St Paul – the scorned lover (2 Corinthians 6:1-13)

It’s been my privilege to enjoy two shorts stays in Iran over the last two years.  Iran is not a common tourist destination for white Australian people like myself, which is a shame as Iran is an amazing country, though I must admit that there were at least two aspects of daily life in Iran that I couldn’t get used to.

The first was the number of women covered completely in black, which seemed to me to add a dour tone to an otherwise colourful and vivacious society. Not all the women were dressed in black, of course, and indeed I was told that outside of the major cities conservative religious dress was not the norm at all. Even so, it was certainly far more prominent in the places I stayed in than what I’m used to.

The other thing I found discomforting were the pictures of the Ayatollah that are on display everywhere in Iran (in the major cities at least). I’m not thinking so much of the current Ayatollah either (Seyyed Ali Khamenei) but of his predecessor, the leader of the Iranian revolution of 1979 – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose picture is still more visible than that of the country’s current leader, though images of the two men are regularly displayed side-by-side. What I found off-putting about the images of this significant political and religious leader is that he always seems to be scowling!

If you doubt what I’m saying, do a search of Google images and you’ll see what I mean. Lots of photos were taken of him. They are almost all head and shoulder portrait-style shots, and he always seems to be staring very intently as if he can see exactly what you’re doing, and he doesn’t approve!

I don’t mean to disparage the man, and I certainly didn’t want to sound disparaging of him when I was there, but eventually I did ask my Iranian hosts why is it that we never see the man smiling or laughing or relaxing with his grandchildren, and the response I received from everyone I asked was the same – religion is serious business!

That’s a statement that’s hard to argue with, of course, and yet as I read through St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians this week in preparation for today’s sermon I found myself imagining what sort of pictures of St Paul might have been on display in the early churches that he founded had photography been invented at that time.

Of course photography had not been invented. In truth though, Paul has never been a prominent subject of religious art anyway. Certainly the only paintings of him that I remember seeing have him as a part of a larger scene – holding the coats during the stoning of Stephen or falling of his horse on the road to Damascus.

I wonder though if a head and shoulders portrait had been done of St Paul how he would appear. Would Paul be scowling or smiling? Would he be looking stern and statesmanlike, solemn and dignified, or would he have a Rowan-Atkinson-style smirk on his face? I believe that if the depiction were based on his correspondence with the church at Corinth he would have to be either laughing or crying!

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 

We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute.

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians. Our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return – I speak as to children – open wide your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:1-13)

There is a great deal of passion in Paul’s words – passion and frustration! He speaks of his ‘open heart’ and of his ‘unrestricted affection’. Paul has intense feelings for the people of the church of Corinth and yet clearly they have caused him intense pain. Indeed, his plea reads like the appeal of a scorned lover. What is not at all obvious though is what it was exactly that the Corinthians had done to upset him.

In the passage assigned to us today there is no mention of any particular incident that might have upset Paul, and so we’re forced to look through the surrounding chapters to try to work it out, but even then it’s not obvious. Evidently something happened that Paul took very seriously and very personally, and so we might expect to find some central truth about Christ that the Corinthian church was questioning, or some perverse behaviour that these people were engaging in.

We know that Corinth was a bit of a Kings Cross of the ancient world – busy and metropolitan and subject to all the excesses one might expect to find in that sort of environment. Was it perhaps some perverse sexual practice that these people were engaging in, combined with some deadly denial of good doctrine? Were these people practising incest while preaching some early form of Monophystite Sabellianism (or something along those lines)?

I read through the surrounding sections of Paul’s letter and I couldn’t see anything obvious beyond the personal issues Paul had with the Corinthian community. In days past I would have rung my dad at this point and got his wisdom on the matter as he was always able to untangle things like this for me. Without my dad I decided to try my brother, Rob, as I thought he might be the next best thing. And so it was that I spent a significant portion of my car trip yesterday, driving from Goulburn to Sydney, conversing (on speaker-phone) with my brother and my sister-in-law, both of whom are far more highly credentialed than I am in their study of the New Testament, while they drove around somewhere on the other side of Sydney!

And together we worked out way through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, and also looked at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and by the time we’d finished our journey I was entirely convinced that the issue between Paul and the Corinthian Christians simply was personal. In essence, they didn’t like Paul, or, at least, they had serious doubts about him – about his character, his integrity, and his message!

Whenever we read the words and works of Paul we need to keep in mind that he was a controversial figure. It’s easy to forget that, given that about half the New Testament seems to be written by him – surely no more reputable figure can be imagined – and yet we know from the New Testament record itself that Paul had a stand-up fight with the Apostle Peter at Antioch, and we know that Paul and the original twelve disciples of Jesus never did see eye-to-eye completely.

And even if Paul and those other Apostles did develop a working relationship of mutual respect it is clear that there were multiple itinerant preachers moving about in the first century, claiming to be representatives of the twelve, who made it their business to discredit Paul whenever they could – claiming that Paul did not represent the true faith nor the teachings of the twelve.

Much of Paul’s epistle-writing is taken up with combatting these people, all of whom seem to have been Jewish Christians intent on maintaining an essential link between the religion of the Torah and faith in Christ – a link that generally involved having non-Jewish male converts to Christ circumcised so as also to become good Jews.

Paul spilt a lot of ink confronting these Jewish-Christian foot-in-both-camps preachers directly and where he’s not dealing with them head on he’s dealing with the fallout that resulted from their work, and that’s what we’re looking at here. Paul had lost the church at Corinth, or at least he seemed to be shedding supporters in the Corinthian community like an autumn tree shedding leaves, and the reason that’s not being spelt out in terms of any doctrinal controversy is because the issue in Corinth seems to have been less about doctrine than it was about personality!

Paul, so far as I can work out, didn’t present well! If you can imagine a sort of swish tele-evangelist who wears a nicely pressed suit and is well-groomed and has a smooth and reassuring speaking voice – that wasn’t Paul. On the contrary, if you look at the list of injuries Paul was carrying by the time he met the people of Corinth (and we get a glimpse of that in the list he mentions in this passage) he must have looked like some of the old boxers I know – guys who just didn’t know when to stop fighting and whose bodies tell the story of a life of hard knocks!

A few chapters later in this same letter Paul actually quotes the Corinthians: “For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’” (2 Corinthians 10:10)

We can imagine the sort of painful reality that lay behind that statement. Everybody in Corinth turned up at church the first time they hear that the great St Paul was in town, and they are expecting someone who looked like Brad Pitt and had a voice like Dave Baldwin and instead they got the hunchback of Notre Dame!

I’m not trying to be funny. In chapter 11 of this same letter, Paul says “Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked” (2 Corinthians 11:24-25)

I believe the significance of getting forty lashes minus one was because forty lashes was considered enough to kill you, so they beat you one lash short of forty with a view to not killing you (not quite). It wasn’t intended as a capital sentence. Even so, this means Paul had been almost lashed to death three times, and this must have left him deeply disfigured! Perhaps that was why no one ever painted his picture!

It was personal. Paul didn’t look like the man you wanted to follow because he didn’t look or sound like the man you wanted to become! And yet – and here’s the clincher – and yet when Paul defends himself against his critics he doesn’t offer them anything that would increase their admiration for him! For what were his opponents looking for? Credentials of some sort, I assume, and Paul doesn’t give them any!

If Paul had been able to point to his theological pedigree – his many degrees or his special relationship with the twelve Apostles – that might have impressed them. He just never does that, except in his letter to the church at Philippi where he does list all his academic and religious credentials, only to conclude “These things that I once considered valuable, I now consider worthless for Christ.” (Philippians 3:7)

If not earthly credentials then divine credentials would surely have impressed them. I’m sure if St Paul had just directed his critics to all the miracles that he’d performed, that might have done the trick! According to the book of Acts Paul did perform numerous miracles (Acts 13:6-11, 14:8-10, 19:11-12, 20:9-12), and he does hint at one point that there were miracles performed at Corinth too (2 Corinthians 12:12) but evidently they were not miracles of a sufficiently spectacular nature such as might have impressed these people. They were probably miracles of changed lives.

At any rate, we know exactly how Paul did respond when he was under attack. His response here in this second letter to the church at Corinth is typical of the way Paul defended his authority against his critics.  He referred them to his suffering!

“We have commended ourselves to you in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5)

I wonder what it might have been like had Paul gone for a job interview with the Corinthians before taking the job as their pastor. I imagine them reading his resume.

  • Nominators: It says here that you’ve been stoned! Is that correct?
  • Paul: Yes
  • Nominators: And given the thirty-nine lashes!
  • Paul: Three times!

What was it that made Paul think that being hated and hunted down and being threatened, beaten up and having your body repeatedly pulverized by your opponents were credentials of spiritual authenticity? The answer is … Jesus!

For St Paul it all began with his experience on the road to Damascus where he met Jesus. That was the event that turned his whole life upside-down.

And it wasn’t simply that his life was turned upside-down but his entire view of God and his value system were also turned upside-down.

Up to the point Paul had been convinced that he had to climb the ladder of religious obedience all the way to the top in order to meet God. On the road to Damascus he discovered the real truth – that you actually meet God at the bottom of the ladder!

Up to that point Paul had money and power as the sure indicators of the blessing of God. Bizarrely, from this point forward Paul came to believe that the real sign of God’s blessing on your life was suffering, beatings and persecution.

When I was in Syria last April I had the privilege of spending time again with my friend Kaouthar Bachraoui – a renowned Tunisian journalist who I believe has had thirteen fatwas issued on her (eleven from Saudi Arabia), and for those who know how the system works, those fatwas are indeed a credential of journalistic integrity! Paul likewise saw the fatwas on his head, along with his long history of broken bones and torn flesh, as his credentials of spiritual integrity.

We must not lose sight of how confronting and threatening this understanding of spiritual integrity is. I’m pretty sure that if it was St Paul who was conducting the interviews for church pastors his first question would be ‘can I see your scars?’

I don’t think I’m the only one here who would like to be successful in worldly terms. I’d love to pastor a mega-church. I would love to be able to make a million dollars and more through my expertise and industry. I would love to win a world boxing title!

I may get the chance next month to fight for a boxing title in Damascus. If that fight takes place I want to be the guy with my hand in the air at the end of the fight. I don’t want to be the guy lying on his back– down and out. Let alone do I want to be the guy who gets kidnapped by ISIS after the fight and loses his head, even though I suspect Saint Paul might well consider that a real mark of success!

“We have commended ourselves to you in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4-5)

I mentioned at the outset today that you find few pictures of St Paul on display in today’s world, at least when compared with images of the Ayatollah. The one whose image abounds in collections of religious art though is, of course, Jesus. And how is He portrayed? Jesus is never scowling, rarely laughing, but almost always bleeding!

“We are treated … as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;  as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10)

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 21st of June, 2015.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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