II Corinthians 3
II Corinthians 3:1-18: At the end of the previous chapter, Paul has contrasted his ministry with those who simply peddle spirituality. He asserts that he has spoken as a person of sincerity, as a person sent from God, and as a person living in an on-going relationship with God.
The beginning here is confusing as Paul has not commended himself before. However, there seems to be an on-going dispute about Paul’s ministry with the Corinthians in relationship to the ministry others have brought and are bringing. Paul founded the congregation. He has tried to explain his change of plans. He has asserted his sincerity and spoken of his love for these people. That should be enough – no letters of recommendation should be needed, but if any are needed, Paul says, the Corinthians should look at their own hearts. That they are a church at all is because of the work of Paul and his co-workers. God’s Spirit has been at work in their hearts, that is all the credential Paul needs to continue his ministry to and with this congregation. If God has been at work in the lives of this church through Paul’s ministry, Paul wants to give the credit to God. God has made Paul competent in this work, and it is God who makes any competent to be “ministers of a new covenant.” In using this language, Paul is referring to God as a covenantal God, and God’s first covenant was with Israel. Paul is not here saying that the former covenant has been abrogated, but that God has also opened up a new way of life. The Law could be letter or spirit, but for Paul it had become only letter for many. In Christ, a new covenant of spirit has begun. It is life-giving. There always seems to be a danger in the religious life that something in it becomes life-killing letter rather than life-giving spirit. Faith is about practices, but the practices are not an end in themselves. I plan to write more about this (the pendulum of practice) in my other blog later this weekend (http://withfaithandwithfeathers.blogspot.com).
Paul now makes explicit reference to the Hebrew Scriptures, trying to draw from them lessons for the Corinthian Christians. Again, the point here is not to denigrate the value of God’s covenant with Israel, but to say something about Christian faith and life. What the Corinthians have in Christian faith is something full of the glory of God – something radiant and shining. Images of radiance are familiar in religious traditions, evoking enlightenment, closeness to the divine. Because we know something of this glory, radiance, brilliance – because we have such a shining hope, we “act with great boldness.” Paul’s meaning is a little unclear, here. He seems, in the remainder of the chapter, to be again celebrating shared faith and ministry with the Corinthian Jesus community. Paul acts with boldness toward them in his ministry, and they are invited to live boldly in hope. There is “no veil” in their relationship with God, as Paul suggests still exists for many in the Jewish community, though he does not seem to be making any statement about how permanent this veil might be.
Then Paul takes flight again in describing the Christian faith and life he and the Corinthian Christians share. “Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
The Message: And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.
Cotton Patch Version: Now the Lord is spirit, and where the Lord’s Spirit rules, so does freedom. And all of us, with our unmasked faces clearly reflecting the Lord’s loveliness, are at the same time being changed into his exact image by one glorious thing after another. Thus we take on the Lord’s Spirit.
Paul’s words here remind me a bit of the words of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who thought the Christian life was a life leading toward perfection. “By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God and our neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words, and actions.” (January 27, 1767) The Christian life is a life of being transformed by love, in love, by the Spirit of the God who is love. Love shining out through every pore in our bodies - that seems to be the goal. Quite an adventure!
II Corinthians 4
II Corinthians 4:1-15: In the last chapter, Paul has reminded the Corinthian Jesus community of his ministry for and with them, and celebrated their common ministry and shared faith. He has reaffirmed his conviction that God is about transforming lives. Paul now shifts back to discussing the character of his ministry. Part of the challenge in reading these chapters, in addition to only hearing one part of a conversation (the Corinthian’s questions and situation being the parts we don’t have directly), is that it is sometimes unclear when Paul uses “we” to whom this refers. In places it seems to refer to Paul and the Corinthian Christians (and, indeed, to all persons of faith), and in other places it refers only to Paul and his co-workers in ministry. Here we begin with Paul discussing his ministry and the “we” is he and his co-workers. Through their reflections, however, we can reflect on our own lives as Christians and as people engaged in ministry for Jesus Christ (a ministry not limited to ordained persons).
Paul reiterates a point previously made, that his ministry is God’s work. “Since God has so generously let us in on what he is doing, we’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times” (The Message). Paul will not lose heart. He will continue to operate openly – “we refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes.” (The Message). Apparently Paul has been accused of doing some of these things by others who are also ministering in Corinth. He offers himself openly to the conscience of each person. He goes on to say that if anything is mysterious or veiled in his work it is only so to those who just don’t get it, who have been blinded to the truth. For Paul, being open to the good news of Jesus Christ is a decision, but he also believes there are forces at work in the world which stand in the way of people seeing the truth. That may be difficult for us, but one might say that sometimes the force of our own past decisions take on a life of their own making new directions more difficult.
Paul returns to images of light already used. Christ is the image of God, and to know this is to see the light. Paul says that his ministry is not about himself, but about Jesus Christ as Lord (a rather subversive phrase in imperial times). He even calls himself a “slave” to the Corinthians as he works in their midst. Even as a slave, Paul argues that it is the light of God that has been shining in his life, shining so that others might see it and come to see the light in Jesus the Christ themselves.
Paul continues to bring together images of weakness and strength. There is light, there is a treasure, but it is in held in clay jars. With verse 7, we begin an extended meditation, a response to some of the criticisms Paul has been receiving about his ministry. The argument extends through chapter 5, verse 10. The image of the clay jar is used to reiterate that the power of Paul’s ministry comes from God. Some have argued against Paul that he has not been powerful enough, not glamorous enough. He has been in prison. He can appear undignified. He does manual labor rather than take pay for his work. Paul responds by saying the treasure of God is to be found in clay jars. So, there are afflictions, perplexities, persecutions. The wonderful irony here is that clay jars are also fragile. Paul is saying that while God’s light is to be found in clay jars, they are very resilient and that resiliency is itself a testimony to God’s grace. He is afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. Paul then makes the ultimate appeal about this strange mixture of strength and weakness to be found in his ministry – he appeals to Jesus. Wasn’t one possible rap against Jesus that he died an inglorious death, the death of a criminal? Yet he is alive. So in his ministry, Paul has known something of Jesus’ death, but only so his life might also be known. Paul wants the life of Jesus to be known especially in the lives of the Corinthian Christians.
But Paul has faith, and speaks out of that faith. Here he asserts himself more strongly. He trusts that the same power and person who raised Jesus from the dead will do the same for him, and for the Corinthian Christians. I don’t read this as simply a hope for an afterlife, I read it as an assertion on Paul’s part that resurrection power will raise up lives into newness of life even now. Paul wants his work to help God’s grace extend to more and more people.
II Corinthians 4:16-18: Again, Paul says that he will not lose heart, even though he is a bit beleaguered. There is both outer difficulty, but inner renewal. There is present affliction, but something wonderful is being created in the midst of it. All that can be seen may seem discouraging, but one cannot look simply at what one sees. Love and grace are difficult to measure.
This section will continue into the next chapter. Reading Paul’s words, I hear words for all our lives. For many of us, if not most or all of us, we experience times where we are beleaguered, when we feel afflicted, beaten down, confused. Christian life, though it is about being transformed in love does not promise that the road is always easy. Paul’s gospel is no “prosperity gospel.” The promise is that even in the midst of heartache and difficulty, God is with us and God’s transformative work continues. What can be especially discouraging, and what might have been particularly discouraging to Paul, was that much of his affliction was coming from within the church itself.
I also read these words as a clergy person, and as someone who supervised clergy when I was a district superintendent. I would always want clergy to be careful and use this passage sparingly. I know clergy who don’t do some of the things they should do to improve their own ministry, then make appeal to a passage like this about how their congregation may be afflicting them. I also know very good clergy who experience times of discouragement and perplexity. Sometimes we just don’t know why there is the low-level grumbling and criticism around us. Like Paul we have offered our best gifts sincerely, with open mind and heart, tried to listen well to concerns, and yet we remain afflicted, perplexed, beleaguered. There are deep words of comfort and care here, strong words of encouragement not to lose heart. So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. (The Message)