Monday, June 18, 2012

If you'll take a look at my resume...

I mentioned in my previous post that much of 2 Corinthians is Paul defending his own apostleship.  Much of this defense consists not of Paul defending his own actions but pointing to the transformative power of God's word exhibited through Paul's preaching among the Corinthians.  But in 2 Corinthians 6, Paul does speak about some of his own actions.  He says in v.4  "as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way...".  Is Paul finally going to give the Corinthians the proof of apostleship they've been looking for?  After denying them the letters of recommendation and official signs of authority they have so earnestly sought, is Paul now going to give in and commend himself after all?  Not exactly.  Paul says he and his co-laborers are commended by "great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger..." and the list just goes on like that. 

Paul, maybe you misunderstood the question.  We are looking for signs of your authority, not more proof that you are a weak little man who is too easily mistreated and pushed around to live up to a title like "apostle".  We already have more evidence to that effect than we know what to do with.  Who fills out a resume this way?  Getting beaten, going hungry and sleepless, and enduring imprisonment and menial labor aren't exactly highly touted accomplishments. 

Of course, Paul knows exactly what he is doing.  He intends to redefine the Corinthians' conception of power and authority in Christ.  In fact, Paul has been doing this for several chapters already in this letter.  When speaking of his knowledge about God in Christ Jesus, he said "we have this treasures in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us."  Paul then goes on to list the number of hardships he has faced for the next several verses much as he does in chapter 6.  And in 2:14, Paul says "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere."  The Greek of this verse is a bit ambiguous but it seems likely that Paul is referring to the Roman practice of victory parades.  After a successful military endeavor, a Roman commander would lead his captives through the city, making a shameful spectacle of them before the mocking crowds.   Full of irony and at the height of his rhetorical skill, Paul uses this image to combat the Corinthians expectations of authority and apostleship.  Although Paul is Christ's apostle and co-victor with Christ in his triumph, discipleship in this world is not a victory lap.  Rather, to be an apostle of the Messiah who won his victory by being crucified will more likely mean being subjected to public humiliation and mockery.  This is why Paul presents beatings, imprisonments, and other humiliations as his very odd set of apostolic credentials.  They show that he is indeed following the example of his publicly shamed and executed savior and by doing so he is preaching the way of that savior not only with his words but by his very own life and humble existence.

This interplay between the power of God's word and Paul's own weakness captures in a nutshell how Paul routinely describes his own ministry throughout his letters.  It is not just an accident of Paul's argument in 2 Corinthians.  It is essential to Paul's self-understanding as an apostle of Jesus Christ.  As evangelical Christians, we have often spoken tirelessly about the beauty, power, and authority of the Word of God.  But how much attention have we given to the other side of Paul's understanding of ministry?  Rather, than exhibiting the power of God's word through our own weakness, it seems we often try to demonstrate the power of God's word by being powerful ourselves.  But it was clear to Paul that human power only stood in the way of God's power being demonstrated.  It is in the weakness and vulnerability of Christ on the cross that God's power is manifest.  Likewise, it is in our own weakness and vulnerability that Christ's power will be evident among us.  The best credentials we can put forward for our apostolic witness are not are own signs of power and strength but Christ's power shining through our weakness. 

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