Saturday, January 5, 2008

II Corinthians 5

II Corinthians 5:1-10: These verses conclude the sustained meditation Paul began in 4:7. Paul introduces another image that mixes strength and weakness. What matters most in ministry are those things that cannot be seen – growth in love, for instance. Here Paul uses the image of the body as a tent and trusts that when this “tent” is gone, there will be a new one – a building from God. Now, in this tent, we groan, longing for a better day. Paul is not primarily focusing on the afterlife here, though it is a part of his context. He is using these images to complete the thought of the previous section – that our lives and ministries have moments of groaning and weakness, but in the midst of that God continues to do God’s creative work. God’s Spirit is at work within us.

So in the midst of this mixture of weakness and strength, affliction and comfort, Paul remains confident. “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” We cannot and should not ignore “measurable” elements of ministry effectiveness, but they never tell the entire story, and sometime miss the most important story, especially in the short-run. The goal is to keep walking, to keep on keeping on. If we do that, our lives will be judged faithful in the end.

II Corinthians 5:11-21: Paul takes seriously that he will be accountable to God for his life and ministry. He continues to work by persuasion, continues to try and move others into a deeper relationship with God in Jesus Christ and into a lifestyle consistent with God’s love and justice. Paul believes God knows of his work, and he hopes the Corinthians are also aware in their own consciences of his work. Once again, Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to think that he is just boasting, but he is reminding them of his deep and real care. That has been questioned by some. We’re not saying this to make ourselves look good to you. We just thought it would make you feel good, even proud, that we’re on your side and not just nice to your face as so many people are. (The Message) The Cotton Patch Version renders part of the passage this way: “We are trying to give you some valid reason for having confidence in us.” Some may not only have questioned Paul’s care, but his “mental status” or his spirituality. He responds by saying that all his actions are either in the interest of deepening his relationship with God and/or for the benefit of the Corinthian Christians. “The love of Christ urges us on.” “His love has the first and last word in everything we do” (The Message). Paul again stakes a claim about his ministry and also joins he and the Corinthians together in a single Christian faith. Paul is motivated by the love of Christ, a love of Christ for them all. Paul sees the love of Christ in the way Jesus died. Jesus' death is one part of the center of Christian faith. We all need to grapple with this, though there may be some difference of opinion on the precise nature of the significance of that death.

Paul thinks one way to discuss the significance of the death of Christ is that we participate in it – through the love of God in Christ, we are able to die to deadly ways of living, and are made alive to life itself. We can live life in a way not bound by an excessively narrow sense of “self.” We can choose whether or not to orient our lives to the new world that has dawned in Christ, or to continue to live as though the old world were the only one…. To orient one’s life to the new world is to live unselfishly…. Concrete deeds of care for other people manifest the reality of the new world. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

This new life in Christ really is a new beginning, a new creation. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” Paul does a wonderful job, once again, of moving from defending his own ministry to focusing on the heart of their shared Christian faith. In this chapter we have movement “from a defense of Paul’s ministry to the message at the heart of the letter: the appeal for full reconciliation” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The phrase “in Christ” is found only in Paul and Pauline literature in the New Testament. Paul thinks of Christ as more than a mortal who once lived on earth and in now in heaven. Christ is a corporate, cosmic reality, a sphere of existence, a force field that determines one’s life. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

All this new life, new creation, comes from God. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself.” While there are many and various ways to talk about the heart of Christian faith, this is a powerful one. God acted in Christ. That is at the heart of Christian faith. God acted in Christ to make the way for new creation, new life. That is at the heart of Christian faith. At the center of this new life is reconciliation – reconciliation between God and human persons, reconciliation between persons, reconciliation between persons and the creation itself. Not only has God initiated reconciliation, but God has also given us the task of sharing in that work of reconciliation. God makes God’s outreach to the world through us. All this is at the heart of Christian faith, and Paul encourages the Christians to live it, to be reconciled to God. It will also lead him to encourage reconciliation between persons.

II Corinthians 6

II Corinthians 6:1-13: God’s people work together, and work with the Spirit of God. Paul encourages and urges the Corinthians not to “accept the grace of God in vain,” and now is the time to get on with it. Paul shifts back to discuss his own ministry, the way he has been working with the Spirit of God and not accepting the grace of God in vain. “To keep people from making accusations against our cause, we are mighty careful to give them no openings” (Cotton Patch Version). Paul believes his ministry has given the Corinthians every reason to trust him. He has endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger. He has lived with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and in the power of God. This second list is another place where Paul provides us a good list of the kind of qualities all Christians are invited to cultivate. Cotton Patch Version: Through it all we stand with sincerity, understanding, forbearance, kindness, a pure spirit, open-faced love, the truthful word and the power of God. The Message: with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we are telling the truth, and when God’s showing God’s power.

After sharing a list of both hardships and positive aspect of his ministry and of the Christian life, Paul now pairs difficulties he has encountered with claims for his ministry. He concludes with a powerful statement of his ministry. “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you.” All Christian ministry, lay and ordained, should be about speaking lovingly and openly. Paul then drops the other shoe. While his heart has been wide open to them and his affection for them has no known bounds, theirs has been restricted, and he asks them to open their hearts, too.

Paul’s writing in these chapters has caused me to think about how one is open to legitimate criticism and how one responds when one feels that one’s position has been unfairly criticized. Paul seems masterful in focusing often on shared faith, but he is also not reticent to say “here’s what I’ve done, here is my attitude.” That is not an easy balance to achieve. How does one legitimately “defend” one’s integrity without becoming anxiously defensive?

II Corinthians 6:14-18: This paragraph (through 7:1) seems out of place. 7:2 easily continues the thought of 6:13. One could argue that this is a later assertion into the letter, though it appears here in the most ancient manuscripts. It may simply be a digression on Paul’s part, though what triggered it can be debated. The issue is the relationship between Christian believers and non-Christians. This was a live issue in the Corinth to which Paul was writing. Christians were a small minority in their society. Can a Christian work for a pagan boss or client who engages in idolatrous practices? What is the Christian member of a business partnership to do when the pagan partner proposes that a pagan priest bless the business in the name of a pagan god to ensure success? Can the Christian partner participate in business meetings held in an idol temple? Can Christians participate in pagan athletic, patriotic, and social events, i.e., can they participate in the life of their own community, or must they withdraw? (People’s New Testament Commentary)

The note Paul strikes here is one of very cautious engagement with non-Christians, and, in fact, strategic disengagement. Paul uses the image of our lives as temples of God, and argues the need to keep the temple pure. “How it applies in modern situations is a matter of critical discernment” (People’s New Testament Commentary). If read in the context of what comes before and after, even if this passage seems strikingly out of place, the implication may be that open-hearted reconciliation, which Paul has encouraged, is in keeping with Christian faith, and is distinct from some of what may have been current practice in the surrounding culture. Maybe the message is not to disengage from persons who are not Christian, but to be able to be separate from values in the surrounding culture that work against Christian virtues and values.

No comments: