Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 Corinthians 7
by Mary Stegink
Recently my congregation lifted up their voices and sang “Blessed Be Your Name” (Matt and Beth Redman). The song speaks of the ups and downs in life – we sang of the times when we’re “in the land that is plentiful, where your streams of abundance flow” we sang of the times when “the sun’s shining down on me and the worlds all as ‘it should be.’” Those are the easy times to bless the name of the Lord. But, if you know the song, you know that we also sang of the times we’re “found in the desert place, when we walk through the wilderness” and the times when “we’re on a road marked with suffering and there’s pain in the offering.” And still, we bless the name of the Lord. This beautiful song could be used to sum up Paul’s volatile relationship with the church in Corinth. There were times when Paul’s journey with the Corinthian church must have felt like a desert place, a wilderness, a place where the sun did not shine. And then, as we see in this passage – there were also those glorious moments when all of the right pieces came together and for one beautiful moment the relationship was “all that it should be!” And throughout the journey, through the ups and the downs, Paul continued to bless the name of the Lord.
A brief (?) review of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church – bumpy might be the operative word here. Paul first came to Corinth on his second missionary journey. He stayed for a while, supporting himself by tent-making and preaching to Gospel every chance he had. As a result, a church began. And Paul continued on. At the time of Paul’s journeys and writings Corinth was an important city. Its location – just off an isthmus, made it a good place for trade and commerce (NIV Study Bible). The city supported a number of temples to the goddess Aphrodite – and the worship of Aphrodite (as the goddess of love) involved a great deal of temple prostitution. Immorality was Corinth’s middle name. So, in this context, Paul leaves a little band of believers who form the Corinthian church. And they struggle. Somehow – whether by letter and/or word of mouth – Paul gets word of the church’s misconduct – the confusion between their old lives in their new lives. And so he writes the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians is a laundry list of proper Christian conduct in light of the questions of the Corinthians had. And then – just when the instruction got too much to handle, Paul says, “now, look, this is the better way – and writes some of the best known words in Scripture – 1 Corinthians 13 – the true, Godly love chapter. The Corinthian church probably received this letter sometime in the early part of the year 55 AD. Paul wrote it from Ephesus while he was on his third missionary journey. Then, later that same year – from Macedonia – Paul writes what we know as 2 Corinthians – a follow-up. This time he’s setting the stage for his impending visit – but a visit that will happen later than anticipated – he spends some precious ink and papyrus to explain his change in plans. The main obstacle that the Corinthians is false teachers – and false friends – who are trying their best to turn the Corinthians away from Paul and his teachings – and on to them and theirs. You would think this would lead to one of those “desert place/wilderness” moments for Paul. But, after writing to them for a while, he breaks out in a “the sun’s shining down on me, the world is as ‘it should be’” moment – and speaks of his joy. His joy for the Corinthians, his joy that Titus was not only welcomed, but loved by the church, and his joy that the Corinthians really listened to what he had to say and were on their way to being the church they were meant to be.
Now, this reading isn’t all rosy – Paul starts out rather defensive – explaining again that he hasn’t done anything improper or wrong. He knew the letter he had written was harsh – but continues to explain that they needed to hear what he had to say – a good dose of tough love! Even though they have frustrated him upon occasion, he still loves them and has confidence that they can be true servants of Jesus Christ. In the Word Biblical Commentary (Martin) the writer suggests that he begins with a “hate the sin, love the sinner” attitude about what had been happening. Barrett (quoted by Martin) says this of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians: “as a pastor he gives himself to his people, grateful or ungrateful, without reserve.” Like a parent of a teenager, he loves them bumps, bruises, acne, attitude and all. And he also goes a step further – and instills in them – this gangly little church – a tremendous gift. That gift is confidence. Verse 4: “I have great confidence in you!” “I’m really proud of you!” And then, in verse 14 he goes on and says, “I boasted about you!” and then again in verse 16 he revisits that confidence – and how happy it makes him that he can say these good things about this little church.
A few notes about Paul’s tone in this portion of the letter. Some of the commentaries pointed out that Paul, who is usually straightforward and logical, breaks from that and writes with a surprisingly emotional tone. (Word Biblical Commentary, Martin; NIB Commentary, Sampley). Sampley says, “it is rare to use such ‘frank’ speech.” Paul went out on a limb and broke the ‘frank speech rules.’ And yet, his love and concern for the Corinthian church was so deep – he was willing to break those rules. They needed to hear words of correction – as difficult as they must have been to hear – but, thanks be to God, they heard and responded in such a way you can feel Paul’s joy (and relief?) oozing out of the text. Barclay suggests that Paul is “relieved and refreshed” by the results of his harsh letter. Paul is basking in the delight that reconciliation has occurred, that his faith and confidence in the Corinthian church wasn’t misplaced, and that they welcomed Titus with open arms. (Barclay) Paul was living, for this moment, in a land that was plentiful, where streams of abundance flowed. And he blessed the name of the Lord.
First, I think we all need to be reminded of the importance of “speaking the truth in love.” Paul loved this little church – even when they were messing up big time. He wasn’t afraid to write the difficult words of correction they needed to hear. Our modern culture is all about praise. I was rarely praised during my childhood (I grew up in the “don’t praise them or they’ll get a big head” era – but I was loved, no worries there!). And if I was praised it was often tempered with a “but” – as in, “that was good, but you could have done something differently” (Usually in a response to a piano recital where I never got through a piece perfectly. Never.) Even to this day, my parents rarely praise me to my face – they tell my sister and then she tells me (and the opposite is true as well). I like to think my husband and I raised our children with a little more praise in their lives – if they truly did something well – we told them we were proud of them, and if they messed up, we were honest and tried our best to help them through it. But what I see today is praise all over the place. Children get gold stars for showing up. They are rarely scolded because we certainly don’t want to hurt their feelings or make them feel bad about themselves. And we’re paying the price. We live in a society where a whole bunch of people think they’re entitled to a whole bunch of stuff. And whether we’re a parent, a teacher, and/or a pastor, we have to have the courage to stand up and say, “I don’t care what the rest of the world is doing, this is not how a child of God acts.” Paul knew his words would be difficult for the Corinthians to hear – but they were said in love and they were said for correction and Kingdom building. And then, because they heard the words as they were meant, they turned themselves around, got back on the right path and they heard the words of praise they deserved to hear: “I love you, I’m encouraged by you, I have confidence in you!” And, remember, Paul knew this wasn’t about him – it was about God and Kingdom. What brings Paul joy is that fact that the ministry of the Corinthians would continue, that’s God’s name would be honored and his Kingdom would be built.
And one last note on the importance of confidence. A number of the commentators pulled this phrase out and suggested that having confidence in someone is the highest compliment you can pay someone. (Sampley). Like trust, it’s easily lost and hard to regain – but isn’t that what makes it special? We have a model of perfect confidence – we look to our Lord and Savior knowing full well that we can have complete confidence in him – he has and will continue to do all he said he would. Christ has died (just as he said he would), Christ has risen (just as he said he would), so we can live in the confidence that Christ will come again! His kingdom builders have a responsibility (and that responsibility is a joy) to share that confidence with our broken, doubtful, untrusting world.
Rev. Mary Stegink is the pastor of Ridgewood Christian Reformed Church, Ridgewood, NJ.