First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 3

William Loader

Pentecost 3: 17 June  2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13) 14-17

The key to understanding these chapters of 2 Corinthians is to recognise that Paul faces criticism because of his ministry. It is personal and probably also directed against his particular theology. His opponents who have infiltrated Corinth sought to undermine him at a number of points. They apparently make much of their successes. They live "victorious Christian lives", whereas Paul shows many signs of being weak and vulnerable.

When he asserts his confidence in 5:6, we need to see it in the context of his statements in 4:16, 4:1 and earlier in 3:1-6. There Paul rejects the Corinthians' preoccupation with credentials against which they measure Paul. He refuses to sell or promote himself, as his opponents have been doing. The only letter he will bring them is the one written on his heart: namely his love for them (3:30). Yet he cannot simply go "belly up", as it were, and surrender. Not only is his personal integrity at stake, but so is the gospel. For Paul, that gospel is about the way of the cross, not the way of success. This was why he began the letter by referring to his sufferings. Rather than being a sign of incompetence and weakness, for Paul they are signs of being in touch with the way of Jesus. Paul's struggles repeat themselves in Christianity today, especially where the gospel is sold as something to bring people blessing, a kind of spiritual capitalism.

Paul has confidence to live in the here and now, knowing that he has not arrived. He also has confidence in a future beyond this life, which he imagines, using the notion of a new kind of human embodiment. He has explained this in 5:1-4. It is typical, however, that in 5:9 he insists that the main thing for him is not his state of happiness in his earthly human body or in another realm, but living a life that pleases God. That relationship matters most. There is almost a sting in the tail of his assertion of hope in 5:10. At the judgement God will assess not the impressive credentials which his opponents manipulatively hawk about in their letters of commendation (he is quite sharp in his comments - see 1:12; 2:17; 4:2), but their actual practice of ministry and his.

In 5:11 he speaks of fear or reverence. He takes the relationship with God seriously - with awe. It is not that Paul is acting out of fear (in his own interests). That kind of motivation cannot be sustained. In 5:11 he speaks of a total transparency and hopes the Corinthians will recognise it and see the contrast with those who have been playing games with them at his expense. It is tricky for Paul, because he wants to reject their self-commendation in which they are engaged, yet needs also to speak up for himself and so lays himself open to the same accusation. Hence 5:12 backs off and declares that his purpose is not self-promotion, but he really does want them to appreciate what he is about and be able to stand up to his opponents. Paul is really saying: look, can't you see that my ministry is driven by compassion for you, not by a need to play power games and put myself in the centre. He does not mind being thought of as quite mad at times, as long as they see where his action and ministry is coming from.

This then, form the background for the famous assertion in 5:14, whose translation is somewhat uncertain. It does not mean that Christ's love holds him back ("constrains him"). If anything the context suggests that it means that the love of Christ drives him on, keeps him going, holds him on track. For Paul, this takes him back to the heart of his spirituality. Christ died in a sense that all others, too, might join him in death - death to selfishness and self-promotion which generates sin. Faith celebrates resurrection to new life where people no longer live for self-promotion, but for love. Paul understands that as living for Christ and so for God, and for what God is about, which he will explain in terms of love and reconciliation.

Paul has thought his ministry through. His faith has enabled him to deal with his neediness. It has therefore freed him to be there for others - and for himself, in the best sense. His ministry agenda is not contaminated by the urge to meet his own needs. That is crucial for ministry. Where such issues have not been faced, ministry so easily becomes a form of manipulation and at worst, abusive. Paul is facing a version of these issues with his Corinthians opponents. He espouses a different value system which no longer looks at people according to the agenda of how impressive they are in winning others' favour and affection.

In a daring move he asserts that this is also lousy christology. If you value the humanly sensational in Jesus, such as the miracles, you miss the point about him. These are the common distractions of a certain kind of spirituality. Paul's story of Jesus is informed by the cross. So is his understanding of spirituality and ministry. Some of his best writing was penned to counter such spiritualities. Foremost among such achievements is what he wrote in a previous letter, 1 Corinthians 13. The problem was widespread: see also Matt 7:21-23 and John 2:23 - 3:5. It still is a big problem.

So now we are ready for the famous statement in 5:17. Its context is the conflict over ministry. The following verses continue on the theme of ministry. Here, "a new creation", is another way of talking about the totally different mindset ("born again" in John 3:3 addresses a similar conflict about faith). In this new creation we have a different mindset, which does not look to impressive credentials which people can muster to claim the adulation of their fellows and so make their lives meaningful and valuable. Instead, the new kind of being believes in being loved and being set free from self-preoccupation with one's own worth. One can drop all the manipulative efforts to sustain an impressive image and win love from others to establish one's worth. Love has already declared the worth, announced the forgiveness, offered the hope, so the old ways can go. It's all new. What a relief - for us and for others around us! We no longer have to prove ourselves! We can be free to love.

Elsewhere Paul shows that this is not a sudden change (e.g. Romans 6 and 8). It needs fairly constant attention. Some ruts run deep and patterns are well established. So Paul will talk about the need, if we live in the Spirit, to walk in the Spirit. We need to keep focussing, keep returning to the centre, keep allowing ourselves to encounter the risk and reward of being loved. The following verses return explicitly to ministry. God is about setting relationships right in this way, reconciliation, and has entrusted us with this ministry of reconciliation (5:18-19). With this authority Paul then pleads with the Corinthians on Christ's behalf to be reconciled to God (5:20).

A very interesting way to deal with problems in ministry - but usually never very far from the mark when such issues arise.

Gospel: Pentecost 3: 17 June Mark 4:26-34

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