In Ephesus, things had gone seriously wrong. In response to a two-pronged attack from both the local Roman notables and prominent Jewish influences in the city, Paul had been imprisoned under a sentence of death. It’s during these very dark days that Paul hears news from Corinth, news that breaks his heart. For the Corinthians have delivered the ultimate betrayal for Paul – they have questioned his authority as an apostle and suggested that if he ever wanted to visit again he would have first to present and defend his credentials.
Paul had visited Corinth twice before and between these visits he had written his first letter to them admonishing them for their internal divisions – divisions based on the discrepancies of wealth and status among members of the church community. Now since his last visit, the Corinthian church has come under the sway of some very smooth and slick conmen, who seemed to have successfully discredited Paul and his message and turned the church against him. It’s not difficult to imagine the wealthy Corinthian church wanting teachers more in line with their worldview, a worldview that prized success and prestige. Somethings never change – for narcissistic cultures tend to seek self-validating reflections of themselves in the narcissistic leaders they place in positions of power and prominence. After all, everyone likes a winner, even if it means winning is the con.
In response to Corinthian susceptibility to boasting leaders, Paul asks: so you want me to boast? Then if I boast I will boast of my weakness! If I need references, then you are my reference!
In 2 Corinthians, we feel Paul’s deep suffering as a result of what today we would recognize as accumulated PTSD. The seriousness of his condition is evidenced not simply in his despair and depression, his anger and pain, but in the style and feel of 2 Corinthians; a choppy letter of false starts, with extra additions inserted. With an agitated mind and aching heart, Paul seems to have found it hard to organize his thoughts into a unified theme.
Paul pens this letter while visiting the churches in Northern Greece somewhere between 56-57 A.D. From the direction of his journey we can see that he is assiduously avoiding going anywhere near Corinth. Corinth was by far the largest, most prosperous and politically influential of Paul’s Romano-Greek church plantings. The wound Corinth had inflicted on him is deep and his sense of betrayal great.
Then, Paul’s mood lifts when Titus arrives with news from Corinth. It seems the Corinthians have had second thoughts, maybe coming to the realization that their new found slick teachers have delivered a good deal less than they promised. Titus brings news of the Corinthians deep sorrow for the pain they had inflicted on Paul. While Paul is clearly overjoyed, painful memories of a breach in relationship are not easily forgotten. How can relationships repair following a deep breach of trust? This is what Paul is now working out in the middle section of his letter.
Paul has learned through his recent sufferings a powerful lesson. In chapter four having accepted his own vulnerability he writes:
We have this treasure in earthenware pots, so that the extraordinary quality of the power may belong to God. Not to us. We are under all kinds of pressure, but we are not crushed completely; we are at a loss, but not at our whit’s end; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are cast down, but not destroyed. We carry the deadness of Jesus about in our body, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our body.2 Cor 4 Trans. N.T. Wright
In chapter 5 Paul states that:
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; …. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!2 Cor 15:16-21
Words matter. Paul’s statement that the old order has died and everything-everyone has become a new creation in Christ is truly overwhelming to contemplate. It’s easier to let such a statement go in one ear and out the other because it strikes at the very core of our defensive, fear driven way of relating to one another. It also profoundly impacts our global world view – esp. with regard to care for the environment. What would it mean to actually take his words seriously? Given our fallibility and fragility – our earthenware nature, how can we possibly live up to such a statement with all its expectations or repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation?
Our earthenware fragility, our feet of clay make us vulnerable to one another. Victims have a habit when opportunity presents of becoming perpetrators; hurt triggers hurt, violence begets more violence – usually camouflaged as righteous anger. Yet, Paul pictures us as moral ambassadors of reconciliation; reconciliation first with God and then with one another. No wonder we don’t want to take his words seriously!
In English, reconciliation carries the overtone of smoothing over differences. The search for reconciliation produces an endless search for compromise solutions to paper over those differences. Fine though this may be, this is not what Paul means. Paul is drawing our attention not to the need to reconcile difference but to realize that our very differences highlight what we share in common.
Think of the pain of personal betrayal. On the larger stage think of exploitation of the weak by the strong as in what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is potentially mine tomorrow. Think of racism, gender bias, the unlevel playing field that results in unequal access to the necessities for human thriving: food, water, a safe environment in which to live, meaningful work to do, education, healthcare, and equal access to impartial justice. Now think of our willful destruction of our common home -the environment. These are all examples of how we prefer to walk back through the door to the old life – the life before Christ – the life that brings only death. These maladies are all so fixable when we see them as the result of our human propensity to fall short of the mark; the life of a new creation God sets for us.
Alexander Pope, the 18th-century English poet said that to err is human, to forgive is divine. God is endlessly forgiving, knowing that we are bound to miss the mark, the bullseye that is the new life of those entrusted by God to set the world to rights.
Questions abound. Will we notice the ghosts of past failures of reconciliation in a history of slavery and genocide? Will we notice how in the present, past ghosts perpetuate racial discrimination and injustice – only now masquerading as criminal justice, and the multiple indices that measure poverty? When we notice, will we, with hearts transformed and our minds renewed through repentance, refocus aim on our target of living the new life of God’s promise? Or will we compound error and injury with defensive, fear driven self-justification?
From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view; …. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!2 Cor 15: 16-21
To become a new creation is to be reconciled to God. Being reconciled to God we strive for justice by not only responding to immediate needs but also questioning and challenging the systems that perpetuate injustice.
Environmental and social justice are linked by the flow of our new life in creation. God has inaugurated the new creation in Christ and will ultimately bring it to fulfilment in the resurrection of the whole world. Until then, putting the world to rights is the responsibility on our watch.