The Corinthian correspondence has become my meditation this year. I am admittedly somewhat fascinated by it. In what appears to be at least his second letter (that is 1 Corinthians, cf 5:9) to the church Paul is concerned to correct the spirit of division found there in the pervasive one-upmanship and elitism that has infiltrated from the surrounding Corinthian culture. However as we move on to the second epistle we have remaining to us we find that this attempt has not been well received. Instead we see clearly that this letter of correction has bitterly hurt the church. In the midst of their hurt certain persons have united the church against him!
As we see in 2 Corinthians as Paul struggles to deal with this betrayal and continued elitism he pours his heart out for the Corinthian church in gospel focused cruciform love. 2 Corinthians is one of the most emotionally stirring missives of the New Testament, here is Paul deeply grieved and grieving for the object of his and Christ’s affection is so close to deserting him, and even deserting Christ. Hard accusations have come against Paul and his ministry through the deception of these so called Super-Apostles (11:5) who are now using the grief surrounding the corrective pain of 1 Corinthians to wield against Paul as a sharp weapon that cuts deeper than any other weapon could.
Yet here in the words that Paul writes to the Corinthian Church are a deep and consciously Christian, crossformed vision of joy through, in and underneath the sacrament of suffering. A vision of suffering and joy that arouses in us a call to embrace both on this side of eternity, not just as a discipline, but as a missional framework to reach out to those like and unlike us.
I want to make a brief sketch of this vision of joy in suffering. In his opening blessing of God Paul wants to frame the rest of his letter, indeed even the previous letter, and his ministry as a whole, he writes, “[God] comforts us in all our affliction,” it’s not a simple thing that God does this, why should he do this? Some theologies would suggest that we are sinners and that any affliction that we face is for discipline, to punish us for our sins. But this is not the purpose that God has in mind here according to Paul, “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” Whatever affliction through which we pass is forming us so that we can bring the Gospel with its healing, grace, love, and life to the burdens, aches, and pains of the Other. This is why elsewhere Paul says that “For your sake,” that is Christ and His Father’s, “we are being killed all the day long, we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. Indeed in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” These things which come against, Paul goes on to say are, no matter the origin nothing compared with the love of Christ which holds us.
If God’s ministry of comfort through our suffering finds its “yes” in the person and work of Jesus Christ as we then move to embody and enflesh this Godly “yes” to the Other then we need to join the Christ-work of the Cross. The wonderful Cross which bids us to come and die, that place where we find ourselves crucified in the Messiah, and walking away as new people bearing forth the Resurrection life that he breathes into these dry bones.
And this exactly is what Paul goes on to say and call out of us. “As we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”
I have made too light of this suffering of ours, Paul is stronger again. These sufferings are not merely ours apart from Christ. They are not merely found in Christ. Not merely found to be usable for the alleviation of the Other’s suffering. Paul is adamant, these sufferings are Christ’s sufferings. We are to go through them with the expectation not just that we will find Christ in the midst of them but that just as he promised to be our strong yokefellow Christ is our cosufferer, we through the sufferings we have are crucified with Christ that we might bleed out his love and life for the sake of the Other. The sufferings that we go through are not and cannot be separated from Christ’s.
As we become the possession of the suffering servant we suffer with him, dying daily the death of the Cross that the life of the Resurrection might too be made manifest in our lives and the lives of those to whom we minister. So then there is no vain hope in the ministry that we bear, the trials and suffering we need live out, they form us and call us forward, broken heart in hand that the Gospel of Jesus Christ on full display in the wreckage of our lives in hope, that maybe just one other might taste the resurrection life. That they might taste and see that, yes, God is Good!