The Holy Trinity (Year A)

In what might initially appear to be “just” the conclusion to 2 Corinthians, Paul lays out in chapter 13:11-13 both a charge to unity within the church and a benediction that two millennia later begins the communion liturgy and leads to Trinitarian theology.

June 19, 2011

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

In what might initially appear to be “just” the conclusion to 2 Corinthians, Paul lays out in chapter 13:11-13 both a charge to unity within the church and a benediction that two millennia later begins the communion liturgy and leads to Trinitarian theology.

The most popular theory at the moment regarding the composition of 2 Corinthians is that it is composed of two originally separate documents, chapters 1-9 and chapters 10-13.  The components were written around the years 54-55.  Our passage originally wrapped up the second letter and now ends the larger document.

The history of the relationship between the Corinthians and Paul had been convoluted–one of great spiritual closeness but also sharply painful separation.  Even within 2 Corinthians their relationship alternates between confidence and charges that the Corinthians have fallen prey to false teachers.  Chapters 10-13 are prime examples of the latter relationship.

It is striking, then, that our passage begins with advice to rejoice (a better translation of chairete than the NRSV’s farewell).  That advice picks up on what Paul said in verse 9.  Not only in the midst of persecution but also in the midst of strife within the community, Paul calls on the Corinthians to rejoice (also in 1:24; 2:3; 6:10; 7:4, 13). 

He continues in rapid succession with four other imperatives, all in the present tense (and which are in the same Greek sentence as rejoice, despite the NRSV).  The present imperative indicates ongoing action.  And so they are to keep working at trying to “put things in order,” which does not mean organizing the basement but rather to “mend your ways” or “be restored.”  The Corinthian believers need to restore their relationship with God and with each other, which has been the topic of much of the letter.

They are, further, to “listen to my appeal,” or literally “exhort” or even “be exhorted.”  Just because the letter is ending does not mean that the need for mutual exhortation has ended.  Then the listeners are to “agree with one another,” literally “think the same thing,” which does not mean lock-step thinking but agreement on the basics of the faith and of their life together.  And finally, as the result of the imperatives, Paul wants them to “live in peace.”

The imperatives are followed by a benediction and promise:  “the God of love and peace will be with you.”  The word for love is the crucial word agapē.  The words “the God of love” appear in this verse for the only time in either the Greek or Hebrew Bibles (for “the God of peace” see Romans 15:33, 16:20; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23).  It is this God who will empower the Corinthians to do what Paul has outlined.

Verse 12 contains two greetings.  First, Paul directs them “to greet one another with a holy kiss” (also in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:26).  It was not unusual in Paul’s world for people to welcome each other with a kiss (but not on the lips).  That was especially so in the family, and so it is natural that in the fictive family called the church (in which believers are sisters and brothers) the kiss would be a form of greeting.  Today’s practice of “passing the peace” is rooted in it.  Second, Paul sends greetings from the believers with whom he is living, probably in northern Greece (Macedonia).  The kiss would have been especially poignant in congregations where disagreement had been so obvious.

If the preacher is facing a dividing or divided congregation, 13:11-12 provide an excellent framework for dealing head-on yet pastorally with division.  As is typical in Paul, not only does he give the imperatives, he also roots them in the God who is able to bring about peace and love.

The Sunday is also the Sunday of “The Holy Trinity,” and that is likely the reason our pericope is included, especially verse 13.  It is anachronistic to say that the verse is a Trinitarian formula in the sense of later church councils, but it is certainly a triadic formula and it provides raw data that the church’s theologians mined for the doctrine of the Trinity. 

Every phrase is theologically-loaded, and this one verse could easily be the focus of proclamation.  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” signals the unmerited love (grace) shown for us in the Christ event (2 Corinthians 8:9), and the fact that Jesus is “Lord” and “Christ” points to his role as Israel’s Messiah as well as creation’s ruler.  “The love of God” takes us back to verse 11, where the same words are in different order.  Lest we think that the Christ event is an abstract divine equation, Paul tells us that it comes out of the very love of God for humanity. 

More difficult is how to understand “the communion of the Holy Spirit.”  The prior two phrases (“of the Lord Jesus Christ” and “of God”) are both subjective genitives, that is, the grace and the love belong to Christ and God.  They are the “subjects” of the nouns they modify.  If Paul is parallel in structure, “of the Holy Spirit” would also be a subjective genitive, so that the communion or fellowship (koinōnia) belongs to the Spirit or is the gift of the Spirit. 

Some interpreters see the structure, however, as objective genitive, in which case the noun in the genitive (Holy Spirit) receives the implied action of the other noun (communion).  In that interpretation the sense is more “participation in the Holy Spirit” or “fellowship with the Holy Spirit.” Others take a good Lutheran approach–right down the middle.  Yes, the Spirit creates the Christian community, but also the fellowship given by the Spirit immediately implies participation in the Spirit (see also Philippians 2:1).

Genitives aside, verse 13 provides ample opportunity to rehearse the history of salvation:  Christ who brought grace, God who loves, and the Spirit that creates the church and in whom believers live and serve.

Not bad for three verses!