Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reflections on 2 Corinthians (IV)

Now to finish the final chapter of the first Paul book. The earlier posts in this chapter were:

Leaving Ephesus
Fragments of Other Letters?

2 Corinthians is one of the unsung heroes of the New Testament. Yet this book is full of tremendously helpful and enriching wisdom. It is easy to rejoice when things are going well or when we at least feel empowered. So the Paul of Galatians is strong and forceful. The Paul of Philippians is still strong even though he is imprisoned. But he can do little to change his situation, so he rests in God. He is content. By God's power he chooses not to be anxious.

But second Corinthians is somewhere in between. The first seven chapters give us Paul at his most vulnerable. The usually confident and decisive apostle reveals the uncertainty he had felt after a tough leadership decision. Then in chapters 10-13 he reasserts his authority, but not with the same tone as Galatians or the lost harsh letter. He seems less confident that the force of his personality will win the day this time. He has followed God's will. He has fought the good fight. He cannot do more.

So Paul becomes reflective. Indeed, 2 Corinthians is probably the most reflective of all Paul's writings. It wears the scars of suffering and then of unresolved conflict. 4:7-11 is one of the best passages to read when you or the groups you are a part of are discouraged. It reassures us that the way things look on the outside, the things we are experiencing in our bodies and in the world are not the end of the story. They should neither reflect what we are on the inside or where we are headed eternally. Why? Because "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" (2 Cor. 4:17-18).

Paul reminds the Corinthians that we do not endure such suffering alone. In fact, we are joined with the sufferings of Christ as we suffer. We are "carrying in the body the death of Jesus" (4:10). We are joining in the fellowship of Christ's sufferings (cf. Phil. 3:10). And like Christ we expect "that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies." (2 Cor. 4:10). As Jesus trusted in God to raise him from the dead (cf. Heb. 5:8), so also Paul trusts to be raised from the dead (4:14).

2 Corinthians also gives us incredibly rich statements about Christ and the Holy Spirit. In keeping with New Testament thinking elsewhere, Paul implies that it is the Holy Spirit that is our guarantee of eternity, while also a foretaste of the glory that is already at work inside us, transforming us into the image of Christ (1:22; 5:5). If you do not have the Holy Spirit, you have no basis in Paul to say you are truly a Christian or destined for salvation on the Day when Christ returns.

Christ is God's agent of reconciliation in the world (5:19), the one who took on its sin as a sacrifice, with the result that we are all examples of God's righteousness and mercy toward His creation (5:21). Paul's closing words foreshadow full Christian belief in the Trinity and have been used for centuries to close Christian worship in the Anglican church: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (13:14). Each one of us in Christ is an instance of God's new creation (5:17) and a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.

Finally, 2 Corinthians gives us some rare insight into giving in the early church. We have no evidence that the early Christians followed any practice of tithing, of giving ten percent of their harvest to the temple. Spelling out what tithing was in ancient Israel highlights how different our practice of tithing is today from the Old Testament practice. Tithing was about giving of one's harvest, not of one's "income," as if the ancients had salaries or functioned primarily on the basis of money. Jews who were scattered in the cities of the ancient world did not tithe. What they did was pay a "half-shekel tax" to the Jerusalem temple each year.

There was thus no established pattern for tithing among Jews scattered throughout the cities of the ancient Mediterranean. The practice that we find in the New Testament was thus much more imprecise. Paul tells the Corinthians that they had a responsibility to support materially those who ministered to them spiritually (1 Cor. 9:4-12). Paul raised a collection to take to Jerusalem to show the solidarity of his churches with them. But none of these practices was quantified or regimented.

Paul seems to lay out somewhat of a general principle in 2 Corinthians 8:14-15: "your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, 'Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.'" In other words, all of their possessions not only belonged to God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:26), but they were under obligation to give their abundance to others in the Christian community who had need. Paul gives here his version of Acts 2:44-45: "all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need."

The model for such selfless giving is Jesus Christ himself, "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" (2 Cor. 8:9). This is 2 Corinthians' version of the Philippian hymn, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (2:6-7). So Paul reminds the Corinthians of the attitude they were to have toward others. After all, "God loves a cheerful giver" (9:7).

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