This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
“I am a representative of Buddha on earth” claims alleged torturer of a prostitute
2 Corinthians 7:2-16
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
Does “that letter” still rankle? Hear my explanation
2-4 Do make room in your hearts again for us! Not one of you has ever been wronged or ruined or cheated by us. I don’t say this to condemn your attitude, but simply because, as I said before, whether we live or die you live in our hearts. To your face I talk to you with utter frankness; behind your back I talk about you with deepest pride. Whatever troubles I have gone through, the thought of you has filled me with comfort and deep happiness.
5-11 For even when we arrived in Macedonia we had a wretched time with trouble all round us—wrangling outside and anxiety within. Not but what God, who cheers the depressed, gave us the comfort of the arrival of Titus. And it wasn’t merely his coming that cheered us, but the comfort you had given him, for he could tell us of your eagerness to help, your deep sympathy and keen interest on my behalf. All that made me doubly glad to see him. For although my letter had hurt you I don’t regret it now (as I did, I must confess, at one time). I can see that the letter did upset you, though only for a time, and now I am glad I sent it, not because I want to hurt you but because it made you grieve for things that were wrong. In other words, the result was to make you sorry as God would have had you sorry, and not merely to make you offended by what we said. The sorrow which God uses means a change of heart and leads to salvation—it is the world’s sorrow that is such a deadly thing. You can look back now and see how the hand of God was in that sorrow. Look how seriously it made you think, how eager it made you to prove your innocence, how indignant it made you, and in some cases, how afraid! Look how it made you long for my presence, how it stirred up your keenness for the faith, how ready it made you to punish the offender! Yes, that letter cleared the air for you as nothing else would have done.
12-16 Now I did not write that letter really for the sake of the man who sinned, or even for the sake of the one who was sinned against, but to let you see for yourselves, in the sight of God, how deeply you really do care for us. That is why we now feel so deeply comforted, and our sense of joy was greatly enhanced by the satisfaction that your attitude had obviously given Titus. You see, I had told him of my pride in you, and you have not let me down. I have always spoken the truth to you, and this proves that my proud words about you were true as well. Titus himself has a much greater love for you, now that he has seen for himself the obedience you gave him, and the respect and reverence with which you treated him. I am profoundly glad to have my confidence in you so fully proved.
Paul had written to the Corinthian community an exasperated letter, ( Now found as chapters 10-13 of ” Corinthians) defending his own Christ-like weakness (he had demonstrated to them none of the trappings of power) and denouncing the kind of authority claimed by his opponents in Corinth. He seems to have been opposed by members of the community who saw Christianity as esoteric knowledge that could guarantee salvation while allowing them scope for some casual sex on the side. Paul had attacked all this as a form of “boasting” that is, of self- assertion, rather than the humility of faith which trusts that salvation is a new life of service. It was a passionate, personal outburst designed to rout his opponents.
Now in this letter (found as 2 Corinthians 1-9) Paul is trying to re-establish good relations with the community since Titus has brought him news that his angry letter has hurt them but also convinced the of his authority in Messiah Jesus.
Paul makes the following points:
1. In his case, what you see is what you get. He will not try to gain popularity by bending the truth.
2. The kind of hurt they feel comes from their trust in Jesus, it’s a true sorrow that comes from their relationship with Him, rather than from worldly sources. As such it demonstrates their faith and is not a matter for regret or apology.
3. They have demonstrated their reverence for Titus and himself as “apostles/ messengers of Messiah”. This is no more than Paul expected but he commends them for it.
We see elsewhere that Paul does not believe in hierarchy; believers share equally in the body of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit; but they don’t all have the same function: some are “apostles/ messengers” some are teachers, some are prophets, some care for others, and so on. This recognition of separate function is vital for Paul’s convert communities. If there is no hierarchy, they can easily lose truth and discipline. Paul therefore must insist on the specific function of the “messenger of Messiah”, to distinguish true faith from false.
The questioning reader will see a problem here. Once the original apostles/messengers have died or gone elsewhere, who can exercise their function of discriminating between false and true? Obviously different teachers and prophets can claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Eventually many churches solved this problem by introducing hierarchy in the form of an overseer or episcopos who would have the last word in such matters; and subsequently by recognising the special authority of the Roman episcopos over the rest. We can call the first development “Catholic” and the second, “Roman Catholic”.
There have always been other churches that tried to maintain the freedom and equality in the Spirit of the first Pauline churches. The Greek Orthodox churches deny the authority of the Pope. The mainstream churches of the European reformation admitted the supreme authority of the Scripture, relying on Bishops and/or Presbyteries and Assemblies to provide authoritative interpretations of it. Others again have refused all hierarchy in favour of the free movement of the Spirit. It’s by no means evident that any one way is superior to the others. Hierarchy has led to the Inquisition and the scandal of sexual abuse of children by priests. Charismatic freedom has led to the Branch Davidians of Waco and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa.
Paul’s insistence of judging claims to authority by whether they exhibit “boasting” (self assertion) or “weakness” (Christ-like service) remains as helpful now as it was in his day, even if it doesn’t solve the problem of “apostolic function” in the absence of the original apostles ( Paul, by his own admission, was not one of them!). The crucified Messiah is the test of all Christian authority.