The second epistle of Paul to the Corinthians is a message announcing that God’s work of reconciliation has begun, says Richard B. Hays.
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.
And that leads to a third key point: Despite some older translations (KJV), Paul certainly does not write, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature.” Rather, he blurts out, in a burst of wonder, “If anyone is in Christ . . . New Creation!” The background of this text is Isaiah 65:17, where Israel’s God declares: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” So Paul is proclaiming the transformation of the world, and summoning us to see all things made new in light of that transformation. Note: “God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Not just individuals. The frame of reference is cosmic and corporate. Paul is not just saying, “Look at me, my sins have been forgiven, and so I’m now a new creature.” He is saying that the whole world is being made new by the cross and resurrection and that all our relationships have to be re-evaluated in light of that transformation.
Fourth, one consequence of God’s reconciling act in Christ is the astonishing fact that God has now “given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). Given us the diakonia of reconciliation! This is a mind-blowing claim, so astounding that Paul has to repeat it in verse 19: “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” That is why Paul can go on to use the metaphor of our being “ambassadors for Christ”: we are representatives who bear the message from the King. “God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” But the NRSV’s translation that says God is “entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” is a broadly interpretive rendering. What the Greek says literally is that God is “placing in us the word of reconciliation.” I suspect this may mean more than entrusting a message to us. I think Paul means that the word is implanted in us in such a way that we come to embody the word of reconciliation. We don’t just announce it; we embody it. Do you see the difference?
That reading is confirmed in the last verse of chapter 5, when Paul concludes the section in the following way: “For our sake [God] made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Notice carefully what Paul actually says here: Not “so that we might know about the righteousness of God.” Not “so that we might believe in the righteousness of God.” Not “so that we might proclaim the righteousness of God.” Not even “so that we might be justified by the righteousness of God.” Rather, he says, “so that we might become the righteousness of God.” Our commission from God is that we as a community are called to embody the righteousness of God in the world -- to incarnate it, if you will -- in such a way that the message of reconciliation is made visible in our midst. And of course reconciliation made visible is something that can appear only in practices that show unity, love, mercy, forgiveness and a self-giving grace that the world could not even dream of apart from Christ.
Fifth and last: too often we end our reading of the passage with the end of chapter 5. But of course, the chapter divisions in our English Bibles are entirely artificial, invented by scribes many centuries after the writing of the texts. For the completion of the unit, we cannot omit the first two verses of chapter 6: “As we work together with him” -- i.e., as we work together with God as his ambassadors, embodying and proclaiming reconciliation -- “we urge you also not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says [now quoting Isaiah again, this time Isaiah 49:8],
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
That’s the end of the quotation. And then follows Paul’s comment on it, his concluding announcement: “See, now is the well-acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.”
So, you see, this message of reconciliation is not just a promise of life after death in heaven, not a hope of bliss in a distant disembodied future. Rather, it is a message announcing that God’s work of reconciliation has begun. The ministry of reconciliation has begun, and we are caught up in it. That is extraordinarily good news, because it means that even in the midst of present sufferings, we can trust that God’s reconciling power will prevail. The New Creation is no vain hope; those who are taught to know reality through the cross and resurrection of Jesus know that it is the true destiny of the world -- a world created, sustained and reconciled by the love of Christ.
Now is the well-acceptable time; now is the day of salvation. Thanks be to God!