First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary


William Loader

Trinity: 7 June  2 Corinthians 13:11-13

How to end a letter. Usually Paul simply writes: "The grace of the Lord be with you" or "with your spirit". He sometimes ends with an exhortation as here in 13:11 and often with the exhortation to give the greeting of a kiss as in 13:12. At one level these are formalities. At another, they warrant closer examination. Paul is rarely just being formal.

2 Corinthians is the most personal of all Paul's letters. He has just been defending his integrity against Christians determined to discredit him. They claim to outshine him, out-speak him, and have better connections and pedigrees. They also cast aspersions on Paul's motivation for making a collection and see his working to earn money as an indication of lack of faith. He has been buffeted by many of the people whom he addresses here. They see him as a wimp with no authority. In the tortuous few final chapters, 10-13, Paul reasserts his authority, but not for purposes of self-aggrandisement. He ridicules strategies to make oneself impressive. He wants only to live Christ and that means he is happy to boast in what they call weakness. The cross is his model. They need be under no apprehension. When he comes to them he will confront the issues without flinching.

How should he now sign off? First in 13:11 he gives a string of exhortations which in some ways summarise his desires. The first, "rejoice" or, perhaps, "fare well" is a common conclusion. But Paul does not leave it there. Next comes something like: "Get yourselves sorted out!" That is very direct and clear in the light of what precedes. It repeats a word used at the end of  13:9. Then comes a word which means "be encouraged/comforted/exhorted" which in effect means: "Listen to what I have been saying to you!" Next follows: "Find a common mind". This addresses the division in the church. It is not about everyone agreeing on everything but about finding the common basis which makes fellowship possible. Stop the power plays! "Be at peace!" follows this appropriately. In the context it cannot mean: be nice and put up with everything. It is something much more authentic. Ultimately Paul comes to the promise of the presence of the God of love and peace. This, too, cannot be a formality or just a wish. The presence of the God of love and peace is noted where people face up to things honestly and give their attention to relationships. Not much of the presence of God is visible when Christians are making themselves gods and engaging in power struggles.

13:12 contains a common exhortation, but, again, Paul would have little time for symbolic gestures such as kisses which are not grounded in the approach he assumes in 13:11. Faith is not about shallow niceties which hide deep rivalries and division. It is about belonging together. For Paul that is always more than just the local community and more than just himself and his addressees. It is the community created by participation in Christ into whom all are baptised. All the saints, that is, all who embrace God's holiness offered them in Christ are brothers and sisters. This still means a large, convenient and often inconvenient bunch of believers, very imperfect, but belonging together in acknowledging love and grace.

The final verse now serves as a standard benediction. We can thank Paul's rhetorical flourish. It is interesting that of all places it is after his most uncomfortable letter that Paul composes this formula. Here, too, there is much more than formality."The grace of the Lord" often appears in Paul's farewells. Grace puts the focus on compassion as the life of the gospel. "The Lord" identifies the lexicon where we look up the meaning of compassion: the ministry, life and death of Jesus. "Love" in "the love of God" is another way of addressing the same truth, thus reinforcing the emphasis: it was lacking at Corinth! The "fellowship" is about community, participation and sharing. Paul can also use this word to describe monetary sharing. It is a sense of commonality which the Spirit generates. How does this relate to love? Love is a fruit of the Spirit and is its main evidence according to Paul. So this is what Paul wishes for them. It is very like what he said would be with them at the end of 13:11.

Paul has expanded a traditional farewell to make it match a situation where community and compassion was largely missing. It is his last word to them: not an argument, nor a criticism, but a pointing to what is the source of their faith and life. Paul held on to the centre even in the face of turbulence and personal attack which would have derailed many others. He has a way of always coming back to the centre. That can shift the ground in contexts of conflict. It also bequeaths to us a benediction which teaches us where the heart of the gospel lies - if we ever to stop to think what it really means.

Gospel: Trinity: 7 June Matthew 28:16-20