Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
What does it mean to be a “new creation”? What does it mean to be reconciled, and to whom? Scripture texts, read within a worship service, are shaped by that time and place. This passage from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth is being heard as the listeners move into the second half of Lent. We now are closer to Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter than to Ash Wednesday. We have had weeks walking through and wrestling with this season of penitence, repentance, and self-denial. During this journey we have been challenged to reflect upon who we are in relationship to God and to each other.
Today’s gospel text explores an important question: Which “child” are we? Are we ready, like the younger child, to repent and become that new creation who has been reconciled to God? Or are we, like the older child, furiously clinging to that comfortable “old” creation with anger? As we continue the walk to the cross, Paul challenges us to reflect on these two themes: new creation and reconciliation.
Scholars argue that 2 Corinthians is not one letter. Rather, it is a collection of several of Paul’s letters to the Christian community in Corinth. The most intriguing of those “letters” are the concluding chapters, 10-13. Paul is angry. Other “apostles” have been trying to convince the new Christians in Corinth that they should not listen to Paul because he is weak. Not so, he declares (2 Corinthians 10:17-18). Through the power of the Spirit, Paul had become a new creation. Therefore, in this letter he works very hard, not just to convince the Corinthians that God is ready to make them new creations, but also to prove to them that he is one as well.
In his teaching, Jesus introduced the image of the old and the new. We are, he told us, to be new “patches” on new clothing, and new wine poured into new wineskins, not put on the old (Mark 2:21-22). Paul continues the theme of “new life in the Spirit” (Romans 7:6). What does it mean to be a new creation? What does it look like to be new patches and new wine? According to Paul, it means that those things that were important, when we lived in the “old” flesh, are no longer to be of importance to us.
Following Christ’s death on the cross, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Galatians 6:15). If we have been clothed in Christ, we are no longer a Jew or Greek, a slave, or free, a male or female (Galatians 3:27). We are not to focus on those things that separate us from one another; those elements of “the flesh” bring about conflicts and disputes. When we are new creations, we become one with each other. Just as nothing will separate us from the love of God, so too should nothing separate us from each other. Paul draws attention to those things that were differences for him and for the new Christians in Corinth. Today’s reading challenges us to ask an important question. What are those things that separate us today? What is the old clothing that we must give up (Colossians 3:10)?
Paul also tells us, to be a new creation, we must, like Jesus, be willing to suffer. As a new creation, Paul found that seeking to proclaim love and acceptance of the other brought him seemingly endless affliction and persecution. He writes that, since taking the message of the Gospel into the world he has been imprisoned, flogged, lashed, beaten with rods, hungry, thirsty, cold and naked (2 Corinthians 11:23-27). When we become a new creation, we too will be called, through the power of the Spirit, to undergo all for God. What seems to be weakness and failure is, in fact, the very power of God acting in us for the reconciliation of the world.
Through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have, in the power of the Spirit, become new creations. And because of that we are called to be “ambassadors” of reconciliation. As new creations we have come to see that we are all one in Christ. The second important theme in this brief passage, therefore, is reconciliation, katallasso. The concept is mentioned five times in only six verses. Why do we need to be reconciled, and with whom? What have we done, or not done that has separated us from God and from one another? Is this something we are to do? Is this our task?
Reconciliation is an interesting concept. For most of us, today, we think about reconciliation in terms of the political, the legal, or economics. Business owners and union officials will engage in reconciliation talks to come to an agreement about wages. I used to have to reconcile my checkbook. Fortunately, the bank does that for me now. What does Paul mean by katallasso, reconciliation?
For Paul, in a way, just like my checkbook, reconciliation is about putting things in right order. It is about restoring balance. It is about bringing together those things that have been separated. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul focuses on how God is bringing together the children of Israel and Gentiles. He uses the images of breaking down walls that have separated the two (Ephesians 2:14). Through God’s love and grace, those who are separated by distance, those who were far off, are now “brought near”. But what is important is that this is God’s doing, not ours, “in Christ God was reconciling the world” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
May we, as new creations, accept this gift of grace that God has given us. And as we draw near to Holy Week, may we as new creations, explore what walls God is seeking to demolish today? Who are the strangers and aliens to whom God would have us reconcile and draw near (Ephesians 2:19)?