FOR READERS: I have just started a new blog: xtremejesus.co which is intended to contribute to political and social debate from the point of view of the Jesus tradition. Some have found difficulty in accessing the site from their search engines and browsers. At present, Google Chrome gives it easily.
MEANWHILE, this old faithful blog continues to explore Paul’s Corinthian correspondence day by day. At present it is dealing with 2 Corinthians. I’m assuming that all his Corinthian letters were sent from Ephesos. The news headline is a reminder of the world we live in.
MUSLIMS CELEBRATE THE END OF RAMADAN
2 Corinthians 6 Darby Translation (altered by me)
1 But as fellow-workmen, we also urge you not to receive the kindness of God in vain:
2 (for he says, In the time of my favour I have heard you, on the day of deliverance I have helped you.)
Listen, now is the time of God’s favour; now is the day of deliverance!
3 We give no manner of offence in anything, so that the ministry is not blamed;
4 but in everything we commend ourselves as God’s ministers, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardship, in distress,
5 in beatings, in prisons, in riots, in hard labours, in sleeplessness, in lack of food;
6 in purity, in knowledge, in longsuffering, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in love unfeigned,
7 in the word of truth, in the power of God;
8 through the weapons of justice in right hand and left, through glory and dishonour, through bad report and good report: ;
9 as deceivers, yet true, as unknown, yet well known; as dying, yet, see, we are alive; as disciplined by suffering, yet not done to death;
10 as grieved, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet enriching many; as having nothing, yet all things are ours.
11 Our mouth is opened to you, Corinthians, as is our heart.
12 There is no constraint on our part, but you are constrained in your affection;
13 but for a true exchange, (I speak as if to my children,) let your hearts be open to us.
I have chosen to use Darby’s translation (slightly altered) to map out Paul’s dictating style. The sentences are loose and sprawling, yet perfectly comprehensible when read aloud. Once he hits on a structure which he can repeat, he does so (using the words “in”,” through” and “yet”) allowing his passion for the ministry of the “Emissaries” of Jesus to pick up memories that do justice to the adventure, toils, miseries and splendour of their work. Although he repeatedly denies the charge that he is commending himself to his readers, he is in fact doing so, because he wants them to know that there’s more to his ministry than preaching in Corinth. He has already accused them of being comfortable believers; here I think he wants them to feel proud at sharing the great adventure of the break-out of faith in Jesus from its Jewish home.
So he begins by incorporating them in the enterprise as fellow workers. Then immediately, for those who know their scriptures, he plunges them back in time by quoting words of Isaiah which speak of God setting free the people of Israel from captivity in Babylon; and applies his words to the present time. “That was not the true day of deliverance,” he tells them, “that day is now, the time in which the good news of God is made real to all humanity.” Now in this special time, God’s liberation is always available.
He proceeds on a verbal riff which reminds his readers that this precious message has not come to them by magic, but by the unusual faith and valour of the “emissaries of Jesus” including of course himself. It has been easy for some scholars to denigrate this as an example of Paul’s self-serving rhetoric. That’s the response of people who’ve never been out of the study. For people who have some idea of danger and misery, Paul’s words sound real enough, referring to things like being whipped and lack of food, of which perhaps his readers would have had little experience.
But what about his catalogue of the virtues of the emissaries, surely this is self-advertising? Paul was part of a culture which was serious about the virtues of great men and women, as for example Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics”, in which the virtues are seen as expressions of character and deserving of honour. Paul is more concerned that people should develop such virtues and practice them, than to display what our culture calls modesty. He thinks that these virtues express the character of God, revealed in his Messiah.
The paradoxes of verses 9 and 10, signalled by the word “yet” illustrate the emissaries’ partnership with Messiah Jesus of whom they were first of all true before becoming true of his followers. We should recognise that they are all versions of Jesus’ paradox of the Rule of God which is as insignificant and important as a mustard seed. The emissaries of Jesus look like desperate people dispersed to the margins of civilised society but they are the bearers of God’s reconciling love for the world. In the spirit of that mission, Paul pleads with the Corinthian Assembly to be reconciled with him.
The development of character and the cultivation of virtues have not been major themes of contemporary Christian theology, nor of the historical tradition of my church, the Church of Scotland, where the emphasis has been on salvation by faith. Paul’s unabashed celebration of the virtues of believers is therefore a challenge to the practice of faith today.There is very little effort made to inculcate such virtues in children, young people or adults. Indeed, how would we go about teaching the Pauline virtue of long-suffering? And how do we think the practice of virtue is related to the development of character? Just asking these questions exposes an area of neglect.
Another interesting thing about Paul’s list of virtues is that they are not wholly different from the virtues that his society recognised. True, there is an emphasis on love that comes from Jesus, but the virtues of endurance, kindness, justice and the like would have been honoured by many Greeks.The goals of the Christian life are not secret religious achievements, but the kind of humanity already sought by many. Certainly Paul believed that God’s love in Messiah Jesus delivered people from evil and enabled them to live a virtuous life, but as often, we can see that Paul was not advocating a new religion but rather a new humanity.