Commentary on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
“Our heart is wide open to you.”
Paul’s voice in 2 Corinthians reminds me of a person in a long marriage that has become frayed and contentious, and who has reached the point where nothing will do but a raw and honest expression of his heart and commitments. While 1 Corinthians contains some of the most significant passages for understanding Paul’s practical theology, it is in the patchwork of letters that form 2 Corinthians that he reveals inner dimensions of his life of prayer, and the lengths he is willing to go to convey his passionate love and concern for this community.
As servants of God
Second Corinthians 6:1-13, with its emotionality and autobiographical references, appears to concern Paul’s individual experiences, and yet the plural “we” also points to the fact that Paul was probably never alone in his ministry.
- The opening to 2 Corinthians mentions Timothy as the co-author, though it is hard to know whether Timothy’s presence pertains to all the pieces of the current letter. And yet there must be a very profound relationship bound up in this “we” who have experienced such a “great endurance” described in 6:4-10.
- As Paul says of him in the letter to the Philippians, “Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the Gospel” (Philippians 2:22).
- The close relationship between Paul and his co-workers is evidence of the characteristic way in which people understood themselves in the first century: as primarily persons-in-community, not as autonomous individuals.
- Paul’s account of extraordinary courage and willingness to suffer points to the reality that living the gospel is not solitary work; it takes solidarity to stand up against a culture that does not respect the values of God’s justice, and to endure its punishment.
Grace, the power of God
The passage opens with a negative command: do not receive the grace of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1). And this command sounds continuously as the ground-note of 2 Corinthians 6:3-10. For Paul, grace is the power of God, poured out in and through the faithful, to bring life in the face of a destructive culture.
- Paul does not shy from describing in vivid detail the suffering of the apostles as a sharp critique of the wider culture that sees the gospel as so threatening that it must be contained by beating, imprisoning, and starving those who proclaim it.
- Without video footage to show the Corinthians what he means, Paul must use language so vividly that they can see and smell and feel what he and his companions have undergone as God’s servants.
The whole astonishing performance is intended to help the Corinthians read reality more accurately:
- Where from the outside they see the apostles’ suffering, much of it at the hands of authorities, they must learn to perceive the believers’ interior strength, shaped by intentional practices of patience, kindness, holiness, self-restraint, love, and the courage to tell the truth no matter the consequences.
- Where they see apostles lacking the respect of the world, they must be able to discern their worthiness in God’s sight.
- Where they see apostles treated as impostors by the wider culture, they must be able to discern the truth that the brave are giving their lives to.
- Within a wider culture whose values are upside-down, Paul is trying to help this community of Christ-believers to see how rejoicing might be hidden within the sorrow that comes from truly engaging injustice; to see the riches hidden in intentional poverty; to have the confidence to see how fullness of life may be hidden within the willingness to risk one’s life for the gospel.
Far from telling the Corinthians that they’re supposed to bring in God’s kingdom through their own efforts, Paul draws them to attend to where the power of God is already on the move in precisely in the places they perceive as shameful or threatening. This passage contains much that would be helpful in our own context, as we seek a faithful way to engage the day’s news.
- Where might we train our hearts and minds to discern the power of God moving in the very places that scare us?
- Whose dignity is being revealed in the midst of suffering?
- Where are the values of our culture upside-down, and how can we develop communities that see things aright?
Two other important words point us toward the depth of contemplative spiritual practice that undergirds Paul’s ability to see reality as God sees it. The first is in reference to the quotation from Isaiah: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2b).
- A good rule of thumb when a quotation from the Hebrew scriptures appears in the New Testament is to look it up and read the whole passage. The author usually intends for the reader to recognize the full context of the brief quotation.
- Isaiah 49:8-13 describes the renewal of Israel after the return from exile, when prisoners will be released, the hungry fed, and the land apportioned to those whose land was stolen from them.
- Speaking directly from what has been revealed in his practices of prayer, Paul speaks, “Now is that day.” In effect, he folds sacred time over on itself, revealing that this day in Corinth under Roman rule is the same as that day when the exiles were freed: God’s salvation is pouring forth. How will you respond?
The second show-stopping word is behold: “[treated] as dying, and behold—we are alive” (2 Corinthians 6:9). The contemplative writer Maggie Ross speaks of the importance of the word “behold” in the scriptures as a kind of signpost for stopping and allowing a space for the mystery of God’s presence in and through the text.1
- Here, Paul’s command to “behold” calls us to stop and take a breath in awe of the full extent of what is meant by the grace of God: the power to bring life out of what is regarded as dead.
- “Behold—we are alive” is an ever-fresh invitation, coming across the centuries to call us also into the counter-cultural mystery of “having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
- “Behold” invites us back to the initial plea of this passage, not to receive the grace of God in vain, but to enter into the interior spaciousness of Paul’s own practice of contemplative prayer (see also 2 Corinthians 12:2 and following), where words cease and God’s grace becomes—not comprehended by the mind—but received.
- The interior space Paul creates for encountering God in prayer is the foundation of his willingness to risk himself completely for God’s mission of reconciliation in the world.
- Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide, Volume I: Process. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014.