< June 21, 2009 >

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

 

Paul's theme of reconciliation, begun in 5:11-21, continues in 6:1-13, as Paul appeals to the estranged Corinthian congregation to be reconciled to God and to himself.

In the ancient world, responsibility for initiating the mending of a ruptured relationship was understood to rest with the injuring party. In political contexts, this work was normally entrusted to an ambassador. Paul sees that in Christ, God completely overturns conventional expectations.

God, the injured party, takes the initiative to heal the ruptured relationship and reconcile the world to himself. Paul understands his own calling to be that of an ambassador for Christ, through whom God entreats the injuring party to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).

Reconciliation with God would naturally include reconciliation with Paul as God's ambassador. Paul continues his appeal by quoting Isaiah 49:8, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." Then, applying it directly to the Corinthians, he writes: "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!" (6:2). Paul urges the Corinthians to accept the reconciliation offered now, in this acceptable time, on behalf of Christ.

Against the critics who have leveled charges against Paul of being insincere or lacking in credentials, Paul insists that he has put "no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry" (6:3). As servants of God, he and his cohorts have commended themselves, not with impressive speech or displays of power, but with their great endurance for the sake of the gospel in the midst of all manner of suffering. They have endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger (6:4-5).

Paul is not portraying himself as a hero, but rather drawing attention to his sharing in the sufferings of Christ by enduring humiliation and shame. Sharing in Christ's sufferings -- and doing so with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, and truthful speech -- shows his ministry to be authentically from God (6:6-7).

The antitheses that follow underscore once again the contrast between outward appearances -- regarding someone "from a human point of view" (5:16) -- and the greater reality that is hidden from view. Like Jesus himself, Paul and his cohorts "are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet we are known; as dying, and see -- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (6:8-10; cf. 8:9).

Paul then appeals to the Corinthians once more, emphasizing how he has spoken frankly to them (literally, "our mouth has been open to you") and with a wide open heart (6:11). There has been no holding back of affection on Paul's part, but only on the part of the Corinthians. Paul urges them to reciprocate his love for them by opening wide their hearts (6:12-13).

It is evident throughout 2 Corinthians that Paul was deeply hurt by accusations and insults coming from people in a congregation he had labored long and hard to establish and nurture. More than that, he agonized over their spiritual well-being.

We can only imagine that Paul might have been tempted to wash his hands of those troublesome Corinthians, yet he did not. 2 Corinthians provides us with the poignant witness of an apostle for whom walking away was not an option.

Moved by the reconciling love of God in Christ−by Christ's willingness to humble himself and become vulnerable, suffer and die−Paul firmly believed that he was called to be an agent of God's reconciling work. Though wronged by the Corinthians (at least in Paul's view, the only viewpoint preserved), he was willing to humble himself and make himself vulnerable, pleading with the Corinthians to be reconciled to God and to himself.

Once again, I am struck by how sorely Paul's words are needed in the contemporary church.

Though we may talk a good game about forgiveness and reconciliation, we often balk at taking the risks inherent in truly living a ministry of reconciliation, even within the church. Often, both parties in a conflict feel they have been wronged by the other, and neither is willing to risk the vulnerability and potential humiliation of seeking reconciliation. We would much rather nurse our wounds and grudges than do the hard and humbling work of mending broken relationships.

We would do well to learn from Paul about speaking frankly and with an open heart. For Paul, it begins with what God has done for us in Christ. Even though we are clearly the injuring party, God takes the risk of vulnerability, humiliation, and suffering in order to reconcile us to himself.

As an ambassador for Christ entrusted with this message of reconciliation, Paul is compelled to take the same risk with those who have wronged him. He urges them -- and us -- to join him in the ministry of reconciliation to which all are called in Christ, beginning with our own sisters and brothers in Christ.

Engaging in this ministry within the church is necessary if we hope to bear compelling witness to God's reconciling love for the world.