Category: 2 Corinthians

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.

Becoming the New Creation – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3B (2 Corinthians 5)

2 Corinthians 5:6-17 New Revised Standard Version

6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. 
[11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.] 14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

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

                Paul’s declaration that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” has proven to be foundational for my faith. Although that declaration is couched in apocalyptic language, it is a comforting and encouraging word. That is because it offers a message of new beginnings. To put it in Johannine terms, it offers the promise of being “born again.” According to Paul, the old life has passed away, so it no longer has a hold on me. I know I’m not alone in reading this passage in that way. Of course, Paul did have apocalyptic expectations that did not come to fruition in his lifetime. As we see here, he assumed it would not be long before the world stood before the judgment seat of Christ (vs. 10). While the earth continues its journey around the sun and Jesus has to return to inaugurate that new creation, can we not take from this message a promise that the past does not control our present or our future.

                Before we get too far in this conversation, I need to take note of the fact that the lectionary excludes verses 11-13 from our reading from 2 Corinthians 5. These excluded verses remind us that Paul is feeling the need to defend his ministry, even to the point of accepting the charge that he and his cohort are not of sound mind. While making that “admission” he clarifies by saying that if he’s not sane, it is because of his service to God. Yes, it’s God’s fault! Perhaps, the reason he has been criticized is that he hasn’t been engaged in competitive boasting. In other words, he’s not operating in ways the culture expects. That leads some to feel as if he’s weak. But, to Paul’s mind, they’ve missed the point that he’s been making. Boasting is not the way of Jesus.

                Now, one can easily jump from verse 10 to verse 14 without missing a beat. Nevertheless, the missing verses do provide a context for understanding Paul’s message of reconciliation. Ultimately, the core message of the passage is that when we are in Christ we become a new creation. That old life of ours has been replaced by the new creation.

                Focusing for a moment on verse 10, we read Paul’s words about standing before the judgment seat of God. That sounds ominous, and yet it would seem to be a necessary step in the process of being transformed from the old life to the new. When we stand before God our deeds are weighed and the appropriate “recompense” is given out. For Paul, if we are in Christ standing before God’s throne should not be a scary proposition. He has confidence because he walks by faith. When it comes to his situation in life, it doesn’t matter whether he is standing in the physical presence of Jesus or not, he knows what the future holds for him. So, he’s too concerned about his own bodily life, whether he’s here or there. It doesn’t matter to him. That’s because he understands himself to be living already in the realm of God.  But it appears he’s ready to leave behind this life and enter the new creation in all its fulness. He’s ready for the day of the Lord to come. The confidence comes from knowing/believing that this is his future. In the meantime, as Paul notes in verse 11, he and his cohort will continue to try to convince others of the truth he has embraced in Christ.

                The confidence Paul has is rooted in the cross, believing that Jesus died for all and then raised for them as well so that those who now live might live no longer for themselves. Thus, as C.K. Barrett writes: “Because Christ, being the person he was, died and was raised, there exists the universal possibility (he died on behalf of all; all died) of a new kind of human existence, no longer centred upon self but centred upon Christ” [Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 169]. This describes Paul’s own sense of purpose. As a follower of Jesus, he has been reconciled through the cross and the resurrection, so he is committed to the ministry of reconciliation in Christ. This is his calling, and he believes it should be our calling as well.

                Verse 16 is intriguing because Paul speaks of having once known Jesus according to the flesh, but no longer does he view Jesus in that way. Is he speaking of having known Jesus when he was walking the earth or is he speaking in more theological terms? That is, will he no longer look at Jesus from a purely human perspective, but instead will affirm the divinity of Jesus? Whatever Paul means here, he no longer looks at Jesus the same way as before. Here we might remember that Paul the persecutor became Paul the reconciler.

                As we reach the end of the passage, we come to the verse that has spoken to me so powerfully over the years. The message of Paul is simple: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” You can see the apocalyptic dimensions of this passage. Paul, like John the Revelator, envisioned a passing away of the old earth and the revelation of the new earth. He might not be as colorful in his language, but the message is essentially the same. What is will be replaced with what will be. The question is, what we should we do now? For Paul and for Jesus, who is also an apocalyptic prophet, we should live now as if we are already living in the new creation. Paul goes on from here to speak of a calling. Having been made new in Christ, we are called to take up the ministry of reconciliation (vs. 18). In fact, the lectionary creators likely cut things off a bit too soon. The calling to engage in the ministry of reconciliation that is rooted in the fact that we are now a new creation forms part of God’s larger work of reconciling the world to God’s self (vs. 19). Therefore, as Paul writes in verse 20, God has called us to be ambassadors through whom God is making an appeal. It’s not enough to affirm our status as a new creation if we don’t take the next step and embrace our calling to be ambassadors of reconciliation so that the work of new creation/recreation can go forward.  

                This calling, to live as if the new creation has already begun to take hold in this world. The transformation is underway. But, to see this occur requires faith. That is why,  as Paul writes in verse 7, we must walk by faith and not by sight. When we look around at the world in which we live, it might seem as if there is no evidence that the new creation is present in this old world of ours. It seems as if there is a mass shooting every day. Conspiracy theories are rampant, threatening the democratic foundations of the United States and other nations. Racism is rampant, taking a variety of forms. Too often Christians are deeply embedded in much of these problems. Nevertheless, Paul asks us to look at things from a different vantage point. That is, he invites us to look at the world through the lens of Christ’s promise of reconciliation. If we do this, then we can join in the effort to bring true reconciliation to the world, and with it, the new creation.

Swanson, John August. Celebration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56538 [retrieved June 5, 2021]. Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 1997 by John August Swanson.