The word of reconciliation
The second epistle of Paul to the Corinthians is a message announcing that God’s work of reconciliation has begun, says Richard B. Hays.
July 20, 2010 | 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2
Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached June 1, 2010, at the Duke Center for Reconciliation’s Summer Institute. Scripture quotations follow the NRSV, except where the author has provided his own translation.
Friends, we are gathered here this morning to reflect on a text that stands at the heart of the church’s mission: 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2, the great text in which Paul speaks of New Creation and the ministry of reconciliation. I suspect this Scripture is likewise, for many of you, close to the heart of your own sense of vocation, your understanding of the ministry to which you are called. It is therefore a very familiar text. But, for that very reason, we may read over it a little too quickly -- overlooking important features of what we think we know well. It requires a disciplined exercise of the imagination to return to this familiar place and to read it slowly, in order to know it anew, as if for the first time. We don’t have time now to work through it carefully line by line, but I want to offer just a few observations that may encourage you to spend more time meditating on this passage for yourself, during this week of reflection on the ministry of reconciliation.
First, an observation about the words “reconcile” and “reconciliation” -- in Greek katalassō and katalaggē. You may be surprised to learn that these words rarely occur in the New Testament. In fact, they appear only in a couple of passages in Paul’s letters. (A different, but related, word shows up just once in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says that if you are offering a gift at the altar and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, you should go and first be reconciled before offering your gift [Matthew 5:24].) Does the relative infrequency of these terms mean that the concepts they signify are not theologically important? By no means! It simply shows the limitation of studying individual words in isolation. For example, the word “reconciliation” does not appear in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. But in this matter, as in many others, Paul finds a second-order theological term to name the reality that Jesus narrated in his parable. And it is a term both useful and weighty.
The interesting thing about the word “reconciliation” in ordinary Greek usage is that it is not a “religious” term. That is to say, it does not appear in cultic contexts where people speak of seeking to appease God by offering sacrifices, nor does it have anything to do with cleansing guilt or receiving divine pardon for sins. Rather, it is a word drawn from the sphere of politics; it refers to dispute resolution. So one could speak of the diplomatic reconciliation of warring nations or, in the sphere of personal relationships, the reconciliation of an estranged husband and wife. (Paul uses the term that way in 1 Corinthians 7:11.) So the key insight here is that even where Paul uses the verb “reconcile” with God as its subject -- a remarkable paradigm shift -- he is speaking about overcoming alienation and establishing new and peaceful relationships. We can see this clearly in Romans 5, the other key passage where Paul uses reconciliation terminology: “. . . while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). God has taken the initiative to overcome our hostility and alienation from him and to restore us to peaceful relationship with himself.
Second, as we reflect on 2 Corinthians 5, we might ask why Paul suddenly starts talking about New Creation and reconciliation. We are apt to overlook the context of this passage in the letter. The Corinthians were a factionalized and contentious community. They were challenging the legitimacy of Paul’s leadership and comparing him unfavorably to other charismatic preachers who were slicker and more powerful speakers; Paul derisively calls them “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). So Paul is writing this part of the letter to convince the Corinthians that the death of Christ has abolished the old standards for what counts as power and persuasiveness. That is to say, the standards for knowing rightly have been transformed by the cross. And in light of these new standards -- in light of the New Creation that God has brought into being -- the Corinthians should stop their rivalry and boasting and conflict. They should be reconciled to Paul and to one another.