Lectionary Commentaries for June 13, 2021
Third Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 4:26-34

David Schnasa Jacobsen

The seed parables of Mark 4:26-34 are mysterious. 

Yet these parables have an equally tricky referent: the Kingdom of God. This makes life tough for preachers. Ideally a parable puts two things side by side (say, seeds and the Kingdom of God) so one clear thing helps to explain the other unclear thing. But what if the Kingdom of God (a mystery if there ever was one) is likened to various seed parables that themselves feel largely opaque? At first glance, Mark’s seedy parables may seem unlikely to help illuminate an equally elusive Kingdom of God.

Fortunately, our general cultural imaginations about sowers and seeds help us out a bit. Parables of sowers and seeds may seem quaint, but in the history of art these very images were much beloved. Van Gogh’s “The Sower” is mysterious, but somehow also luminous. There is something mysterious haunting the ordinary in Van Gogh’s famous work of art about the sower and seeds. Yet even Van Gogh’s painting doesn’t compare to the tensive, imaginative disclosure we once likely learned in elementary school. Do you remember that? You’d place a bean seed in a little paper cup filled with soil, wait a few days, and watch. The mysterious quality of that paper cup seed is exactly what helped give the seed imagistic life in the ancient world: it’s a discontinuous miracle. You put a seed in the dark ground and, poof, like magic it turns into something else: something green, thriving, perhaps even spreading across the ground.

This discontinuous, mysterious nature of the seed is part of what Mark wants to get at with his parabolic comparison with the Kingdom of God. A seed once planted is a mystery being revealed. It unfolds by its own operation in the soil. Planters may sleep and rise, but a seed’s work is automatic, as the Greek word in Mark 4:28 suggests. What’s apocalyptic about seed growth? For Mark, it is its likeness to cosmic timetables. As New Testament scholar Joel Marcus points out, the automatic sequence of a seed first sprouting, showing a head, and then yielding seed became a commonplace of apocalyptic literature for how divine transformation happens.1 The emergence of the seed in its sequenced growth is like the Kingdom of God in this sense: it grows mysteriously of its own accord and appears on God’s timetable (not yours or mine). God’s divine reign is apocalyptic and automatic and on a divine timetable, like the growth of a seed.

But in Mark 4, the seed metaphors just keep on coming. The mustard seed parable in verses 30-32 seeks to explicate the apocalyptic mystery in one further sense: the seed’s growth also appears and spreads “all of a sudden.” Mustard seeds have the beautiful quality of being small but with the ability to spread and take over a field—in Mark’s text, sprawling enough to include shade for all those gentile birds of heaven, too! Along the way, the eccentric comparison to a mustard plant provides a little prophetic edginess; few powerful nations liked to compare themselves to mustard bushes, but rather to impressive, great cedar trees. The mustard seed decolonizes by comparison to mighty cedars. The mustard plant is short, scruffy, and small; but it is also in Mark’s sanctified imagination sprawling and sufficient for shade—just like this mysterious Kingdom of God.

This is where Mark’s mysterious seed text meets us, and its vision of growth even more so if we are optimistic moderns. We may not be apocalyptic people, but we will gladly tag along for a little harvest joy with our seed. The image gives us hope in the seed’s own automatic trajectory of growth. People like Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Barack Obama might well agree, even if their words and images differ: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Whatever the Kingdom of God is, it is indeed like a seed that grounds our hope that eventually things can change. The moral universe has a bending arc to point you toward it. That kind of hope can get you through a difficult patch. And so even Jesus’ seedy kingdom sounds good enough to people like us.

But what seems strange in Mark’s world is that their crushing imperial context itself would preclude any kind of automatic hope. Most scholars agree Mark was written close to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The conflicts and dangers of the 70 CE world in which Mark was written reflects a context of public chaos which untethered traditional identities for Jesus followers, Pharisees, scribes, and crowds alike. In such an imperial context, the seed as a parable for the Kingdom of God seems oddly detached from reality and the persons suffering the chaos. How did Sarah Palin put it during the Tea Party heyday: “How’s that hopey changey stuff working out?”2 A seed like Mark’s seems nice enough, but may not be much good in the midst of Jerusalem’s ruins and social chaos.

But that may be one place where we ourselves might agree with Mark’s world. Our present context poses the same questions for seedy eschatologies and Kingdom hope—especially the Markan mustard variety. As I wrote these words, the court testimony of the sidewalk bystanders in the George Floyd killing seemed empty of hope. In their cell phone videos, you too can see them: the EMT, the youth, the martial arts expert, and the convenience store cashier lined up pleading with the white policeman kneeling on a Black man’s neck to stop and render assistance to George Floyd. As you watched their own videos, it seemed even to the bystanders themselves that all they could do from the sidewalk was to cry out and plead, but effect nothing. One teenager on the sidewalk even testified in court how she apologizes over and over again to George Floyd at night. She asks herself whether she could have done more. And why did her pleading or their yelling not suffice? Her haunting words make Jesus’ mysterious parable hard to hear. What about Mark’s seedy hope of an automatic Kingdom of God can survive her tearful testimony?

And then came the verdict on April 20. As many said, while justice did not come that day, accountability did. How did the lead prosecutor put it?: the bystanders were a “bouquet of humanity.”3 The very people who cried out from the sidewalk and made videos with smartphones were a surprise flowering of what it means to be human. The bystanders did not save George Floyd’s life, but they were a mysterious, living, testifying, bouquet of humanity. And in a moment, something of our view of Mark’s seed parable changes. What it offers now is a glimpse of change, a germination that flowers right there on a cracked sidewalk at 38th and Chicago.

Now that is mysterious and even a little revealing. Even so, there is one thing I now lay hold of. There may well be an arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice, but that modern view is for us both a promise and a goal. The famous quote from Parker and King and Obama uses the intransitive verb, “bend.” But there is no one who says that we can’t lay hold of that arc and in the name of the promise bend it a little bit ourselves with a little transitive joy. For we, thanks to Mark, are people who even now glimpse germinating seeds yielding bouquets of humanity: a surprising, sudden, fragile yield of the Kingdom’s mysterious grace and justice.

Notes

  1. Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, (The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 328.
  2. Don Gonyea, “‘How’s that Hopey, Changey Stuff?’ Palin Asks,” NPR, February 7, 2010, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123462728.
  3. Vanessa Romo, “Minnesota Attorney General Calls Chauvin Guilty Verdict First Step in Justice,” NPR, April 20, 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/trial-over-killing-of-george-floyd/2021/04/20/989284035/minnesota-attorney-general-calls-chauvin-guilty-verdict-first-step-in-justice.

First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 17:22-24

Brennan Breed

The exile looms large in the Old Testament, and for good reason: it marked the symbolic and material destruction of everything that structured Judahite identity and faith. When Nebuchadnezzar ordered King Zedekiah blinded and deported to Babylon, and Zedekiah’s  children publicly executed, he was trying to shatter any hope in the Davidic covenant, including YHWH’s promises to protect the Davidic king (see also 2 Samuel 7). In Nebuchadnezzar’s eyes, these upstart Davidic kings had twice rebelled against him by making alliances with Egypt, and they couldn’t be trusted anymore. 

Nebuchadnezzar also destroyed the city walls of Jerusalem and reduced it to rubble in an attempt to silence the Judahite people’s brazen faith in YHWH’s promises to always protect and deliver the city (see also Psalms 46; 48). Moreover, Nebuchadnezzar looted, burned, and leveled the temple in Jerusalem in order to enact Babylonian domination over the deity of the Judahite people, thus (he imagined) ending their hope of deliverance. 

In the wake of these simultaneous destructions, an acute crisis unfolded for the Judahites: what do we do now? Some doubted YHWH’s power, presence, concern, and even existence (see also Isaiah 40:27). Others were in denial that anything decisive had occurred, and continued to preach sunny optimism and a quick end to any discomfort (see also Jeremiah 27-29). Some wondered aloud if YHWH would ever again enter into a relationship with the people of Judah (see Lamentations 5:22), and doubtless some wondered if they would want to take YHWH up on such an offer, should it ever arrive. 

The path forward for the Judahite people was confusing, fraught, and entirely unsure. Many political and cultural groups near Israel, such as the Philistines and the Moabites, seemed to disappear during the time of Babylonian domination precisely because they did not forge a new identity that could withstand the tumultuous changes in the wake of disaster. The survival of Judah beyond the destruction of Jerusalem was not a sure thing, in other words, and observers at the time would likely have bet on their dissolution and assimilation into stronger, seemingly more durable cultures and political entities. 

Yet the Jewish people did persevere, and so did their faith in YHWH—and their confidence in Jerusalem, and even in the Davidic lineage. In the wake of God’s seeming absence, faithful Yahwists such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah provided new theological concepts and new practices that allowed for the reformulation of Judahite identity and faith despite the lack of a temple, a clear geographic center, a leadership structure, or an ordained priesthood. They renegotiated these older ideas instead of abandoning them. Insofar as we can imagine a response to the disaster of the exile and the emergence of the Jewish people as a group strong enough to survive in diaspora, it is because of the courage and inspired prophetic imaginations of such leaders. 

Ezekiel is not often found in the lectionary—and perhaps for good reason; it’s a difficult book that deals explicitly with trauma in ways that one must handle carefully (especially the complicated imagery in Ezekiel 16 and 23, both of which deserve a warning label). Yet it also contains deeply thoughtful ethical and theological reflection which has much to offer in light of contemporary feelings of displacement, disenchantment, and hopelessness. In recent months, we have had to live through several ongoing crises, and in the coming years we will doubtless face more. 

Ezekiel 17 concerns this miraculous event of the survival of the Jewish people beyond the event of Jerusalem’s destruction. It begins with an allegorical poetic riddle about a great eagle who takes the top of a giant cedar tree and transplants it to a distant urban area with rich soil and plentiful water, where it flourishes and sets down roots—but then yearns to be transplanted yet again by another eagle, which leads to its untimely withering (verses 3-10). The allegory is followed by an explanation: the first eagle refers to Nebuchadnezzar, whom God has hand-picked to rule over Judah with some of the leaders taken into exile in Babylon (referring to the first round of deportations in 597 BCE; verses 11-14). Then Ezekiel identifies the second eagle: it is Egypt, who has been tempting the Judahites to rebel against Babylon and enter an alliance with Pharaoh, which God says is doomed to fail (verse 15). 

After the allegory and its explanation, God issues two divine oaths (verses 16-18; 19-21). The first warns the Judahite king, Zedekiah, that joining in an alliance with Egypt, and thus distrusting God’s promises given by Ezekiel and Jeremiah, will lead to his own death in Babylon. The second declares that Zedekiah’s rejection of Babylon’s covenant will end in the unavoidable destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. 

At this point, with the Davidic royal line in shambles and the city of Jerusalem razed to the ground, there would appear to be no hope. The prophets speak in unremitting honesty, and give room for the full weight of grief—something the lectionary seems to have little time to dwell on, as seen in this week’s readings. We often skip straight to the inevitable words of hope that can always be found in prophetic books, but we would do well to remember the pain and sorrow of what the people had endured as they strained to hear the words of the good news. And in the middle of the political, social, and theological turmoil of the waning days of the Judahite kingdom, Ezekiel proclaimed God’s soaring promise of salvation: the story of the eagle and the cedar transplant was not finished. In verses 22-24, Ezekiel declares that God will take another clipping from that mighty and noble cedar tree and will plant it in a safe place high on a mountain—namely Mount Zion, the very place that sat abandoned for decades. 

The newly planted Judah will not seek its own abundance, nor will it be consumed with anxious thoughts of self-defense: instead, it will flourish as a safe and nurturing place for “every kind of bird” that might alight in its full and aromatic branches (verse 23). Ezekiel depicts God’s grace as generative and life-giving to all the earth. This verse echoes with the great promise of Genesis 12:3: namely, that all the nations in the world will be blessed through the family of the promise. And finally, all the trees of the forest will know that YHWH is the sovereign source and author of all that lives (verse 24). YHWH focuses on the divine power to give and to take life, to build up and to tear down (echoing Jeremiah 1:10). In other words, God’s power can be seen in the shocking reversals and upheavals that upend all of our expectations and our assumptions about power and prestige. 

This text is paired with the Gospel reading of Mark 4:26-34, which features two plant-based parables about the kingdom of God. The first parable concerns the surprising and shocking generative work of the natural world that exceeds the resources of human agency and comprehension, but that nevertheless sustains all of us (verses 26-29). The second describes the shocking ability of a tiny mustard seed to become a great tree which provides protection and space for all the birds of the air (verses 30-32). Jesus’ parables in Mark 4:26-32 resonate with the themes found in Ezekiel 17:22-24, but they take on greater depth and power when set within the larger story found in Ezekiel 17:1-21.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13

Klaus-Peter Adam

In this post-election year we find ourselves in a deeply divided country with multiple factions advancing strong objections against each other. With the narratives of Saul and of David, Scripture frames the question of just or ungodly rulership in a bold contrast. Its theological intent is to exactly define responsibility and the origin of the mandate of the king’s rule. For that prophetic purpose, they point to the role of God’s spirit as the affirmation and guide of a leader. How might reading these narratives with their contrasting character constellations provide us with insight into our factionalism? Could interpretations of these scriptures promote, in whatever possible local way, any healing of the fractures of this country’s predetermined breaking points?

God rethinks and “regrets” a king’s rule 

God’s regret over having made Saul king in 1 Samuel 15:35 is set next to two other aspects: Saul’s rejection (1 Samuel 16:1) and God’s providence for David (1 Samuel 16:1,7), including his subsequent anointment (1 Samuel 16:13). God’s harsh and sobering verdict seals the evaluation of Saul’s luckless kingdom. Taken by itself such rejection may seem as an arbitrary judgment, yet it is the result of a long development. This comment about God’s regret in the first book of Samuel considers Saul’s shortfall from a bird’s eye view and as the consequence of a general troublesome disconnect between God’s rule and the king’s unbridled hubris. 

Last Sunday’s pericope points out how before Saul was chosen, the very idea of a monarchy appeared to be an ungodly institution, and God declared: “They have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). Once the first Israelite monarch’s weak sides have become fully apparent, with his incapability of following through with a clear order, the verdict of 1 Samuel 15:35 is the result. Saul’s failure only foreshadows the opposite portrayal of an ideal King David whom God selects as successor against the Philistines, the arch enemy. 

The short phrase, “Yahweh regretted (niḥam, nif’al) that he made Saul king over Israel” takes us into God’s pondering and decision making. Saul has proven incapable of executing the ban against the arch enemy (the Amalekites, see also Deuteronomy 25:17, 19), forcing Samuel to bring the task to an end. Saul’s failure moved Yahweh to “regret” (1 Samuel 15:11b, 35; see also verse 29), as both the heading and the conclusion of the story emphasize. In Hebrew, Yahweh regrets (Septuagint deponent passive metamelomai “to repent oneself”) designates the moment when he questions Saul’s installation as king, even though 1 Samuel 8:22 and 12:1 have pointed out that Samuel or the people respectively made him king. Now that Saul has “turned away from Yahweh,” having failed to carry out God’s word (1 Samuel 15:11), a door closes. 

In the history of Israel, from the viewpoint of the prophets, God’s rejection of the monarchy of Saul anticipates the series of shortfalls of subsequent kings. The cutting short of Saul’s effort to found a dynasty in the territory of what would become the northern kingdom Israel anticipates the fate of the entire line of kings from the northern kingdom. Yahweh’s regret in 1 Samuel 15:35 sums up anticipatorily the verdict over centuries of frustration with the Israelite dynasties in 1 Kings and 2 Kings, using Saul as the ideal-typical northern king of Israel at the moment when David’s rule begins. 

Rather than molding Yahweh’s regret as the hallmark of a fickle, inconsistent deity, it points to an inner move of God. It condenses a critical insight about Israel’s God: far from static or distanced, Yahweh reacts to humankind’s actions. At the outset, Yahweh has explicitly supported Saul’s installation as king. Israel in hindsight recognizes God’s inner move to regret over Saul. Such insight of Yahweh’s “regret” over Saul is best juxtaposed to God’s promise that as long as the earth endures (see Genesis 8:21-22), he would never again “regret” as once before, when God erased all humans because they “grieved him to his heart” (see Genesis 6:6-7). God’s regret specifically over Saul’s kingdom is thus embedded into God’s overarching whole-hearted affirmation to all of humankind.

David’s selection and anointment through Samuel

The new monarchy may not present itself with the loud fanfares of official proclamation. To the contrary, this kingdom begins in a concealed meeting in the intimate circle of Jesse’s village and family in a personal offering ceremony so as not to stir Saul’s suspicion. The choice of Jesse’s sons culminates in the anointing of the youngest, inviting us to heed small beginnings and fostering suspicion over bold and proud proclamations of royal grandeur. The contrast between the rulers could not be more stark: Saul’s rejection versus the selection of David, and the public presentation of Saul versus David’s election in the mode of the future ruler’s hiddenness, even as the future success of David’s rule will become publicly visible in Judah. 

Yahweh’s choice for David is based on hidden criteria, such as the center of an individual’s intention and intellect, the “heart,” versus their physical appearance (for instance, Saul’s height; see 1 Samuel 9:2). The text draws out the latter contrast further with David who, while young, is characterized through the “ruddiness” (red-brown color; see also Esau in Genesis 25:25 at birth) of his skin tone that may refer to the shepherd’s exposure to the sun or allude to his blush of youth or health. The succinct narrative describes David’s actual anointment and, with God’s spirit resting on David, introduces a form of the reassurance of God’s presence for David throughout his rise to power from 1 Samuel 16 to 2 Samuel 5 (see 1 Samuel 16:18; 18:12, 14; 20:13). 

Leadership as humble service

We witness how God sides with the small-scale Judah and a ruddy, modest, shepherd boy as future ruler, demonstrating God’s commitment to youth when taking up leadership. God regrets Saul’s kingdom and commits to a humble, small-scale leadership that heralds a dynasty that (ideally) questions grandeur and privilege. Leadership appears as a form of humble service, shaped by the awareness of its limitations.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

Scott Shauf

The superscription for Psalm 92 declares it to be “a song for the Sabbath day.”1

This may be puzzling to readers, for the Sabbath is not referenced anywhere in the rest of the psalm. It may be, however, that understanding the setting of the Sabbath is key for interpreting the entire work. This psalm warrants our careful theological consideration.

The praise of God

The psalm opens with lines that no one faithful to God would doubt: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High.” This proclamation sets the positive tone for the whole psalm and is a worthy reminder of the value of worship. Verse 2 names the two chief qualities of God that become the basis of our thanksgiving and praise: God’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” “Steadfast love” is the NRSV’s translation of the single Hebrew word chesed. The Hebrew meaning is difficult to convey with any single English expression, and thus we see different English Bibles using a variety of translations in different contexts: steadfast love, lovingkindness, love, kindness, mercy, loyalty, favor, devotion, goodness, and still others. The range of translations gives a sense of the broad meaning of the word. God’s chesed and faithfulness (Hebrew emunah) are the two primary attributes of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, as expressed in the self-revelation of God given to Moses at Mt. Sinai: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

That God is to be praised both morning and night (verse 2) adds to the intensity of the worship. The significance is furthered still by the addition of musical instruments to the praise in verse 3: the lute, harp, and lyre. This suggests a formal setting of worship, as certainly few in ancient Israel would have had access to all three instruments—and certainly no one could play them all together! Corporate worship is not to be neglected. Verse 4 indicates that it is God’s “work” that provides the impetus for such praise. While the psalmist may have in mind especially the victory over enemies described in verses 10-11, the expression here in verse 4, simply “your work … the works of your hands,” is general enough that different participants in worship will no doubt think of many different things that God may be praised for.

What’s skipped

Verses 5-11 are omitted from the lectionary reading. In these the praise theme is continued, and two additional features, both common in the psalms, are added: God’s provision of victory over enemies, and a contrast between the wicked and the righteous (the latter more common yet in the wisdom literature). The discussion of the wicked sets up the discussion of the righteous that begins in verse 12.

The righteous flourish?

The second part of today’s reading begins with an assertion that the righteous flourish (verse 12), comparing their flourishing with that of two important trees of the area, the palm and the cedar of Lebanon. The latter is referred to frequently throughout the Old Testament as a symbol of strength. Verse 14 adds to the picture of the flourishing of the righteous, continuing with the tree symbolism, by asserting that they still produce fruit, even in old age, and that they are “always green and full of sap.” The comparison of those who follow God with thriving trees is a common one in scripture (e.g., Psalms 1:3; 52:8; 104:16).

Isn’t here where the text becomes problematic for us? Our own experience and our knowledge of history teach us that the righteous indeed do not always flourish, that in fact it is precisely the righteous who frequently suffer more than others. This is, of course, a common problem both in scripture and for theology more broadly. In this case, however, a solution is suggested by the psalm itself.

The key is verse 13. The depicted flourishing of the trees includes their location: “They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.” The combination of thriving flora and temple imagery, such as is seen here, is actually quite common. Such is the basis for the picture of paradise as a magnificent garden, filled with the divine presence, seen in both Genesis 1-3 and in Revelation 21-22 (Ezekiel 47:1-12 also presents a wonderful picture of this, specifically in connection with the Jerusalem temple). The flourishing of the righteous is thus rooted (pardon the pun) in the presence of God.

Eschaton and the sabbath

This fact invites us to think eschatologically about the psalm. If the flourishing of the righteous happens in the house of God, then we are not there yet. As Paul says, we still long “to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2). We still live in a world where God’s presence is experienced, to be sure, but not in the fullest sense. For that we wait for the coming of God’s kingdom in power, for “the day of the Lord.” The depiction of the flourishing of the righteous in the psalm is something we look forward to, and for which we praise God in moments when we do experience it in this life.

Here is where the Sabbath connection of the psalm comes in. In Jewish tradition the Sabbath was understood as a symbol of the perfect rest to come. The Mishnah (the earliest collection of Jewish tradition) tells us that this particular psalm was sung by the Levites in the temple on the Sabbath (Tamid 7:4). The psalm is described as “a song for the world that is to come, for the day which is wholly Sabbath rest for eternity.”2 Hence there is a connection between eschatology and the Sabbath. The New Testament book of Hebrews picks up on this idea of the Sabbath as something to be fulfilled only in God’s kingdom (3:7-4:11). Proclaiming this psalm, then, is an act of faith—we declare God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, while we yet wait for its promise of the flourishing of the righteous to be fulfilled.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on June 17, 2018.
  2. The Mishnah: A New Translation, trans. Jacob Neusner (Yale University Press, 1991), ad loc.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Jennifer V. Pietz

The experience of being truly loved is transformative. 

When someone who sees both our virtues and our flaws is committed to walking with us through life’s highs and lows, it strengthens us and helps us to live more fully as ourselves. When a friend takes our call in the middle of the night because we are anxious about the loss of a job or grieving the loss of a loved one, we gain hope to face another day—not necessarily because our problems have been solved, but because we know that someone deeply cares for us. As seen so often during this trying past year, people often come to know love precisely when they are at the end of their own strength or resources and others step in to give sacrificially of themselves. Such experiences can change us and motivate us to in turn love and care for others.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes as one who has experienced the unsurpassable love of Christ that transformed him from a persecutor of the church into a servant of the gospel. When he confidently declares in verse 17 that, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”, he is speaking out of his own experience into the lives of the Corinthian believers. This new birth is humanly impossible. It only occurs because Christ, fueled by divine love, took on the sin and death that alienates all people from God, who is the source of true life (2 Corinthians 5:14-15, 19, 21). Christ’s love is ultimate. It brings people into trusting relationship with God and each other and empowers them to live out that same love, which seeks the good and growth of others. This love compels Paul and his co-workers to continue their ministry of reconciliation amidst ongoing persecution, suffering, and threat of death (5:14, 18; see also 4:8-12).  

Death, in fact, is necessary for new life to emerge. Those who are included in Christ share in both his death and resurrection; not just at the moment they come to faith, but as a dynamic process that continually transforms them into the image of the One who is true love.

Paul’s talk of “new creation” thus presents both a promise and a challenge. It boldly affirms that the eschatological era of God’s salvation is now encompassing all of creation because the crucified Messiah has been raised to new life. It assures those who are in Christ that we have been freed from a vain way of living that compels us to prove our worth by our accomplishments and seek our own interests at the expense of others. We live confidently knowing that the Holy Spirit has already claimed us for Christ and is preparing us to receive the fullness of God’s life (5:5-8). When our illusion of control over matters is stripped away, we can expect God to surprise us again and again by doing “a new thing,” making “a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).

But dying is painful. Although God alone can transform us into those who live and love like Christ, we are called to surrender to being made anew. It is often easier for us to keep judging others (including ourselves) by human standards (2 Corinthians 5:16) than it is to allow the Spirit to give us new vision to see everyone through the lens of Christ’s love for them. Embracing newness of life in the Spirit means letting go of the strange comfort of old thought patterns and habits that are not life-giving. Living for Christ means openness to embodying divine love to those we would otherwise deem unlovable. From a human perspective, in fact, even Christ appears to be an outcast or failure because of his shameful death. A crucified Messiah is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23; see also 2 Corinthians 5:16b). Staking one’s life on this Christ might invite ridicule, or even persecution, at some point. 

Preaching this text in 2 Corinthians 5 allows us to name these realities inherent to the Christian life. While care should be taken not to attribute all forms of suffering to God’s redemptive work in an individual or community’s life, the text illuminates the reality that until we are finally “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), there will be struggles. Although Christ has already claimed us, the old era of sin and death still seeks to derail us.

But the text is ultimately one of hope and much needed promise amidst all sorts of challenges. The true love that every human being deeply longs for has already been given to us in Christ. It is a love that knows everything about us and embraces us anyway. It is the love that transforms us to reflect Christ to our neighbors. It is a powerful, reconciling love that makes it possible for people who mistrust or misunderstand each other to be brought into mutually-edifying relationships. Declaring that the old life has passed and God’s new life has already come is an act of faith that refuses to be complacent with anything less than what God has promised us.