Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Second Letter to Corinth

My summer travel schedule has put me a bit behind the Westar Institute's 30 Days with Paul reading plan.  I will continue on with Philemon, Philippians, and Romans at my own pace, but first I want to reflect a bit on Paul's Second Letter to his community in Corinth.

Reading 1 Corinthians I was struck by the dualism, and underlying sense of separateness and conflict that engaged Paul so relentlessly.  There were bits of light along the way, but at that point they did not cohere into anything solid.  With 2 Corinthians, that begins to change.

In this letter, Paul still feels separate from the community, and threatened by the appearance of other preachers who apparently want the Corinthian Christians to live by Jewish law in order to be "properly" Christian.  That, however, was not Paul's message, and he pleads with his readers to remember the truth of what he taught them.

The down side?  He nearly drowns those nuggets of truth in a long tirade of self-justification.  To his credit, he justifies his teaching on the basis of his attempt to embody the humility of the crucified Christ in his own experience of hardship and humiliation.  He's on the right track here, I would say, but he's still only beginning to see the truth of Christ's life and message.  He tells his readers that it was 14 years earlier that "someone" was lifted up and given a heavenly vision.  Scholars consider this "someone" to be Paul himself.  And while 14 years may sound like a long time to ponder and digest and make sense of the kind of life-changing revelation Paul received, in the history of the development of new religious movements, it is barely a blink of the Divine eye.  Paul is trying desperately to teach something he barely understands, at least at an intellectual level, to communities that do not have a shared religious vocabulary or worldview.  No wonder he sounds so frustrated!

There is, however, a glimmer of the message Paul tries so desperately to convey to his Corinthian converts.  I find it in these verses:

3:17 -- "...where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."  In the face of those who would impose the Hebrew Law upon non-Jewish Christians, Paul intuits that there is a freedom to be found in embracing Christ as the embodiment of God.

5:15 -- "...he [Christ] died for all..."  The death of Christ works effectively to bring all persons into a new form of life, if they know this to be true.  No one is left out of the saving work of Christ.

5:19 -- "in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself..."  Again, no part of creation was left out of God's reconciling, I would say unifying, work.

What Paul has not seen yet, or has seen but not yet understood, is that the freedom and the reconciliation are two sides of God's love.  Paul still wants to fence "the community of the saved" with laws and expectations.  He sees other teachers as threats to his own ministry, and to God.  He doesn't yet see that there is no threat to God, and that, in the words of the Lindisfarne Community, all truth is God's truth.  God's love is more than large enough to reconcile all of creation to himself.

At the same time that I was reading this letter, I was coming across statements from other world religions about the essential unity of all persons in Divine Love.  Religions such as Daoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism had been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Paul's breakthrough revelation.  I see him as groping toward something that requires long years of thought, prayer and struggle to understand and articulate, something that is at the heart of the religious vision: that God's love is neither exclusive nor earned, but given freely to all of God's creatures.  To live in that love, one needs simply to acknowledge and open the gift.  But those who do and those who have not yet are still united by the love God has for them, not separated by the judgments we make about each other.

Christians who root themselves deeply in Pauline writing need to be careful not to stay at a beginner's level of religious understanding.  Paul's fear and self-justification run the risk of creating fearful, self-justifying Christians, even now.  I will be digging into the next few letters, especially Romans, seeking signs of a more nuanced, mature understanding of the Christian revelation.

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