That You May Become Perfect
The last four chapters of 2nd Corinthians is completely out of character with the first nine chapters. Twice in the earlier parts of 2nd Corinthians Paul writes of having sent a letter to the church of Corinth so “severe” that he almost wishes he had not sent it. That clearly is not what we find in 1st Corinthians and yet a third letter hasn’t survived. For that reason it is thought that we have at least some of the ‘severe’ letter recorded in these last four chapters of 2nd Corinthians. In these chapters Paul addresses charges made against him by his Jewish critics: that he is unethical, weak, boastful, brave from a distance but ineffectual in person, an amateur ‘apostle’, and without pedigree – a nobody. Feeling the sting of such charges is, unfortunately, not all that unusual for people who are engaged in ministry.
One commentator suggests that it was Titus who brought the news that those who wanted to re-make the Corinthian church into a Jewish/Christian body were actively undermining Paul’s authority and that it had become so serious that immediate attention was required. I find these chapters hard to read. I can only imagine how hard it was for Paul to have written them. Paul lays out his credentials because the ruckus that had been created was distracting, disabling even toxic to the spiritual well-being of the Meeting at Corinth. In the text Paul writes about all the church endured at the hands of those who wanted to keep the church pure – from a Jewish point of view. Attempts were made to persuade them to submit to the thousand and one petty rules and regulations of the Jewish law including circumcision. The Judaizers, as they were called, tried to convince the worshipping community that because Paul’s financial support came from other then themselves he was some how suspect and was denying them the blessing of supporting his ministry. And, as Jewish rabbis, they demanded from the people a respect greater than what was given to one’s parents, and in contrast said that Paul’s humility was enough to reject his authority.
Writing that he must be ‘crazy’ to do it, Paul as an Apostle lists what he had endured. 24Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. 29Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? 30If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
His defense continued. He lists the burden he carries for all the churches. He speaks of a sharp physical pain that he was given to save him from being unduly elated by the spiritual revelations he had experienced. It too served to make him weak – and he tells his readers that 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. Those words have ministered to untold millions over the ages.
All of this comes to a conclusion in 2nd Corinthians 13: 5-9. He writes from personal experience: Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! 6I hope you will find out that we have not failed.
7But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. 8For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect.
“Examine yourself” he writes. “Test yourselves.” This is an exercise he has just finished. I imagine that faced with such scathing criticism Paul took it all to heart. He looked carefully at his own motives. He considered his call to ministry in the first place. He evaluated what his choice had meant for the well-being of himself and his family. He asked himself whether or not he was “living in the faith”.
He recognized the importance of acknowledging the fact that the spirit of Jesus Christ was within him. And so he asked his readers, and that includes you and me, whether they realized that about themselves. “Do you realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” He asked. The question he asks isn’t solely for the folks of Corinth, it is an alive question for all of us. What does the answer imply about how we live our lives, about the choices we make, about what is truly important?
I wouldn’t want you to miss the fact that the focus wasn’t asking the community to test its’ members either. Each of us is charged with that onerous obligation. That, by the way, is the very purpose of Friends having queries, a process of personal spiritual self examination.
But, that for which Paul says he prays for those in Corinth has been a huge debate over the centuries. “This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect.” Followers of John Calvin, that is the Congregationalist, Presbyterians and most Baptists of that day embraced a statement of faith called the Westminster Confession originally adopted in 1646. In one of its 33 chapters it says: “…it is impossible for a man, even the best of men, to be free of sin in this life, which they say no man ever was; but of the contrary, that none can, neither of himself, nor by any grace received in this life can keep the commandments of God perfectly; but that every man doth break the commandments in thought, word and deed.” Robert Barclay and early Friends found that it was ‘…a wicked statement against the power of God’s grace’.
Friends freely acknowledged that a person’s actions were imperfect if not under the direction of Christ’s Spirit. But it was most certainly not true in those in whom Christ had come to be formed. Such persons, early Quakers insisted, can do the will of God and may be consistent enough in their disciplined life that they no longer daily transgress the law of God. Quakers believed that perfection was possible for the person in whom Christ dwelled and it was a perfection that allowed for continued maturation, a perfection that was proportional to a person’s challenges, a perfection that permitted her or him to do what God required. Yes, but I would be derelict to fail to remind us all that it requires diligence in attending to God in one’s heart. Maintaining that relationship with Christ isn’t necessarily permanent. It can slip away.
The point is, as Barclay contends, that: “Christ came to gather us out of sin into righteousness”. Those gathered are his children, his servants, his siblings, his friends. And they, that is we, are supposed to be holy, pure and undefiled. A good part of the good news is Christ’s willingness to stand by them, and us. In what we call the High Priestly prayer Jesus prayed for them – that’s us. If Christ’s coming served any purpose at all, those of whom his church consists are not always sinning in thought, word and deed. Were that not the case it would mean that there is no difference between those who choose to stand outside and those who are within the blessed community of faith.
In the letter to the Ephesians we read that the work of God’s servants is to equip God’s people for work in his service until, finally we ‘attain to the unity inherent in our faith and our knowledge of the Son of God – to mature personhood, measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ. In 1st Thessalonians we read: “May God himself, the God of Peace, make you holy in every part, and keep you sound in spirit, soul and body, without fault when our Lord Jesus comes.”
Barclay asks his readers: “If you wish to know the perfection and freedom from sin that are possible for you, turn your mind to the light of Christ and his spiritual law in your heart and allow its reproofs. Bear the judgment and indignation of God upon the unrighteous part in you as it is revealed there, and which Christ has made it tolerable for you to do. Allow this judgment in you to become victorious, and thus come to partake of the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. Be made conformable to his death so that with him you may feel yourself crucified to the world by the power of the cross within you. Then that life that was once alive in you to this world and its love and lusts will die and a new life will be raised. Henceforth you will live for God and not for yourself. Then you can say with the apostle (in Galatians 2:20) “I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me.”
What Paul prayed for the Corinthians is available to us. Perfection and freedom from sin is possible. “Examine yourself” Paul instructed the Corinthians. “…see whether you are living in the faith”. “Do you not realize that Christ is in you?”