A Provocation: Fourth Sunday in Lent: March 31, 2019: II Corinthians 5:16-21

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (NRSV)
5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.

5:17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

5:18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;

5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

With this posting, I have completed a full three-year run through the lectionary. That affords me the possibility of provoking the same text for a second time, which I imagine I will do. Things do change, both in the world and in my reading, in three years.

It also offers the chance to explore other lectionary texts.

That is the option I am taking for this week. Three years ago, I played with the text from Luke 15, and explored the “unrepentantly real risks of life together.” I think that Provocation still stands on its own. You can find it in the archives, just search for the “Fourth Sunday in Lent.” Or you could just scroll to the very bottom.

This year, I have chosen to play with the text from II Corinthians.

A Question or Two:

  • What if this old favorite text is not about substitutionary atonement?
  • No, seriously. What if?

Some Longer Reflections:

Just so we are clear: I am starting to read this passage a bit earlier than the Revised Common Lectionary. I start at v. 11. Truth be told, I am starting three chapters earlier than that, but my comments start before the pericope begins and attempt to set the lectionary text in the midst of the flow of Paul’s argument.

Paul talks in v. 14 about the agape of Messiah (ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ), and says that it “urges us on.” I suspect that translators are influenced by the force of Paul’s ongoing argument, which is indeed urging his readers onward. However, the verb in Greek (συνέχει) more naturally refers to the act of “holding together.” This more natural meaning fits better with what translators are now seeing in the word, ἀγάπη.

Theological translators used to read this as some kind of one-sided, unmerited love, which fit well with the theological ideology they presupposed. Good sermons came out of that reading.

The problem is that more recent studies have noted that ἀγάπη more commonly refers to love that is responsive, mutual, and reciprocal. In Paul’s argument, it would mean that God sees Creation (us included) and responds with delighted love. This love, in turn, creates in Creation a correspondingly delighted response. As a result, the rich and mutual love of the Messiah does indeed hold Creation together with God.

The image that follows (one dying for many) is generally read as soteriology, and is used to ground notions of a substitutionary atonement. But this is not the only way to read this image. I would argue that it is not even the best way to read it.

What if Paul is pointing, not to an “Atonement Theory,” but to a metaphor common in everyday life? What if the one that “dies for all” reminds the audience of a soldier who steps up to defend all in the city? What if the image reminds us of the young man who (a few years ago) jumped into a dangerous river to try to save a little boy who had fallen in? Anyone who thinks about such selfless sacrifice realizes that when one dies for the rest of us, we all share in that death.

Every time I stand by the rapids where the boy was saved but the young man and the boy’s sister both drowned, I realize that their remarkable act connects them to that little boy, to his family, and to all of us forever. And every time I sat with my father’s friends from the 82nd Airborne, I heard them re-membering the men in their unit who died in combat, in fire fights that they survived and now will always remember.

One dies for many, and the rest of us are connected with that death forever.

In Paul’s argument he is referring to Messiah, to Jesus who died and who was raised from death. He develops the metaphor to make the point that the resurrection, just like any “death for all,” connects us all together. We are still all in this together. And the togetherness is in Messiah and in world-changing resurrection.

And so we, from this particular “now” (v. 16), no longer know anyone as a mortal body, as one who dies (though of course we all do die). If indeed we have known Messiah as a mortal body, as an individual, as simply one man among other individual men, but not any more. He is not separate from us, nor are we separate from him. We are all wrapped up in the act of God to raise the Creation to life. And the result is that what was formerly simply an individual is, in Messiah, in fact, a new Creation. Not an individual, newly made, but, as one, as all, a new heaven and a new earth. This is the consequence of the theme of togetherness.

All of this, and this is a BIG all, is out of God (v.18). Which God? The one who καταλλάξαντος us to him. Read this carefully. “Reconciling” is too religious a translation. The word itself has two interesting parts: κατα-, which renders an “over-against-ness;” and a verb, -αλλάσσω, which has its roots in otherness that still recognizes similarity. An αλλος is an other, not an enemy. But still the difference between these others is real. The verb, καταλλάσσω, makes those who are over against each other into beings who could be friends, or even relatives.

But that means that God has, as part of the work of Messiah to turn the world right-side-up, made us somehow similar to God. This is what early Christian writers, Irenaeus for instance, understood to be the effect of the Incarnation: by becoming as mortal as we are, Messiah made us somehow to share the Divine Reality of God. And not just us, but all of the Cosmos.

And it means that we ought to be wise about the way we translate ἁμαρτία (“sin”) in v. 21. This word is set alongside παραπτώματα (“trespasses”) in v. 19, and this use of multiple terms suggests that ἁμαρτία ought NOT be taken as an established technical term. A flock of synonyms helps flesh out a rich metaphor. Synonyms crowd together to support the complexity of an idea that is worth further thought. The first term, παραπτώματα, comes from the combination of πίπτω and παρα-. The verb, πίπτω, is a word for falling. It sometimes is metaphorical, because pride goeth before a fall in Greek as well as it does in King James English. The prepositional prefix, παρα-, which names a place alongside. So this rough synonym to ἁμαρτία uses the metaphor of “falling alongside.” Even when the verb is a metaphoric action, it pictures the fall of failure as still being near to the proper path. A person who is engaged in παραπτώματα is not hopelessly lost, just somewhat off the path.

And ἁμαρτία suggests a failure, a missing of the mark. Together these terms do not suggest human depravity, but do point out that people can be counted upon to miss the point with some frequency, and that we all wander off any path we are on, and again frequently.

It matters at this point that Paul is a Jew writing to Gentiles who are newbies trying to make sense of belonging to a Jewish community that understands Jesus to be the Messiah. And in an ancient Jewish text written in Greek, ἁμαρτία refers to a moment of non-observance of Torah. Now Lutheran theology (for very good historical reasons that have yielded useful theological reflection) reads ἁμαρτία as “Sin” and figures it as an ontological condition with desperate consequences.

But Jewish theology is different. ἁμαρτία may indeed name a condition that all people share, but it is not the same kind of desperate problem. It is a normal human condition, and God knows all about it. It names the way humans miss the mark, or miss the point, the way we wander off any path we are on. Not many of us are able to walk a tightrope. Most of us stumble more than that. God is not surprised by this. That is why Jewish theology celebrates the fact that God is “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Jewish faith is honest both about the human tendency to miss what we are aiming at, and about the reliability of God’s Mercy.

But that means that people who miss the path, or miss the mark, are linked together in this passage. The trait that links all Gentiles is woven together in this passage with Jewish honesty. And once again, we are all in this together.

Which returns our focus to the key metaphor in this whole section of this letter: καταλλάσσω. It could mean “reconcile,” but it really refers to an act by which beings that are deeply different are made to share a generative similarity. Earlier this involved God and Creation. Now it involves Jews and Gentiles. Those who have set apart, set over against each other, are now, through God’s act to turn the world right-side-up, woven together. God raises Creation to life, and the practical impact is that we are now ALL of us in it together.

So as I write this, yet another White Nationalist has murdered people who were praying to the God who alone is God. This week, like most weeks, the current U.S. president slandered people who seek asylum after fleeing gang violence in their Central American home. And this month, like every month, Millennials post memes that ridicule Baby Boomers who post memes that slander Millennials. And as the never-ending presidential election becomes more active, various people identify various candidates as “garbage,” or “white-haired,” or “empty suits,” or “moderates,” or “socialists,” or…. You get the picture.

This makes the matter of having a “ministry of reconciliation” complicated. I am a realist about political systems: harsh clash is normal, and maybe even necessary. But I also listen to lectionary texts expecting to encounter something that brings Creation to life. And in this passage from II Corinthians it is καταλλάσσω that creates real-world Resurrection.

What would it take to engage in this kind of real-world transformation?

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