Monday, June 01, 2015

Whatever you do, don't read 2nd Corinthians

A good old-fashioned letter. When was the last time you received one in the mail? You know the kind. Hand-written, ink or pencil, front and back, signs of labor seeping around the edges, crossed-out words, bent edges, some words etched deep with emotion.

The New Testament is made up of a collection of these, mostly the letters of one person, Paul, corresponding to communities of faith he has recently visited (and sometimes established), and in one case (Romans) a faith community he has never met but anticipates seeing.

Of these letters, the correspondence with the Corinthians is the most enigmatic. The letters are indisputably Pauline. Unlike some letters ascribed to Paul, nobody doubts Paul wrote them. They are enigmatic not because they are contested, but because they represent a lengthy correspondence, and an increasingly contentious one.

In fact, Second Corinthians is not actually second. If we take the letters themselves seriously, then First Corinthians is actually second, and Second Corinthians is actually fourth. Preceding each of them are letters, one a "warning" letter, the third a "severe" letter, neither of which have become canonical (except, perhaps, inasmuch as 2 Corinthians is redacted and contains portions of the "letter of tears" that would have been third if all four of the letters had been collected).

So imagine this back and forth between Paul and the church of God which was at Corinth. It is not unlike, on some levels, a rather vigorous debate in the comments section of a blog. The Corinthians post their letters to Paul. Paul retorts. Because of the lack of face-to-face, perhaps the dialogue escalates. But this is all they have to work with, these letters, so the letters become living letters themselves, standing in for the ones writing them.
"You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are Christ's letter, delivered by us. You weren't written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. You weren't written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
And boom, we are into the parts of this letter that illustrate its genius. It is a self-aware letter. The medium is the message. It is a letter that communicates the very presence of the author, who is himself a living letter.

It is difficult to overstate my next point. This letter is aware of its immortality. It is written to live forever, nonpareil. Written by one individual dying man to one specific and transient community, it has now been translated into a majority of the world's languages and is read around the globe.

In a series of white hot, luminous chapters, it evokes almost everything of continuing significance in this thing we call Christianity:

  • The autobiography of Paul as it relates to the message of Christ
  • The nature of testimony
  • The shape of reconciliation
  • Gentiles taking up funds for the church in Jerusalem (I'll come back to this in a sec)
  • The hardships of ministry
  • Divisions in the church
  • The joyous exchange (fröhlicher Wechsel): "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor: 5:21)
  • Glory
  • Holy Spirit
  • Suffering
  • Visionary experiences
  • Generosity
  • Weakness and foolishness

Let's come back around to the special collection for the church in Jerusalem. Imagine, if you would, a scenario where small, struggling communities made up of immigrants took up a collection and delivered it to the wealthy, established church in the center of town. Imagine, for example, that this comfortable and established congregation itself started lots of little churches, was uncomfortable with the theology and sociological makeup of the congregations taking the collection, but nevertheless, this outsider missionary who had established many of the new churches took up a collection, and brought it to the mega-church for them to use as they would.

From The Political Theology of Paul, Jacob Taubes

We get small peaks into this story in many of Paul's letters, but 2 Corinthians takes it up with a rigor and attentiveness unparalleled in the New Testament correspondence. If you want to understand, at least in part, the Jerusalem collection, you have to read this letter. To understand Pauline political theology, you need to read this letter over and over and over.

There is this and so much more to attend to in Paul's letter, not to mention just this one individual letter, itself part of a larger correspondence. The surprise is how infrequently this letter has garnered significant attention in commentaries, at least when compared to other Pauline epistles. I sometimes consider it the most relevant of letters, Paul's letter for the 21st century, Paul's letter for us. As it now appears as the second lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle for the month of June, I'll be preaching on it, and will hope, at least in part, to evoke what is so immeasurably rich about this epistle on fire.

If you are looking for a devotional resource for the journey, consider reading A Heart for Reconciliation: A Walk Through 2 Corinthians

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