WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2017
PRAYER / WORSHIP: Commentary on the Scriptural Text
2 Corinthians 5:14-20 “Reconciliation — The Love of Christ Compels Us”
By Rev. Dr. George M. Smiga, S.T.D.
St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Wickliffe, Ohio.
The theme for the 2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is taken from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “The Love of Christ Compels Us” (5:14). Both the meaning and context of this passage are well suited as a focus for Christian unity.
Paul’s History with the Corinthian Church
All of Paul’s genuine letters are intimately tied to his relations with his church communities. Although we read his letters today for their insight into the theology of the early church, Paul’s theology is inseparable from his pastoral ministry. Each of his letters is contingent to the specific conditions in which Paul and his communities find themselves. Paul’s history with the church at Corinth is the most complex of any relationship described in the New Testament. After founding the church around 50 C.E., Paul visited the city again at least twice and wrote at least four letters to maintain and advance his relationship with this community.
The relationship, however, was far from smooth. In included a visit in which Paul’s authority was challenged and his connection to the Corinthian church fractured. This rupture troubled Paul deeply. The purpose of Paul’s second letter to Corinth was to establish a lasting reconciliation, so that a healthy and mutual relationship between Paul and the Corinthians could flourish. Unity was a central goal of Paul’s entire ministry. He saw his role as an apostle to present united church communities before the risen Christ on the last day.
The central image of First Corinthians is the Body of Christ. Unity is essential to the image. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (12:12). The central appeal of First Corinthians is a call to unity: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10). In First Corinthians Paul strives to restore unity to a church divided by several internal disputes. In Second Corinthians Paul attempts to heal the division between the community and himself. It is important that we read his appeal in 5:14-20 in this context.
Paul’s Appeal for Reconciliation in Second Corinthians 5:14-20
Second Corinthians 5:14-20 should be read as a unit beginning with a extensive rationale that leads to an appeal for unity. It is best to begin with the concluding appeal: “Be reconciled to God” (5:20). In what sense is Paul calling upon the Corinthians to be reconciled to God? The Corinthians have already accepted the gospel and the reconciliation that comes through Christ’s saving work. But Paul believes an additional reconciliation is required. Their standing with God has been tarnished by their separation from the apostle who brought the gospel to them. Paul’s appeal implies that the Corinthians’ relationship with God cannot be separated from reconciliation with him. The aorist tense of the verb “be reconciled” indicates one-time action. Paul is calling for a choice on the part of the Corinthians to join him again in a strong and mutual relationship. His call for healing is clearly expressed in the next chapter: “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” (6:10-12).
The Corinthians’ relationship to Paul is an essential aspect of their relationship to God. To make this clear, Paul precedes his appeal—“be reconciled to God”—with a description of his role as their apostle. At the beginning of 5:20 Paul claims his status as Christ’s ambassador, asserts that Christ is making the following plea through him, and appeals to the Corinthians on behalf of Christ. To ignore Paul would be to ignore the Christ in whose name Paul speaks. To be reconciled to God, the Corinthians must be reconciled to Paul. Unity of the community demands unity with its founding apostle.
The appeal of 5:20 begins with the Greek “therefore” indicating that Paul’s request flows from the verses that precede it. In fact the entire section of 5:14-19 provides the rationale for the appeal. In those verses Paul describes the saving work of Christ. Christ died for all (verse 14) so that we might live for him (verse 15) and no longer view anyone in terms of the old creation (“according to the flesh,” verse 16) because now there is a new creation (verse 17). All of this is the work of God who is reconciling the world through Christ and through Paul’s message of reconciliation (verses 18-19). Verses 14-19, therefore, describe God’s saving work in Christ and how that work bears fruit in the ministry of the apostle and the communities associated with him. It is in light of these verses that Paul makes his appeal for unity in verse 20, asking the Corinthians to be reconciled to him and thus reconciled to God.
The beginning phrase of verse 14 deserves special attention: “The love of Christ compels us.” The “love of Christ” should be read as a subjective genitive, expressing not our love for Christ but his love for us. That love will be shown in the following verses (14-19) as the work of Christ for our salvation is described. Because Paul’s description of Christ’s work is both extensive and rich, a reader may lose the thread that ties the entire section together. The thrust of Paul’s argument is clarified when we join the beginning of verse 14 to the appeal in verse 20: The love of Christ compels us to be reconciled to each other and to God.
The verb translated “compels” has three possible meanings. The first is “to hold together” in the sense of maintaining good or expected order. The second is “to enclose” in the sense of locking up or holding captive. The third is “to overpower” in the sense to demand or rule. Paul intends the third sense, giving rise to the translation, “compels.” But one can find many other English translations for this word as it is used in 5:14—controls, constrains, impels, holds, moves, guides, urges, presses, overmasters, drives, lays claim, and overwhelms. Whatever translation choice is adopted, it is important to capture the strong, almost violent nature of this verb. Luke uses it to describe the fever that overwhelms Peter’s mother-in-law (4:38) and the fear that lays hold of the Gerasenes when they beg Jesus to leave their territory (8:37). With this in mind, translations such as “urges” or “guides” do not seem strong enough. Paul is expressing an overwhelming force that demands action. The love of Christ compels us to reconciliation.
Second Corinthians 5:14-20 and Christian Unity Today
Second Corinthians 5:14-20 argues that in light of all that God has done, Christ’s love demands that the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians be healed. In fact, a rupture between the apostle and his church impedes the Corinthians’ standing with God. This passage states in the strongest terms that a right relationship with God involves a right relationship with each other. Christian believers cannot be Christ’s body or prepared for Christ’s return if they stand divided.
The passage also suggests a way that unity among Christians can be approached today. It is the love of Christ that compels us. It is that love, then, that we must recognize and embrace. Over the last five hundred years Christians have adopted different understandings of Christ’s saving work and used them to justify our divisions. But we do not disagree on the reality of Christ’s love. Does not Paul’s argument in this passage suggest that if we could all delve deeper into the mystery of that love, it would change us? If we could let Christ’s love burn in us like a fever or seize us with the strength of terror, that love would demand and compel us to be reconciled with one another and thus reconciled to God.
Fr. George M. Smiga is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and teaches Scripture and Homiletics at St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Wickliffe, Ohio. He has published several works on Jewish-Christian issues of the New Testament. He authors a monthly scripture column in Living With Christ. Since 1991 he has served as pastor of St. Noel Catholic Church in Willoughby Hills, Ohio. His website is buildingontheword.org.