“Now,” Paul says, “it’s time to forgive and console” this person who had made life so ‘painful’ for Paul so that he won’t be overwhelmed by guilt, shame, sorrow. “Reaffirm your love for him” Paul tells the Corinthians.
Because the first word of the second chapter of II Corinthians is “So” we have to start with the last words of the first chapter. Paul writes: “I do not mean to imply that we lord it over your faith; rather, we are workers with you for your joy, because you stand firm in the faith. Paul gets to “So” by telling the church in Corinth that he and they are co-workers for their joy and that they stand firm in the faith.
“So” Paul writes “I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. Another “painful visit”? That implies that there was a previous visit that turned out to be painful. What we will soon learn is that instead of a return engagement Paul wrote a ‘painful letter’. It was out of distress and anguish of heart and with tears that it was written. That suggests that what had made the previous visit painful was no little consequence. It’s generally accepted that he had left Ephesus for Thessaloniki or Philippi as many as three years after his visit to Corinth. Paul had travelled from Corinth into Asia, carrying the Gospel and carried the offense done to him in his heart, almost like a treasure. And it was only after some time on the road he writes a letter, a severe letter, unloading on these people in Corinth. Talking about holding a grudge.
II Corinthians gets overlooked because it doesn’t fit our idea of a contiguous correspondence. There is an undeniable incongruity between the first part which is conciliatory and gratifying and which makes direct reference to a painful, regretted letter and the last, beginning with the 10th chapter, were we are reading about personal misunderstandings and bitterness. The possibility suggests itself that what we actually have in chapters 10-13 is Paul’s painful letter.
Another interesting thing about II Corinthians is that more than any other writing of the Apostle Paul, this letter reveals his human weaknesses, his holding onto wounded feelings, his sternness, irony, rebuke, impassioned self-vindication, but also his spiritual strength, the deepest tenderness of affection, humility, a justified self-respect, zeal for the welfare of the weak and suffering, as well as for the progress of the Christ’s church and for the spiritual advancement of its members.
Here he comes off a bit self serving when he says he wrote the letter in the sincere hope that what had happened before wouldn’t be repeated when he made a subsequent visit. “I wrote it as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice.” It is something of an apology for if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? That’s a story in itself. In a way it’s freeing to know that Paul popped off, said a little more than he intended and hurt some people that he really didn’t want to hurt at all. It was a Mills Brother’s number one hit that comes to mind.
You always hurt the one you love
The one you shouldn’t hurt at all
You always take the sweetest rose
And crush it till the petals fall
You always break the kindest heart
With a hasty word you can’t recall
So, if I broke your heart last night
It’s because I love you most of all
It finally occurs to Paul that his painful letter was a little too rough on the Meeting in Corinth. In retrospect he tells the Corinthians that he wrote it, as he says: not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. But one thing was clear, it had caused a great deal of pain. I imagine that the awareness of the damage done came from others who had visited Corinth and reported the situation to Paul. I can even imagine that at first he dismissed it. Was it an important enough to distract him from the important work of ministry? But finally it did sink in. And he writes this letter to them.
But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. And everyone there knew who Paul was talking about. On learning that a member of the Meeting had badly offended Paul the community took measures against the person. The letter continues:
6This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; 7so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. 10Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. 11And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
Paul says that the person who caused him ‘pain’ actually caused pain to the whole congregation and in response the congregation brought punishment on the perpetrator – and Paul says the punishment was enough. Now, Paul says, it’s time to forgive and console this person so that he won’t be overwhelmed by guilt, shame, sorrow. “Reaffirm your love for him” Paul says.
The word translated as “forgive” in 2 Cor 2:7 is charizomai (“to give freely”), which is the same word Paul will use when he calls on them to “give freely” to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem (in 2 Cor 8-9). The reason Paul so stresses the importance of forgiving — and the mutuality involved in his forgiving anyone they forgive — is that both he and the Corinthians all stand together before the “face” (prosopon) of Christ, the source of their life together. Indeed, he warns, we forgive so as not to be taken advantage of by Satan, whose intentions are to destroy any community we might have with one another through Christ.
This passage, as a whole, testifies to how damaging it can be to individuals and the Meeting should one person fails with regard to hospitality. But imagine how much greater that would be should that person believed in the very depth of their heart that Paul needed to be corrected. That can certainly be us, so certain of our understanding of right and wrong, of how things ought to be and keenly aware when things don’t go as we believe they should. I’m guessing that the lesson here has to do with a lack of humility and the need to judge another. Whatever, it certainly offended Paul. And Paul decided that despite telling the Corinthians he would made a return visit he changed his mind – going back would be too painful.
And it follows how damaging it can be if someone persists in holding a grudge and then gives voices to it which draws everyone’s attention to the failure of one among the many. It certainly weakened Paul’s message, sapped his energy and created a distraction. Paul awakened to the need to be reconciled to his brothers and sisters in Christ.
And then when the whole congregation brings sanctions upon the offender. Some groups practice shunning, is that what went on here? We aren’t sure. Other groups practice excommunication – denying the offender table grace. How do we do that? Drawing lines between those on the inside and everyone else is done any number of ways. The way it’s done isn’t important. What we know is that when Paul learned of it he says “enough!”. He says, as much to himself as to the Corinthians, that it’s necessary to forgive and console. The church just isn’t the church without forgiveness. After all, we Christians understand ourselves first of all as people who need to be—and have been—forgiven by God. But then what does forgiveness mean? Does it mean, for instance, that once an apology has been offered and accepted, everything goes back to how it was before? Is forgiveness a reset button? Do victims have a say in setting future boundaries? Are there conditions that need to be met in order for forgiveness to take place? If we insist that victims extend unconditional forgiveness, isn’t that grace for the offender, and law for the victim?
Far too often we act as if forgiveness has to be earned, that there has to be evidence of repentance. God in Christ forgave us without any evidence of repentance on our part, without our doing anything at all to earn his forgiveness; and I think he expects us to follow his example in relation to others. We are to make others whole as we have been made whole ourselves. The disciples were told to forgive an uncomfortable number of times. When asked who our neighbor is, Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show how we ourselves must be neighbors to others. We are to concentrate on what we can do, not on what we think someone else should do, but we have a tendency to waste time and effort on their sins and shortcomings which are much more visible to us than our own. We want to do the right thing but, like the Apostle Paul, we have the sinking feeling that all to often we fail. We forget that Christ came among us to deal with failure and restore us to fullness of life. It would be nice if all this came naturally, but in reality we are being asked stretch in ways we never thought possible. Jesus asked, Christ’s Spirit asks, Paul asks us to experience more deeply than ever before God’s unfailing love for us, and to share that love with others. We are being asked, not in any power of our own, but in the power of the Christ who abides within us, to become an aqueduct, a channel for the life-giving fountain which is Christ. That is no mean task for us all.