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2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

“For the sake of each of us he laid down his life–worth no less than the universe. He demands of us in return our lives for the sake of each other.”–St. Clement of Alexandria.

In the popular manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, two brothers pursue the philosopher’s stone after they have tried and failed to bring their mother back to life through alchemy. Now, I am not particularly a fan of manga and have not read this or any other series. But I recently ran across a popular quote from the story which has stuck with me. In explaining the brothers’ early understanding of how alchemy works, Alphonse says: “Humankind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain, something of equal value must be lost. That is alchemy’s first law of Equivalent Exchange.” [1]

In II Corinthians 5:20-6:10 Paul explains and defends the ministry that God has called him and his fellow workers to as ambassadors of reconciliation: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (v. 20, NIV).  This reconciliation, he continues, is made possible only through Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21). Therefore, Paul urges the Corinthians not to reject this gift, or cheapen its significance (“we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain”–6:1). Instead, he implores them to embrace it fully for the time is short: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (6:2b).

It’s not shocking that the issue of reconciliation weighed heavily on Paul’s mind when writing II Corinthians. The traditional reconstruction of the letter’s context states that this was at least the fourth letter that Paul had written to the church he had established at Corinth.  Since he had left them, other preachers or prophets–perhaps even referring to themselves, like Paul, as “apostles,” cf. 11:4; 12:11–had arrived preaching a different message (“a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached . . . or a different gospel from the one you accepted,” 11:4).  They also, apparently, denigrated Paul and questioned his status as a “true” apostle of Christ (1:12; 10:10; 12:11). This led to a painful rift between Paul and the struggling Christians at Corinth, one which the Apostle clearly felt deeply (1:4-6; 2:1-5; 7:8ff).  At least some among the Corinthian Christians apparently believed the falsehoods of these preachers and prophets, prompting Paul to defend himself, his apostleship and his ministry numerous times throughout the letter (1:12; 3:1; 4:2; 5:11-13; 6:8; 7:2). 5:11-6:10 is the lynchpin in this defense and, therefore, very important for understanding what Paul saw as his main objective in preaching the gospel.  This goal is summarized in one word: “reconciliation.”  He both longed to be reconciled to the church at Corinth and for them to be reconciled to God.

The word Paul uses through all of chapter 5 for “to be reconciled” is katallasso.  The word for “reconciliation” is katallage. Both of these words, but especially the latter, carry the connotation of an exchange of equivalent items, or the exchange of an appropriate amount of money for something of equal value. Therefore, the type of reconciliation Paul is talking about is more than a mere change in relationship status between two people, or an improvement over what had previously been.  In order for the relationship to be restored one thing must be given up in order for another thing to take its place.

The cornerstone of this gospel is the ultimate exchange of one thing for another–Christ giving his life in order to obtain salvation for all. Paul sees himself and his fellow ministers following this example.  In 4:10-12 Paul tells the Corinthians: “we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

In this Paul recognizes that the task of reconciling humans to God, while carried out by Christ “once for all” (Rom 6:10), nevertheless calls for our participation to see it to fulfillment.  Christians are called to follow Christ’s example in sacrificing themselves in exchange for something more valuable.  Paul makes it clear in 6:4-10 that he and his fellow workers have done just this–enduring hardships, distress, beatings, imprisonment, hunger, dishonor, “bad report,” sorrow, poverty and death–all for the sake of preaching God’s message of redemption (see also 11:21-29). Paul exchanged a comfortable life of honor and high regard among his fellow Jews (Phil 3:4-6) for a difficult life of deprivation and persecution all so that others could receive God’s gift of life and righteousness.

A close reading of II Corinthians finds that a good deal of this letter is taken up with the idea of trading one thing for another: the ministry of the law for the ministry of the Spirit (3:7-11); death for life (4:10-12); temporary bodily hardships for eternal glory (4:16-17); an earthly body for a heavenly body (5:1-4); old creation for new creation (5:17); death of one for the life of all (5:15); our sin for God’s righteousness (5:21); our poverty for Christ’s riches (8:9; 9:6-10); our weakness for God’s strength and power (12:10; 13:4).  But, can we call this an Equitable Exchange?  No, for even a cursory glance at this list makes clear that these are not simply trading like for like.  Rather the exchanges are quite inequitable: what we receive from God through Christ far surpasses the thing we give up. If it were not so, Christ’s sacrificial death would be practically meaningless. Why exchange something as valuable as his life for something of lesser significance.​

Instead, God lavishes gifts on us far beyond what we deserve.  We bring him nothing–he gives us everything.  This is the message of reconciliation that we, like Paul, are called to preach to the world around us, which does not understand such generosity and therefore may have trouble accepting it.  Reconciliation with God is not just coming together, letting bygones be bygones, and repairing the relationship.  That reparation has a cost–not for us, even though we in our ignorant foolishness may believe we are giving up something valuable–but rather for God in Christ, who by emptying himself and making himself nothing (Phil 2:5-11) made it possible for us to have everything.

However, in exchange for this undeserved gift, we as believers are called to follow Christ’s example of sacrificing the lesser things (comfort, wealth, freedom, reputation and even physical life itself) to help bring others to the inequitable exchange of reconciliation with God.  As we begin the Lenten season, let us reflect upon and be grateful for all the gifts of God that have been lavished on us so inequitably and ask the Lord to strengthen, guide and protect us in our ultimate mission of making reconciliation a reality in the life of all.

[1] Hiromu Arakawa, Fullmetal Alchemist (1st series introduction, episodes 2-41), Viz Media, LLC, 2011.