Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Put Things In Order

Reading the last six sentences of a long letter and drawing any conclusions from it is at best incomplete and more likely dangerous. In 2 Corinthians, Paul pours out his heart to the church in Corinth. Galatians may rival 2 Corinthians for ardor, but I think this letter excels in emotion. Paul is hurt. He and his ministry have been wounded. He writes in faith to the flock in Corinth, but, in some parts of the letter, he also writes with uncharacteristic timidity. This is Paul at his most vulnerable, most fragile, most human. And all we get are four verses. Why? Because it's Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday is important. It's a principal celebration of the church. It's the core of who we are. Unfortunately, there aren't many passages of scripture that talk about the Trinity because, when the biblical texts were written, the church's understanding of Trinity was nascent. All we have are baptismal formulae and tripartite allusions in the creation story and Paul's important conclusion to his letters: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you." That's not nothing. A benediction like that, likely written in the 60s, says a lot about how the Christian community understood the work of Jesus as cooperative with the Father and the Holy Spirit. They may not quite be ready to say that God is one in three persons and that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the eternal Trinity, but there's an important foundation there.

Still, I want to know more--not only about trinitarian theology but also about 2 Corinthians. I haven't gone back and read the whole thing this morning--not a bad idea--but I have read the rest of chapter 13, and it's worth it. Read what Paul writes before he gets to this conclusion. Read what he has to say about truth and self-examination and the power of Christ living within us. Read that and tell me it doesn't have clear bearing on this moment in our lives.

In Sunday's reading, we will hear Paul tell the Corinthians to "put things in order." We love order. On yet another morning when the fires in the streets remain smoldering and the fires in our hearts still burn unquenched, many of us yearn for order. We'd rather have our protests in neat and orderly fashion, thank you very much. So many of us white folks think that protesting the murder of a helpless black man is fine but throwing rocks at police, setting buildings on fire, and upending the economic integrity of a local community is wrong. Is it? I'm not advocating for violence, but I think our tendency to appeal to order is a thinly veiled attempt to quash the societal transfer of power and wealth that make representatives of the establishment uncomfortable.

Today, as I try to navigate the precarious path between reasonable demonstration and condemnable violence, I want to know what Paul had in mind about order. When he told the Corinthians to put things in order, what did he mean? When we hear those words on Sunday (some of us, at least), what will they mean to us?

Earlier in 2 Corinthians 13, Paul writes, "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!" He also writes, "For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth." And, finally, right before he tells them to put things in order, Paul writes, "So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down."

Paul recognizes that if the structures of the Corinthian church are not true--true in the Christ-lives-within-us sense--then Paul is going to have to tear them down. Instead, he hopes that the Corinthians will themselves put things in proper order. They must examine themselves. They must recognize that the standard by which they must judge themselves is the standard by which they will be judged: Christ's presence in them. If their church isn't build accordingly, it must be torn down.

Paul wasn't writing to the Corinthians about systemic racism, but the Corinthians' failure to build their community upon the principles of the gospel might as well be ours. We must examine ourselves. We must recognize Christ within us. We must acknowledge when we have "fail[ed] to meet the test." Then, we must put things in order. Sometimes putting things in order requires tearing old structures down. For a long time, people in positions of power and privilege have pretended that such a tearing down would be metaphorical and theoretical. Much of it may still be, but it seems the time has come for some of that tearing down to be as real as what we see on the news every night.

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