No Obstacles to Salvation Here – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4B (2 Corinthians 6)

Paul – Rembrandt

2 Corinthians 6:1-13 New Revised Standard Version

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
    and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

11 We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. 12 There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. 13 In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

************

                Today is the day of salvation that means entering into a partnership with God, who, as we saw in 2 Corinthians 5 has reconciled us to Godself in Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. So don’t wait, receive the grace of God. Don’t let it go to waste by receiving it in vain. After all, Paul quotes from Isaiah 49:8, which affirms the promise that on the day of salvation God has helped us. That promise, of course, is rooted in God’s covenant promise to Israel, to restore the exiles to their homeland. As Scot McKnight notes, Paul uses “Israel-remnant-servant imagery” to reveal “a loving, faithful covenant God” who is working to bring the exiles home. With that as the foundation, “Paul sees his own mission to the Corinthians as (hopefully) accomplishing the same salvific purpose of God as he announces redemption in Christ! This appeal to Isaiah 49 is a pastorally creative and apocalyptic reading of the Bible backwards” [Connections, p. 100]. Therefore, today is the appropriate day of salvation, so take hold of it.

                As noted in earlier postings, Paul’s letters to the Corinthians have strong apocalyptic elements. There is an urgency to his message. Don’t waste time on unimportant things. As for the Corinthians, they’re restless. They want to move on from Paul’s oversight, which they seem to think is rather paternalistic. Writing this post as the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be winding down, you can feel some sympathy with the Corinthians. We just want to get on with our lives. Freedom is our watchword. The same is true here. There are elements of human life that don’t seem to change much. Context changes, but the emotional elements don’t seem to change that much. So, we can identify. Of course, Paul is not without his emotional involvement. We say that clearly on display in the way he responds to their resistance to his message.

                We see Paul’s emotions on display in the way he speaks of his involvement with them in verse 3. He insists that he and his companions had not put any obstacles in the way of anyone’s relationship with God. He claims that the Corinthians cannot find fault with his efforts on their behalf. In other words, they are people of integrity. In our day, it seems as if everyone’s integrity is in question. Perhaps it’s the 24 hour a day news cycle and social media that fuels this. It could be that too many scandals have been uncovered, including in the religious realm. It’s not that this didn’t happen in days of yore, it’s just that it’s more difficult to keep things under wraps. Once the cat is out of the bag you’re
not putting it back in.

                As we read through this passage it becomes clear that some question Paul’s integrity. After all, he claims that they have treated him as if he is an imposter (2 Cor. 6:8). It is for this reason that Paul finds it necessary to defend his ministry (and that of his companions). So, we read in verses 4-10 a lengthy description of his trials and tribulations as well as a strongly worded statement concerning his integrity. You can sense here that Paul’s emotions are on full display. He’s being vulnerable before them. So, he reminds them that he has endured many tribulations on their behalf ranging from imprisonment to shipwrecks. He’s spent many a sleepless night and experienced hunger, just so he could proclaim the gospel to them. He and his companions have also tried to live pure and holy lives, speaking the truth and expressing love for them (integrity!). Yet, as I noted above, they are treated as if they are imposters. Nevertheless, while
they may have nothing (of material value) they possess everything.

                I expect that many clergy identify with Paul. They’ve given their all and feel as if it is all for naught. I’ve seen and heard the stories on clergy Facebook pages. All of this has been intensified during COVID as some members have pushed to reopen before it was deemed safe and pressure was put on these clergy to go against what they believed was best (I’m thankful that the congregation I serve didn’t put that kind of pressure on me). Perhaps these words from Paul can at least give solace and maybe even encouragement to speak out. It’s biblical, after all!

                As I read the passage, I wonder if the key to understanding this passage can be found in verse thirteen, where Paul calls them children. He feels as if he must speak to them as if they are children, and for Paul, that is not a compliment. He speaks to them as if they are immature and in need of proper guidance (and that may be true if the letters reveal the truth about what was happening in Corinth). Not only are they children, but in his mind, they are his children. After all, he founded this church and he feels a certain responsibility for their welfare. That is true even though he must speak to them through letters. Thus, this is a pastoral letter.  As for the Corinthians, they believe they are mature and no longer in need of Paul’s paternalistic guidance.  They want their freedom to do as they please, because they know what is good for them, despite what Paul might think. I wonder if Paul’s litany of trials and tribulations fell on deaf ears and closed hearts. He would like them to show some gratitude and they show disdain.

                So, what do we make of this? How might it preach? In fact, if you’re a preacher do you use this to impress upon the congregation how much you’ve given up for them? Probably not. I don’t think it would go over well. It might appear as if you have a martyr’s complex (and that never looks good). So, you might just as well read the passage and let it speak as it will and those with ears to hear will hear.

                Ultimately what Paul does here in chapter 6 is deepen the call to embrace Jesus’ offer of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5). He has likely challenged their cultural expectations. He’s pushing them to move beyond their social context and embrace the values of God’s realm. Paul offered a message of humility and meekness to a culture that embraced power and riches. He seemed to be saying, it’s okay to be perceived as weak (unmanly).  As Dan Dick writes: “To offer blessing to the poor and extend woe to the rich defies common sense and is about as countercultural a message as one can preach. Honoring gentleness and meekness over power, humility, and contentment over fame, and simplicity and poverty over wealth seem ridiculous in cultures structured around achievement, popularity, and success, but this is the foundation upon which our Christian faith is built” [Connections, p. 103].  If I’m honest, I too would like a bit of fame
and power. I have more than some. It’s built into my social context as a white male. But, I’m also a small church pastor (well, I am retiring at the end of the month and I did have a nice farewell party. So, I have nothing to complain about). It’s to compare our situations and feel as if we’re being slighted. Paul understands. He might be feeling that himself. Yet, he also seems to understand that he is the recipient of grace and God’s act of reconciliation. With that, Paul can tell the Corinthians to stop resisting the work of God. Embrace God’s reconciling grace and join in the work of God in the world. God is looking for partners in this endeavor. So, open your hearts to God for to day is the day of salvation!   

Image Attribution – Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Apostle Paul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55240 [retrieved June 11, 2021]. Original source: http://www.nga.gov/fcgi-bin/tinfo_f?object=1198.

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