First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 4

William Loader

Pentecost 4: 21 June  2 Corinthians 6:1-13

We are being dropped into the middle of a complex and intense piece of communication. While some elements can stand alone, it makes sense to appreciate the context. For that we need to go back to when we last visited 2 Corinthians in Transfiguration. There are serious problems in Paul's relations with the Christians at Corinth. That is very apparent in the way our passage ends: Paul is urging them to change their attitude towards him and his associates (it finds an echo in 7:2). At an earlier stage in the relationship Paul went away very hurt and angry and then wrote a stinging (or at least, confronting) letter instead of making a promised visit which he was not prepared to face (re-read his comments in 2 Corinthians 2 and then in 7:5-13). He writes this letter in a slightly more relaxed mode, having heard from Titus that things had apparently settled down in Corinth. But the underlying issues are still close to the surface.

Is Paul really a legitimate apostle? Or is he an imposter, an upstart? Those present at Antioch in the stouch between Paul and Peter might have very harsh words to say about Paul, especially if they sided with the majority. And we thought personnel problems were characteristic only of the modern church?! At last, while Corinth seems turned in the right direction, Paul can reinforce his gains. That is largely what this letter is about.

Our passage follows a wonderful flourish of ideas in 2 Corinthians 5 in which Paul talks about becoming a new creation and exercising a ministry of reconciliation. Underneath these powerful affirmations is an agenda which says: our ministry is legitimate. It may not look flash. It may be characterised by hardship, difficulty and failure. It may lack the impressiveness which others generate. But it is legitimate. More than that, rather than being deficient, it matches how Christ was and what Christ intends. As Christ faced suffering for the sake of the good news, so that now characterises Paul and his associates. This is no ground for despair. To imagine ministry primarily as success and victory is to depart from the Christ story of ministry.

Paul knows about super apostles and preachers who have had a major impact in Corinth. Apparently they have come with letters of commendation from high authorities. They are great speakers. They are full of tricks, including miraculous tricks they ascribe to the Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 10-13, written at a time when the tide has turned back and Paul is under threat again, Paul comes out fighting and names issues which in this letter (or this stage of writing the letter) are apparently under control. You can see some of the attitudes already in 1 Corinthians: people impressed with special claims to knowledge and wisdom, people carried away by charismatic gifts, people who put anything but love first.

Paul really wants to hurry the change along in Corinth which Titus reports is underway. That means standing beside the Corinthians (he calls them fellow workers in 6:1) and urging them to go the rest of the journey (not to stop! 6:1). The 'day of salvation' seems to have more to do with the time to make the change complete than with initial conversion. Paul is wanting to convert people at Corinth and their leaders to an understanding of ministry and spirituality which puts compassion and vulnerability at the forefront. 6:3 also shows it is about ministry. In an elaborate rhetorical flourish which begins in 6:4 and runs through various patterns to 6:10 Paul asserts the characteristics of ministry. In 2 Cor 11:21-29 he does something similar. He counters the boasting of those he, earlier in the chapter, calls 'false apostles', by some boasting of his own - and most of it is boasting of his vulnerability and service. Rather than shrinking back in inadequacy because he is cannot match these successful and obviously popular and influential 'apostles', Paul makes a virtue out of what people see as his weaknesses. He points to Christ's weakness and vulnerability as something which reflects the powerful powerlessness of God (he did this also in 1 Cor 1:18-25).

How do you get this across, when people measure success by growing numbers, the buzz and hum of gathered enthusiasm, and, not least, a healthy budget? These are all possible outcomes of authentic ministry. They are also all ambiguous, as Paul found at Corinth. Notice his slight embarrassment (or footwork) in 6:13. He doesn't want to offend these people at the point when they may be turning in the right direction. So he writes: 'I am speaking like I would if speaking to children, if you'll pardon me' - at least that's what he intends. His next move is dramatic. He picks up a typical attack on the unholy world from the perspective of someone advocating separation and holiness. He is either quoting or composing the piece himself. It is not that he suddenly changes the subject and uncharacteristically becomes concerned about the clean and unclean. It is rather a clever challenge to the Corinthians to step away from the opposition, portrayed here as 'unbelievers', serving idols.

Much passes for religion. Much passes for Christianity. Much passes for spiritual success. Paul inspires us to keep returning to the way of compassion and vulnerability: Christ's - and also his own. The rest is idolatry.

Gospel: Pentecost 4: 21 June Mark 4:35-41

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