“Greet One Another” – 2 Corinthians 13:11-14
Kevin Rees – June 28, 2015 - audio file posted at www.kevinrees.sermon.net
“Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1Co 13:5).
I am a student of cultures. They fascinate me. To be a culture, a group of people generally shares a geography, a language, a core belief system, an economy, a set of values, a story, and an explicit or implicit agreement on how to get along together (e.g. governance). Whether we delve into the Finnish culture, for instance, or into the sub-culture of graffiti artists in Brooklyn, we find most or all of these seven aspects of culture (even if it just a few code words that distinguishes them from the rest of the population).
One of the things I find most fascinating about the subject of culture is that in it I can see God’s fingerprints, so to speak. God who created people to live and work and be together, marked us with his image even on a societal level—his creativity, his appreciation for and allowance of variety, his design that we live in relationship, his preference that we bring order out of chaos. We can see God reflected in society, even if that reflection is in shards and murky from sin. Culture is praised for many of God’s blessings and blamed for many of man’s poor decisions, but culture is another canvas on which God paints his masterpiece.
Did you know that God has a culture, too? We call it his Kingdom. We pray that it would come on earth as it is in heaven. We are made citizens of this Kingdom; it is very much real even though our eyes have yet to see it. We are called to align our loyalties to its geography, its language, its core belief system, its economy, its values, its story, and its government. We advance his Kingdom; embody it, represent it.
But as with any culture, when one culture butts up against another culture, there will be a cultural clash. Sparks will fly. Which culture will bend? Which culture will ascend to the top of the pecking order? Which culture will suffer shame or humiliation or defeat? Read the newspaper with culture in mind and you will come away with a different take-away. You see it is not just the Greek economy that is in danger, it is the Greek culture. Anytime a culture is threatened, it fights back—the only play Greece has left is to quit the EU. It is not just the Confederate Battle Flag flying outside the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, it is a cultural symbol. Whether you take that symbol as positive or negative, whenever you bump up against culture, you will stir up the whole population. Wars are fought for lesser things. Less than 10% of the Italian population goes to mass, but if you suggest that you are a Protestant missionary then 90% of the population becomes very “Catholic” in a hurry—because of culture, not theology.
We cannot change or summarize culture in 30 minutes … not to mention 30 years … but suffice it to say that culture is important; formidable as an enemy, invaluable as an ally. Culture is created and permitted by God; even celebrated by God, but culture is not god. Some people treat it like a deity; unchangeable, unquestionable, omnipotent. But culture needs redemption as much as the individuals comprising culture. While God is doing that great work of societal redemption, we can still learn some about God by considering the culture he allows to flourish. Meanwhile, we must express the love of God inside, through and with culture. It is the ocean in which we swim.
Our third “one another” of the summer is a very culturally-minded admonition. More frequent than “pray for one another” or “confess to one another” or the rest (minus “love one another” and “encourage one another”) is the under-represented “greet one another.” In my 21 years as a preacher, I have never heard any sermons on “greet one another” (except the one that I preached on it last year). Yet, it is remarkably rich and relevant. “Greet one another” is a form of “love one another” but on a wider, cultural scale. “Greet one another” is almost shorthand for showing love in a culturally relevant, significant way.
Our customs related to greetings serve as an excellent, miniature way to view the gospel’s effect on culture. But greetings are so common that we hardly ever take time to think about them. However, by moving to Tennessee, we have revisited greetings. You may not have thought twice about it, but my family has thought it interesting to see around town what we refer to as “the one finger wave.” Not to be confused with the “one finger salute,” which is quite different and quite well represented in all parts of our fine country, the “one finger wave” is when we are approaching a vehicle—usually a late model pick-up, let’s say on Hogwallow Road—and the driver, without taking his other four fingers off the steering wheel, waves at us with one finger. This is a very friendly gesture that I have never seen before moving to West Tennessee. Of course it may change from a “one finger wave” to a “one finger salute” because I am still too slow at waving back before our vehicles pass each other at speed.
What are some unique forms of greeting you have seen? Would you consider demonstrating for us? Any secret handshakes? Any variations of fist bumps or special “group talk” that only the insiders know and use? For instance, when bikers pass each other on the road they almost always acknowledge one another—but it is not a wave as much as a backwards nod; an indication with the chin. What else?
When most people travel, they collect normal things like collectible spoons or postcards. We have collected a wide assortment of greetings. In Italy there was a cultural kiss—often even for people meeting for the first time. It begins with a handshake, but gripping that hand the greeters pull you in close for a side-kiss; cheek to cheek, even making the “kissy” sound effect … right side then left. This is tricky on many levels, for instance, when we couldn’t remember which side to begin on. If you went left first, you could end up nose to nose or even lips to lips with a near-stranger. (Personal space issues are not transferrable between cultures!) The cultural kiss in France, I believe, is left then right. Belgium, I think, is left then right then left. How confusing! How horrifying to those with personal space issues!
In Arabic cultures, although we have never personally been to any, the men will do the cultural kiss, but only with other men. For a man to “culturally kiss” or even shake a woman’s hand in the Arab cultures is a serious crime. In Japan there is a bow. In China there is a kowtow, which is a bow with additional hand movements down the side of the body. The Maori people in New Zealand greet with the hongi; an ancient, life-affirming custom of touching noses believed to have come directly from the gods. In Tibet the customary greeting involves stick out your tongue at one another. Apparently, a vicious king in the 9th century named Darma had a black tongue and it is feared that he might reincarnate. So, by sticking out your tongue you are proving that you are not Darma and are, therefore, safe.
In Romania, I remember, it was customary to greet your host with fresh flowers, but you must carry those flowers upside down (for some reason I can’t recall) and you always make the bouquet an odd number of blooms since “everyone” knows that an even number is romantic. In Ukraine, the men shake hands but grab the forearm with the other hand and make a very firm up-down-done motion. In Ugandan culture, in pretty much all the 80 tribes that coexist in a volatile equilibrium inside its modern borders, you ask how the other one is, how his mother is, how his people are, how his goats are with every greeting. It literally took half an hour to walk a tenth of a mile down the road for all of these conversations. Sometimes, I confess, I waited until the road was clear before making a run for it.
What can greetings convey? Both positively and negatively—what do we communicate through our greetings? True, we can express love and respect, even if we botch the cultural nuances. Inversely, we can express superiority and impatience, even if we master the culture. What is at stake here is not achieving a cosmopolitan air, but expressing love and respect to another for the sake of the gospel.
Speaking of Romania makes me think of one of the negative powers our greetings can hold. Our team of twelve had spent months training, preparing, rehearsing, planning, and packing. We learned that the church in Romania was very conservative requiring jackets and ties for the men and head coverings and skirts for the women. One very aggressive woman in our group adamantly declared, “I will never wear a skirt.” I tried to reason with her that these are the wishes of our hosts—that failure to comply would be deeply insulting; that—our own cultural views aside—for a woman to wear trousers in church would be something akin to dressing like a prostitute. “That’s their issue; not mine.” Of course it is their issue, it is their culture. I conceded hope that the Romanian church culture could mature beyond its legalistic beginnings to embrace their freedom in Christ, but that was not our job. Our job was to take down barriers, not to stand them up. Still, she remained defiant, “I will never wear a skirt.” I should have dismissed her from the team then and there, but I didn’t. What does her attitude convey to the other culture? “You must bend to my way of doing things. I am more important than you; than the gospel.”
Instead of defiance and clutching to the right to self-express, she could have chosen love—but she could not do both. With greetings we have an opportunity to value something that someone else values for the purpose of building a relationship where the gospel might be effectively communicated and received and strengthened. Even if their custom seems silly to us on the other side of the cultural gap—if it is important to our host, then it is important to us because of love and respect. It is more than manners; it is love. Love and respect for God is first and foremost, then love for others.
Are there times when a culture requires unbiblical behaviors? Yes, there are those few examples of bowing before a king as an expression of worship, of declaring the praises of a false god, of opening our minds up to the demonic—but for the most part we can bend to enter another culture for the sake of the gospel without breaking our conscience. Love bends in order to earn the occasion to be heard. And yes, love has its limits—for even Christ stopped sharing the gospel sometimes after it became clear that he was placing “pearls before swine.” But love is a willingness to bend to enter another’s starting place.
It is a double-sided sword cutting both ways. The one side is: are we ourselves willing to bend toward others? The other side is: are we willing to resist being so easily offended when someone doesn’t bend toward us? Remember that, on the one side, “love is not rude,” but love is also, on the other side, “not easily offended.” We need love on both sides of the cultural gap—as givers and as receivers. Paul touches on both of these sides of greeting in 2 Corinthians 13:11-14.
Paul is writing a very serious letter to the Corinthian church. His first letter to Corinth was scathing list of about 10 things they were doing very wrong in the church. His second letter is ferocious because a segment of the church turned on Paul after his first letter, calling him cruel and illegitimate as a minister of the gospel. Nevertheless, his conclusion almost pleads for their unity—and as an expression of unity, he issues a rapid succession of commands, capped by “greet one another.”
I. Give Greetings to One Another (vv. 11-12)
11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
The commands are rapid-fire: rejoice, be restored, comfort, have the same mind, live in peace. All five of these are foreign to the fragmented, immature church at Corinth. Paul has now spent 29 chapters in two letters urging the church toward unity and maturity. This final appeal is a summary—move forward together, for you will not move on apart. As they move forward together, they will find that they have not only a restored fellowship with each other, but they will also have a restored fellowship with God. This takes deliberate love; deliberate decisions to leave resolved issues resolved ... deliberate action to build new bridges of agreement, comfort, and peace.
So, one of the first extensions of love—when a relationship is new or newly strained—is to greet one another, the minimal expression of love that will hopefully grow into deeper forms of relationship. But sometimes we have to go back to square one. That is not a punishment; it is a resurrection. Relationships died. But God brings the dead back to life again. Square one is: greet one another.
Have you experienced a rift in relationship so severe that even greetings stopped? You won’t make eye contact with the other one anymore. You won’t shake hands. You won’t say, “Hello.” Sometimes you even stop saying the other person’s name; substituting it with a mere pronoun. “Oh, here he comes.” “Oh, there she goes.” Perhaps the current of love is nudging you to begin building the bridge of restoration. Whatever might happen to rebuild this relationship, there has to be a line carried to the other side—to measure, to plan, to begin carting materials to the places that they will need to go. Who will send the first line? That first thing in the restoration process might be a greeting. “Hello, Agatha.” “Hello Margaret.” “How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” That’s not much, but it could be a solid beginning. Sometimes reconciliation is not possible, but sometimes it is. We need to be on the upside of that equation—“if possible, as far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).
To greet one another, however, is not merely for rebuilding a ruined relationship. A greeting could also pioneer a brand new relationship. You have your friendships all measured out; there are no current openings on the Friend List so why walk around the playground to the other mom sitting on the bench on the far side of the swings? Ah, but a greeting is the first step of love—even if it is only a gesture, only a kindness, only a small nod … if faith nudges it, then it is the will of God in the moment. Don’t underestimate the nudges of the Spirit to expand or deepen your relationships. Perhaps my family is more sensitive to this than most families; but moving to a new place is dreadfully hard. The people in that new place already have established relationships that date back to, probably, grade school. Whether or not it is true, the impression that newcomers often feel is that “there are no current openings” on the Friend List. Whether or not it is true, the vibes that newcomers often give off is “don’t waste my time.” But we—on both sides of that scenario—have to be sensitive to the Spirit’s guidance to initiating and to receiving the initiation from another toward relationship. Not because of manners, but because of faith and the lead of the Holy Spirit.
To greet is active—to show respect toward, to extend a gesture of welcome. But, as we have been careful to mention in previous weeks, there is always a counterfeit lurking in the shadows of the genuine. There can be a false expression of welcome; a predatory welcome like a venus fly trap gives to the fly. Look, in here it is sweet and warm. Come in, stay a while. But before the fly can lower its heart beats per minute on the soft perch inside the large green and pink “flower”—the “flower” bites, feeds, and begins to digests its prey.
I don’t like to talk about Uganda, but the more I try not to talk about it, the more examples I find from our Uganda days. I have never experienced a more deadly counterfeit of welcome than we did there. “You are welcome here” is a part of the long greeting process there. And I feel somewhat foolish to have taken some (but not all) of them at their word. Many were all smiles at first, but then the snare started to close. We were sucker-punched … not by the Ugandans themselves, but by some of the missionaries. People often asked us what was the most ferocious part of Africa—the black mamba snake, the crocodile, the mosquito carrying cerebral malaria? But no, the most ferocious part of Africa was the American missionary who got a hold of a little bit of power and felt threatened. And I will just leave it at that; call it a counterfeit to “greet one another.”
II. Receive Greetings from Others (vv. 13-14)
13 All the saints greet you.
14 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Oh, but the presence of a counterfeit does not diminish the power of the real thing. A greeting can be incredibly affirming … even when it comes from somewhere outside your established borders.
Paul delivers the greetings from “all the saints” to the church at Corinth. From what little we know, there is considerable interaction between the churches in the first century. They were not isolated, although traveling between them was not as easy for them as it is for us to simply jump on the Interstate and drive. However, with the arrival of the false teachers, the interaction between churches started to sour. Distrust was sown by teachers who claimed to be apostles but who undermined Paul, especially, at every city, every congregation. Paul describes them rather unflatteringly in Galatians 2:4—“False brothers [were] secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery.” This group dogged Paul for years, persecuted him, pretended to welcome him in person, but when he was out of sight slandered and defamed him.
That is why I find it so fascinating that Paul still urges the church to keep on greeting one another—inside and outside the church. Paul was not jaded about the power of a greeting by those who misused their welcome to bring poison into the very church that offered sanctuary. The brothers and sisters at Emanuel A.M.E. were killed by the one they welcomed into their circle. For an hour he sat with them before he killed them. But the congregation is not jaded—they continue to welcome others into their circle. The trend would be to shut and lock the doors. But love opens the doors and greets outsiders in the name of Jesus.
“All the saints greet you.” Paul delivers their greeting. The saints scattered all over wanted to show respect and love to their brothers and sisters in Corinth, so they sent word with Paul. If you recall the history of Paul at this time—he had to leave Ephesus where he had an “open door” for ministry that collapsed in a moment and he had to flee assassins, changing his plans at the last minute from taking a ship to Corinth to walking the long way round on foot. But even the trauma that forced this unexpected journey—which was still bothering Paul acutely the several months it took to make the journey—could not stop him from delivering that which was entrusted to him for safe keeping: their greeting.
So it begs the question—how are we at accepting the greeting of others? How trusting are we? How willing are we to open up to new relationships? Those relationships might bring pain. They might welcome a radicalized gunman. They might open to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Isn’t it easier on every level to just keep the “holy huddle” we have and wait for the rapture? Maybe easier, but disobedient.
Love is willing to bend to someone’s culture; to learn how to communicate the love of Christ into their host’s heart. Love is willing to allow someone else’s gesture to build a relationship. Love is willing to give. Love is willing to receive. Greeting is often the first step of love in a new relationship or in a renewed relationship. The implications of giving and receiving greetings—in culturally sensitive and meaningful ways—are huge for the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
To be a gracious host, to be a gracious guest—when true, the greeting is where the conversation begins … when false, the greeting is where the conversation falls apart. Will we value what another person, another culture values in order to earn the right to communicate what we value most in the Kingdom, namely Jesus Christ? When someone fails to bend to us, can we by the power of the Spirit resist the urge to be so easily offended and refuse to require others to be like us before that can be numbered with us? It is more than mere manners; it is love. And love has to start somewhere—can is start here? Can it start with us? Can is start with me?
One last illustration as a conclusion; one last look at Uganda … for not everything was poisoned by the selfishness of the few. It will be a highlight in my life’s memory book. I was one of two mzungus (white foreigners) on a team of about 30 Ugandan students who went to evangelize other Ugandans in Yumbe—the far north of Uganda at the border with South Sudan where 99% of the population is at least nominally Muslim. It was decided by our Ugandan leaders that before we did any preaching, we would go and dig in the gardens of the people, and clean up their streets. We arrived and the very first thing we did was to grab our hoes and find the elderly citizens who could no longer weed their gardens. And in Uganda, if you don’t grow it yourself, you often don’t eat—so gardens are very important. The first field we weeded belongs to a musee, an elder who was also the chieftain of the tribe.
It took us about an hour to finish our task and the musee called us over to where he stood, sporting his his Muslim prayer hat (taqiyah), leaning on his cane. Of course, he assumed that the two mzungus were in charge, but we quickly deferred to our group’s real leaders, a couple of young Ugandans who were in their early twenties. Ugandans do not say “thank you” very often in their culture, especially the “big men,” but he did, admitting that even his own grandchildren have not been willing to help him weed his garden. And then he turned to the two of us with pale skin saying, “And I have never seen a white man do manual work.” “We have seen some groups come here for various reasons, even the United Nations, but no one has ever helped us weed our gardens.” This was our greeting—we gave it, he received it.
Later that week, after several more gardens, we invited the whole city to see the Jesus Film. But we were threatened by the local thugs with rocks and sticks and pangas to leave town; that they would break our equipment (or worse). Now get this, it was this musee whose garden we first weeded who hired armed guards (probably without more than one bullet each) to surround our group until the event was concluded. We counted perhaps 500 people who heard the gospel for the first time in their lives, in their own language. And it all started with a love-infused, faith-ignited greeting—this is the powerful, beginning of love.