Reflections on 2 Corinthians

2 CORINTHIANS
While it is debated whether 2 Corinthians is a single letter or a collection of letters, one thing we can know for sure is that it is a treasure trove of spiritual wealth and knowledge; in it Paul provides a defense of cruciform ministry and instruction on the lifestyle of the apostle. “…he argues – sometimes gently and politely, sometimes aggressively and acerbically, but always compellingly – that cruciformity is the mark of apostleship, grace and the Spirit.” (Gorman, pg. 291)

 

We learn through Gorman that Paul starts not with his usual Thanksgiving but with a Jewish blessing that then begins to set the stage for the rest of the letter “…life in Christ is about suffering and endurance, affliction and comfort, partnership and mutual care. It is about an ‘abundant life’: experiencing the abundant presence of God in the midst of abundant tribulation.” (Gorman, pg. 294) I love the words that Paul leads with in 2 Cor 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction…” because it reminds us that it is not God who afflicts us but who is compassionate towards us, who suffers affliction and encourages us when we persevere in our afflictions. This is why we can only agree with Paul when he states in 2 Cor 1:7 “Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement.” For our God is with us in everything.

 

We are reminded in 2 Cor 1:10 “He rescued us from such great danger of death, and he will continue to rescue us; in him we have put our hope [that] he will also rescue us again…” This must inspire us. When we examine this perspective, how can we not hope, for why would God go to such lengths to rescue us if he did not intend to save us? He is surely faithful to us. We are reminded again, in 2 Cor 1:20 “For however many are the promises of God, their Yes in in him, therefore, the Amen from us also goes through him to God for glory.” As Gorman explains, each of God’s promises is always a yes, although the timing of this promise is not assured.

 

The next part that really stuck out to me was what Paul wrote about the offender who had been punished by the community, the one who had hurt Paul and the church. By extending charisasthai kai parakalesai, or grace and comfort, they are showing love not just for the individual but for the community as well. “Therefore, I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.” (2 Cor 2:8) The community with which we share our suffering as Paul alluded to earlier in the letter offered both punishment and forgiveness, sharing the burden of suffering.

 

I also appreciate the contrast with which Paul compares the apostolic life to the life of the Romans, using the metaphors to frame up the cruciform lifestyle. “Paul claims that his life and message impact both those being saved and those perishing, functioning as confirmation of their life or their death, respectively (2:15-16; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18; Phil. 1:28). This, Paul realizes, is an awesome responsibility, such that ‘Who is sufficient?’ (NRSV) or ‘Who is qualified’ (NAB) is certainly an appropriate question (2:16).” (Gorman, pg. 298) What Paul helps us to see through his metaphors and questions is that we do not qualify ourselves but are divinely commissioned, and are held accountable to that commission.

 

This should lead us not to pride but humility in ourselves and confidence in Christ. As we often see with Paul, he pulls the old testament and new together in 2 Cor 3:3-5 “…shown to be a letter of Christ administered by us, written not in ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets that are hearts of flesh. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God…” What I really appreciate is that Paul doesn’t devalue the old covenant; he gives thanks for the fulfillment of the temporary covenant and the deliverance of the new more grace-filled covenant that brought God’s Spirit with it. He goes on to contrast the two covenants, examining the suffering of death and the experience of glory as well as the veil over people who cannot see. This all points to the triune or trinity. “Ironically, Paul’s point is almost certainly that the Spirit is the Spirit of both YHWH and Jesus. The glory of Israel’s God is perceived only by seeing the glory of his “image,” the (crucified) Lord Jesus (4:4), like an image reflected in a mirror. In line with much ancient thought about God, Paul believes those who ‘gaze upon’ the image and glory of God are transformed into the divine image…” (Gorman, pg. 300) This translates life and freedom IN Christ THROUGH the Spirit by a God of Israel fully revealed.

 

While we understand this life and freedom promised, we look back at the original topic of affliction. “Paul senses the tension between a gospel of glory and a life of slavery and affliction. He resolves it by finding in the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection the pattern of his own life.” (Gorman, pg. 302) The metaphor that Paul uses this is beautifully described and is a salve to the soul in times of great affliction. 2 Cor 4:7-10 “But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.” It is to tie our suffering to the suffering of Christ and our life to the life of Christ and, as Gorman described, be transformed into the divine image. This leads us to cruciform ministry, a life that makes the life of Jesus visible to others through ourselves; but not by our words alone. Cruciform love isn’t suffering AND love, it’s suffering IN love. The same is true for cruciform ministry, and it’s all in Christ, a reflection of Christ and the hope offered in the resurrection.

 

It is a fundamental thing to note that it is Christ’s love, not the love of Christ, which compels them. 2 Cor 5:14 “For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died.” This means that Christ died as an act of love for all, so that they would all die to themselves and live for God. This was an orienting act of Christ, but there is still an action to be taken, a response to be made on the part of the people: to choose God.

 

Paul writes of his experience in the ministry, establishing his integrity but also providing a framework for those to come for both what to expect and what to strive for. Additionally, it provides us context to understand the tremendous amount of endurance that Paul and his companions demonstrated during their ministry. 2 Cor 6:3-8 “We cause no one to stumble in anything, in order that no fault may be found within our ministry; on the contrary, in everything we commend ourselves as ministers of God, through much endurance, in afflictions, hardships constraints, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, vigils, fasts, by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, in a holy spirit, in unfeigned love, in truthful speech, in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness at the at the right and at the left; through glory and dishonor, insult and praise.”

 

Paul goes on to address many of the problems being faced, including those known as the “super apostles” who were anything but super. Although there is much to be said about these super apostles and so much more within 2 Corinthians, the final verse I’ll examine comes after Paul emphasizes what he ultimately seeks from them: obedience to Christ. Paul understood all the things the Corinthians were up against and warned them strongly in 2 Cor 10:3-6 “For, although we are in the flesh we do not battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our battle are not of flesh but are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” This is not a war of violence against the body but a call to repentance, peace and forgiveness. It is so easy to blame the flesh, the person, and to make their sin their identity but that is not who we are at war with; that is not who our enemy is. The enemy is sin, the enemy is whatever drives us further from relationship with God instead of bringing us closer and by recognizing that the enemy is sin and not the person we can bring freedom and the Kingdom to people who would otherwise believe there is no hope.

Reflections on I Corinthians

I CORINTHIANS

As we begin I Corinthians, we begin to see a pattern with Paul’s writing in that he foreshadows much of his letter within his greeting. In this instance, he reminds the Corinthians both of his apostleship and of their call in I Corinthians 1:1-2 “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy…” Gorman’s emphasis on the Corinthian’s failure to love and Paul’s repeated emphasis of the holiness of humility and love in the Story of Christ becomes readily apparent as we work our way through this letter. The countercultural nature of the letter is clear; Paul is serious and moves quickly into addressing some of the major issues.

“I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” (I Cor 1:10) Paul is focused on unity here; division is a massive problem and Paul is deeply concerned. He spends a long time addressing it, first through relating how he heard of it then tying it back to Christ and his own story. He tries through various means to communicate to them that the paradigm they are used to has shifted. “Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are already something, so that no human being might boast before God.” (I Cor 1:27-29)

As Gorman calls out, wisdom and power might have been elements that Corinthians were well familiar with, and shifting their understanding that what it meant in God’s Kingdom proved to be a challenge. Paul tried to demonstrate God’s preference for the other through his own story in I Corinthians 2:2-5, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive [words of] wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Then Paul tells them that he couldn’t talk to them as spiritual people but as people of the flesh. Gorman points to the fact that Paul reforms their view of ministers, apostle’s and the Church at this point, and points not to man but to God for boasting. Corinthians 3:9 “For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Furthermore, he reminds them of their own holiness in their relationship with God: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (I Cor 4:16-17)

Paul goes on to address things like factionalism and incest and, as Gorman puts it, “Paul hopes that removing this man from the sphere of the Lord Jesus and remitting him to the sphere of Satan will eventually terminate his behavior so that he will finally be saved.” (Gorman, pg. 247) Paul challenges the Corinthians spirit of “toleration,” recognizing it instead as a spirit of pride in extreme libertinism. Believing they could do what they wanted sexually with their bodies, Paul quickly moves to address this and all misunderstandings of what freedom meant in I Corinthians 6:12, “’Everything is lawful for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is lawful for me,’ but I will not let myself be dominated by anything.’” He goes on to say that the body is not for immorality but for God; remembering earlier that the Spirit is now in us. He reminds them that their bodies are members of Christ and questions how they would treat members of Christ’s body. “For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” (I Cor 6:20) He goes on to explain that if you are married, sex within marriage is perfectly acceptable and expected so as not to be tempted to do anything sinful.

I Corinthians 8 really comes down to, as we said in the beginning, what Gorman points out as the Corinthians unlovingness towards one another. Paul would not need to address either insufficient knowledge or practical rules if the Corinthians were able to love each other more than they loved themselves. I Corinthians 8:1 “Now in regard to meat sacrificed to idols: we realize that ‘all of us have knowledge’: knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.” So he goes on to say that yes, while you can eat meat sacrificed to other gods because there are, in fact, no other gods, if doing so puts those who are weak in faith at risk, then a loving response is to not eat that meat in that circumstance. “But make sure that this liberty of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak… Thus through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother for whom Christ died.” (I Corinthians 8:8-11) Paul goes so far as to say “Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause my brother to sin.” (I Cor 8:13) In other words, I would rather practice cruciform love for my brother by not eating meat than risk a brothers salvation through my meat eating.

Paul proceeds with was foreshadowed in the Greeting, to establish his Apostleship, and why he refrains from the rights he has as an Apostle for which some criticize him (he refrains for the good of the Gospel and sees the financial sacrifice as a reflection of Christ’s cruciform love). “I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.” (I Cor 9:23) He warns them against being overconfident; that past Israelites had relationship and no faith because of the traps of idolatry and God was displeased and so they should always be cautious. In Corinthians 10:12-13 “Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” He continues to warn against idolatry and encourage fellowship through things like the Lord’s Supper.

Paul returns again to, as Gorman points out, the Corinth slogan of “Everything is lawful.” Here he reminds them that it might be lawful but it doesn’t necessarily build up. Again, cruciform love is held up as the standard for a response to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” (I Cor 10:31-33) He ends it to imitate him as he imitates Christ.

Then Paul talks about liturgical assemblies, and the abuse of the Lord’s Supper which really just traces back to the Corinthian’s inability to love one another with compassion or cruciform love. As Gorman wrote, Paul saw it as an event of solidarity with no division or neglect and yet it had become a time of division and exclusion. Paul issues a high challenge to the Corinthians within this section, saying in I Corinthians 11:27-29, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself…For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Then he instructs them on how to properly care for one another during the Lord’s Supper.

Next Paul writes about spiritual gifts, because everyone was thinking that certain gifts were better than others. Paul emphasizes that, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also is Christ.” (I Cor 12:12) Additionally, everyone is where they are supposed to be with the gifts that are meant to have. “But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body… Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary.” (I Cor 12:18-22) Every gift is necessary and those that seem weakest are the most necessary to the body. Love, above all things, is most important, and all gifts must be practiced with love. Since it seems to be the greatest challenge for the Corinthians, Paul describes love in detail and then names some of the gifts and how worthless they are if they are done without love. After clearly emphasizing the importance of these things, he says, “Pursue love, but strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy…for their building up, encouragement and solace. Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church.” (I Cor 13:1-4)

Later he says “Thus, tongues are a sign not for those who believe but for unbelievers, whereas prophecy is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.” (I Cor 14:22) I find this really interesting because I can see where this is actually true; where tongues might have been something that would have pulled in someone who was a skeptic but for a believer, prophetic words then and now would have great value to their life. A non-believer on the other hand would have no use for prophecy, because there wouldn’t be any faith or action behind it.

Lastly, if we look at the resurrection, Paul was unsure if the Corinthians really believed in the resurrection. This is understandable; for Paul it was the crux of his faith in Christ and in fact when we look at the disciples, it was the changing point for all their behavior. But Paul sees the Corinthians still behaving as pagans. We’re really getting to the point of Paul’s entire letter. If they truly did believe, they would be living as if they believed. This is why Paul warns them in I Corinthians 15:2 “Through it you were also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” He explains the ins and out of bodily resurrection and why it is important (namely, there is no reason for faith or hope or love without it) and that because of it we are called to those things and to live a life like Christ. He wraps up the resurrection section by stating in I Corinthians 15:56-58 “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Then he wraps up with some final exhortations and greetings. When Paul writes, “Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Your every act should be love.” (I Cor 16:13-14) it can feel like a call to action! Gorman writes that Paul ends with a common early Christian prayer for the Parousia which I also think is beautiful, “Our Lord, come” or Maranatha in Aramaic (pg. 283)

Theological Reflections 2 Thessalonians

2 THESSALONIANS

While 2 Thessalonians is considered a disputed letter, it is still a biblical text and although perhaps not penned by Paul himself, offers great amounts of insight and wisdom into the faith of early Christians and the struggles of the early Church.  Additionally, it was most likely written, if not by Paul, by someone familiar with Paul. This kind of letter written by someone in another’s name (and as they would written) was not unusual in that time.

I particularly appreciate the symmetry we see to 1 Thessalonians in the Thanksgiving by the mention of faith and love and also in the acknowledgment of their endurance through the persecution that the church has been facing (whereas the previous letter discussed the trials that Paul has faced).  The prayer that follows is particularly powerful: 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, “…God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ.” I feel like this would be an amazing prayer to memorize and pray for anyone who is suffering or feels like they are struggling.

Much of the writing focuses on deception by the devil and the Parousia, as well as  the signs that will come with the “lawless one” and warnings to believe the truth and not be deceived.  Shortly thereafter, perhaps to lighten the blow a bit, it says in 2 Thessalonians 3:3 “But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” In my experience I have found this so far to be true; that if I rest in the Lord’s word and seek God’s wisdom I find myself strengthened. It is not necessarily that the problems are any less but that the Lord has better equipped me to handle them and they seem less like problems. Additionally, when I have faith that God is in me, while someone may take my life on earth they cannot do anything to take away my eternity with God. In this way I am guarded.

2 Thessalonians 2:15-17 “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting encouragement and good hope through his grace, encourage your hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.” I particularly enjoy this verse because it focuses on encouragement and hope as they face persecution; it reminds them to keep in the traditions they were taught, some of which don’t seem to stick with them. Apparently there are still lingering issues with idleness that weren’t resolved from 1 Thessalonians and so the advice now becomes even more extreme but seems to be consistent with other advice Paul has given.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7, “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of [our] Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us. For you know how one must imitate us…” They are not saying to shun all “disorderly” people but believers who are disorderly and refusing to change, eating free food from anyone or being idle when they are able to work. This is not the way of a believer and as Paul has explain in Corinthians, by expelling a believer the hope is that they will change their ways and return to Christ, receiving the Spirit. As it says in 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15, “But you brothers, do not be remiss in doing good…take note of this person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame. Do not regard him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother.”

The last bit I want to call out is the another part that echoes 1 Thessalonians, and it is again reminding them of how Paul and his followers lived. 2 Thessalonians 3:8-10, “…in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you. Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. In fact, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” This just further emphasizes the continuity that I Thessalonians has with 2 Thessalonians and reminds us it refers only to believers capable of work who will not.  A later line refers to people who are basically busy bodies rather than being busy working. In Greek it was a play on works that pointed out the difference between those who were busy and those who getting into other people’s business instead. This is why they advise that if you are able to work but are being a busybody instead you haven’t earned your food. It is not a line to condone denial of charity to those in need.

Three German Theologians Post-Holocaust

Jurgen Moltmann hypothesized that God’s suffering is real. He theorized that it was relationally flowing from authentic love. Summarized below are some of the ideas contained in Moltmann’s theology.

Jurgen Moltmann, a German post-Holocaust “political theologist,” placed suffering into the being of God and described this idea as the “crucified God.” Before this, it was assumed in most circles that the suffering experienced by Jesus was relegated to the flesh and that the divine nature was out of the reach of this suffering. Moltmann’s proposal presented the startling vision of a God that truly suffers with those who suffer in the world. During the crucifixion, Moltmann suggests that not only does the Son suffer a brutal physical death, but the Father also suffers in the separation from His son and out of their mutual love the Holy Spirit comes into our sinful and broken world. It is really important to note that God doesn’t have to do go through this; God freely chooses to suffer out of their love for humanity. This does not justify evil or bad things happening in the world; instead it is a reminder that God is a God that sides with the suffering and rests in the depths of it, desirous for the freedom and restoration of the Creator’s people.

Dorothee Soelle worked through three “theological positions” by which she shapes her conclusion that “divine power is the silent cry of life in the midst of suffering.”

     Dorothee Soelle is a German whose family helped hide a Jewish family during the war and elected to visit Auschwitz as a young Lutheran theologian. Bearing witness to such events caused her to re-evaluate the classical attributes ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. As Elizabeth Johnson says in Quest for a Living God, “…she went from classical theism’s omnipotent Father who requires obedience, to the powerless God on the cross who models the impotence of love, to the crucified and risen Christ in whom the divine victory of life over death empowers our own participation in God’s power of life.” (Johnson, 63)

First, she questioned why we would be encouraged to worship a God whose most important characteristic seems to be power and disliking of independence. She eventually finds this incongruent with the character of God. Then she goes on to the idea of this passive, selfless love in Christ who dies on the cross. The portrayal comes across as weaponless, that love is impotent and that it creates apathy in followers in the face of real-life human suffering (as one might see in those who allowed the atrocities of WWII to happen). Soelle came to believe this was because it was neglecting the whole story of Christ, excluding the value of the resurrection. Finally, she arrives at the conclusion that the Divine is, “…a creative, noncompelling, life-giving good. This is power that flows through relationships bringing others to life, power as love.” (Johnson, 64) While nothing justifies events like Auschwitz to her, the belief that God shared in death and suffering as well as brings this kind of power through the resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of a loving and justice seeking God we can worship and with whom we can be in relationship.

Johannes Metz didn’t find the suffering God image helpful. Instead, Metz theologically positioned the problem of suffering within the constellation of considerations. Several components of theology guided the development to his two part approach.

Metz actually fought on the front for the German army at the age of 16; while he was delivering a message his company was attacked and he came back to only bodies where just a day before there were youths sharing hopes, dreams and jokes. His Catholic confidence in a good God  and orderly world began to separate and the Holocaust created a gap that couldn’t be bridged by ignoring the issue, as many in theology were doing.  Nor did Metz agree with the “God who suffers” that fellow Germans Solle and Moltmann had concluded upon. He felt this internalization made suffering beautiful and eternal and therefore went a different path. Suffering was outside of God. There aren’t simple answers. “Toward that end, Metz proposes two intertwined steps: remembering and lamenting unto God.” (Johnson, 65)

First was to remember. Jesus Christ stood in solidarity with all humanity. Through recalling his sacrifice and resurrection, we should also remember those who suffer throughout human history.  This is done because it takes victory away from the conquerors, the writers of history. It also connects each individuals story to the story of Christ in a concrete way, in a way that promises hope for them and also that reminds us of the dangers of inaction; the power of evil.  Second is to lament to God, to keep the question to our Father open rather than wrapping it up in a neat package. “So too, suffering of past and present must drive us toward God protesting, complaining, lamenting, grieving, crying out of the depths, insistently questioning “How long, O Lord?” (Johnson, 67)  This keeps our hopes alive.