2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Open Wide Your Hearts
Our scripture focus for today has long seemed to me like it was meant for United Methodist Churches in the midst of pastoral transition. Paul was one the first itinerant pastors of the church, serving in different faith communities for periods of time and then moving on to establish new ministries elsewhere. He spent just about a year and a half in Corinth helping to build the congregation, and teaching people about being disciples of Jesus. Paul does visit Corinth again, while he’s serving in Ephesus, but his initial 18 months with the Corinthians is the time he builds his primary relationship with them. But of course, he continues to hold them in his heart, and continues to seek out the best for them as a growing community of faith. 2 Corinthians has somewhat confusing origins, as scholars debate whether it is one letter or multiple letters Paul wrote to the community that have been put together over time. But what is clear is that it is written after he has spent his primary time in Corinth, probably while he’s serving in still yet another community, like Philippi or Thessalonica in Macedonia. Our text today ends with one of my favorite phrases in the scriptures. Paul tells the Corinians: “Open wide your hearts,” and I love that beautiful, powerful message, and I think wide-open hearts is a good position for a congregation about to receive a new pastor.
But, these beautiful words come as part of what is overall a difficult letter. The young church at Corinth has had a lot of conflicts, a lot of people vying for authority in their congregation, and they’ve laid a lot of accusations at Paul’s feet, unhappy with some of his leadership, questioning his motives. Paul has a lot of things to say to them in return, throughout his letters, and it is clear the Corinthians are not always really excited to receive his words. Paul doesn’t deny that he’s been an imperfect leader. And frankly, I have personally always struggled with Paul - because he can’t seem to stop talking about how awesome he is, all while insisting that he’s not being boastful. I’m not surprised the Corinthians felt like they’d had enough of Paul’s scolding. But I can’t deny that Paul’s absolute passion and commitment is to the good news of Jesus. He doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the Corinthians claiming the gift of God’s grace, experienced through their discipleship, their following Jesus, and his tone is urgent, pleading, persuading. Nothing and no one can be an obstacle to their experiencing the life-changing impact of God’s grace, and we must make sure we are not obstacles to anyone else experiencing the transformational power of Christ either.
Paul has been telling the Cornithians that disciples of Jesus are new creations in Christ when we start to see things not from our human point of view, but from God’s point of view. In our text for today, Paul urges the Corinthians not to accept the grace of God in vain, not to accept God’s grace without, in a sense, putting in good work and reaping the benefits. “Now is the day of salvation!” Paul says, quoting from Isaiah. We can embrace God’s gift right now. God’s saving love can change our lives right now, not just in some heavenly future. Paul then goes on to describe the suffering he’s been through for the sake of the gospel, telling the spiritual means by which he has remained faithful: he’s been through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, treated as imposters, punished, and more. But Paul and his companions have sought to remain pure, knowledgeable, patient, kind, holy, genuine, and truthful by the power of God. His list is both an impressive sign of his absolute devotion to proclaiming Christ, and an example of that bragging “look how awesome” tone he has that drives me crazy. Nonetheless, Paul concludes this section that draws my reflection, “we’ve spoken frankly to you; 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.”
I’ve been thinking about what Paul says here – that he and his colleagues have no restrictions on their affection – their hearts are wide open. He wants the Corinthians to do the same – to open wide their hearts. This is what Paul means when he speaks at first about not accepting God’s grace in vain. In order to get the full effect of God’s grace, God’s free love, your hearts have to be open wide enough to receive it. No restrictions. And for Paul, who follows the teachings of Jesus, we can’t have unrestricted, loving, hearts open wide to God unless we also have unrestricted, loving, hearts open wide to one another. And so I’m wondering, how wide open are our hearts? What restrictions are there on your heart? On your affection? On your willingness to give yourself to God and for God to one another?
My Uncle Bill has shared with me that when he and my aunt were expecting their second child, he went to my grandfather in distress, and said, “I don’t know how I can do it. I love my firstborn so much, and I don’t know if I have room to love a second child as much as I love the first.” He was so worried that he wouldn’t be able to show child #2 the same kind of total love he had for child #1. My grandfather, father of five children, all of whom he loved with all his heart, assured him that he would find his heart expanded quite nicely to love another child with all his heart too. Your heart expands and expands and expands and you find you have quite enough room for your heart to be completely filled again with this new life, this new child. That’s the vision I have of how God wants us to understand love, and certainly how God loves us. Love expands. Hearts can hold so much love. Just think of the Grinch’s heart in the Christmas story, getting larger and larger. Our hearts can expand like that, just as God’s heart has infinite room to expand to love and hold each one of us, flaws and all. Our hearts aren’t meant to function with restrictions. They’re meant to be wide open. Actually, you can even think of the medical, physical analogy when we think about our hearts: people get sick when their arteries are clogged, when their heart can’t pump blood through our bodies like it is supposed to. The heart works best when all the avenues in and out are free and clear and wide open.
So, the question for us, what we have to ask ourselves is: Do we have restrictions on our hearts, or are they wide open? In our faith journeys, in our discipleship, and in this congregation and ministry in this place, this community, that’s the question to ask: are there restrictions on our hearts? What if, at the core of everything you do, every decision you make as a congregation, every choice you made as individuals, every juncture you come to, you ask yourself: how would “opening our hearts wider” look in this situation? Are there any restrictions here? What could you do here to open our hearts wider?
Our itinerant system, where pastors are sent from place to place, is hard - on pastors and families and congregations. Can you commit to opening your heart to Pastor Sherri and her leadership? Being a church these days in our rapidly changing world means that we have to struggle to adapt, to change how we do things in order to share the love of Christ in ways that others will hear. I think of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, who had a great disdain for “field preaching” - preaching anywhere other than inside a church building - but he felt like in order to share the love of God in Christ, he had to commit to a practice he personally abhorred, but that he knew might reach new people. His heart was open to them, to God, and to a new way of doing things. How wide open is your heart? What stumbling blocks can be removed to unclog your hearts and open them wide to what God wants to do here? What ways of ministry are you being called to embrace that might not be your cup of tea, but might yet be ways of embracing and sharing the grace of God? In our individual lives, in our congregations and communities and nations, how have we restricted our affections, our hearts? Do we restrict and hold back from loving those who have a different political perspective than we do? Do we restrict our affections and hold back our hearts based on sexual orientation or gender identity? Based on race? Based on citizenship status? Based on income? Based on appearance? Based on ability or intelligence? Paul says when we do that, when we restrict our hearts, restrict our love, it is like accepting God’s grace in vain - taking God’s amazing, free, limitless gift, and making it worth nothing, because we haven’t let it shape us, transform us, make us new in Christ, and we’ve made stumbling blocks for others in their relationship with God too.
What if we just open our hearts wide, and trust God enough to love without restriction? Imagine what might happen to this congregation if there were never restrictions on our loving. Imagine what might happen in your life – to you, to me – if we never put restrictions on love but just opened wide our hearts? Imagine what might happen to the world if we always acted in whatever way meant the least restrictions on how we love God and one another, until we could claim, like Paul, that our hearts were wide open. To me, this is really what the journey of discipleship is about – we follow Jesus best when we work on opening our hearts wider and wider. I believe that Jesus had the heart that was the most opened to God’s love, God’s will, God’s plan. Jesus opened his heart so wide that there was room for everyone – everyone in his heart. And so if we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be like him, if we want to know what God wants us to do, it’s simple really: open your hearts. Wherever you find yourself, whatever you’re doing, ask yourself how you can love without restriction. Sometimes, we’ll find that opening our hearts is a risky thing. Paul certainly did. He literally put his life on the line to open his heart. He wasn’t always popular. Communities ran him out of town more than once. He was thrown into prison. He made other church leaders mad. He still drives me a little crazy. But Paul didn’t consider those things particularly important, because he wanted most of all to take full advantage of the grace given him by God.
Don’t you, too, want the full measure of God’s grace? Then open wide your hearts. It might be risky. Sometimes you’ll find it easier to put restrictions – subtle or explicit – on your heart, who you love, how you love them, when you love, how much you love. Sometimes, opening wide your heart will put you in conflict with others who aren’t ready for it. But I promise, an open heart is worth all the risk, because an open heart is something God can fill up again, and again, and again, when we realize our amazing, limitless capacity to love and be loved. Open wide your hearts. Amen.