Ash Wednesday

This week’s epistle reading stands near the end of Paul’s extended defense of his ministry that occupies the first half of an impassioned letter to the Corinthians.

Ash Wednesday Symbols
"Ash Wednesday Symbols" by MTSOfan via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

February 18, 2015

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10

This week’s epistle reading stands near the end of Paul’s extended defense of his ministry that occupies the first half of an impassioned letter to the Corinthians.

In response to accusations that questioned the integrity and legitimacy of his ministry, Paul pours out a stream of images throughout 2 Corinthians to describe his work on behalf of God and God’s creation: ministry of a new covenant (3:4-6), ministry of the Spirit (3:8), ministry of justification (3:9), ministry resulting in transformation (3:18), ministry of proclamation and service engendered by God’s mercy (4:1-5), ministry not only of words but of faithfulness and triumph in the face of affliction, perplexity, and persecution (4:8-12), ministry that does not lose heart but embodies grace, growth, and thanksgiving (4:15-16), ministry that walks by faith not by sight (5:7), and ministry of reconciliation offered by representatives of the God who, in Christ, reconciled us and the world to God’s self (5:18-20a).

The pericope’s boundaries seem arbitrary, literally beginning in the middle of a sentence. On the other hand, it can be difficult to draw clean dividing lines within a series of Paul’s thoughts. Each image in the series is not intended to stand-alone but links with images that precede and follow in order to create a cumulative, multifaceted vision of the work of God and God’s representatives. The pericope’s initial entreaty (2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:1) seeks to drive home two major implications of the preceding, extended description of the best one might expect of ministers, ministry, and those who are ministered-to.

First, based on Christ’s work, Paul implores us to recognize the opportunity to enter fully into relationship with the God who transforms lives and possibilities. In Christ there is new creation, new chances, clean slates (2 Corinthians 5:17-20a). God in Christ has reconciled the world, so Paul tells the Corinthian congregation (with a 2nd person plural imperative), “You — each of you alone and all of you together — be reconciled to God” (5:20b). “Nothing stands in your way (6:3). Nothing is stopping you from receiving this reconciliation, except, perhaps, you yourself.” Lives characterized by shortcomings, sin, or falling away from God can “become the righteousness of God” (5:20b).

In seeking to understand this striking characterization, interpreters have puzzled over its limitations in light of systematic theology. How does it correspond to “simul justus et peccator”? If we take it too seriously, doesn’t it lead to self-righteousness assumptions that our actions automatically represent God’s ways? However, assuming that Paul was defending his ministry, not writing systematic theology, we will focus on one key personal/vocational limitation of the idea. If we refrain from turning this idea inward, as if it is about us and a state of righteousness we possess for ourselves, we can discern its usefulness for ministry. The text here does not say that Christ brought reconciliation so that we might become “righteous” but so that we might become “righteousness of God.” God’s righteousness does not exist for the sake of doctrine but for the sake of action on behalf of others and the world.

Thus, the first implication — Christ freely offers us opportunity for transformation into the righteousness of God — leads immediately to a second implication — transformation takes place as we become coworkers with God. “As we work together with him [Greek, “συνεργ?ω”], we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1, see the same characterization — using a noun from the same root, “συνεργ?ς” — in 1 Corinthians 3:9). A challenge in preaching this text lies in the fact that each implication sounds foreign and even presumptuous — who in the world does Paul think he is or we are? The righteousness of God!? Coworkers with God!? Really?

While it might be useful to acknowledge the strangeness of Paul’s images, it would also be useful to explore his examples that illustrate his point. He is describing the high calling of ministry. This is no small thing to which God calls us, no small thing that God makes possible for us to do. In order to transform us into coworkers with God, God provides us with “weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7b). We are not left to our own devices or limited by our shortcomings, nor is this righteousness only “imputed” to us. Paul speaks of grace’s power not only to bring forgiveness but also to bring transformation when circumstances call for it — perhaps less a permanent state and more an “on demand” possibility. As new creations, we live with ever-new potentials — no matter how often we have failed to embody them before — to accomplish the work of God “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Corinthians 6:6-7a).

Paul offers himself and those who work with him as illustrations of that transformative power and how it allowed them to endure and thrive in the face of “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5). Even if it seems that our local congregations might not face challenges of that threat or magnitude, we will do well not to let that perception lead us to underestimate the resistances our ministries can face. Even something as “simple” as collection of food or clothing to distribute to the homeless or poor takes place in the context of serious limitation of economic opportunity; systemic discrimination, fear, violence, and hatred; and the powerful’s preservation of their resources and status at the expense of whoever gets in their way.

Paul’s description of his own ministry throughout the first half of this epistle is designed to encourage us not to let individual and systemic resistance stop us. The God who has reconciled the world and us to God’s own self calls and equips us in the face of the principalities and powers to become the righteousness of God, ministering as people who might appear to have little or nothing on our side but who actually have the capacity to possess and give everything (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).