This week our church is reading the first half of 2 Corinthians.
Paul's previous letter to the Corinthian church was a profound challenge to that community. Though they had heard the Gospel and believed, they were still not fulfilling their identity as a new creation, a new community in the midst of the old one. Paul had therefore instructed them to make changes to their worship times and communal life to help bring about the outward transformation, rooted in the inward belief in the Good News they had heard.
This letter is composed around the same time as Romans and Galatians, around 57 AD, perhaps two years at most since 1 Corinthians. Many scholars believe there had been several letters sent between Paul and the Corinthians, as many readers might assume based on Paul's references to things he has heard or previously said. 1 and 2 Corinthians seem to have been the most significant and were immediately widely circulated amongst the early churches, thus affirming their universal authority for the Church in all times and places.
The letter is unlike others in that there is not one single theological argument being unfolded, rather Paul addresses a series of issues and capstones them with a rich and evocative theological language. To read a large portion of the letter in one sitting might help a reader gain a greater insight into the breadth of Gospel as it emerges through the text.
One insight which emerges from such a reading is that of restoration. The idea of God's comfort to the church (2 Cor. 1:3), Paul seeking to stay away for the sake of the comfort of the church (2 Cor. 2:1) and the example of restoring the one they had excommunicated (2 Cor. 2:6) are rooted in an understanding of God's all-sufficient grace which covers over the failures of the Church and allows the people of God the freedom and the time to work out the issues which corrupt and divide the Church. Paul knows that those who have not understood the Gospel will see this as defeat, admitting that the gracious and patient fragrance of Christ is sweet to the saved and bitter to the bitter-hearted (2 Cor. 2:15-16).
A second theme in this letter is that of the reality of the Holy Spirit in the life of the People of God. An apparent incomprehensibility in the life of the Church which makes Christ a bitter fragrance to some is that foolishness which the world cannot receive (1 Cor 2:6). Paul encourages the Christians to realize that the work being done in and through them is not in laws or reason, but in their own hearts and that they are being transformed by the miraculous working of God through the ministry of the preaching of the Gospel (2 Cor. 3:3, 18).
Once this is comprehended it is unsurprising that Paul and his ministry team "refuse to practice cunning or deceit" (2 Cor. 4:2). They are fully assured of the success of the Gospel despite how they are reviled for it. It is likely that Paul writes this to warn against teachers and leaders who would seek to manufacture a counterfeit miracle which gains respectability and prestige for the church and for her leaders. To put it succinctly, Paul wants his readers to look for leaders whose lives mirror that of the sacrifice of Christ, not for those who are excellent orators or prestigious in the world.
Since the world as it is currently known is being transformed by God's reconciling love, to cling to the present state of things rather than the power of the Gospel is the true foolishness and Paul asks his reader to be challenged by the example of not only his life but also his contemporaries. Though here Paul does not use the language of idolatry as he did previously, he is again reminding the Church that the power and wisdom and ways of God are not like the ways of the world or the ways of powerless idols. Therefore Paul's trust in the power of God leads him to preach the simple message that all can be reconciled to God through Jesus.