As opposed to last week’s thorny text from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, today’s word from his second letter is overflowing with gospel dynamism. There is perhaps no better six-verse summary of Paul’s understanding of what God’s work in Christ accomplishes in the human being and what that means for God’s mission in the world. Although I am not necessarily prone to a verse-by-verse expository approach, I find it helpful here for walking through the rich themes of this passage.

16 – The “we” here would seem to be an editorial we, and the distinction becomes all the more poignant when we consider Paul’s own biography. Saul the persecutor had no trouble hunting down those who followed in the way of Jesus because “according to the flesh” the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth was an utter failure. But now, Paul the apostle sees with (literally) new eyes, the scales of human reckoning (note the double meaning there, the scales which blinded his eyes and the scales that attempt to measure worth or value) have fallen away. It is also worth noting this verse is of a piece with verses 14-15. The fact that Christ “died for all” (verse 15) sets up the “therefore” which makes everything in this text possible.

17 – One of the signature passages of Pauline theology, emphatic in its compressed intensity. Paul is walking us through the eschatological logic of God’s work in Christ. If Christ died for all and all have died (verses 14-15), “therefore” I no longer regard anyone the way I formerly did (verse 16). “Therefore” (double emphasis), anyone is a new creation. This has a double implication: I am myself a new creation in Christ, and any other life I now regard, I behold as a new creation. The “behold” (ἰδοὺ) intensifies the whole way of reckoning in Christ. Not only is Paul inviting the reader to stop (“Look at this!”), but he is also signifying the new way of regarding. To behold is to perceive the other with wonder and reverence, almost as if their very life is a miracle (“That is a sight to behold!”). No, not “almost as if.” To behold the other is to see how the very fact of any life is always a miracle. The life itself is a miracle, and our newfound ability to behold their life is a miracle too. Paul is alluding, of course, to Isaiah 43:18-19, which expands this wondrous beholding not only to what God is doing in a human person but also in all of creation (“a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”).

If we are indeed a new creation in Christ, we cannot help but be taken up into the work of reconciliation God is breaking into the entire world.

18-19 – These two verses, taken together, give us a kind of psalmic parallelism. For Paul, it is impossible to separate the work of what God has done in Christ to reconcile us to Himself and how it takes “us” up into the “ministry of reconciliation” in the world. I would like to read this second use of the first-person plural as both another editorial “we” (this is Paul’s apostolic mission), but also as the expansion of “we” to include all who are reconciled to God in Christ. This would follow the eschatological logic of the passage. If we are indeed a new creation in Christ, we cannot help but be taken up into the work of reconciliation God is breaking into the entire world. For those of us located within the Lutheran tradition, we should acknowledge that the relational terms of this “reconciliation” (noun: καταλλαγῆς, verb: καταλλάσσω) is not our default, forensic way of speaking about justification. But we neglect it to our detriment. The work of reconciling is, literally, to make a friend of an enemy, and to frame God’s salvific work in Christ in these relational terms of friendship. In this time of brutal war and divisive conflict, here we have an especially profound word of gospel.

20 – Undoubtedly, the “we” here returns to the editorial we, referring to Paul’s own uniquely apostolic mission to proclaim the “message of reconciliation” to the Gentiles. Thus, he makes his ultimate appeal: “Be reconciled to God.” Here it is also vital to recognize who is reconciled to whom. Noted Pauline scholar Mark Seifrid makes it clear: “Paul is not speaking here of the overcoming of God’s enmity against humanity, but that of the fallen humanity against God.”[1] We are the new creation. We are the ones transformed. The God who makes the old new in Christ is the same God whose whole work, anywhere and everywhere, is about making friends of enemies. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon notwithstanding, we are sinners in the hands of an endlessly loving God.

21 – Even if the language of reconciliation is not a Lutheran’s default way of speaking about justification, this verse is a classic articulation of what Luther would call the “happy exchange.” God swaps our sin for Christ’s righteousness. Given the context, the exchange between Christ and us (notice the “we” switches here again, emphatically including all of us) is placed within relational terms. Christ, the One who was friend to those whom no one else would befriend, makes us friends with God. In light of what we are reading from the Gospel of Luke this day (15:1-3, 11-32), Jesus’ most famous parable (and its context) enflesh that friendship in the most concrete and moving terms. And Christ’s righteousness, now our own, calls us into a similarly radical work of reconciliation in the world.

So, how do we tie together all this embarrassment of riches? The text would lend itself to an expository structure, should hearers be so inclined. Conversely, any one of these verses provide enough for a sermon unto itself. But I am struck by the interconnections the lectionary gives us between this text and the parable of the Lost Son. There is something generative about seeing the relationships between the father and his two sons in light of Paul’s hermeneutic of the “new creation” in Christ and God’s “ministry of reconciliation.” This would turn the exposition toward narrative. That is a tall order, but if we can find the sermon in between these two texts, it would indeed, by the power of the Spirit, be a sight to behold.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.