I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.
-from 2 Corinthians 2
Sweat and tears and blood have been shed throughout the history of the church, Friends, in the attempt to formulate and enforce an orthodox understanding of Christianity. The word orthodox comes to us from Ancient Greek. Ortho meant straight or true, and doxa meant opinion or praise. The pursuit of orthodoxy is the attempt to get everyone on the same page, theologically speaking.
It’s a useful activity, up to a point. Say, for instance, that someone is wrongly convinced that God ceases to love them when they sin. If they’re open to it, that would be an excellent time to bust out some orthodox Christianity to try to convince them that God’s love is unending and unchanging.
Orthodoxy, however, isn’t the be all and end all of life together as a church.
The word orthopath doesn’t get as much airtime as orthodox does, but it’s arguably more important. Path, here, means emotion or feeling, and it gives us words like sympathy and pathetic. The pursuit of orthopathy is the attempt to live together in a true-hearted way. It’s to feel together.
We’re going to be spending the next few weeks in the book of Second Corinthians, in which orthopathy will be a very relevant concept. Let me give you a little bit of setup, and then move to how Paul imagines an emotionally healthy church.
Most of Paul’s letters are structurally pretty straightforward. It’s hello, church at Philippi, this is Paul. I’m saying some kind things about you, and then telling you some other things that I think you need to know. I’m greeting people individually and saying something about my personal situation, and now I am wishing you well and saying goodbye.
They’re exactly the sort of letter that you might get in the mail from a friend inclined toward theological lecturing, if we ever sent letters anymore.
Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church, though, is a little harder to make sense of. For starters, we don’t have all of it. Paul wrote at least four letters to this church, and we have either two or three of them depending on who you ask.
So. Paul founded this church around A.D. 50, and then left to found another church. While in Ephesus, Paul heard some bad news about the Corinthian church, so he wrote a letter that wasn’t saved, rebuking some sort of immoral conduct.
Paul received word that this letter was unsuccessful, so then he wrote what we have as 1 Corinthians- written to a church in conflict, advising them on particular theological questions and reminding them that faith, hope, and love matter the most. When that also proved unsuccessful, Paul went back to Corinth, a visit which was an unmitigated disaster.
Paul left town, then wrote them a “painful” letter which may or may not be Second Corinthians chapters 10-13, or may simply have been lost. In it he was pretty harsh, he says, so much so that he almost regretted sending it. This letter brought matters to a head in Corinth, and the leader of the rebellion against Paul was removed or disciplined or shunned or something like that.
Paul, in turn, wrote a fourth letter- pieces of which Mary Katheryn read to you this morning. It’s much more conciliatory in tone, and has a lot to offer those of us who might occasionally get into trouble, seek and offer forgiveness, and then need some sort of roadmap for cleaning up the wreckage.
That’s a lot of info at once, I know. It’s a tricky thing, though, to try to read someone else’s correspondence. It’s like reconstructing the early American period by reading the letters of John and Abigail Adams, except you’re missing all of Abigail’s letters and some of John’s as well.
Names are dropped without any explanation because both Paul and the Corinthians knew who he was talking about, but we don’t. Stories are referenced but not fully told. Everything is context-driven.
You know, you can write a treatise about salvation and love and consolation and forgiveness, and it might be a good one, but the Gospel always comes to us embedded in a story. It’s the story of Jesus, being worked out in our own human lives.
Most of Paul’s letters open with his thankfulness for the church to which he is writing. Paul opens this letter, though – his fourth to this church in Corinth – by talking about God the healer, God our comforter, God who helps us make use of the pain we experience in order to console our friends. Having just come out the other side of an emotionally painful conflict with this church Paul is, perhaps, especially sensitive to the way in which peace in a community comes as a divine gift.
He then moves on to a still sore point. Paul had initially said that he’d come to visit them again, but then changed his mind. Since the relationship was troubled, the Corinthians interpreted this as a snub. Paul argues, instead, that he just didn’t want to have another disastrous visit which would cause more problems than it solved.
He says that rather than visiting, he had written them the letter that they thought was harsh. He says that he wrote it out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.
Every now and then, any halfway decent preacher is accused of meddling rather than preaching. This might be one of those times. I’m really not digging for anything in particular, though, aside from having Yearly Meeting conversations on my mind.
Let me ask you, though: when was the last time that you wept at the possibility of hurting someone who actively engaged in a conflict with you? When was the last time that you were vulnerable enough to make that fact public?
Paul is offering us a very intense example of humility in leadership, here. He’s the great apostle, the founder of this church, and he could have lorded that over them. Instead, Paul puts love front and center.
And it’s not some anemic or academic understanding of love, either! This is the kind of love that brings a grown man to tears, and he isn’t hiding it.
In the second excerpt from Second Corinthians that Mary Katheryn read, Paul turns to the person who started stirring up trouble in the first place, the person who started turning the Corinthians away from Paul. The church there has shunned him, but Paul is concerned about his well-being. He doesn’t want the man to be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow, and he recommends that the Corinthians forgive and comfort him.
That word comfort… Paul started into this by celebrating the God who comforts us when we are suffering and helps us to comfort one another. Here, he asks that the church be willing to loop an offender back into the circle, to reaffirm [their] love for him.
I’m going to guess, Friends, that Paul and the Corinthians continued to debate theological questions. Should we eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols? Should women wear headcoverings in worship? Is it okay for people to get married?
Those are questions of orthodoxy. They’re good questions. We ought to ask similar questions of ourselves and one another.
But these passages aren’t about orthodoxy, though. They’re about orthopathy, about loving true-heartedly. Whatever the Corinthians might think of Paul’s positions on the issues, they have no reason to doubt his love for God or his love for them, and really, that’s what theology is all about.
Here’s something that I find interesting about both these passages: Paul nowhere denies the pain. He doesn’t say that God uses our hard times to help us help others through hard times, and therefore we shouldn’t really think of those times as hard. He doesn’t say that the offender needs to be forgiven and brought back into the community, and therefore the hurt he caused doesn’t matter.
Paul doesn’t say that the pain doesn’t matter. He just says that love is bigger.
George Fox wrote that he “saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but also an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that,” he says, “I saw the infinite love of God.”
Paul is making a similar argument. It’s not that the pain both he and the Corinthians have experienced should be ignored. That’s not what reconciliation looks like, because reconciliation first and foremost has to be honest. But the whole thing, the suffering and the endurance and the forgiveness and the welcome home, is grounded in love.
So. There’s this blog that I follow called Feminist Mormon Housewives. It’s fascinating to me, in that it simultaneously feels foreign and familiar. I don’t know much about Mormonism, so that aspect of it always involves a lot of Googling to figure out what they’re talking about. They’re a progressive, feminist voice in a conservative context, though, and they don’t want to leave but they also don’t want things to remain as they are, and I feel like that is my life.
Feminist Mormon Housewives. I totally recommend it.
Anyhow, there’s a post from back in March that has been open on a tab on my laptop ever since it went up. It’s called Mourning When You Disagree, Comforting When You Can’t Relate. The author had previously written a post about why she engages in activism within the church around issues that will never impact her personally. She argues that she’s connected through baptism to all of those whom it does affect, and therefore that her heart is invested in advocating for them.
Someone in the comment section, coming from a more conservative position, asked her about her baptismal covenant with those who opposed her progressive leanings (in this case, the topic was women’s ordination). She had said that she couldn’t avoid feeling the pain of those she agreed with anyhow, but what about the pain of those with whom she disagreed?
The commenter wrote: “…does your empathy and baptismal covenants only extend to those for whom you already have philosophical agreement?”
Obviously the answer should be no, and yet. It’s a good question, and one that brings the experience of Paul and the Corinthian church two thousand years forward into my own life. How do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, how do we rejoice when they rejoice and weep when they weep, when we seem to be out of sync?
I don’t know, to be honest. That’s why this tab has been open on my laptop for two months.
This is what I know, though: the Greeks were wrong, when they said that the passions must be controlled by reason. Recent developments in neuroscience support what any observer of human nature knows: we’re all essentially emotion-driven creatures. It’s how we understand the world.
And because of that, love matters more than being right.
I don’t have any particular problem with orthodoxy, to be honest. When I visit other churches, I rarely have a problem reciting the creeds. Furthermore, if I’m honest, I rather like being right. I like the process of building a solid case and rebuffing counter-arguments.
But, that’s not what matters most. Love is what matters most. Can we be orthopathic people, and an orthopathic church?
So, this morning, I challenge you to reflect on how you love those you disagree with, how you love those who hurt you, how you love those whom you don’t understand. We’re good at pouring on the guilt, but how do we pour on the love instead?