Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 7, 2020

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Commentary

The Revised Common Lectionary’s choice of this Sunday’s particular Epistolary Lesson is rather quirky. Of course, at one level, we get it. On what we’ve designated as Trinity Sunday, this Lesson contains a stirring and lovely benediction that flows from all the members of the Trinity.

Yet the choice of this passage from 2 Corinthians is, nonetheless, rather strange. After all, the RCL appoints verses 13:11-13 as this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. But were the New Kings James and New International Versions of the Bible’s readers to end there, we’d never get to the Trinitarian blessing. We’d end with “All the saints send their greetings” (NIV). So those who formulated the RCL clearly intend for us to read through what at least the NIV and NKJV refer to as verse 14.

On top of that, consider the quirkiness of selecting a passage that’s both only four verses long and is mostly devoted to a letter’s farewell. My colleague Scott Hoezee compares it to asking those who study literature to analyze only a piece’s signature line. Of course, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (14) is an inspired signature. Yet so many other passages in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians seem far more worthy of preaching and teaching.

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (14) includes a good-by, closing exhortation and final blessing. So it might make the gist for a three-point sermon or lesson. Yet this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may also seem like relatively thin Scriptural porridge for consuming, digesting and analyzing.

So what if this Sunday’s RCL’s preachers and teachers chose to focus on how much that good-by and final exhortation depend on the final blessing? On how God’s adopted children can’t have a meaningful good-by or live faithfully without the blessing of the Triune God?

Paul begins this Sunday with a final “good-by” for his brothers (and sisters) (11). Ralph P. Martin suggests that this use of the Greek word for “brothers” at least suggests that the apostle assumes that Corinthian divisiveness is not irreversible. He still thinks of the Corinthians as his brothers, and God’s adopted children.

The Greek word for “good-by,” chairete, can also be translated as “rejoice” or even “greetings!” That at least suggests that Paul’s farewell to the Corinthians is not sad, but joyful. It’s the kind of joy that is possible only through the blessing of the Triune God that ends both this Lesson and letter.

Yet as New Testament scholar Ernest Best notes, Paul’s readers wouldn’t have read this as an especially unusual greeting or farewell.  He even suggests that it conveys “about as much feeling as sincerely yours.” Thankfully, then, at least to Best’s mind, Paul softens his farewell by addressing it to his “brothers.” But again, when leavened with the Triune God’s blessing at its end, we can see this farewell as offered with the love of both God and God’s servant, Paul.

Paul’s closing exhortations are not easy to translate. In fact, they’re not even easy to delineate. Martin, among others, suggests that what the NIV thinks of as Paul’s farewell is actually a command to rejoice.

What’s more, verse 11’s katatarzisthe is variously translated as “aim for perfection” (NIV) and “put things in order” (NRSV). Its passive verb suggests that the Corinthians can’t be perfect or put things in order on their own. They need the Triune God’s help to act, talk and even think in the complete ways for which God created God’s adopted sons and daughters.

Paul’s second exhortation’s meaning isn’t much clearer than his first. His parakaleisthe is translated as “listen to my appeal” (NIV) or “be of good comfort” (NKJV). Best even suggests that it may mean something closer to, “Encourage one another.”

In any case, Paul calls the Corinthians whose divisions have been the subject of so much of his letters to unite in order to encourage each other to be more and more like Jesus Christ. Again, however, this isn’t possible without the help of the Triune God whose blessing Paul extends to his readers at the end of this Epistolary Lesson.

The apostle’s two final exhortations are closely linked. “Be of one mind [and] live in peace,” he begs the Corinthians. This is a startling plea in the light of the divisions and infighting that so often characterized the Corinthian Christians. While Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church at least hints that the Spirit is slowly drawing its members together, his first letter leaves us with an indelible impression of Christians who treat each other more as enemies than as siblings in Christ.

So how is such Christ-like behavior even possible in naturally sinful people like not only Corinth’s Christians, but also 2 Corinthians 13’s proclaimers and hearers? Because “the God of love and peace” is “with” us. Whether in the context of human conflict or relative human peace, God’s love and peace equips Christ’s Body to be faithful, not only to God but also to Jesus’ other followers. Whether God’s peace and love are conditioned on Christlikeness or necessary for such faithfulness, they lie at the very heart of the life of a follower of Jesus.

Paul often ends his letters with greetings from God’s adopted sons and daughters. In that way, 2 Corinthians’ greeting is somewhat unique only in the fact that the apostle names no “saints.” Perhaps that’s why he also calls his readers to “greet each other with a holy kiss” (12). He may be substituting the greetings of local followers of Jesus for more distant ones. Best also suggests that the relatively intimate gesture of a “holy kiss” would help remind Paul’s readers that they’re all adopted members of God’s family.

Yet when leavened with the blessing of Triune God, such greetings don’t just come from one sibling in Christ to another. They’re also a kind of incarnate “holy kiss” from the God and Father of each of them to each of them.

Paul, of course, ends his whole second letter to the Corinthians with the familiar: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” On this Trinity Sunday, it is an appropriate summary of both the character and activity of the Triune God.

Yet as Best notes, Paul doesn’t seem to use this blessing to teach the Corinthians the doctrine of the Trinity. If he’d wanted to do that, he probably would have begun it with “God the Father” and spoken of God as “Father.” No, Paul seems to be emphasizing the grace, love and fellowship each of Jesus’ followers so desperately needs and that the Triune God graciously grants.

God’s grace mediated through God’s Son Jesus Christ is the avenue through which God saves God’s people. Just as we can’t fully be perfect, listen to the Bible’s appeals and live in peace on our own, we can’t earn eternal life on our own.

Yet as my friend and colleague Scott Hoezee notes, we don’t just need Jesus to be gracious with us. Jesus’ followers also need to extend similar grace to each other. We need the gift of our Lord Jesus Christ’s grace in order to keep forgiving the people who seem as endlessly creative as we are at hurting each other.

Yet, of course, God’s love is the spring from which that grace flows. It’s the kind of self-sacrificing love that God longs to produce in us for each other. What’s more, it’s the Holy Spirit through whom that love and grace flow onto Jesus’ followers to unite us in “fellowship.” Because without the power of the Holy Spirit, even God’s adopted sons and daughters would balkanize into our own little interest groups.

There are almost countless (mostly inadequate) metaphors for the Trinitarian nature of God. But 2 Corinthians’ strong allusion to one of the best may be the seed or a better metaphor. My friend and colleague Neal Plantinga likes to speak of the Trinity as a kind of “self-giving, self-surrendering community,” in which each of the Three Persons is constantly giving of themselves in order to serve each other and creation and its creatures, including humanity.

Given this Sunday’s relentless call to Christians to live in community, it might be appropriate to think of the “community” that is the Trinity working to deepen the community that is Christ’s Church. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are always serving each other tirelessly work together to help God’s adopted sons and daughter faithfully serve both God and each other.

We preach and teach this Lesson, of course, in the context of a COVID-19 pandemic. So 2 Corinthians’ 13’s proclaimers may want to explore how the Spirit creates community when our hearers are not only physically distant from each other, but are also somewhat fearful of coming together in physical community. The Spirit is, as the first Pentecost shows, endlessly creative in creating community.

Illustration Idea

Note: I am indebted for this illustration to my friend and colleague Scott Hoezee who, in turn, borrowed it from the conclusion of a Tom Long sermon on 1 Corinthians 1 that also fits the end of 2 Corinthians:

A church once asked Long to preach at an intergenerational worship service whose premise was wonderful … on paper.  The church decided to worship not in the sanctuary but in the Fellowship Hall where families would sit around tables heaped high with the ingredients needed for making loaves of bread.

The families would make the bread during the first part of the service and then, while the smell of baking bread filled the hall, Long would deliver a sermon followed by celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that would use, of course, the fresh bread.

In theory it was a great idea. In execution, it was chaotic. First the church Fellowship Hall filled with clouds of flour dust that children threw across tables by the handfuls.  Then the ovens either didn’t work quite right and/or someone failed to realize that baking that many loaves at once would greatly increase the baking time.

Long stretched out his remarks like taffy for as long as he could even as children grew bored and restless, bickering, and crying.  Families seemed on the verge of falling apart.

Mercifully, the service did end eventually. Its script called for Dr. Long to pronounce the benediction “The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”  Too worn-out to ad-lib, Long simply held flour-caked fingers up and pronounced peace over the Fellowship Hall chaos.

“The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” . . . to which a small child’s voice from the back of the Hall replied, “It already is.”


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