Evensong 11th August 2019
Blessing, Mercy, and Consolation
2 Cor 1. 1-22
It’s always worth taking time to look at how Paul begins his letters to the churches. He knew they would be read out, so he starts with a bang. After introducing himself and greeting them, he almost always says something magnificent about the God he serves, something encouraging for the people he’s addressing, and something challenging about what he wants them to become in Christ.
2 Corinthians is a stunning example of this. Here are verses 3 and 4 of Chapter 1.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God
The whole of tonight’s reading, in fact the whole of the letter, is deeply personal, hugely emotional and profoundly theological. It seems that the Corinthians got under Paul’s skin and into his heart. He helped plant the church there, he visits them more than once, and there were more letters than the two which have survived. He agonises for them, especially when things go wrong, and he knows they agonise for him also. He’s recently had what he describes as a near death experience, and all the energy from that gets put into his hopes and challenges for the church in Corinth.
His words to them (which we’ve been reading in Morning Prayer recently), get very anguished and very practical, but are put into an eternal context at the very beginning of the letter. He wants them to be assured of blessing, mercy, and consolation from God. In fact he asks them to bless God. Of course, blessing comes first from God, and we bless in the context of God’s gift of grace to us. There are two Greek words often translated as thanksgiving or blessing: the words from which we get eulogy and eucharist. It’s not helpful to make too much of a distinction, but here it is eulogy, and it derives from the pronouncing of blessing in Jewish prayer – the blessing from God who gives food and light and hope. The kind of thing you would say at Grace – if you say grace!
Paul describes the God who blesses us and whom we bless as the “Father of mercies”. Having used an ancient Jewish formula, he continues with words familiar from the Shema. where the ancient prayer began with speaking to a merciful God. In the Temple there was a Mercy seat, echoed in those misericord seats to be found in medieval churches across the country. As with blessing, God not only shows mercy, he is its source and its definition.
Blessing, mercy, and consolation. This word is repeated throughout 2 Corinthians. Paul is writing after a period of great trial, and is writing to a church in a real mess. He says again and again: in the middle of a mess the God who blesses and shows mercy will show you consolation, so that you can offer consolation to those in a mess themselves. The Greek is paraklesis – paraclete, which is also translated as ‘comfort, advocate, encourage’. Barnabas the Apostle is nicknamed the ‘consoler’, the encourager. The Holy Spirit is the paraclete.
This is an amazingly rich word: consolation is not just ‘there there, it will be all right’. It is ‘I am alongside you and will take you through’. It is ‘I will speak for you when you have no words’. It is ‘I will challenge you with words of hope for the future’ – prophecy and paraclesis go hand in hand.
Paul says that God consoles, and so they, we, should also console. The beginnings of these letters aren’t just a nice thing to look at. They establish who God is, who we are, what our situation is and how we might grow and change in Christ. Paul says: Bless God. Find mercy. Receive encouragement day by day. And, crucially, let other people know.
We are listening to these words just as intently as the Corinthians. So what will you bless God for today? Whom will you bless today? Who needs to hear from a merciful and forgiving God? Who needs encouragement and challenge?
Paul says, in verse 7
Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation
It would be a crime to keep such good news tidily stored in this nice place. Blessing, mercy and consolation are active. Let’s take them out of the box and use them. Amen.
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