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2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17

Once again, the Lectionary makes a random choice about the starting and stopping point (as well as the omission of a middle section) of a passage. This may create some frustrations for the preacher. A quick survey of modern translations shows a significant transition in Paul’s argument at 5:11. The prior section is identified in the following ways: Living By Faith (4:16-5:10, NRSV), Awaiting the New Body (5:1-10, NIV), Our Heavenly Dwelling (5:1-10, ESV), and New Bodies (5:1-10, NLT) to name a few. Each translation views verse 11 as the start of a new section, one that continues through the end of chapter 5 and on into chapter 6 (some conclude this section at 6:2, others at 6:13). So the first order of business for the preacher will be to decide on the parameters of the sermon text. 

Let’s consider an overview of these two sections before we decide exactly why and how we might preach a message that is informed by both sections. (This is how the lectionary, in its own weird way has given us this text). Let’s keep in mind the overall context of the passage, as it concludes a lengthy fragment of Second Corinthians that the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary entitles: “A Multifaceted Treatment of Paul’s Ministry (2:14-6:10)”. (Sampley, 2000, p. 54) 

J. Paul Sampley, in his Commentary on Second Corinthians summarizes this section as follows:

The opening section (2:14-17) is rich with imagery that points to one end: Paul is the agent of God’s powerful and triumphant gospel; Paul is part of a victory processional across the Mediterranean world that would make the Romans proud; and Paul is part of a vast sacrifice whose fragrance, though it is being offered up to God, is manifest to everyone around.  Then, in what amounts to a series of three complementary depictions that together make up the heart of this letter fragment, we see (1) Paul’s as a ministry of a new covenant (3:1—4:6), (2) Paul’s as a ministry sustained through affliction and mortality (4:7—5:10), and (3) Paul’s as a ministry of reconciliation (5:11-21). The entire section closes with a primary appeal for the Corinthians not to receive the grace of God in vain (6:1-2) and, once more, a defense of Paul’s apostolic probity and an insistence, yet once again, that Paul is worthy of exemplification and honor (6:3-10). The integrity and rectitude of Paul’s ministry is the issue that laces together everything from 2:14 to 6:10. (Sampley, 2000, p. 54) 

So, keeping this overall context in mind, let’s zero in on the two sections that the lectionary assigns, 5:6-10 and 5:14-17. Verses 6-10 conclude the argument that Paul’s ministry is carried out through the power of Christ’s resurrection life which is poured into our very human “jars of clay” (4:7). Paul’s ministry is sustained by God’s power and grace, even through affliction and mortality. Serving Christ does not exempt one from suffering or death, but rather, in the midst of the struggle, Paul remains confident in the hope of the gospel, that “what is mortal will be swallowed up by life” (5:4). There is an urgent reality that permeates this confidence – we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of our ministry, our stewardship of God’s gift of resurrection life. 

Verses 14-17 pick up in the middle of a section that describes Paul’s ministry as one of bearing the good news and life-changing word of reconciliation (though the language of reconciliation does not appear until verse 18). Our lectionary passage concludes with verse 17 – the wonderful news that participation in the gospel of Christ results in a whole new world – “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17, NRSV)

So there is a wonderful connection in this passage that the preacher might use as a launching point for a sermon, or a sermon series – the essential connection between the eschatological hope of the gospel and our ongoing ministry of reconciliation in a world that is broken and in need of renewal.

Let’s be honest, one of the greatest weaknesses of current theological reflection in our tribe (I am speaking as a Nazarene here, but have little doubt that this is true of many Wesleyans) is the lack of a robust, biblically-informed eschatology. For the most part, our people ascribe to a kind of escapist eschatology, made popular by books and movies that warn us against being a people who get “left behind.” The hope of the Christian, according to this line of thinking, is to be carried out of this world before God comes down to destroy it, for all of us to “fly away” to our “heavenly home” in the “sweet bye and bye.” (Notice how this eschatology even flavors our hymnody). 

But, thanks to writers like NT Wright (Surprised by Hope) and Tom Long (Preaching From Memory to Hope), the church is critically rethinking our eschatology, returning to a biblically-informed vision of God’s intention to renew all things. The hope of the gospel is not rooted in a desire to escape from this world (as broken and evil as it may be) but to participate with God in God’s good desire to reclaim, restore, redeem, and renew all that has become broken in this world that God so loves.  

It is a wonderful serendipity that, in both sections of our passage this week, this more robust eschatological vision is affirmed. Paul is confident, even in the midst of hardships and trials in ministry, that “mortality will be swallowed up by life” (5:4) and that “everything has (already) become new” (5:17). Because of this confidence, we walk by faith (5:7), we make it our aim to please God (5:9), and we fulfill our vocation as Christ’s ambassadors on earth (5:20). 

So, one of the ways I would suggest to proclaim this text is to flesh out this strong connection between vibrant, eschatological hope and transformational, this-world ministry. I love the way Tom Long (2009) speaks of this. He cites a Jewish chaplain during his days at Princeton who said, “If you don’t have some vision of what God is doing to repair the whole creation, you can’t get up every day and work in a soup kitchen. It finally beats you down.” (Long, 2009, p. 124). 

Here is another possibility to consider: Given the overwhelming popularity of the escapist vision, this text could very well inform a much-needed series on “What Do We Believe About End Times?” The Bible has so much to say about God’s intention to make all things new. And the Bible has so much to say about the vocation of the people of God – to join God in this work of renewal. This is why we will give account when we stand before Christ’s judgment seat (5:10). This is the reason God has made us new (5:17). May the life-giving, resurrection, new-creation hope of the gospel always sustain our ministry in and for a world that is broken and in desperate need of renewal!

“For if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17, NRSV)

Long, Thomas G. Preaching From Memory to Hope. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Sampley, J. Paul. “The Second Letter to the Corinthians” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume XI. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

Wright, N.T. Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.