A good lectionary can really edify. One personal experience of that is my Reformed Episcopal Church BCP lectionary having 2nd Corinthians as the second lesson for Morning Prayer during the pre-Lent “gesima” weeks. (Yes, we in the REC do gesimas as the Lord intends.)
The 2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer uses 2nd Corinthians in a similar way, having it read for Evening Prayer in early February as Lent nears. The 1662 BCP has it read during EP in late March and early April, which seems odd to me as I would think there are better readings for Holy Week and Easter, but I wasn’t asked.
As I was about to say, the guidance of the REC lectionary has gotten me to exercise a spiritual discipline of reading 2nd Corinthians in the weeks leading up to Lent. And it has become a favorite of mine among St. Paul’s epistles. It is perhaps his most personal epistle with the possible exceptions of his letters to the beloved brothers, Timothy and Philemon. His “heart is wide open” to the church at Corinth. And that heart is the heart of a minister.
As he opens himself up to the Corinthians, we see his tears, pain, and sufferings; and we see his love and his joy that reaches to the heavens. I do not say that loosely as he tells of his “anguish of heart and with many tears” while writing the difficult first letter to the Corinthians. He tells of his severe persecutions and dangers. Then he tells of “a man,” likely Paul himself, who was taken up to “the third heaven” to hear wonderful things beyond human telling. St. Paul certainly puts our ups and downs in perspective!
Paul also reveals attitudes we would do well to cultivate. He sees himself as not at all sufficient in himself for the high calling of proclaiming Christ but at the same time knows that God gives him and us the sufficiency we need for ministry. He tells of his suffering and struggles in ministry yet exults in the glorious calling and victory we have from God, “who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.” (2:14)
One way he struggled in ministry is wrestling with when to rebuke and discipline and when to give space for growth along with encouragement and forgiveness — to put it another way, when to deal out tough love and not.
And the church at Corinth needed a lot of tough love as we see in Paul’s first letter to them! But he did not enjoy dealing that out but instead wrote the rebukes of the first letter with “much affliction and anguish.” After that, one reason he delayed in visiting or writing again is he did not want to deal out more tough love too soon. Instead he gave them space to respond to his rebukes and grow. Then when he wrote the second epistle, he was more encouraging and gentle.
There is a type of minister who enjoys beating the sheep and is constantly rebuking. (I once had a pastor like that as a teenager. All I remember about him was that his sermons were always so negative. He had no positive impact on me that I can recall.) More common is the smiley people-pleasing preacher who never has a harsh word for the sin of people under him and who is utterly unwilling to exercise church discipline. We are to follow Paul’s example and be neither of those. Like Paul, we should prefer to love in a gentle supporting manner — and our love for God’s people should be as if they are “written on our hearts.” (3:2) But also like Paul, we should see that when rebuke and discipline are needed, then rebuke and discipline are needed.
An aside: until recently while preparing a Bible study, I did not get the importance of Paul’s internal wrestling with how to deal with the Corinthians. In the past, I glossed over those passages because, although interesting history of St. Paul, I foolishly did not think them that relevant to everyday life today. Which goes to show the importance of reading scripture again and again and again. It can take a while for dullards like me to notice things we need to see. That is one reason I have read 2nd Corinthians before Lent for years now.
Paul struggling with when to deal out tough love and when to relent is just one subject in 2nd Corinthians. Again, by opening his heart so, St. Paul offered a treasure trove of examples of what the heart of a minister should be.
And Paul’s example is not just for ordained ministry. Virtually all Christians are gifted and called to join in some sort of ministry. Certainly all parents are. Most ministries involve struggles of some sort, whether it be difficult people, weariness, or, yes, the need to say “No” like St. Paul. For the joys and the anguishes, for the hard work and for relying on Christ, for all of Christian life and ministry, St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians opens wide what the heart of a ministering Christian should be towards God and towards others. And, yes, a thoughtful reading of 2nd Corinthians will point out plenty of which to repent during Lent, as I have discovered for myself.
So as part of your preparation for Lent or as a spiritual discipline in Lent itself, read 2nd Corinthians!
Image: The remains of Corinth after St. Paul wrote FIRST Corinthians.