Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
The relationship between Paul and the congregation at Corinth has been strained, to say the least.
The Corinthians had welcomed the message and the ministry of newly-arrived preachers, whom Paul contemptuously calls “super-apostles.” The newcomers apparently embodied more socially admired standards of strength, authority, and beauty than Paul’s ministry did. They were repelled by how Paul’s ministry was marred by his manual labor, his habit of associating with the socially low, and his culturally awkward focus on Jesus’ crucifixion.
Paul has confronted them about this, and some reconciliation has begun. Still, in 2 Corinthians Paul feels the need to provide an extended defense of his ministry (1:12-7:4). Our text for Ash Wednesday is a highpoint in this reflection on how the gospel of the crucified Christ shapes the life of God’s people.
The opening phrase of our pericope (2 Corinthians 5:20b) and 6:1 echo one another, as Paul pleads with the Corinthians. If they break their relationship with Paul because they do not like his cross-shaped ministry, then they are also rejecting the gospel that Paul proclaimed to them. If they continue to judge Paul’s ministry by the criteria of the world, the criteria of humanly-defined success and status, then they are still enslaved to that old age that is already being dismantled by God’s new creation. Likewise, if we judge the church’s mission and ministry by our culture’s corporate criteria of growth, money, prosperity, and popularity, then the gospel has been “in vain” (6:1) among us as well.
The Corinthian church has, of course, already heard the gospel and experienced God’s reconciliation; they are “saints” (2 Corinthians 1:1). However, such reconciliation remains an ongoing process. So Paul appeals to this church to be reconciled to God, to be what God has already made them, by not turning away from the gospel of the cross which has shaped Paul’s ministry. This is also our call in Lent: to return to the reconciling mercy and love of God in Christ crucified. We return (daily!) to our baptism into that death of Jesus, and there we hear again the calling and the promise of God’s reconciliation.
It is important for us to recognize that Paul is pleading with the church. This is not a general description of Paul’s message to the “unbelievers,” but his continuing word to God’s people at Corinth. The gospel still reaches out to the Corinthians to reshape their lives. That sanctifying activity of God has become enfleshed in the relationship between Paul and this congregation. Thus, the Corinthians cannot reject that relationship without also rejecting the way in which God has been at work among them.
Paul is not willing to let them leave him, any more than he will turn his back on them, even though they are proving themselves fickle and frustrating. The gospel comes to us embodied in often messy human relationships, and we cannot simply dispose of them when they become inconvenient. The ministry of reconciliation has bound Paul to this community; they are his children, he is their father, and he cannot let them go.
Paul’s relationship with Corinth is a small picture of the brokenness of the world, and of God’s relentless pursuit of reconciliation. Paul’s words here are not simply a teaching about reconciliation. Rather, Paul’s proclamation is actually God’s own continuing appeal for reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20a). We carry this same reconciling word to the world and to each other, and because of that “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18) we too are called into such relationships, always broken and always on the road toward healing.
Between Paul’s appeals in 2 Corinthians 5:20 and 6:1 lies one of the New Testament’s most profound summaries of the gospel. Here, Paul talks about the church “becoming the righteousness of God.” This is not the same as Luther’s “wonderful exchange,” where Jesus takes on the burden of our sin and we receive Jesus’ own righteous status before God. This is not about “imputed righteousness;” it is not equivalent to saying that God the Judge declares us “righteous.” To communicate that, Paul elsewhere uses the phrase “righteousness from God.”
What Paul refers to here, “the righteousness of God,” describes something that God does: it is the saving faithfulness of God blessing all the world, as God had promised, through the offspring of Abraham. Now the church has been grafted into that promise. This is about the mission into which God calls the church, and it is a breathtaking claim. The mission of the church is nothing less than to become, in Christ, the embodiment of God’s faithfulness for the sake of the world (that is, to use another Pauline phrase, to be the body of Christ).
The Greek word for “righteousness” also means “justice.” Such righteousness/justice is not to be understood in terms of punishment, but as God’s activity of restoration, reconciliation, and new creation. It is God setting the world right again. The astounding claim of this text is that God has made, and continues to make, the church into that justice-working presence of God in and for the world.
For Paul, the claim that we are justified in Christ means that the justice which matters, the justice that is God’s intent for the cosmos, is an incarnate and cruciform justice. It longs not for the punishment and destruction of enemies, but for reconciliation with them. The church exists as an alternative to systems, ancient or current, which are built on violence, alienation, and exploitation.
“Paul believed that God’s intention in justification was to create communities that are being transformed into the justice of God”1, communities not driven by self-promotion or retribution, but by a love for mercy and reconciliation. That is the mission of the church according to 2 Corinthians. That is the message of Ash Wednesday. We hear again whom God has made us to be, and whom God desires to make us: agents of God’s own justice for the oppressed, the endangered, the abandoned, and the scapegoated in our world.
1 Michael J. Gorman, Becoming the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 234.