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Posts Tagged ‘2 Corinthians’

The apostle Paul’s anguished struggle for reality in his relationship with the Corinthian believers probably explains the precision he seeks in this letter. Theirs may well have been one of those uneasy friendships where everything that can go wrong does. In a crazy-making ecosystem like this, the slightest ambiguity takes a direction that is the opposite of what is intended.

In ordinary life, the word ‘dysfunctional’ comes without effort to our lips. It probably applies here.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2 Corinthians 4:5–7 NIV11)

Paul is at pains to explain that his role with the Corinthian church is essential but not central. It is necessary, but not in itself redemptive. In slightly more practical terms, even if Paul’s reputation among them can be rehabilitated, he cannot do that much for them.

Precision.

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord …

This is the beginning of a sentence, the essence of a declaration. It is not the entirety of either. It is important, if we would understand the apostle, to track the minutely angled path of the surgeon’s knife.

Paul and his apostolic companions are only worthwhile to the Corinthians to the degree that they present to them ‘Jesus Christ as Lord’. To confuse the matter, to blur these particular lines, would be a fateful and even final mistake. ‘Jesus Christ as Lord’, a startling distillation of a message that has its irreducible complexities, is a daring compression of that message into the densest imaginable core.

There is nothing about Paul or his colleagues that can do for the Corinthians what ‘Jesus Christ as Lord’ can accomplish. Confusion on this point comes very close to total loss, no matter how frequently and how naively Christian practitioners through the ages allow our personalities and tactics to become an essential part of the redemptive package.

Yet Paul’s sentence does not end here. It runs on, in a kind of concessive afterword: ‘… and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’. Probably these words are not the object of ‘we preach’, as a strict reading of the grammar would imply. It seems more likely that Paul is conceding, although paradoxically with a kind of insistence, that ‘Jesus Christ as Lord’ has not arrived and perhaps cannot arrive as a disembodied message. Rather, the presence and activity of Paul’s band are necessary for the message to implant itself and take a growing form in the life of the Corinthian community. Even if the proclamation of ‘Jesus Christ as Lord’ is everything, he and his companions are not nothing.

Corroboration of this understanding may come just a bit later when with deeply resonant metaphor Paul allows that …

… we have this treasure in jars of clay to show the the surpassing power is from God and not from us.

Once again, the point is not exactly a function of either-or logic. Paul’s point is not Jesus or us, and probably not a facile ‘it’s not about us’ sloganeering.

It is rather a precise distinction between the transformative potency of ‘Jesus as Lord’ or ‘this treasure’ over against the necessary flesh-and-blood transmission of this message by people who get things wrong.

It is about us, who would claim some genetic connectivity with these earliest missioners. But it’s not.

That might sound like confusion. In truth, it is apostolic precision of an uncommon sort.

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We are not pawns. Yet we are players in a Great Game in which everything is at stake and large powers move amid shadows and light.

We do not move alone, do not decide alone, do not—no matter our pretensions—create our own future, alone.

Theologians, as they should, make passable stabs at systematizing all this. They boil it down into its crystallized form. Some of us outliers memorize these schemata. It hardens into backbone, sometimes, allowing us to live, flex, thrust, chase with the kinds of agile coherence that a healthy body manifests.

But in reality, redemption’s story is a drama, not a code.

Great forces act on us. Some deserve our worship or something close to that, others our disdain. We fool ourselves if we think we live alone. Autonomy, in the clear light of day, is a laughable self-deception that—oddly—can be sustained for a lifetime if a guy puts his mind to it.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3–6 NIV11)

The apostle Paul may well have gasped at his hearers’ resistance to the clarity of his gospel. The joy and trauma of the Damascus Road still clung to his clothes, his beard. He was a man heading south when Jesus turned him north. His intellect traced redemption’s sinews, but did not lead him from darkness to the light that was appropriately and in the first instance a blinding light. He was assaulted by grace, not the recipient of an emailed invitation to think about it.

How could people not believe in this Jesus whom Paul had come to adore, this glorious Son of Judaism’s divine Father, this Impress of God? This Mercy?

They are not merely blind, the apostle eventually concluded. That would merely beg more explanation, an unsatisfying step towards the infinite regression of loss.

More than blind, they have been blinded.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Yet the Great Game—if the second word elicits playfulness, we must discard it at once—has not just one barely discernible player, a ‘god of this age’ unmatched by beneficent power. Darkness and its prince claim their casualties, to be sure. Yet an invading Presence that despises darkness and floods it with light is also afoot amid these shadows and this light.

For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

Paul’s allusion here is to Creation, but his point in invoking that prehistoric moment is to say that God’s creative work continues on. If it was a flash in the past, it also manifests itself in ongoing bursts of light. These continuing acts of creation, now seen in their redemptive results, illuminate human hearts and minds so that Glory is not just a thing out there, known only to heaven and its secretive forces.

Rather, it is seen and celebrated down here by those who once were blind but now can see.

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This business of Christian witness in a world gone mad is exquisitely complex. And beautiful.

Balance is required, a certain astute way with a dance.

Why did I once think things were simple, easy, and clear?

The apostle has an angle. Always, an angle:

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:1–6 NIV)

I remember, as though it were yesterday, a three-decades-ago pastor taking me under wing in a small-but-very-large controversy about ‘secret societies’ and membership in a New England church that was risking the bold move of taking its principal cues from the Christian gospel.

A spiritual violence was in play. This pastor was the still point at the center.

‘The gospel of Jesus Christ is public’, he explained to me. ‘You put things out there where they can be discussed, debate, refuted, questioned, embraced, rejected. There are no cards played close to the vest, no esoteric logic, no secret handshakes.’

Or words to that effect. I’m not sure he mentioned the handshakes.

It made sense back then. It makes better sense today, me dancing uneasily around the awkward fact that I am now the age he owned back then, with only half the savvy. Half the stillness.

By working with utterly sincere transparency, the apostle struggles to make clear, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscious in the sight of God. He, she, they make their own decisions, assess their own risk, choose their own future.

But we commend ourselves to them by never allowing ourselves the short-lived luxury of half-truths and deceptive motivations. We have only one asset: our credibility. If, when we have had our say, declared our truth, staked our claim, they believe we have hidden nothing in a rolled-up sleeve, we have won the battle that is ours to fight. The rest falls to other warriors, other risk pools, other destinies.

Yet, paradoxically—good grief, will I never know the luxury of a simple truth!—we do not preach ourselves.

This is the dance, the delicate pas de deux with contested reality that is the essence of Christian testimony, this is the part that is ours.

Pick me to pieces. Lash me with your hard questions. Think of me what you will, I’ve nothing to hide from you. Sneer at me or declare your undying loyalty.

It means nothing to me, really, at the end of my trembling day.

There is Jesus. Walk this way.

 

 

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To tell the truth is often difficult and occasionally excruciating. People of good will do not love the ‘hard conversations’ that life thrusts upon us. Rather, we endure them. We sometimes abhor the anticipation of them, frequently tremble through them, and with some regularity second-guess our execution of them. (more…)

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The Bible maintains a consistently high regard for those human qualities and actions that are noble, elevated, and good. Indeed, it encourages one to view such things in proximity to that dignity or glory which belongs in its purest form only to God.

Yet the biblical witness remains unimpressed by the tawdry or ungenuine proxies for those qualities represented by—for example—class or economic potency or impressive speech or educational credentials. It is not that any of these things is necessarily bad, just that they are awful measures of what is truly good. Too often, such things elevate what deserves to remain low and blind our eyes from recognizing what is best esteemed. (more…)

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Anyone inclined to doubt that the apostle Paul was a complex man who enmeshed himself in the most complicated relational webs need only peruse 2 Corinthians 12 to be set right. In a discourse impregnanted with the most dazzling emotional transparency, Paul struggles to articulate the relationship that makes restoration of equilibrium between him and the Corinthians a non-negotiable objective. (more…)

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