Bible Study for the Kings Cross Ecumenical Fellowship, 16 March 2011
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
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.
(Notes to introduce discussion)
The title for this week’s session on the CTBI website is “Order and Disorder”. There is a lot of material there, and we’re only looking at one of the suggested readings. But one of the things that the resource material says is that “order turns to disorder in an imperfect world”. Actually, what I’d like to suggest, considering St Paul and this reading, is not that the fallen world is disordered so much as differently ordered. It has its own kind of order which Paul is here exposing and undermining.
We don’t know if Paul was familiar with the Beatitudes, but there is a parallel between what he says in this passage (2 Cor 6:6-10) and what Jesus has to say in Matthew 5:1-12:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The Beatitudes are a proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven, and specifically of how the Kingdom is ordered. And the Kingdom of course is not an abstraction or something located in a future we have yet to reach; it is God’s reign becoming real in Jesus, God in Jesus acting in history in the world. All of the Beatitudes describe God’s reign as it is being revealed in Jesus. Jesus is pre-eminently the one who is poor in spirit, who mourns, who is meek, who is persecuted, and so on.
And all of the Beatitudes reveal the priority of the victim and the outsider. It is in these that the order of the Kingdom is found. And the point of the Beatitudes is that this is radically different from the way in which the world orders itself.
You may have heard of the Catholic anthropologist René Girard. According to Girard, human society is ordered according to the imitation of desire (“mimesis”). I desire what Fred desires. And this can lead me and Fred into rivalry. Rivalry can lead into violence, which is itself a desire which gets imitated. Rivalrous desire can spread through and threaten the whole of a society. A society which is in conflict regains its unity by focussing outwards on a scapegoat. It protects itself from its own violence by finding a substitute victim. An outsider who can be conveniently blamed becomes the focus of the Society’s violence, so that the violence gets displaced outside a boundary of exclusion. According to Girard, this is the mechanism of violence which has controlled human society from the beginning. And because sacrifice and scapegoating get disguised in religious imagery, people think that this is what God is like, that this is what God wants.
Girard is one of those people who has had one big idea. That one idea doesn’t of course tell us everything, but his theory has caught the attention of many Bible scholars. Once you are aware of the sequence:
Mimesis > Rivalry > Conflict > Scapegoating > Restoration of unity
You start to see it all over the place in the Scriptures.
And Jesus overturns this way of ordering the world by becoming its victim. He becomes the outsider, the excluded one, hanged on a tree and so, according to the law, under the curse of God. Which I think is what Paul means when he says that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin”. But Jesus is, in fact, the reign of God becoming real in the world, and that reign is made known on the outside of the boundary of exclusion that human society constructs to protect itself from its own violence.
The truth of this becomes apparent in the Resurrection. Jesus can preach the priority of the victim in the Sermon on the Mount, because God will vindicate the victim in the Resurrection. The Resurrection is the definitive breaking through of the order of God’s Kingdom into the order of this world.
Which brings us back to St Paul. All of Paul’s teaching needs to be understood from the perspective of the Resurrection, which was the breakthrough of the vindicated victim into his life. Paul had been perfect according to the law, had persecuted the Church of Jesus Christ and made any number of victims. He had very much lived according to the order of this world, the human society which protects itself from its own violence by scapegoating the outsider and interpreting this as the will of God. And then Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and was completely turned around. His whole world was shattered and he had to begin again, learning what God is like in Jesus, the risen victim. His conversion was so radical that Paul’s whole life became a testimony to the way God orders things in Jesus and overcomes the order of this world, as Paul puts it, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus [sets us] free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2).
Which is I think why St Paul says that the afflictions he is suffering are the way in which he is an ambassador for Christ, the way in which he makes the appeal to be reconciled to God. They are not incidental things which happen to him while he is proclaiming his message, rather they are absolutely integral to what that message is. Paul is identifying himself with Jesus, the outsider, the excluded one, the victim, the risen one. We go to Jesus “outside the gate” (Hebrews 13:12-13) because paradoxically that place of rejection is the place of reconciliation, because that is what God’s kingdom, God’s order, looks like when it meets the order of this world.