Friday, June 05, 2015

An enigma wrapped in a mystery and deep batter fried: a second corinthians series

I am not going to try and explain 2nd Corinthians. That's impossible. What I am going to attempt are various incursions and confusions. If I can interrupt what we currently assume about Christian faith, this series will be a success.

Let's get started. Consider 2 Corinthians 1:5-7:
5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.  6 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.  7 Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. 
Paul assumes the gospel is not about prosperity, success, or abundance. God's will for us, if we can even speak in those terms, is not for victory, joy, comfort, safety, blessings traditionally construed.

Anyone who actually believes that the focus of Scripture and Christian faith is prosperity or comfort or success is going to need to find another religion, because this one ain't it. Israel fails. Christ dies. Paul boasts exclusively in his sufferings and the cross of Christ. Paul's message, though even more strident than some of what has preceded, is on message with the faith conveyed in the biblical witness.

Paul, who himself has been suffering in a variety of ways (in his own body, and in his ministry), believes that his sufferings are "for" others. They are "for" others not in the sense that he should avoid them, or pass them off to others to experience, but rather so that his suffering might be a consolation and even salvation (!) for others.

Paul is crushed, oppressed, compressed, troubled. Instead of escaping it, wishing it away, complaining about it, he turns his sufferings into a form of neighbor love. He suffers for his neighbor, his brothers and sisters in Corinth.

Not only this, but he believes his own sufferings, and the consolations he receives in and through them, can be an encouragement for those receiving his letter in the sense that they can make sense of their own sufferings in the same way.

Sufferings are not failures, hazards, things that separate us. Instead, suffering is shared, and when shared, something that produces hope (Romans 5:1-5).

I'm intrigued by the portrayal of this in some contemporary media, most recently Mad Max: Fury Road. I'm not quite sure what to do with a movie like Fury Road. It's clearly feminist, conveying a pretty interesting sacrificial ethic. At the same time, it's an over-the-top chase movie. It might be what you could call "glam-theology-of-the cross."

We'll come back around to this later, but it is true that Paul, in more than one letter, but especially 2nd Corinthians, chooses to "boast" in his sufferings and weakness. He wears his suffering and weakness as a badge of honor, for Christ's sake.

I'm not convinced that is what a movie like Fury Road does, but it does have intriguing parallels.

Paul will keep coming back around to the difference between the hope we have in Christ, and the momentary afflictions we are currently experiencing (2 Cor. 4:17). I wonder... no, I more than wonder, I am convinced... that because we misunderstand how to relate to suffering in our lives--in particular, the suffering we experience not passively, because we are sick or some accident befalls us, but because we take action, we stand up for something right and good, we act on our convictions and beliefs in a way that makes us suffer so that another person might have relief--we end up misinterpreting these passages.

The promise of glory after or through suffering is not escapist at all. Quite the opposite. It is a word of strength, that we might not lose heart (2 Cor. 4:15). It is a call to action, to step up and participate in the same suffering Christ and Paul underwent, for the sake of the gospel.

In North American culture in particular, we have been listening to the siren song of a false gospel for so long, we hardly know how to suffer in this way, because we believe we have "earned" our comfort and ease and wealth, and we deserve it, so there is no need to give it up, to hand it over, to suffer the loss of it for the other's need.

Yet Paul, madman that he is, asserts repeatedly that if we are to boast in anything at all, it should be in our sufferings. Because our sufferings are for the consolation, even the salvation, of others. As Paul writes in another letter:
Col. 1.24   I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 

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