and will bring this to be. And God’s prayer is we will realize this – understand it, then work for it, and ultimately experience it – here on earth!
So this prayer, this promise, and this purpose is perfectly appropriate both to do in person but also when we are far apart physically. When we celebrate this sacrament we are proclaiming what God wants for us, and what we want for ourselves and all people: to be one with one another and with God – to be “in communion.” The Holy Spirit’s presence in this is not limited by our not being in the same geographical or physical space. By the Spirit we are in communion. And when we are in communion we will know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God for us and for all.
Let us not just take communion, let us be in communion. Let us live in the faith. Let us test ourselves and ask if “Jesus Christ is in us.” If he is then we will know the meaning of true communion and we will live it out in our relationships in every dimension. May it be so. AMEN.