Second Sunday after Pentecost

For Paul, proclamation is the announcement of his suffering mind and his emotional weakness

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Grain Field, via Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

June 2, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Imagine 2 Corinthians as a poem. In any poem, each word calls us to admit we do not know as we think we know. All we can do is hazard a guess, running around the phrases and jumping over words to find something surprising in the light (or is it in the darkness?) of which everything we thought we understood we no longer grasp. We follow fascination, not logic alone. Enter the lectionary. The lectionary is not a friend to poetry. Like an inexperienced cook with a carrot and a knife, the lectionary cuts up 2 Corinthians (the whole Bible, in truth). Any single bit tastes the same as any other bit. God’s word resembles a carrot of uniform quality, so we can chop it up as we please. Right? 

I prefer a poetic approach over the lectionary’s divide-and-conquer strategy. Paul’s letters encourage us to jump around and start with words that make no sense, although they fascinate us. For example, 2 Corinthians 5:4b: “… what is mortal may be swallowed down [not “up” as the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition translates] by life.” This impossible thought hints that Paul does not write in terms of the binary opposition of life and death—an opposition repeating itself in soul/body, male/female, day/night, white/black, urban/rural … and so on. Life and death coexist. 

But what is the work of life taking death down deep into itself? Perhaps it is mourning, the impossible and never-finished work of the living, the ones left behind taking the dead (and the dying as we all are) into themselves, at the same time releasing them to an infinitude (some will say God) that (who) inspires fear, trembling, and, strange to say—and never to be expected—joy.     

Having ignored the lectionary boundaries once, let’s do it again. Reach out to other passages to appreciate how 4:5–12 builds up to the impossible thought in 5:2b. Second Corinthians 4:1–4 refers us back to chapter 3 and the controversy about Paul’s emotions that gave rise to the composition of the letter. Recall that Paul’s opponents in Corinth, the rival missionaries he calls “Super Apostles” (11:5), whose manner of ministry is harsh and moralistic (11:19–20), who smell death when they smell Paul (2:15–16), whom Paul claims are perishing since they have been blinded by the God of this age (4:3–4), these apistoi missionaries (“disloyal” or “untrustworthy ones,” not “the unbelievers” as the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition translates) form a point of comparison. 

Paul contrasts his desperate emotions with their rational control and moral severity. They command others from above; Paul does not hide his regret and self-recrimination (see especially 1:8–9). Exposure of his feelings is bold speech (parrēsia, 3:12; literally: “every word”), a key term in ancient discussions of political leadership and moral guidance. Parrēsia was usually associated with the kind of severe tongue-lashing that the Super Apostles admire and fault Paul for not employing (10:9–11). Paul, however, appropriates or, from the perspective of the Super Apostles, misappropriates parrēsia when applied to his depressed and anxious emotions. This is speech he alludes to in 4:3 that the opponents despise as “veiled speech,” a phrase ancient rhetoricians used to describe cowardly and unmanly prevarication instead of blunt “saying it like it is.” 

For Paul, then, proclamation is the announcement of his suffering mind and his emotional weakness. “We do not proclaim ourselves…” But as we have seen, Paul does proclaim himself  “as your slaves for Jesus’s sake” (4:5). Will preachers today imitate Paul’s practice of proclaiming the self’s fearful and weak emotions? Will preachers imitate his slavery to his hearers, his refusal to feel existence differently than they do, differently than the dying and abandoned Jesus did? What could stink more of narcissism in one moment and in the next moment smell like death than preachers preaching themselves, exposing their inner terrors and experiences of loss, grief, meaninglessness, remorse, or dying? 

What could be more horrifying than preachers like Paul believing they are preaching the gospel when they announce themselves, as Paul puts it, “always carrying around in the body the death [or, “the dying”] of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible [or “manifest”] in our bodies. For we who are living are always being handed over [or “handing ourselves over”] to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible [“manifest”] in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us but life in you.” Will preachers manifest Jesus (and yes, run the risk of appearing self-occupied and morbid), or will they merely put Jesus into words? Will they be poets or professors? 

Words, just because they are words, are not what they refer to. In other words, words always fail to communicate. Think of communicating not in the sense of giving information but spreading a disease. Words: holocaust, genocide, racism, and the list goes on. “Slavery” is on this list, but we betray all the enslaved and their children the moment we steady ourselves and forget them by drawing up lists and saying, “God is always good and saves us from each item on the list.” Satisfied with words, content with lists, we account for disasters and file them safely away. 

Preaching is not accounting. Preaching is not enumerating the disasters that befall others and then piously saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Preaching is not saying what is. It is not a matter of counting. Paul proclaims himself “your slave” and uses language to put his flesh, his terror in the night, his horror of controlling neither outer nor inner worlds before his readers’ eyes and in their/our ears.