Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Having this particular biblical passage as part of the Ash Wednesday lectionary texts is a bit strange for a few reasons.
First, the lectionary boundaries start about halfway through a unit that runs from 5:11 through 6:10. Second, the lectionary boundaries ignore the theological foundation of what God has done in and through the death of Christ, which Paul had established in 5:14-20a. Third, the contextual focus of Paul’s argument is the cruciform ministry to which God has called him (a focus which began back in 2:14). Fourth, the reason Paul is focusing on his God-given, cruciform ministry is because he and the Corinthians are in a rather conflicted relationship.
Some in Corinth have besmirched Paul and his ministry as they have fallen under the theological and ministerial spell of those Paul sardonically labels “super apostles,” but who are in fact false apostles (see 11:4-6, 12-15). Nevertheless, because the text as constructed by the lectionary focuses on both vertical and horizontal reconciled relationships as well as on the dynamics of living out the cross in daily life, this text may be quite appropriate for an Ash Wednesday setting.
Paul’s opening appeal in 5:20b flows directly out of what he has just established regarding reconciliation in 5:17-19. Christians participate in the reality of God’s new creation, i.e., the new age of salvation and the relationships it creates (5:17a). In the old age we lived for ourselves and our own self-interests as part of our sin-centered existence. This meant our lives were at enmity toward God and toward each other. Because Christ died for us and his love now controls us, we no longer live for ourselves but for Christ and Christ’s life giving agenda on behalf of others (5:14-15). Thus the old things passed away and all things have become new since we are part of God’s new creation (5:17b).
This new reality is the result of God’s reconciling activity in which God was at work in and through Christ reconciling the cosmos to God’s own self in order to eradicate the enmity which our sin established (5:18-19a). God then entrusted the message and ministry of reconciliation to persons such as Paul so that God’s reconciling act in Christ’s death would be actualized in the lives of those who receive Paul’s ministry which included Paul’s Corinthian audience (5:19b). Through his God-given ministry Paul functions as God’s ambassador so that the divine reconciling appeal goes forth (5:20a).
Thus Paul’s appeal in 5:20b (the opening of our text) is really God’s own appeal that the Corinthians are to be reconciled to God. While the Corinthians are already Christians, this particular reconciliation appeal involves their need to be reconciled to the reality of the cross, the theology of the cross, and the ministry of the cross instead of pursuing a theology of glory delivered by a ministry of glory.
It should be noted that Paul’s use of the imperative mood, “be reconciled,” is couched in the passive voice not the active voice. In other words Paul is not commanding the Corinthians to do the reconciling but to drop their defenses so that God may again do the reconciling work, just as God did the original reconciling work through the cross.
To undergird this point, Paul references the three stage pattern and results of the cross (5:21). Stage one involves Christ’s sinless, i.e., as pre-existence Son of God, Christ was not under the power or influence of sin. In stage two, through the cross event Christ takes on our sinful condition as he dies on behalf of our sins (see 1 Corinthians 15:3). This initiates the exchange of stage three. We now participate in the divinely established right relationships (i.e., God’s righteousness) of new creation. Such reconciled, right relationships are both vertical and horizontal in nature.
Unfortunately, the Corinthians have messed up these relationships and are in danger of receiving God’s grace in vain (6:1). Thus Paul continues to be God’s co-worker who appeals to the Corinthians to be embraced by God’s reconciling work anew as this is time of God’s salvific acceptance of them (6:2). This also means that they are to understand themselves and their lives vis-à-vis the cross. Paul spells this out in the depiction of his own ministry in 6:3-10. Because Paul understands both ministry and Christian life in terms of the cross, his words about what his ministry entails in 6:3-10 may also be applicable to the lives of all Christians especially in an Ash Wednesday context.
Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul is stressing the cruciform reality of both ministry and Christian living. That is, it is ministry and life formed by the cross and in the form of the cross. Paul is also countering a theology of glory that falsely promises that if we believe the right message from the right (and glorious) messengers everything in our lives will work.
Instead, Paul commends himself as a cruciform minister which means that afflictions, distress, stress-filled circumstances, targets of abuse, sleepless nights, and difficult situations go with the territory of living according to the ways, means, and values of the cross (6:4b-5). Yet God’s power at work through the presence of the Spirit empowers us to press on with a character grounded in sincerity, discerning wisdom, non-anxiousness, generosity and truthfulness (6:6-7).
Such cross-grounded dispositions are what Paul calls the weapons of righteousness (6:7b) because they are the stuff of our right relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. Life marked by the cross involves the paradoxical existence Paul describes in 6:8-10. It stands at odds with a prosperity gospel promising a great, successful life in which everything turns out fine for us. Paul knows that difficulties, challenges, setbacks, grief, and even nothingness are aspects of living out the cross in our daily lives and ministry.
Yet at the same time, because we rely on the reconciling power of Jesus Christ crucified there is a joyful richness to life. Thus the honor we receive comes not in our status or from what we achieve but in the status Christ takes on by becoming sin so that what he achieves for our lives and our living involves right relationships with God, with Christ, with others, and with ourselves.