Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
This passage comes right after Paul’s majestic statements about the ministry and message of God’s reconciliation of the entire world through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14-21).
We often interpret Paul’s grand statements about reconciliation in abstract theological terms.
We tend to forget that Paul wrote these passages in response to some very specific — and painful — difficulties he was having with the Corinthian congregation. Rumors were being spread about his apostolic ministry and his relationship with some in the congregation was strained (chaps. 1-7). In addition, he needed to raise money for the Jerusalem church (chaps. 8-9) and prepare for yet another visit when he would have to deal with sin among the Corinthians and their seemingly slavish submission to those he called “super apostles” (chaps. 10-13).
In light of these issues, we can read 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 as fleshing out — in surprising detail — how we might live out and embody God’s ministry and message of reconciliation. But if this “service” (diakonia) and this “word” (logos) are not abstractions, then how do we live in the reconciliation they promise?
1. God’s word of reconciliation
As God’s coworker, Paul “urges” the Corinthians not to take God’s grace in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1). Quoting one of the so-called ‘servant songs’ in Isaiah, he declares that God has listened at “the acceptable time” and helped on “the day of salvation” (Isaiah 49:8). No longer the “prey of the tyrant,” Israel will be restored; God promises to make her “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49). If Isaiah’s call of “comfort” (parakaleo, the same word translated as “urge”) provides a backdrop for interpreting the “word” of reconciliation, then we could say that this “word” has to do with God’s restoring and rescuing a people oppressed by circumstances, even as they might be partly responsible for those circumstances.
2. Embodying God’s service of reconciliation
How do we engage in the “service” of this word of God’s reconciling work? Paul paints a complex multidimensional picture of what happens to us when this word gets embodied in our lives. After asserting the need to do away with all obstacles that would cause others to reject what we have to say, he depicts what could be described as the “habitus” — the lifestyle, values, and disposition — of reconciliation in our experiences of everyday life.1
How might we perceive or experience this service of reconciliation? Drawing on stylized depictions in ancient literature of the kind of suffering sages and prophets undergo, he describes three aspects of apostolic suffering.
First, there is what we undergo physically with “great endurance”: afflictions, hardships, and calamities. Then, there is what we experience because of what others do to us: beatings, imprisonments, and riots. Last, there are the ways we are personally affected by our vocation as God’s servants: labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.
Although we may have a hard time as modern people identifying with the extremity of these descriptions of apostolic suffering, they do point to the fact that our participation in the service and word of reconciliation can never be divorced from the very real vicissitudes of human life; indeed, it may bring even more hardship into our lives.
b. The fruit of the Spirit
How might we conceive or interpret these experiences? Because they are ‘suffered’ or experienced in Christ through the Spirit, they embody how — to quote a phrase he will use later — “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Once again, Paul follows a threefold pattern. Starting with what is most apparent, he describes how the Spirit creates within us purity, knowledge, patience, and kindness. (Paul has similar lists elsewhere; see, e.g., Galatians 5:22.) Then, he places at the center of the list the One who works in and through our suffering: the Holy Spirit. Finally, with three short phrases he depicts what the Spirit enacts us through our public vocation as God’s servants: genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.
c. Paradoxical living
How do we live out this experience of the agency of the Spirit amid what we suffer or experience in everyday life? Paul’s answer is clustered in three types of paradoxes.
First, he deals with how we might appear to others. We may be honored or shamed, with either good or bad reputations. Yet throughout it all, we remain true, even when treated as impostors. We can be confident that we will be seen for who we are, even though we may often feel others do not fully recognize our value.
Second, he deals with what actually takes place in these experiences. When we seek God’s reconciliation with one another in our often messy and complicated relationships we participate in Christ’s sufferings (pathemata) for the world (2 Corinthians 1:5). In the process, we will indeed have to die — not only our final death but also the daily dying that fleshes out our baptism into Christ — yet in Christ we live. We may even be disciplined (paideuomenoi) through what is taking place in our lives, yet in Christ we are not destroyed.
Last, Paul lists public activities that embody the work of reconciliation — activities that explicitly address three of his issues with the Corinthians. As members of Christ’s body, we undergo the “pain” (lupoumenoi) of speaking truth to one another about difficulties in our relationships, even as we “rejoice” together when we forgive and are reconciled with one another (see chaps. 1-7)).
In spite of our apparent “poverty,” we can make others “rich” following the example of our Lord (Philipians 2:5-11). The service and word of reconciliation cannot be divorced from seeking a “fair balance” — material and spiritual — among the wealthy and poor among us (chaps. 8-9).
Finally, in spite of “having nothing” — since in Christ we are no longer defined by the wealth, wisdom, and power of this age — we are those who “possess everything” — as he says in an earlier letter: “All things are yours … ” (1 Corinthians 3:21).
1 See Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1992).