Lent 4: 6 March 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
This passage is rich with theological imagery and contains some very memorable statements, including, "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" (5:17); and "God was in Christ" (5:19). It is, however, far from a set of doctrinal statements. Rather, it forms part of Paul's struggle with trying to win over the Corinthians who have been unsettled by other Christian preachers who have been discrediting Paul and claiming that they have more impressive credentials. In the heat of defence and attack Paul engages in some of his most profound theological reflections.
The personal context of Paul's statements shines through in the verses which immediately precede our passage. Notice that in 5:11 he is concerned to be accepted by the Corinthians. 5:12 belongs in the same context. Paul defends himself against the charge that he is engaged in self promotion. He wants them to be able to stick up for him against his detractors (5:12). Paul asserts that his ministry is based not on an ego-trip, but on living for Christ as Christ died and lived for him and for all (5:14-15). The love of Christ motivates him and keeps him on the path, controlling how he operates (5:14). So it does not matter if he sometimes fails or seems weak (5:13). The main thing is to embody Christ's ministry of love.
5:16 continues this line of thought. Paul is not going to measure people's ministry by their impressiveness in words or their success. Such things as having a good pedigree (that becomes an issue later in 11:22) do not matter. Paul is even daring enough to say that that kind of knowledge of the historical Jesus is also irrelevant. The famous statement, "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" , belongs to Paul's argument that we approach people with a totally new system of values. The Greek word is better translated "creation" than "creature", but the effect is the same. The focus is not so much conversion and personal change, although we have often used the text to illustrate that. That is not wrong, but we need to see that its immediate reference is a change in value systems in the way we look at people and, in particular, how we evaluate their ministry.
Paul uses the idea of the new creation to underline his point that his opponents who boast of their pedigree and achievements are pandering to common human values, rather than to what matters before God. So Paul keeps bringing ministry back to God. He has a theological perspective. And for Paul God is the compassionate one who therefore reconciles people to himself (5:18). This is one of Paul's favourite ways of describing what salvation means. It means being brought back into a right relationship with God. At the same time Paul associates his reconciliation with his call. We are not only reconciled, but we are commissioned for the work or ministry or service of reconciliation. Love which restores relationships with God is the name of the game.
5:19 makes much the same point, but includes a reference to sins ("trespasses"). Paul is doubtless drawing on traditional language here. The reconciliation includes the setting aside of any suggestion that God holds our sins against us. Reconciliation includes forgiveness, being willing not to hold things against people. It is a generosity which calls for honesty not deceit. That honesty includes acknowledging our sin and failings. God is the one who took the initiative. For Paul that sums up Christ's work: it was God's work of reaching out to people, offering a new beginning. Notice that Paul ends 5:19 as he ends 5:18 - with a definition of ministry. What is my ministry? It is to embody God's ministry which I already see embodied in Christ ("God was in Christ reconciling" is an incidental but impressive comment).
5:20 continues the same chain of command or line of initiatives. We are called to be envoys, representatives or ambassadors of the reconciling God. When Paul concludes this verse with the exhortation that the Corinthians be reconciled to God, this is much more than illustrating his message in an abstract sense. After all, we may assume the Corinthians are reconciled to God. So why is Paul saying it? Doubtless because he is thinking of their need also to be reconciled to Paul and Paul's understanding of God. As long as they are impressed by those preachers who claim their allegiance on grounds of their pedigree and their achievements, they are, from Paul's perspectives, a bit estranged from God. So there is a sting in the tail of his comment.
5:21 is such an extraordinary statement that translators often to try to soften it. It says plainly: we become the righteousness of God in Christ! It must not be flattened out into a statement that we are made righteous or justified, because the context is about ministry. Becoming God's righteousness is another way of saying: embodying God's love, goodness, compassion, reconciling initiative. Again Paul is using a traditional interpretation of Jesus' death as being like an act atoning for sin. It could be heard as a straight statement of substitution, as if it meant he was punished on our behalf for our sins, a common view. It doesn't in fact say that, but it does imply Christ was made to enter sin and death. As he was made sin (made to embody it and its consequences?) so we are in turn made righteousness. The match is not perfect and something of a play with words, but the intention is clear. Paul is saying: the whole point of Christ's facing sin and death was that we might come to embody God's life, particularly in ministry. God's righteousness in Paul is not something static, but refers to God's goodness and generosity which displays itself in action, in reconciling, in compassion. That is what defines our ministry, not the list of our human credentials and pedigrees - or any other degrees!
In 6:1 we see Paul's personal concerns becoming more explicit. He hopes the Corinthians will not have received the grace of God in vain. The point is similar to his quip in 5:20 that they be (truly) reconciled to God! Paul then goes on to talk about his ministry and to make his case that it is legitimate because it has a Christ shape to it. Thus within 5:16-21 we really have something quite specifically focused on ministry (especially apostolic ministry) and we are not wrong to see particular relevance to our own callings to special ministry. To engage his ministry problems (he had them too!), Paul does theology. He goes back to what he sees as defining his ministry and in doing so goes back to the very nature of God and the point of the Christ event. You can see the roots of Paul's spirituality. Almost incidentally his theologising about the current ministry conflict brings to expression some of the most insightful general statements which apply to all and restate the gospel as radical transformation. Paul moves God into centre stage - not always easy to do when ministries and egos are involved.
Gospel: Lent 4: 6 March Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
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