Pentecost 2: 3 June 2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Paul had a turbulent relationship with the believers in Corinth, despite his having founded their community. Corinth was a busy port for travellers and commerce. Other Christian leaders soon made an impact on the community. There was also busy correspondence between Paul and the Corinthians only some of which has survived. We know of a letter he wrote before writing 1 Corinthians, a letter from them in return plus news brought by its members. In response Paul writes 1 Corinthians. We then hear of another letter he wrote subsequently which has not survived, but is described as very serious and confronting. 2 Corinthians was written in its aftermath in place of a visit which Paul decided to cancel. The last 4 chapters, which return to a rather confronting personal style, may belong to a letter written after 2 Corinthians 1 - 9, or may simply be a summing up of the issues.
Why so much interchange and strife? In part it was because there was a clash of values between Paul and many at Corinth. From Paul’s responses we can piece together some of the criticism they had and he had of them. Already 1 Corinthians lets us see Paul’s concern that some of them saw being Christian as being impressive, with powerful speech, success in performing miracles, living from high to high as though earthy things like human relations did not matter so much. Instead Paul argues that the mark of the Spirit is first and foremost: love. 1 Corinthians 13 is famous for its celebration of love and putting other things in perspective.
By the time Paul comes to write 2 Corinthians the relationship with some, at least, has deteriorated. He was under attack personally. Apparently he did not cut an impressive image. Other Christian leaders had more impressive credentials. Some who visited Corinth carried letters of recommendation which itemised their impressiveness. They carried references from top apostles. Criticism accumulated. Paul had been criticised for working part time to support his ministry. Surely they argued Jesus instructed them to depend on others’ hospitality! Paul lacked faith, they said. And when he set about collecting money for the poor in Judea, they could argue that he was just wanting the money for himself. You can rad more in the final chapters of the letter.
When Paul had his back to the wall, he write some of his finest pieces. 1 Corinthians 13 is one example. Romans is another, which he wrote to ward off criticisms and reassure the Romans of the legitimacy of his ministry and message. The fact that he wrote it from Corinth suggests that by that time the relationship with Corinth has significantly improved, perhaps under the impact of 2 Corinthians.
Our passage begins with Paul declaring that he is not interested in engaging in self-promotion, much as he needs to defend himself. Instead he centres himself and centres the attention of his readers on Christ. He subverts his opponents’ values, who want to be impressive leaders, by asserting that Christ is the leader and he and his colleagues are slaves. That is deliberately confronting of their self-glorification. Paul’s faith is so shaped by his understanding of God and Jesus, that he can explain himself in terms which reflect gospel values.
He speaks of himself and his colleagues as being like clay jars, earthenware vessels, not fancy stone or ceramic beauties. This is more than humility. It is grounded in his understanding that the treasure of the Spirit is not the ability to do fantastic miracles and Impress others, but love, including the willingness to make oneself vulnerable. That was, after all, how Christ was, and reflects God’s priorities, too. So Paul’s defence is not to make a case for his ego, but to centre himself on Christ. As Christ was, so is his ministry to be. The light and glory comes not from models of human glorification as though God is just a self obsessed human leader writ large, but from the way God is and was in Christ. This is the nature of God’s creativity from the beginning. To share that light and life is to share love, the fruit of the Spirit. This is what informs Paul’s life but also his ministry.
Paul’s affirmation breaks into a kind of poetry as he strings together a series of contrasts which declare that his vulnerability and suffering (including at their hands) leads him not to despair and despondency, but hope and encouragement. He goes on to confront the Corinthians with challenging words which portray his willingness to be on the suffering vulnerable Christ-side of life in order to benefit them.
A serious clash of values and of theology underlies our passage and the letter as a whole. In the name of faith and the Spirit religious leaders can sometimes promote the very opposite of faith. Paul takes himself, his reads, and us back to square one. It is not all about our egos, our numerical successes, our success in the market place of propaganda, our stunning influence, but about that creative and transforming lowlifes and love which is at the heart of God. And for all in ministry it is not about me-making ministry, but about the only true reward, that of finding fulfilment in oneness with the God of Jesus.
Gospel: Pentecost 2: 3 June Mark 2:23 - 3:6
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