Books of the Bible rarely get much attention, but things were different when Second Corinthians was quoted by Donald Trump, back in January 2016. It made the news because Trump mistakenly called it “Two Corinthians.” He used it in a speech at Liberty University, quoting verse 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
Dear Mr. Trump, I do not think that means what you think it means.
But as we sat to write the blog posts for 2 Corinthians, I found myself annoyed, confused, and frustrated with the text. It doesn’t have great flow. It’s probably at least two letters to the Corinthians mixed in together, and some parts of it may have even been written before 1 Corinthians.
The church in Corinth is in conflict. And Paul is at the center of this conflict. At points, it’s obvious that he’s answering charges against him. It’s difficult to read from the context of being a minister. It feels sort of like a good example of what not to do and say when your congregation is in conflict.
We ran into the difficulty of this epistolary genre as we started to work with the texts. The letters are written to a specific community by a specific leader under specific circumstances. Yet, by their very inclusion in the canon of the New Testament there is an assumption that they are good and useful for the Church beyond their original context. Does that mean the whole letter, and all letters, are immediately applicable to 21st century life? How do we overhear this conversation and find in it what the Spirit is saying to the church today?
As we considered each passage from Paul’s second (or third or first depending on when all these different pieces really came together anyway) we thought about more recent letter-writing occasions related to the same topics that Paul addressed. Each preaching passage, therefore, is paired with a letter or part of a letter that might be used in setting the stage each week in this sermon series.
2 Corinthians 1:1-11
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
According to the Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, all the characteristics of this passage, compassionate and merciful, and even “Father of mercies,” are straight out of the Jewish liturgy. But not verses 3 and 4, “God of all consolation.”
Consolation. That’s an old-fashioned word, isn’t it? Consolation is defined as “comfort received after a loss or disappointment.” The word in Greek, in all the forms of comfort and console in this passage is parakaleo, summon, entreat, admonish, and comfort. It comes from two words, pará, close beside, and kaléo, to call. According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, “Comfort is a word which in modern speech has lost much of its N.T. meaning. It suggests to us a kind of sedative, a palliative for pain of body or mind. But the comfort of God is no narcotic. The word ‘comforter’ applied to the Holy Spirit really means ‘strengthener’, and has its roots in the word ‘fortifier.’”
This is not a balm of Gilead. It is, instead, something that gives us strength. God give us strength.
For what? According, again, to the Jewish Annotated New Testament, the “nature of this affliction is unclear.” But we see in 2 Cor. 12:10 Paul saying, “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ.”
In a culture like the United States, we face very few insults or hardships for the sake of Christ. We don’t lose jobs, face isolation, or endure stigma because we are Christian. But some of us still face discrimination, isolation and stigma for other reasons.
How does God console us? Or even better, how does God give us strength in these?
Excerpt from Henri Nouwen’s Letter of Consolation to his father after the death of his mother
Next Monday it will be half a year since mother died. It will be Holy Week and both of us will be preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter. How will this Easter be for us? You will be in the parish church of our little Dutch town listening to the story of Christ’s resurrection. I will read that same story to monks and guests in a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. Both of us will look at the Easter candle, symbol of the risen Christ, and think not only of him but also of her. Our minds and hearts will be flooded with ideas and feelings that are too deep, too complex, and too intimate to express.
Real, deep love is, as you know, very unobtrusive, seemingly easy and obvious, and so present that we take it for granted. Therefore, it is often only in retrospect–or better, in memory–that we fully realize its power and depth. Yes, indeed, love often makes itself visible in pain. The pain we are now experiencing shows us how deep, full, intimate, and all-pervasive her love was.
Is this a consolation? Does this bring comfort? It appears that I am doing the opposite of bringing consolation. Maybe so. Maybe these words will only increase your tears and deepen your grief. But for me, your son, who grieves with you, there is no other way. I want to comfort and console you, but not in a way that covers up real pain and avoids all wounds. I am writing you this letter in the firm conviction that reality can be faced and entered with an open mind and an open heart, and in the sincere belief that consolation and comfort are to be found where our wounds hurt most.
2 Corinthians 2:1-10
So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.
Relationships are messy. Family relationships, friendships, relationships between governments and citizens, even relationships within the body of Christ, the church.
Or maybe especially in the church.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that appears in the New Testament is written to them after there has been some sort of damage done to their relationship. It seems on a previous visit to Corinth he had some sort of encounter with one of the members of the congregation that caused him pain, not just because of the damage done to the personal relationship, but because the church community did not come to his support or defense. After that visit, Paul mentions, he wrote them another letter referenced here in v 4, which seems to have caused the Corinthian church to take action against the individual, punishing him or maybe even banishing him from the community.
Relationships in the church and among the church are messing because we always hope that people will know better or act better. We have high expectations and standards that we hope will be met by the community of faith, forgetting sometimes that walking through the doors of the church building doesn’t suddenly turn us into perfect people. Unfortunately, even in the church we still hurt each other. We still make decisions from selfish positions. We still fear that which is unfamiliar and push away those who are different. We try not to, but we do.
Paul writes from the perspective of one who has been pained first by an individual and then by a community that didn’t support him. He also writes as one who has seen the first offender punished by the community through exclusion from the community. While that may sound like a satisfactory, crime and punishment outcome, what Paul writes is that this is not his desire.
Instead he calls for a different way of dealing with one who has offended not just him, but the whole community with his actions. He calls for the church to show forgiveness and offer consolation. His concern is that the one who hurt him may end up feeling the same sorry Paul himself did when he was excluded from the community. Indeed, he urges the church to reaffirm their love for the individual.
A preacher might focus on one of a number of themes that come up in these ten verses:
- The vulnerability Paul showed in his lost letter, even his reflections on it in vv. 3-4, and how his courage and honesty (rather than sulking away or keeping his frustration bottled up) will facilitate, we hope, true reconciliation.
- The interrelatedness of the community that when one is hurt all are hurt.
- The call to reconciliation not retaliation in our relationships.
The church will always be made up of imperfect human beings. Yet, through open, honest, and vulnerable communication, with the unity of the body in mind, and with the goal of grace-filled reconciliation before us we just might end up being perfectly forgiving.
…I bear no ill will for everything you did. The times you laid your hands on us and mom. The times you told us we were worthless. The times you forgot my birthday.
I forgive you.
I know that deep down you loved us. Despite everything you did, you’d still take us out for hot dogs sometimes. We went fishing. You gave us good advice. Told us to be true to ourselves. I even remember the kisses you gave us before we went to bed.
But nobody’s perfect. And I hope that after all we’ve been through, you’ve learned just as much as I have. I’m still here for you. Because no matter what’s been said and done, you’re still my dad.
2 Corinthians 4:1-15
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
Paul had many detractors. Imagine that! And much of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s attempt at proving to others that he is worthy of being called an apostle. The hinge of this passage is in his understanding of adversity. In The Jewish Annotated New Testament edited by Amy-Jill Levine, the author says of Paul’s philosophy, “adversity demonstrates the vessels’ unworthiness and the overcoming of adversity documents divine power.”
This flies in the face of modern psychology, where we work hard to see our worth and to believe that hardships are a natural part of life, and not a sign that we are not good enough.
I got laid off from a job a few years ago. I was working for a non-profit, and the recession had affected our grants—we were losing nearly one quarter of our funding. As the last person to be hired, I was the first out. Truth be told, it was probably not as cut-and-dry as that, but I had done good work. And there I was, out of a job.
I felt afflicted in every way perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. In addition to that, I felt crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, and destroyed. I felt that my life’s work had been a sham, and that I was never going to find good work again.
I lost heart.
Losing heart is pretty common. Surely, many of our church members lose heart, too. But losing heart, in Paul’s mind, indicates an unworthiness.
I don’t buy it. This sort of shame and blame argument is wrong. There I said it. And I blame every health and wealth preacher who says if I just believe enough, I will not face suffering. I blame every person who has ever said, “You’re will suffer this until you learn the lesson you need to learn.” I blame every person who said to me, “Everything happens for a reason.”
It’s okay to lose heart. Losing heart is not a sign that we have no faith. Losing faith is not a sign that we are not worthy of God’s love. It is not a sign that we have lost favor with God. It is, instead, a sign that life is hard. We remember that we do not go through this hard life alone.
From Sarah Bessey’s Letter to Women’s Ministry
Dear Women’s Ministry:
The world can give me cute cupcake designs and decorating tips, scrapbooking parties, casserole recipes and other ways to pass the time in the first-world – Jesus is coming so let’s all look busy. But truly, with my respect and love, may I be honest? If I wanted to learn how to decorate cupcakes, I would take a class in it. If I wanted to be educated on strategies for decorating my home inexpensively from Winners, I would just, you know, go to Winners. Or Pinterest. (I love Pinterest, you know.)
But I’m here with you tonight because I want what the world cannot give me. We’re choking on cutesy things and crafty bits, safe lady topics and if one more person says that modest is hottest with a straight face, I may throw up. We are hungry for authenticity and vulnerability, not churchified life hacks from lady magazines. Some of us are drowning, suffocating, dying of thirst for want of the cold water of real community. We’re trying really hard – after all, we keep showing up to your lady events and we leave feeling just a bit empty. It’s just more of the same every time.
The women of our world aren’t looking for a safe place to bitch about housework and ooh-and-ahhh over centrepieces. We’re not all mothers, some of us work outside the home, some of us have kids and others don’t or won’t or can’t. Is womanhood only about wifehood and motherhood? What about those among us that are not wives and mothers? We’re not all in the same season of life. We are – or should be – diverse image bearers of a Divine God….
2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
Paul talks here about the “in between” nature of the life of faith, the contradictions that are born of following God who we cannot see, of having a loyalty and even authority that is out of sight. To whom we belong can come into question when the one we are called to count on feels distant and unresponsive to our day to day needs, concerns, and afflictions.
However, when the outer nature, the fleshy life, is being worn down, the inner nature, the spiritual life is tested and given opportunity to grow. In Paul’s experience it is in the most difficult days, when he have nowhere else to turn, that he was able to see and rely on the strength and presence of God.
Paul offers encouragement to those who are struggling, not in a way intended to dismiss the reality of that suffering or even to glorify it, but to offer faith and the spiritual life as a way of persevering through it. Having faith in the building God builds “eternal in the heavens” is not an escape route. It doesn’t set us free from the pains and burdens of this life, but it is a reminder to whom we truly belong. In that way it also guides our living in the here and now.
Our confidence, Paul reminds us, is found in the promise that we belong to God. Through the difficulties of the present, with the hope of the future that is to come, we will find the path on which we can walk in faith.
A Letter to a Young Activist During Troubled Times by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD
…There will always be times in the midst of “success right around the corner, but as yet still unseen” when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it; I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate. The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours: They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But … that is not what great ships are built for. (Read more at the link.)
2 Corinthians 5:11-21
So we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord. We are well known by God, and I hope that in your heart we are well known by you as well. We aren’t trying to commend ourselves to you again. Instead, we are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us so that you could answer those who take pride in superficial appearance, and not in what is in the heart.
If we are crazy, it’s for God’s sake. If we are rational, it’s for your sake. The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.
So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.
According to a 2014 Pew Report, Americans are more politically polarized than they were 20 years ago. And with the current political situations, it’s not hard to imagine that we are even more polarized than we were two years ago! Polarization pits partisan people in oppositional positions.
Paul is facing polarization amongst his people. Oh, sure. It’s not polarizing bathroom bills, nor is it presidential politics, but it is just as divisive. The Corinthians are divided over who is in and who is out, and they’re basing it on how well the members follow the Law. One side says that everyone must be circumcised, and another says that circumcision is not necessary.
But Paul implores the people to look beyond the outward appearance, and to instead look into one another’s hearts, and to reconcile with God as well as with other church members.
Verse 16 tells us, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” Instead, we look to them to see Christ in them. Because, verse 17, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” We look for the Christ in others—because otherwise, we have a tendency to see the worst.
As members of the clergy we have been called and compelled to care for all of God’s people. Therefore we would like to offer our deepest condolences to the families of Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, Wenjian Liu, and Rafael Ramos. Together we affirm that each one of these men were children of God and that all humanity, men, women, children and youth are a part of God’s sacred (holy) creation. We stand in prayer with each of these families and all who must now face the reality of their first holiday season without the presence of their loved one.
We are Black clergy who represent a diverse constituency. We are therefore calling on clergy of all ethnicities and faith traditions to join us in leading our nation toward healing and reconciliation. We are asking you to join us in finding more than symbolic ways to address this issue that has plagued our nation since its inception. We are asking you to join us in appealing to your elected officials, opening your doors to protestors, holding community forums that encourage dialogue and communication between the community and law enforcement and/or doing the work in your individual houses of worship and communities that will ultimately bring about restorative justice.
Yours in prophetic hope,
Members of the Black Clergy
2 Corinthians 8:1-15
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
‘The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.’
Stewardship! In the middle months! Away from the annual campaign! Yay!
No seriously. The current wisdom around the topic of money and stewardship is that it needs to be a year-round conversation, not just an annual theme. Money can be so hard to talk about when we only talk about it once year, but the more often it comes up in our preaching the easier it gets. And Paul gives us some wonderful ways into the topic in this section of his letter about the collection for the Jerusalem church.
Using the example of the Macedonian churches, he talks about the joy of giving, even when giving out of poverty. He talks about people begging to be a part of the offering, begging to share in the ministry of the saints.
He also challenges the Corinthians to excel in generosity. A theory about excellence that first appeared in science has been back in current conversation thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The theory is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill. I don’t know what 10,000 hours of deliberate practice of giving looks like, but the idea of excelling at generosity, it seems must include being generous over and over again.
Generosity does not come naturally for everyone, maybe not for anyone. To be generous requires one to set aside that basic impulse we have to make sure we have enough for ourselves and our loved ones first. To be generous means we might have to reprogram our minds to consider the needs of others at least alongside our own if not before our own. To be generous we have to lose our usual lens of scarcity and instead see the world through the lens of abundance in God’s grace. To be generous the interconnectedness of community must matter more than the success of the individual.
I said something to Julie about us being a rough looking group. She asked if I had ever seen the Christmas special about Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.
“You know that Island of Misfit Toys? That’s what we’re like – nobody wanted us, people thrown us away, but put us all together, and somehow, we make it. Ya know?”
That’s the best description of our work I have ever heard. My people are all just a bunch of misfit toys – disposable, broken things, but together, we make it work.
And because of you, we were able to do it one more year. Thanks for helping with that. We couldn’t do it without you.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Lia Scholl is not-that-kind-of-Baptist preacher and pastor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (U.S.) and is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013). Rev. Stephanie Anthony is a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor in Hudson, Wisconsin (U.S.); she blogs at For Some Reason and is a contributor to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit (SkyLight Paths, 2015).
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