For almost two millennia followers of Christ have read Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth to build their faith and guide their prayer. Crucial decisions have been made and lives have been transformed through reflection on Paul’s words to this early believing community. All Christians throughout the world accept First and Second Corinthians as God’s inspired word. Yet when these letters were first composed, they were intended to address specific issues in a single community. Therefore, the concrete circumstances of a church in one particular city of the ancient world have influenced Christians in every time and place. As we read First and Second Corinthians this month, it is important to appreciate the specific situation of the city of Corinth, the history of Paul with this particular community, and the potential which these two letters possess to preserve the unity of the church in every age.
Corinth: A City Shaped by Geography and Athletics
The city of Corinth was fundamentally shaped by its geography. It was located on a narrow isthmus connecting mainland Greece with a large southern peninsula which was called the Peloponnese. Thus the city bordered on two seas. The Adriatic Sea was on the west and the Aegean Sea on the east. Since the waters south of the Peloponnese were turbulent and unpredictable, sea merchants preferred to transport their goods by land across the isthmus rather than risk shipwreck. Corinth profited from this precaution. Since the isthmus was only three and a half miles wide, vast quantities of goods and sometimes entire ships were hauled across it from one sea to another. Corinth became a nexus of trade.
This ongoing commerce brought great prosperity to the city. It also created a genuinely cosmopolitan atmosphere. Different philosophies, religions, races, and social classes mixed together in one thriving metropolis. The diversity and vitality of Corinth is reflected in First Corinthians. Paul mentions that the community is composed of those who are powerful and of noble birth but also of many who are not (1:26). Paul acknowledges that the Corinthians shop in the meat market (10:25), participate in frequent social dinners (10:27), and attend the amphitheater (9:24). He recognizes the presence of various religious cults in the city and the Corinthians’ interaction with them (8:5, 10).
The wealth and importance of Corinth was enhanced by its administration of the Isthmian games. The Greeks celebrated regular athletic and artistic competitions under the patronage of a particular god. The most famous were the Olympian games, held at MountOlympus in honor of Zeus. Next in importance were the Isthmian games, held every two years on the Corinthian isthmus in honor of Poseidon. Like the modern Olympic games, the Isthmian games were an economic engine, requiring builders, merchants, and tradesmen to support the great number of participants and spectators. Tentmakers, Paul’s profession, were in particular demand.
Paul draws upon his experience of the games in his writings. He uses the image of the athletic contest to illustrate the energy a believer should expend in service of the gospel. Writing to the Philippians he asserts that in his ministry he has not “run in vain” (2:16). In First Corinthians Paul employs the athletic image more fully, referring not only to racing but boxing as well (9:24-27).
Geography and the Isthmian games made Corinth a wealthy city. They also endowed the city with a dangerous edge. As was the case in many ports, residents and visitors at Corinth took liberties which would seem out of place in the more conservative cities of the empire. A number of ancient authors record the warning: “The voyage to Corinth is not for everyone.” Corinth was neither orderly nor well-behaved. Such turmoil also characterized Paul’s relationship with the community of believers who lived there.
Paul and the Corinthians: Their Relationship and Correspondence
We believe Paul first came to Corinth in the year 50 or 51. He preached the Good News of Jesus and founded a church there which reflected the diversity of the city. When the Spirit called him to leave Corinth and spread the gospel elsewhere, a complex relationship with the Corinthians began. It involved several return visits and multiple letters.
Although we have two letters to the Corinthians in our scriptures, we know that Paul wrote at least two other letters to this community, both of which are now lost. After leaving the city for the first time, Paul heard that certain church members were associating with immoral people. He wrote a letter back to Corinth (now lost) to warn them against this practice. We know this letter was written because Paul refers to it in 1 Cor 5:9. The association of the Corinthians with immorality was but the first sign of what was to come. It initiated a turbulent history between this community and its founding apostle.
While staying in Ephesus between the years 54 and 57, Paul was informed of various issues which were dividing the Corinthian church and he decided to write a letter to address them. This letter has survived and is now in our bibles as First Corinthians. Some time after this letter was written, Timothy came to Ephesus bearing news that the Corinthians were forsaking their allegiance to Paul and following apostles who were opposed to his teaching. This news caused Paul to leave Ephesus and travel to Corinth in an attempt to rectify the situation. Paul’s visit was a disaster. Someone in the community publicly affronted Paul and undermined his authority. Paul left the city without resolving the problem. We know that this visit took place because Paul tells us of a “painful visit” to Corinth in 2 Cor 2:1.
Once out of Corinth, Paul decided to write again to the Corinthians. He later refers to this letter (now lost) as a letter written “with many tears” (2 Cor 2:4). This letter was successful. It moved the Corinthians to repentance and instilled the desire to heal their relationship with Paul (2 Cor 7:8-9). In an immediate response to this good news Paul wrote to Corinth again, giving us the letter which is now in our bibles as Second Corinthians. In that letter he expressed his joy and his intention to visit Corinth a “third time” (2 Cor 13:1).
Our ability to trace Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians ends with Second Corinthians. We have no way of knowing whether Paul ever visited or wrote to the community again. However, from what we know it is clear that the life of this early Christian community and its relationship with Paul was not an easy one. It was characterized by misunderstanding, rejection, and sorrow. Yet at the same time the Corinthians demonstrated an enthusiasm for the gospel, an abundance of spiritual gifts, and the capacity to repent when it became clear that they were in error. The lesson of their history tells us that turmoil has always been a part of church life and the challenge to use the gifts of God wisely is a perennial one. In God’s plan, the particular virtues and vices of this community, the ups and downs of its relationship with its founding apostle, provide a means through which we can understand the implications of the Good News for us today.
Reading First and Second Corinthians as an Appeal for Unity
The two letters which have survived from the history of Paul and the Corinthian church are found in our scriptures as First and Second Corinthians. They are real letters. They were written to address concrete issues in the life of a particular community. Because both letters touch upon a number of different questions, it is somewhat artificial to suggest a theme which binds them together. Yet there is profit in suggesting that both letters focus on the importance of unity in the life of the church.
First Corinthians deals with a variety of problems which Paul feels are threatening unity within the community. This concern emerges early in the letter when he writes, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10). The issue of unity continues under the surface of the letter as Paul discusses immorality (chapter 5), the use of civil law courts (chapter 6), the eating of meat offered to idols (chapters 8-10), and the proper practice at worship (chapter 11). In chapter 12, the plea for unity emerges again in full view. In that chapter Paul speaks of the Body of Christ which is the letter’s overriding image of unity: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12).
If First Corinthians pleads for the internal unity of the church, Second Corinthians appeals for the unity between the community and the apostle. Paul writes Second Corinthians to defend his ministry and to strengthen his bond to the community. He pleads dramatically and personally for reconciliation: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also” (2 Cor 6:11-13).
Paul deeply believed that those who followed Christ were to form a community which would be a sign of Christ’s coming return in glory. To function as that sign, to be united to its Lord, the church must be united in itself. The Corinthians together formed God’s temple in the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). But that temple could be destroyed through divisions in the church.
We cannot read this powerful correspondence in which Paul seeks to heal the unity at Corinth, without applying Paul’s message to our own time and place. For these letters touch a core truth of the Christian gospel: to be daughters and sons of God we must live with our sisters and brothers in unity.
Perhaps the greatest debt we owe to the Corinthians flows from the manner in which they abused the Lord’s Supper. It was their wrongly directed approach to celebrating this meal which led Paul to address the problem and, in so doing, give us the earliest scriptural witness to the Eucharist.
Paul’s instruction is found in 1 Cor 11:17-34. Clearly Paul is upset (verse 17). However, the precise reason why Paul is disturbed is not clear. As in most passages of Paul’s letters, appreciating his meaning depends upon understanding the concrete situation he is addressing. Verse 18 suggests that the issue is again one of unity: “For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it.” But what is causing the divisions which Paul attacks? To answer this question we must examine the practice of banqueting in the first century.
The Greco-Roman Banquet
In the ancient world it was common to celebrate the identity of any group through the celebration of a meal which scholars have named “the Greco-Roman banquet.” Groups and organizations from every social and economic class and every religious tradition used this style of meal to express who they were and what they believed.
The scriptures testify to the use of such meals. It was customary to recline while celebrating a Greco-Roman banquet. Luke pictures the poor man Lazarus reclining next to Abraham as they share in a banquet in paradise (Luke 16:23). At the Last Supper, the beloved disciple is pictured as reclining next to Jesus (John 13:23). The washing of the guests’ feet was another accepted part of banquet etiquette. Jesus complains that such service was lacking when he shared in a banquet at the house of the Pharisee, Simon (Luke 7:44). Jesus washed the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper (John 13:3-5).
The Greco-Roman banquet was composed of two parts. The meal proper or supper was followed by a second part which could include entertainment or philosophical discussion. This second part began by sharing a cup of wine and blessing God. On the night before he died, it was this blessing cup, drunk “after the supper,” which Jesus declared contained his blood (1 Cor 11:25). These details within the scriptures confirm that the structure and characteristics of the Greco-Roman banquet were influential upon the practice of Jesus and the early church.
It is important to remember that the Greco-Roman banquet did not dictate the meaning of any particular meal. A group of carpenters could celebrate the meal to express their unity in their work. A political group could employ it to celebrate their common philosophy. A religious group could use the meal to remember the central event of their history. Thus it is likely that when early followers of Jesus began to carry out his command to celebrate a meal in memory of him, their manner of celebration reflected the philosophy and style of the Greco-Roman banquet.
The Situation at Corinth
At Corinth Paul insisted that some characteristics which were acceptable as part of the Greco-Roman banquet were not acceptable as part of the Supper of the Lord.
Early Christians would gather in private homes. Since those who were wealthy had larger homes, it is likely that they made their homes available as the place for the church to gather. The very architecture of those homes promoted divisions.
The logical place to celebrate the Lord’s Supper would be in the dining room of the house. Yet the entire community would not be able to fit into the room. Part of the church would be forced to spill over into other rooms where there were no couches on which to recline. Moreover, it would be natural that the owner of the house would invite his or her special friends to occupy the prime space of the dining room. Such social stratification was acceptable as part of the Greco-Roman banquet which presumed a hierarchy at the meal. The places of honor were those close to the host and those guests of lesser importance were given positions further away. Jesus acknowledged such stratification when he described how his followers should act at banquets (Luke 14:7-11).
The stratification, however, extended beyond one’s location in the house. It also influenced what food was being served. In many Greco-Roman banquets those seated in the positions of honor received better food. Pliny the Younger (Letters, 2:6) reports that he attended a banquet were the host served the best food to himself and his friends and gave the rest of the company cheap scraps. The host also served the wine in small flasks so that he could keep the best vintage for his special associates and allocate the cheaper wine to those of lesser importance.
It is very likely that some form of this social stratification had become accepted in Corinth when the church gathered to share the Lord’s Supper. This is what is reflected in 1 Cor 11—”For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (verse 21). Although divisions among the participants were acceptable at the Greco-Roman banquet, Paul is adamant that they cannot be present at the Lord’s Supper.
To explain why this cannot be, Paul recounts the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (verse 24). Although we often interpret “my body” in this verse as a reference to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, Paul introduces the image of Christ’s body to highlight the unity of the community. Paul will state this most clearly in the next chapter: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:27). By recalling Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, Paul is insisting that when the Corinthians share the Lord’s Supper, they must do so as who they are: the undivided Body of Christ. You can almost hear Paul’s exasperation, echoing another complaint earlier in the letter, “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13). Because the Corinthians are the Body of Christ, they cannot celebrate the Lord’s Supper with divisions among them. Their practice of celebration must change. That is why Paul’s final words on this topic include the direction: “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (verse 33). Paul is convinced that if the Corinthians eat separately, they do not eat the Lord’s Supper (verse 20).
The Body of Christ Today
In this section of First Corinthians Paul forges an essential link between the unity of the church and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians were not consciously attempting to disrespect the Lord’s command. They were merely interpreting his words thorough the customs of their day. “If Jesus asked us to share a meal,” they thought, “then this is how it is done.” Paul challenges that assumption. The bond between this meal and Christ is so strong that if we divide ourselves, we have divided Christ. Paul wants the Corinthians to recognize this truth. Failing to do so will result in dire consequences: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (verse 29).
The challenge of Paul remains with us today. Like the Corinthians we can dilute our celebration of the Eucharist by missing the connection between the meal and the community which celebrates it. If we tolerate divisions among us as acceptable, we misunderstand Jesus’ command. If we allow social stratification to shape our communities, where some are treated with importance and other are written off as expendable, we undercut our identity. If we allow distinctions of race, wealth, power, or nationality to separate us, Christ has been divided.
Followers of Jesus must always ask themselves, “Who is not welcome? Who are we excluding?” For where some are rejected or ignored, the body is not whole. Real people in our families, in our communities, in our world comprise the Body of Christ. We cannot truly celebrate the Eucharist without discerning that body and maintaining its unity.
Even causal Christians know the importance of Easter. On Easter we remember Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Most believers readily profess that Christ’s triumph is the foundation of the gospel. Christ’s resurrection is the Good News. Yet when Christians are asked why Christ’s resurrection is Good News, their response is often tentative and unclear. It is surprising that something as central as the resurrection is so often found difficult to explain. Understanding Paul’s discussion of the resurrection in First Corinthians 15 can clarify this central tenet of our faith.
Some of the Corinthians believed that the resurrection was of no consequence to their faith. Paul heard of this and wrote them: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15:12). As Paul continues, it becomes clear that their oversight is devastating: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor 15:13-14). According to Paul, ignoring the resurrection renders our faith useless. We are obviously playing for high stakes in this matter. That is why Paul spends an entire chapter explaining the importance of the resurrection.
Jesus’ Resurrection Is Part of a Larger Plan
Paul does not view Jesus’ resurrection as an end in itself. It is a crucial part of a larger plan of God to eliminate evil from the world. Paul makes this point by calling Jesus “the first fruits of those who have died” (verse 20). The “first fruits” are an agricultural image. First fruits are the first part of the crop to be harvested. Paul uses this image because he seeks to associate Jesus’ resurrection with a reality which is to follow it—a reality which involves us. To make his point more clearly, Paul gives us a time-line of events in which Jesus’ resurrection is only one step: “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (verse 23). Here it becomes clear that the rest of the harvest will entail our resurrection. The entire harvest will not be complete until all those who belong to Christ share in a similar resurrection with him when he returns.
But the work of God in Christ involves even more than our resurrection. Paul makes this clear as he continues his time-line: “Then comes the end, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (verses 24-26). Paul tells us that God intends not only to save us but to eradicate all evil from the world. The “rulers, authorities, and powers” of which Paul speaks are not political entities. They are the spiritual forces of evil which still dominate our existence. These are the “enemies” which Christ will destroy when he returns. We can offer but a partial list of the enemies Paul has in mind: war, hunger, poverty, hatred, greed, injustice, and prejudice. These and other evils are contrary to God’s will, and God intends to destroy them through Christ. The greatest enemy is saved to the last. Even death will be destroyed.
At this point it has become clear that God has embarked on a final, cosmic project. God’s plan involves not only Jesus’ resurrection but our resurrection and the recreation of the world. In fact, God intends to extend goodness to all that exists, establishing the perfection which was God’s goal at creation. All that is evil is to be destroyed. All that will remain is what God desires. Paul proclaims this truth as he concludes his time-line: When all things are subjected to him [Christ], then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one [God] who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (verse 28).
In Paul’s powerful description of the plan of God, it becomes apparent why Jesus’ resurrection is good news for us. Jesus’ resurrection has begun to recreate the world and remove evil from our midst. It was this realization which fueled the early church to proclaim the gospel everywhere, announcing that the definitive destruction of evil had begun. It is this realization which should inform our faith today. We should know and proclaim the Good News that God is opposed to evil of the world and has begun to destroy it. When we say that we believe in Jesus, we express the conviction that this plan of God has been inaugurated. Yet holding to this faith demands that we live in the midst of a tension.
Living in the Middle of the Good News
To live the truth of the resurrection, we must know where we stand in the plan of God. We stand in the middle. The first part of God’s plan has been realized, yet the remaining part must still occur. Jesus has been raised up. His resurrection is definitive. It is our surety that God has irrevocably begun the destruction of all evil. Yet it is obvious to anyone that many evils remain in our world. Violence and greed fill our media. Misunderstanding, hurt, and disease still characterize our lives. We await the complete victory of God in Christ. Our salvation is “already” but “not yet.”
If we relax the tension between what is already and what is not yet, we distort the gospel. On one hand, focusing exclusively on what has been already accomplished can blind us to the pain of the world. Evil continues to oppress humanity and lessen our lives. Proclaiming only that “the victory has been won” can make us oblivious to the many people who continue to suffer and our responsibility to assist them. On the other hand, focusing only on what is yet to come, erodes the confidence which flows from Christ’s resurrection. What makes us unique as Christians is not that we believe that God will save the world, but that God has definitively begun to do so in Christ. Faith looks backwards at the resurrection of Jesus, believing in its truth, understanding its significance. Hope looks forward to what flows from that faith, insisting that what God has begun will invariably be completed.
Therefore, Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ resurrection provides a practical basis for Christian living. We all experience evil in our lives. Whether our lives have been touched by sickness, betrayal, depression, or death, the force of evil is real and personal. Christ’s resurrection assures us that God is opposed to the evil we suffer. Christ’s triumph invites us to join our suffering to the pain of the world which God intends to destroy but has “not yet” eliminated. We can and should remind ourselves that we do not suffer alone. We wait with all creation for the glory which is to come.
Yet as we embrace the “not yet” of salvation, we gain strength from what has already taken place. Christ is risen! Our faith tells us this is true. Since death has been destroyed in him, then the days of death and all other evils are numbered. In our darkest moments, we can rally our hope because we know that the time-line of salvation has started to unfold. Christians should be the most hopeful of all people, because we believe that the triumph of God has not only been promised us, it has already begun.
Christ’s resurrection is not a matter of words but of reality. Although its full promise has not yet been realized, its occurrence is the basis of our hope. As we stand in the middle of God’s plan, we look forward to what is to come, to that day when God will be all in all. But we know already that since Christ has been raised up then God’s will cannot be deterred. What has happened will invariably lead to what is promised. This is why Jesus’ resurrection is the gospel—good news for our lives.
We have suggested that the unity of the church is a theme which ties First and Second Corinthians together. How can we trace this theme through these two letters? One useful tool is to watch for the image of God’s building.
Early in First Corinthians Paul identifies the community with God’s building (3:9). Although Paul uses other images when he writes to the Corinthians, the image of the building is particularly helpful in following his thought. In a manner similar to English, the Greek noun for “building” corresponds to the verb “building” or “building up.” This allows Paul to employ the term as admonition to the Corinthians of how they should act. The use of these terms allows the interpreter to recognize when the issue of the unity of the community is foremost in Paul’s mind.
When Paul directs the Corinthians who wish to eat idol meat to set aside their prerogatives so as not to scandalize the weak members of the community, he tells them that such a decision would “build up” the community (1 Cor 8:1, 10:23). Paul encourages prophecy over speaking in tongues because it more clearly “builds up” the assembly (1 Cor 14:3, 4, 12). In fact, the general principle in all worship is that whatever is done is done for “building up” the church (1 Cor 14:26).
Second Corinthians centers on the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians. Paul uses the verb “to build up” as a means to describe his own ministry towards the Corinthians. His boasting and his authority over the Corinthians is not for tearing them down but to “build them up” (2 Cor 10:8; 13:10). Paul uses this term to describe his entire stance toward them: “Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up” (2 Cor 12:19).
Notice the image of God’s building in First and Second Corinthians. It will reveal Paul’s central interest in the unity of the church.
1 Cor 1:1-9–Thankfulness Is the First Step
Paul follows a definite structure as he composes his letters. As is customary in almost all ancient letters, Paul begins with a salutation section in which he names himself and some fellow workers as the senders (verse 1), identifies the recipients to whom the letter is sent (verse 2), and then completes the section with a short greeting (verse 3). What follows after the salutation, however, is unique to Paul. Before beginning to discuss the issues of the letter, Paul stops to give thanks.
His gratitude is expressed in a thanksgiving section which characterizes all of Paul’s letters. Paul is grateful for his relationship with the church to which he writes. He carefully composes the thanksgiving section to personalize it, including traits of the community he addresses and topics which the letter will eventually discuss. For example, in the thanksgiving section of First Corinthians, Paul acknowledges that the Corinthians “are not lacking any spiritual gift” (verse 7). This comment prepares for the lengthy discussion on the role and importance of the spiritual gifts in chapters 12-14.
Paul usually decided to write a letter because there were troubles and misunderstandings between him and the community. This is clearly the case in First Corinthians. But the very structure of the Pauline letter insists that before what is wrong is discussed, what is right must be celebrated. Paul provides here a pattern for Christian living. Our problems demoralize us, but remembering that our relationships are gifts from God can give us hope. Before we give voice to our anger, we should claim that we are blessed. Therefore, when addressing problems with those we love, the first step is thankfulness.
Reflection: Do I express my gratitude even when my relationships are undergoing stress?
Prayer: God of Blessing, life is difficult, and even the best relationships must change. As I work to change what is wrong, keep reminding me of all that is right.
1 Cor 1:10-25—The Danger of Being Right
It is easy to misunderstand Paul’s point in these opening verses of First Corinthians. He draws a contrast between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the gospel. He is not, of course, stating that the gospel is foolish, but only that it can appear foolish when compared to what the world considers wise. Nor is Paul saying that the wisdom of the world is without value. He expects us to use our minds and learn from our environment.
Paul is not engaging in an abstract discussion about wisdom and foolishness. He is addressing a concrete problem. The problem concerns what we have identified as the central issue of the letter: divisions within the community (verse 11). Some in Corinth saw themselves are more important because of those who baptized them. Paul exposes the danger of this claim of baptismal lineage by pointing to its results. It divides the community. This is a test Paul will apply to several subsequent issues in the letter. He wants the Corinthians to understand that even when they hold a reasonable position, if it divides the community, it is foolishness. Conversely, if letting go of an idea, right, or argument builds up the community, is true wisdom. In short, there is no higher goal than to sustain the unity of the Body of Christ.
Paul’s teaching reminds us that being right can be dangerous. Even if our position makes perfect sense and is logically defensible, we must also gauge its effect upon the community. If it scandalizes others or divides the church, it is not wisdom but foolishness in God’s eyes.
Reflection: Do I value the unity in my family and church community?
Prayer: Lord, one of your greatest gifts is my communion with others. Help me to understand how I can build up or undermine that unity by the way I live.
1 Cor 1:26 to 3:4—How to Boast Humbly
In his effort to heal the divisions in the community, Paul attempts to undercut the pride of the Corinthians by reminding them of their lowly status in both human and spiritual terms. Few of them were powerful or noble in the eyes of society (1:26). Most of them still remain in the beginning stages of their faith, infants in Christ (3:1). Paul seems to believe there is value in pointing out the Corinthians’ weaknesses. He is convinced that when they acknowledge only their successes and strengths, they are less likely to see the value of loving one another.
Yet Paul is careful not to overemphasize the limitations of the Corinthian church. He insists that they have indeed been chosen by Christ (1:27) and have received the Spirit of God (2:12). He wants them to find a balance between their significant gifts and their real weaknesses. He accomplishes this by reminding them that whatever they have to boast about comes as a gift from the Lord (1:31).
Paul’s strategy provides a helpful model for our own lives. We too should seek a healthy balance between our strengths and our limitations. There is no virtue in denying our talents and skills. God is not glorified when we put ourselves down. Yet to inflate our importance is both offensive and deceptive. Blowing our own horn does not serve God’s reign. A healthy Christian approach to life claims and uses our gifts but always points to God as their origin. Like Mary, we should boast humbly, “From now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Might One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49).
Reflection: Do I know God blesses me with my talents and protects me from my shortcomings?
Prayer: Gracious God, allow me to boast in my talents and use them for good. But never let me forget that all I have comes from your hand.
1 Cor 3:5 to 4:5—Not Success but Loyalty
Paul continues to speak against the tendency of the Corinthians to boast in their own gifts and achievements. He reminds them that the work of the gospel is a divine work. Various ministers, such as he and Apollos, perform certain roles. The success of their work, however, comes from the Lord (3:7).
What emerges in these verses is an orientation for ministry. The task we undertake is not our own. We participate in God’s work of building the kingdom. We must, of course, use our heads and hone our skills, but the project in which we engage is larger than us and beyond our capacity to control. Our attempts to understand fully what God intends are folly (3:19). This realization grants to the minister a sense of freedom. He or she need not worry, constantly measuring each step as either a success or a failure. What is required is to make each decision, to shape each effort, with the intention to serve God’s reign. The rest is up to God. The words of St. Ignatius of Loyola come to mind, “God does not demand success from us, only loyalty.”
Through faith and baptism we are all called to build the kingdom of God. We do this as parents, spouses, workers, teachers, and friends. Yet there is so much we cannot control—what our children will choose, what our boss will demand, what our friends will do. This lack of control does not defeat us. For what is beyond our power is still under the direction of God. Our role then becomes simple: to live with integrity and faithfulness to the gospel, to be found trustworthy.
Reflection: In what ways do I worry about my family, my job, my future.
Prayer: Lord, I am called to judge rightly and live honestly. But do not let me overreach my role. The world is in your hands, not mine.
1 Cor 4:6-21—Catching the Gospel
In these verses Paul concludes his argument against the divisions within the community. For his climax he brings out the big guns. He ends not with the theological but with the personal. After presenting reasoning based upon the church and the kingdom, Paul now turns to the particular relationship which he shares with the Corinthians. Others have nurtured and guarded the Corinthians’ faith, but the birth of that faith began with Paul. He was the one who first preached the gospel to them and guided their initial response. He alone qualifies to be their “father” (verse 15). Therefore, Paul speaks as their father, encouraging them to imitate him (verse 16). He desires that they follow his thinking and appreciate the immense importance of living as the unified Body of Christ.
The maxim, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” reminds us of the power of relationships. This is certainly true in matters of faith. We believe today not because we have examined every theological position and memorized every creed. We believe because people we love and trust have believed and passed on their faith to us. Faith is not so much “taught” as “caught.” It is more like an infection than an instruction.
Paul knew this truth and used its authority to sway the Corinthians. In God’s goodness, it was through Paul’s words and deeds that they became believers in Christ. He is trusting that the strength of the bond between them will persuade them to accept the advice he now offers. He is hoping that they will understand that by imitating him, their faith will grow and so will their love for one another.
Reflection: Who are the people in my life who have “mothered” or “fathered” my faith?
Prayer: Loving God, you have made me your daughter or son through the faith of others. Make me always thankful for those through whom your gospel has come.
1 Cor 5:1-13—Responding With Our Lives
This chapter is a touchy one. A man in Corinth chose to live with his stepmother, and the community was tolerating it. There were probably some at Corinth who felt that as long as the man in question believed in Christ and maintained his commitment to the community, his personal life-style did not matter. Paul disagrees. He believes that moral choices are intrinsically connected to the gospel. The Corinthians must take steps to remove the offending man from the community until he repents (verse 5).
In explaining his position Paul provides a succinct description of how our moral choices relate to the gospel. Salvation is God’s work. The Jewish feast which marked salvation in Israel’s history was Passover. Paul identifies Christ with the paschal lamb of Passover: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (verse 7).
But God’s salvation both to Jews and those who follow Christ demands a response. Yeast was seen in the ancient world as an instrument of organic corruption. The Jews removed all yeast from their homes before Passover as a sign of their response to God’s saving action in their history. Paul tells the Corinthians that they also must clean out the “old yeast.” He instructs the Corinthians that their response to salvation in Christ is to remove the corrupting influences from their lives. Such influences are immediately the incestuous man and more generally every habit of sin.
The correct relationship between God and us is thus clearly displayed. God saves; we respond. God saved Israel in the Exodus; God saved us in Christ. Therefore, our response is not just in the things we believe but in the lives which we live.
Reflection: What habits in my life corrupt my ability to respond to the gospel?
Prayer: God, my Savior, all I have has come from you—life, family, and the promise of eternal life. Allow me to respond to your gifts not only with words but with the fiber of my life.
1 Cor 6:1-20—Living a Higher Calling
To Paul’s dismay, the Corinthians were willing to resolve their disputes in the Roman law courts (verse 1). In Paul’s mind this compromised their unique identity. Paul believed that union with Christ gave to believers a dignity and wisdom which were unavailable to those who did not believe. This union with Christ granted believers the right to sit with Christ at the last judgment and to judge the world. For the Corinthians to submit their disputes to the “wisdom” of pagan courts was to Paul a denigration of their Christian birthright. He expected more of them. They should be living on a higher level, even willing to endure wrongdoing rather than seeking redress in a civil court (verse 7).
Those of us living in a pluralistic society may find Paul’s criticism of the Corinthians unrealistic. We regularly depend on the civil courts to adjudicate issues we cannot resolve on our own. This text does not demand that we negate the validity of our civil legal system. It does, however, challenge us to examine our Christian identity. Is it true to say that Christians are “better” or possess a “higher calling” than others? When such terminology is used to feed a false pride or superiority, it is certainly wrong. Yet faith in Christ does set us apart and give us a unique dignity. If faith does not change us and draw us closer to God, why should we believe at all?
We believe that God has saved us in Christ and made us beloved daughters and sons. We are not who we were before. In Jesus we possess a higher dignity and a greater responsibility.
Reflection: Do I appreciate that my faith calls me to live according to a higher standard?
Prayer: God, my Savior, thank you for making me your child in Christ. Allow me to express my dignity not in boasting but in service.
1 Cor 7:1-40—Mutuality in Married Life
At this point Paul begins to respond to questions which were addressed to him in a letter from the Corinthians (verse 1). The questions seem to deal with various sexual relationships between men and women in light of the gospel. He touches briefly upon conjugal rights and duties in marriage (verses 1-7), advice to those unmarried (verses 8-11, 25-35), marriages between Christians and non-Christians (verses 12-16), proper treatment of a fiancée (verses 36-38), and directives to widows (verses 39-40). Paul’s answers are brief and directed to the Corinthians’ questions. There is no comprehensive treatment of marriage, celibacy, divorce, or sexuality. Nevertheless, this chapter is filled with deeply influential positions which have shaped Christian teaching for centuries.
Paul’s advice to those in married life is particularly valuable. Although Paul has a definite preference for celibacy in light of Christ’s imminent return, he sees marriage as a gift from God (verse 7). He does not agree with those in Corinth who suggest that it is better for a married man not to touch his wife sexually (verse 1). In fact, he directs that decisions about sexual love in marriage should be made on a mutual basis. This is a stunning perspective in the ancient world where the prerogatives of men generally overruled those of women. Paul insists that conjugal rights must be given not only to the husband but also the wife (verse 3). Moreover, the wife has authority over the husband’s body just as the husband has authority over the wife’s body (verse 4). For Paul equality within the sexual relationship of marriage was normative. Mutuality in marriage is to be seen as a sign of God’s kingdom.
Reflection: Do I know of marriages whose love and mutuality reveal God’s presence?
Prayer: Faithful God, you call men and women to join their lives in the sacred bond of marriage. Allow me to see in the intimacy of their mutual love a sign of your commitment to me.
1 Cor 8:1 to 9:18—Giving the First Place to the Least
The pagan temples of Corinth were not simply places of worship. They were also places for civic and personal celebrations. They were the party centers of the city. Moreover, the meat which had been offered to the gods of the temple by devout worshippers was served in the temple or sold in the market at a reduced price.
Some in the Corinthian church saw no reason to avoid eating this idol meat. They did not believe that such dining was worshipping idols. Paul quotes their position: “no idol in the world really exists” and “there is no God but One” (8:4). Paul agrees with their theology, but not with their practice. He tells them not to eat in a temple lest weak members of the community who are still struggling to turn away from idols see them and are thereby led back to false worship. Thus even though their knowledge is correct, their example might destroy the faith of another member of the community (8:11).
In very concrete terms Paul is arguing that the common good can outweigh the freedom of the individual. This is a difficult lesson for us to absorb. We tend to assume that if something is within our rights, nothing should stop us from doing it. Paul insists that when we exercise our freedom, we must consider its impact upon the weakest among us. As Christians decide how to allocate their time and resources, they are called to consider the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable. Ignoring such a connection is serious. Paul says that sinning against such members of our community is sinning against Christ (8:12).
Reflection: Who are the weak members of my family or community?
Prayer: Divine Creator, you love all people. Expand my vision, so that I may find in the least of my brothers and sisters a closer connection to you.
1 Cor 9:19 to 11:1—The Good Finish First
Paul knew that it was not easy to place the needs of others before one’s own. Asking the Corinthians to avoid celebrations in pagan temples and discount prices in the meat market was a challenge. Therefore, he includes in his argument a motivational appeal. Paul draws upon one of the oldest and most used images in Hellenistic literature: the challenge of an athletic contest. Moralists such as Seneca and Plutarch used this motif to illustrate the struggle on behalf of truth and virtue. Paul adapts it to a Christian context. Our efforts are not exerted to win the perishable wreath of the Olympian Games but the imperishable victory of the new creation (9:25).
In this image Paul links our effort to God’s action. The Good News is that God is destroying the evil of the world through the resurrection and return of Jesus Christ. We can participate in this supreme action of God. Therefore, any struggle, any sacrifice is justified. Just as an athlete sets aside personal preference and comfort for the sake of victory, we can defer our own freedom and prerogatives for the sake of the weak. In doing this we identify ourselves with Christ himself who is God’s agent of establishing the kingdom. Paul bolsters his argument by pointing to his own life. He has denied himself the comfort of a wife (9:4). He has refused to accept the material support of the community (9:6). He has striven to be all things to all people for the success of the gospel (9:22). Such sacrifices demand courage and conviction. But they are worth the struggle in light of the prize to be won.
Reflection: What commands of the gospel do I find difficult to follow?
Prayer: Jesus, it is not easy to be your disciple. Allow me to draw strength by focusing on your great victory to come.
1 Cor 11:2-34—Honoring the Voice of Authority
Chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians deals with two liturgical problems. The disunity at the Lord’s Supper (verses 17-34) is treated in the feature article of this issue. Paul addresses the other problem in verses 2-16. It is unclear, however, what this problem is. Our English translations attempt to make this passage clear, but the Greek text is filled with ambiguities. Paul seems to have some issue with either the headwear or hairdos of the women at Corinth. Because we do not understand the issue, it is problematic to interpret the arguments Paul offers.
Although some parts of his argument seem to support the subordination of women to men (verses 3, 7-9), other parts point to women’s authority and interdependence with men (verses 10-12). It is probable that the particular issue which has upset Paul is not a very important one. He struggles unsuccessfully to express reasons for his opposition to it. He first employs an argument drawn from the scriptures (verses 7-12) and then those based on common sense (verse13) and nature (verses 14-15). None of these seem convincing, even to Paul. Finally, with a note of exasperation, he ends by asserting his authority. Verse 16 is tantamount to saying, “This is not our custom, so just do what I say!”
Perhaps the lesson in this confusing section is that one of the roles of authority is to resolve issues that are not worth fighting over. The unity of the community is essential, but some of the issues that can divide us are trivial. The voice of authority is able to choose an option and ask for obedience. Honoring that voice allows us to move on to more important matters.
Reflection: Do I honor authority when it speaks for the common good?
Prayer: Lord, you have created me with opinions and preferences. Do not allow these gifts to feed battles which are trivial but to motivate actions which serve your kingdom.
1 Cor 12:1-31a—Each Person Is Indispensable
The next three chapters of 1 Corinthians are in many ways the center of the letter. They contain the overriding image of the Body of Christ. We can only be Christ if we are united. The image of the body allows Paul to promote this unity while recognizing the diverse roles within the community.
The image of the body was used extensively in Hellenistic literature to describe the levels of importance which people held within the political state. The image implied that certain members of society should be subordinated to others for the sake of the common good. Paul adapts this image in a striking way. He replaces subordination with interdependence. Although he recognizes that some members of the body carry a more important function (verse 28), no member can dismiss the value of another. God has given honor to the least important members so that the body can be one (verses 24-25).
Paul is not engaging in abstract theology. The concrete issues of Corinth have drawn him to this image. The vocalizations of the various body parts declaring that they have no need of other members (verse 21) reflect the independent attitudes of the Corinthians. We can hear those who wish to eat idol meat complaining, “Why should I alter my practices for the sake of the weak?” and those seated with their friends at the Lord’s Supper protesting, “Why should I wait for those who are poor?”
The image of the body is Paul’s answer. If we are to be Christ, each person in the community is indispensable. Rejecting any person is rejecting a part of our own body.
Reflection: Do I know and appreciate what part of the body has God made me?
Prayer: Saving Lord, I desire to be united with you. Help me understand that such union occurs only through my connection with the rest of your body.
1 Cor 12:31b to 13:13—The One Essential Gift
Some commentators have suggested that chapter 13 of First Corinthians is a digression in Paul’s argument. It is, in fact, its center. This hymn to love is the foundation of Paul’s major theme: the unity of the community. If the church is the Body of Christ, love is its blood, its breath, its life.
It should be clear that love is not a feeling for Paul. It is a choice to live in a particular way. It is a choice to be patient, kind, not envious, not rude—in short to be all the qualities which Paul describes (13:4-7). Why are such choices necessary? It is only when we make them, when we choose to place the needs of others above our own, that we can live in union with each other. When we live centered only on ourselves, we cannot be one.
This passage reveals the inevitable logic of Paul’s vision. Unless we love, there will be divisions among us. If there are divisions, we cannot be Christ’s body. If we are not Christ’s body, we have no union with him and no part in his coming triumph over evil. Separated from Christ, there is no good news in which we can share. This is why we are nothing without love (13:1-3).
Although this passage is often used at marriage celebrations to express the passionate attraction between bride and groom, its import extends far beyond romantic love. True love is the decision to give first priority to what will bind us together and thereby build the kingdom of God. The love of which Paul speaks is not about being swept off our feet but rather laying down our lives.
Reflection: When has it cost me to love deeply?
Prayer: God of Love, you are my destiny. Allow me to see in the cost of loving a preparation for eternal life with you.
1 Cor 14:1-40—The Best Gifts Are for Others
Paul now moves from hymnody to the debate over which spiritual gifts are better. Although he accepts speaking in tongues as a gift from God, Paul holds the gift of prophecy in higher esteem. He devotes this entire chapter to explaining his preference.
In the course of his argumentation we encounter a problematic section. Verses 33b-35 imply that when the church gathers women should not speak but remain subordinate to their husbands. This position contradicts 1 Cor 11:5 where Paul presumes that women do prophesy and 1 Cor 7:3-4 where Paul promotes the mutuality between husband and wife. The contrast between verses 33b-35 and the earlier chapters of First Corinthians is so strong that some scholars have suggested that these verses are a later insertion by an author other than Paul. Whether that suggestion is accepted or not, these verses are too problematic to be used in establishing Paul’s normative thinking.
What is normative in Paul’s thinking is the reason he prefers prophecy: it is more effective in building up the community. All gifts benefit those who receive them. Paul, however, believes that the higher gifts face outward rather than inward. This is why the gift of prophecy trumps the gift of tongues. Tongues provide an interior mysterious connection to God (verse 2). Prophecy provides encouragement and consolation to others, thus building up the life of the community (verse 3). Thus Paul’s position connects with his emphasis throughout the letter. What is central is the unity of the church. The life of the community is more important than my personal consolation. When my gifts allow me to increase the life of others, then I am gifted indeed.
Reflection: What gifts have I received which can build up the life of others?
Prayer: Eternal God, I can do nothing without the gifts which you give me. Help me see that when I use my gifts to engender hope and goodness in others, I am doing your will.
1 Cor 15:1-34—Sinners Serving the Kingdom
Paul now begins a discussion of the resurrection (which is treated at length above). To substantiate the centrality of Christ’s resurrection, Paul first presents the tradition which had been handed down to him in the form of a brief creed (verses 3-4). He then offers a historical sequence in which the risen Christ appeared to those who would go forth and announce the good news. Paul includes himself at the end of this sequence as the one to whom Christ appears “last of all” (verse 8).
Paul is reminded of his own weakness as he reflects upon his encounter with the risen Jesus and his calling as an apostle. He is the “least of the apostles” because he persecuted the church of God (verse 9). Throughout his ministry Paul remained acutely aware of his former attacks upon the followers of Jesus. He mentions this failure in his letter to the Galatians (1:13, 23). As he attempts to assert his credentials as an apostle here in First Corinthians, his past sins naturally come to mind.
Paul’s repentance of his former role as a persecutor of the church provides us with an insight into ministry. God does not expect perfect ministers, for such people do not exist. We are called to proclaim the gospel even though we are stubborn, impatient, and sometimes wrong in our approach. Like Paul we are called to admit our failures honestly: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (verse 10). God’s grace is more powerful than our failings. Through God’s power we can proclaim the gospel. God’s kingdom is being built through the efforts of repentant sinners.
Reflection: What sins and failures would I include in the history of my vocation?
Prayer: Jesus, my Lord, you call me to your service. Do not let my mistakes discourage me, for I can do all things in your strength.
1 Cor 15:35-58—The Strength Which Comes From Hope
In these verses from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul begins with an attempt to describe the spiritual body which we will have at our resurrection, saying that it will be as different as a plant is from its seed (verses 35-38). Our physical bodies will become spiritual bodies. The spiritual follows the physical. Just as the last Adam (Christ) follows the first Adam who was born from the earth (verses 42-49).
This movement from the physical to the spiritual, from the perishable to the imperishable, thrusts Paul’s thought forward. He envisions the mystery when we will be changed and when death will be swallowed up in victory. Yet Paul is careful to express the victory over death in the future tense (verse 54). He knows we are not changed yet.
Nevertheless, Paul’s future vision is not starry-eyed speculation. It produces consequences in the present. Because we believe that our resurrection will come, we can live differently today. This is why Paul can conclude with the admonition to be “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord” (verse 58). No matter what setbacks we endure, no matter struggles we suffer, there is reason for hope. No matter how little success we seem to achieve, we know that our labor is not in vain. Our present misery will be changed into victory by God’s power. Our present dishonor will be transformed into glory. Since Christ has been raised up, then our resurrection is secure. Since the tomb is empty, then we have hope in the life which is yet to come.
Reflection: Do I believe that my life will be changed by the power of God?
Prayer: Risen Lord, give me hope in the victory which is to come. I believe in your resurrection. Let me trust that I too will triumph over death.
1 Cor 16:1-24—A Holy Kiss for a Holy People
It is routine at the end of letters to draw together a series of practical questions which still must be addressed. Paul does this in First Corinthians, giving instructions on a collection he wishes the Corinthians to support (verses 1-4), informing them of his travel plans (verses 5-9), and confirming the role of Timothy and Apollos among them (verses 10-12). Paul then concludes the letter by sending greetings from himself and his associates Aquila and Prisca who are with him at Ephesus.
Paul’s final request to the Corinthians is that they greet each other with a holy kiss (verse 20). Although such a statement might seem formulaic, it is motivated by a deep theology. Through out the letter Paul has urged unity in the Corinthian church. Such unity is required so that the Corinthians can be who they are: the united Body of Christ. As such they are a holy people. As Paul has asserted earlier in the letter, the Corinthians are the “temple of God” and God’s spirit dwells with them (3:16). It is appropriate therefore to end the letter with a greeting which reflects Christian identity. The kiss they are to exchange is holy not simply because the parties wish holiness to each other. It is holy because they are holy. They are the temple in which God resides.
We too are holy. The source of this holiness is not primarily our good moral decisions but God’s free choice to make us daughters and sons. In fact, despite our limitations and failures, our dignity remains. God has saved us in Christ. We are saints of God.
Reflection: Do I see myself as holy?
Prayer: Dear Lord, I know all too well the sins of my life. Help me to understand that as long as I am united to you, your holiness is greater than my faults.
2 Cor 1:1-11—Offering the Consolation We Have Received
Second Corinthians begins with the traditional greeting and thanksgiving. Yet the setting of Paul’s thanksgiving is surprising. It arises from his affliction. Paul praises God who is able to console us in our sufferings (verse 3). We know that God consoles us, but Paul extends this consolation in a new direction. The consolation which God gives to us is not to end with us. It is meant to be passed on.
The consolation which Paul has received in Christ (verse 5b) is for the benefit of the Corinthians (verse 6). Because Paul has been so fully consoled by Christ, he has the authority to offer consolation to the Corinthians. Paul is not the source of comfort, but rather the agent through which God’s comfort flows. Paul is here building upon the vision he presented in First Corinthians. Because we are the Body of Christ, what happens to one member influences the entire body. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Thus Paul who as an apostle knows suffering and comfort is able to extend the comfort he has received to the Corinthians. He knows that as they share in his sufferings, they will also share in his consolation (verse 7).
When we understand that we are united as Christ’s body, no gift or experience is simply for us individually. Everything is intended by God to build up others. Even our pain can be used to engender compassion and hope in those who suffer. God is always blessing others through us. God is always healing the body through our consolation.
Reflection: When has someone else been able to pass on their consolation to me?
Prayer: Loving God, I treasure my personal relationship with you. Yet help me to see that you love me as part of your Son’s body and bless me through the lives of others.
2 Cor 1:12 to 2:13—A Time to Withdraw
Paul’s thought patterns in Second Corinthians are often choppy and his emotions are intense. Both of these characteristics are present in today’s verses. Paul moves suddenly from the thanksgiving section of the letter to the painful relationship between himself and the Corinthians. His feelings propel the discourse and it is easy to recognize the suffering which recent incidents with the Corinthians have caused. Paul discusses why he changed his travel plans (1:15—2:4), how a person who attacked him at Corinth should be treated (2:5-11), and his anxiety over the lack of information concerning the Corinthians (2:12-13).
Paul’s earlier visit to Corinth was so disastrous that he decided to postpone a return visit which had been planned (2:1) and to write a letter instead (2:3-4). Deciding not to visit resulted in consequences. Some at Corinth accused Paul of vacillation and insincerity because he cancelled his trip (1:17-18). Paul rejects this interpretation and defends his decision to stay away. The situation was too raw. Time needed to pass. Paul’s hope was that as tempers cooled the Corinthians would again recognize the abundant love he had for them (2:4).
Paul was frequently strong and demanding. He was unafraid to assert his position and force a resolution. Yet in this section of Second Corinthians Paul is willing to step down. He knows that there are times when there is nothing more to be done and continuing to be present would only inflame the situation. Even Paul has to admit that our best intentions are not always enough. At times the greatest wisdom is to withdraw and place the situation in God’s hands until a better option can be found.
Reflection: When has it been necessary for me to withdraw from a situation or relationship?
Prayer: Eternal God, I ask for your guidance. Show me when it is wise to assert what I believe and when it is better to withdraw and wait for a new door to open.
2 Cor 2:14 to 3:18—A Competency Not Our Own
Paul now digresses from his review of the painful relationship with the Corinthians to begin a more general description of apostolic ministry which will last to 7:4. He insists that the gospel will demand everything from the minister. To be adequate to the task, those who proclaim the good news must give their entire lives.
Paul states that those who are apostles are led by Christ in “triumphal procession” (2:14). The procession to which Paul alludes is a Roman military display in which captured officers and their troops were led in public humiliation to celebrate the triumph of Rome. Thus Paul is saying that ministers must hand over their freedom and rights for the sake of the gospel. Paul supports this image with another. Ministers are the “aroma of Christ” (2:15). Like a burnt sacrifice, their complete giving of self is a fragrance which fills the world. Contrary to those who would see the ministry as a job and peddle the gospel as so much cheap merchandise, true ministers will understand their calling as a total gift of self (2:17).
The demands of ministry are overwhelming. How is it possible to give such service? As Paul wonders, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2:16). He turns, as always, to his source: only God can empower us for this kind of commitment; only God can enable this complete generosity (3:5-6).
Believing in the gospel cannot be but one aspect of our lives. It cannot be compartmentalized into specific religious practices or moral choices. The gospel must pervade all we are and all we do. Only God can equip us for this kind of sacrifice. Only God can bestow this kind of competency.
Reflection: Which parts of my life do I try to hold back from God?
Prayer: Lord, I trust you, but I want to maintain control. Empower me so that I have the courage to place my entire life in your hands.
2 Cor 4:1-18—The Paradox of Weakness
Having insisted that the minister must be willing to give all, Paul now asserts that what we give need not be impressive. In a paradox which lies at the heart of ministry Paul asserts that our trials and weaknesses help clarify the gospel. If our gifts were overwhelming, if our talents insured success, then it would be possible to imagine that the effectiveness of the gospel came from us. But when all recognize our limitations and struggles, when all appreciate our vulnerability, then it becomes obvious that the “extraordinary power” of ministry comes from God.
Paul pictures the glory of the gospel as a treasure contained in the clay jars of our own weak humanity (verse 7). Successful ministry depends upon the mystery of God’s presence displayed in our human frailty. Paul believes that the life of Jesus becomes visible in our mortal flesh (verse 11). All are able to see the contrast between our weakness and the spread of the gospel. Paul catalogues the paradox: we are afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed (verses 8-9). The only explanation for these unexpected outcomes is that God is among us.
At the beginning and end of this chapter Paul repeats the refrain: “We do not lose heart” (verses 1 and 16). The genuine minister lives always in hope. Because of God’s presence, our inadequacies do not result in the devastating failure we should expect. Despite our fears and compulsions, the Word of God is effective. Despite our mistakes and flaws, people continue to believe. Despite the forces of evil, the power of God’s love continues to spread.
Reflection: When have my feeble efforts produced results beyond my expectations?
Prayer: God of Mystery, I strive to do what is good and proclaim your salvation. Allow me to offer my weakness in service of your majesty.
2 Cor 5:1-21—Envoys from the Reconciler of the World
Paul has been describing the qualifications and characteristics of the minister of the gospel. Now he depicts the ministry itself. What is our work? What are we called to do? We are called to announce what God is doing. God is reconciling the world to God’s own self. “Reconciling” describes the activity of God which draws us into relationship and removes any obstacle that would prevent such a union. God will no longer hold the trespasses of the world against it (verse 19). Why is God willing to do this? Love is the only answer. Love alone can explain God’s desire to be connected to us. That love is displayed in Christ, and it is Christ’s love which urges the minister forward (verse 14).
In these few words, Paul has expressed the entire gospel. Because God is a reconciler, we have been given a “ministry of reconciliation” (verse 18). Paul is clear that we are not the source of reconciliation. We cannot bring people to God ourselves. The union of God to the world is dependent on God’s action, and God’s action has begun! This is the Good News. Christ has died for all, and all can now live for him (verse 15). God’s great action of reconciliation must be announced. This is the task of Christian service. We stand as ambassadors of a God who loves us beyond our imagining and who has already moved that love into action. Ambassadors do not speak on their own behalf. They carry a message from another. This is the message we carry: “God loves you. God is saving you. Do not resist that salvation. Be reconciled to God!”
Reflection: When has someone served as an ambassador of God’s love to me?
Prayer: Eternal God, your love is transforming the world. Allow me to accept with gratitude and wonder the salvation you offer and proclaim that good news to others.
2 Cor 6:1 to 7:4—Salvation in the Present Moment
Paul now draws to a close his general discussion of Christian ministry which he began at 2:14. He turns to the strained relationship between himself and the Corinthians. Paul has earlier acknowledged the painful visit he paid to Corinth (2:1). He now implies that there are still those who find fault with his ministry (verse 3). He assures the Corinthians that he wishes to place no obstacle in the way of healing and that his heart is open wide to them (verses 11-13).
Paul has just beautifully expressed the action of God reconciling the world. This naturally leads him to ask when can Christ’s reconciliation heal the estrangement between himself and the Corinthians? Paul believes that the time is now. Citing the prophet Isaiah, Paul asserts that the reconciling presence of God is available in the present moment, if only the Corinthians would open wide their hearts.
In recognizing the need for reconciliation in our lives, we often struggle to find the right moment in which healing can take place. At times we must wait for that moment to arrive. In some circumstances time needs to pass before we can reach out to another. Yet Paul’s appeal in these verses reminds us that the fundamental source for reconciliation is not to be found in us. It is God who reconciles, and God is always at work. Therefore, before we set aside an invitation to heal a broken relationship because we cannot imagine how it could happen, Paul asks us to think again. God is constantly leading us to union and healing. Since God is active, the day of salvation need not be postponed. Now is the acceptable time!
Reflection: What relationships do I need to place in God’s hands?
Prayer: Saving God, you know the brokenness of my life. I entrust to you all my fractured relationships. Heal them in your time. Heal them today.
2 Cor 7:5-16—Godly Grief Leads to Joy
Paul has ended his extensive discussion of ministry and now picks up the thread of the narrative which he set down in 2:13. He rejoices in the news which was brought to him by Titus that the Corinthians responded to his tearful letter and again hold him in high regard (verses 6-8). For all their up and downs neither he nor the Corinthians were willing to give up on each other. With the upheavals in the past, Paul can assert with deep thankfulness “I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you” (verse 16).
Yet Paul recognizes that this joyful conclusion was not easily achieved. It came about only after the tearful letter which Paul sent to the Corinthians. We do not have this letter, but it is clear that Paul’s words in it hurt the Corinthians (verse 8). Yet his intention was not to cause pain but rather to speak a necessary truth. Today we would call such an effort “tough love.” Fortunately his words were effective. They produced in the Corinthians what Paul calls “godly grief.” Grief is godly when it leads to a change which is for the good of all (verse 10).
Human relationships are difficult. Anyone who has loved another person over time knows this. All deep relationships demand honesty, and sometimes honesty can hurt. Christians are called to speak the truth in love. Yet we cannot control whether the love will be appreciated. If it is not, our consolation is that we have done what is right. If, however, our actions lead to godly grief and the relationship is healed, then we can rejoice and give thanks to God.
Reflection: Did speaking a hurtful truth in my life ever lead to a positive outcome?
Prayer: Lord God, you call me to live my life in relationships with others. Support me when those relationships are difficult and give me the courage to speak the truth.
2 Cor 8:1-24—Finding a Balance between Abundance and Need
There were tensions in the early church between the community in Jerusalem which was largely Jewish and the many Gentile communities which apostles such as Paul founded throughout the Mediterranean basin. Paul desired to lessen the strain. When James, Peter, and John requested that his Gentile communities remember the poor in Jerusalem (Gal 2:10), Paul initiated a multi-year project to collect money for this purpose. It was his hope that the generosity of this gift would build the unity between the early Christian churches. In this chapter he asks the Corinthians to contribute to the collection.
Christian communities have always recognized that their faith entails the sharing of their financial resources. Paul points to the financial disparities between the churches. His communities are in a much better economic situation than the Jerusalem church. He does not expect the Corinthians to impoverish themselves by their giving. He does, however, invite them to find “a fair balance between your present abundance and their need” (verse 13). The underlying reasoning is one of justice. It is inappropriate for one group of Christians to live in excess while another struggles to survive.
It is impressive how the arguments which Paul uses with the Corinthians remain relevant today. Most Christians in the first world live their lives well-fed, well-educated, and secure. Those who live in many other parts of the world must cope with starvation and disease. The gospel does not call those who have been given so much to divest themselves until they too are at risk. It does, however, ask that they find a just balance between their abundance and the need of others.
Reflection: Do I recognize an imbalance between my lifestyle and that of others?
Prayer: Loving God, I acknowledge your generosity to me. Increase my generosity so that I can share my blessings with those who have less.
2 Cor 9:1-15—Shaping an Attitude of Abundance
Paul begins chapter 9 as if he had never written chapter 8. He again introduces the topic of the collection (verse 1), and presents several of the same arguments which were previously offered. These similarities have convinced some scholars that both chapters were once separate fragments independently soliciting contributions to the collection for Jerusalem.
Paul appeals to the Corinthians with an agricultural image, suggesting that the success of the harvest will depend on how generous we are with the seed. Bountiful sowing will result in a bountiful harvest; stingy sowing will have the opposite result (verse 6). Paul’s viewpoint is theological. God gives us all we need in superabundance (verse 8). Therefore when we orientate our lives in categories of abundance, we imitate the action of God.
An attitude of abundance can enrich us. As we make decisions on how to allocate our time, our talent, and our financial resources, we do so either out of fear or trust. Fear tells us that there is not enough. The more we use or give away, the less we will have. Fear tells us to hold on to as much as we can, lest our resources become depleted. Trust looks at life differently. It believes that all that we have comes from a generous God who has blessed us with gifts to be used for the kingdom. Trust tells us to give what we have away, believing that the same God who has blessed us so bountifully will continue to do so in the future. We must choose between fear and trust. That choice will shape our life.
Reflection: Where in my life do I fear there will not be enough?
Prayer: Bountiful God, you bless me with life, relationships, resources, and time. Help me see that these gifts are not mine to hoard but to share.
2 Cor 10:1-18—Finding Strength in God’s Approval
The last four chapters of Second Corinthians are pessimistic in tone. This is in marked contrast to the joyful atmosphere of the first nine chapters. Earlier Paul asserted “complete confidence” in the Corinthians (7:16). Now he is defensive, threatening to “punish” those who oppose him (verse 6). This shift in mood has convinced many scholars that these last chapters came from another letter, perhaps the “tearful letter” which Paul described in 2 Cor 2:4. Others suggest that before Paul could finish Second Corinthians, new information of a crisis at Corinth forced him to end the letter with a negative thrust. However we read these brooding chapters, they are certainly another testimony to the turbulent relationship between Paul and the Corinthians.
Paul is under attack in this section. Some group has claimed that he can write effective letters, but that his bodily presence is weak and his speech is contemptible (verse 10). Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 2:4 indicate that there was a truth to such criticism. Yet the Corinthians were Paul’s children in Christ (1 Cor 4:14). This personal bond should have resulted in loyalty. To realize that some of the Corinthians held his weaknesses against him must have hurt Paul deeply.
Paul finds consolation in knowing that the approval which matters is not that of his critics or even of his fickle community. Only God’s approval counts (verse 18). When those who love us criticize us or let us down, we have only one place to which we can turn. As long as we know we have done our best and that the Lord understands, we can find the strength to go on.
Reflection: When have I been hurt by criticism from someone I respected?
Prayer: Jesus, my Lord, I believe that serving you is the focus of my life. When others object to what I do, let me remember that your good opinion of me is all that matters.
2 Cor 11:1-29—Boasting for the Kingdom
The attacks leveled against Paul become clearer in this chapter. Some “false apostles” had arrived in Corinth (verse 13). They seemed to differ from Paul not in the content of the gospel message, but in the style of their ministry. These apostles pointed to their own skills and practices as sign of their superiority over Paul. They spoke more eloquently than Paul (verse 6). They claimed to be worthy of the Corinthians financial support and suggested that Paul was too timid to ask for it (verse 7).
Paul defends his ministry by insisting that his practice of providing the gospel for free was not a result of his weakness, but rather his love for the community (verse 11). He judges the boasting of his opponents as foolishness (verse 16). Yet if his opponents wish to engage him on that level, he is willing to play their game. He boasts of his lineage. He too is a child of Abraham (verse 22). The trials Paul bore in service of the gospel are his qualifications. They exceed any of the sacrifices which his opponents have endured (verses 23-29).
Paul is not afraid to speak honestly of the talents and experiences which qualify him for God’s service. Contrary to a misguided false humility which would presume his worthlessness, Paul is willing to boast of the great things which God has accomplished through him. As long as we are willing to recognize that all we have comes from God’s grace, we can follow Paul’s example and extol the ways God has made us effective instruments of the kingdom.
Reflection: Do I affirm others in the talents they possess?
Prayer: Saving God, you have made me good and filled me with the light of Christ. Prevent me from hiding what I have been given. Let your light shine through me.
2 Cor 11:30 to 12:18—Boasting in Weakness
Paul now ratchets up his argument to a new level. He includes among his qualifications for ministry not only his talents and sacrifices but also his weaknesses. Paul is taking up here a theme which he presented earlier in the letter. Ministers of the gospel are clay vessels in which the power of God resides (4:7). But whereas the earlier treatment of weakness related to ministry in general, Paul now applies its truth in a very personal way to his own life.
Paul identifies his weakness with “a thorn in his flesh” which was given to him by God (12:7). It is not clear what exactly this thorn was. Some interpreters have suggested it was a particular temptation or a sickness or a physical handicap. It might even be a particular person who was persistently critical of Paul. Whatever its identity, the purpose of the thorn is obvious. It is a reminder that the power of ministry comes not from our strength but from God’s power. God was constantly present in Paul’s ministry. Even when Paul complained of the thorn and prayed that it be removed, God comforted him with the message, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
Paul has again beautifully expressed the paradox of ministry. Since the power to spread the gospel is God’s and not ours, our weaknesses do not disqualify us for service. In fact, they provide a distinct advantage. Ministers who know their weaknesses are constantly reminded of the source of their success. Thus weaknesses can be counted among the qualifications for ministry. As Paul proclaims, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
Reflection: Do I believe that the “thorns” in my life can reveal my true strength?
Prayer: God you call me to serve your people. Allow even my weaknesses to build your kingdom.
2 Cor 12:19 to 13:13—In the End, It Is Christ’s Church
Paul ends Second Corinthians amidst swirling fears. He is anxious that when he comes to Corinth in person he may find the community still awash in quarreling, selfishness, disorder, and other vices (12:20). He fears that he will have to be harsh in his reprimand of those who are doing wrong (13:2). With remarkable mutuality, he worries about his relationship with the Corinthians: “I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish” (12:20).
Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians ends in this mood of tension and foreboding. Yet if one were to seek a note of hope, it is easy to find. Even though it is phrased in a question, Paul writes, “Do you not realize the Jesus Christ is in you?” He is pointing here to the center of the gospel. He is reaffirming the theme which has under girded both of his letters to the Corinthians. They are the Body of Christ, the temple of God. The Spirit of God dwells within them. Such a truth is a continual source of encouragement. It is a particular relief to the worried minister.
Pope John XXIII would routinely pray at the end of a difficult day, “Good night, Lord. Help me remember that it is your church, not mine.” Paul would understand this prayer. He knew that it was God’s kingdom. He believed that it was Christ’s church. It is therefore fitting to picture the frustrated apostle writing these last lines to the Corinthians with an attitude of faithful resignation—setting down his pen and placing this wild and exasperating community into Christ’s hands.
Reflection: How often do I see my responsibilities as Christ’s work?
Prayer: Lord, you know well the strains and fears in my relationships. Help me remember that they are your relationships as well and that you will never forget those you love.