Paul, power and weakness (2 Corinthians)

I was at Greenbelt festival last weekend, in the Jesus Arms (the pub) listening to an open conversation between five innovative Christian writers/thinkers. One of them was saying how he thought the Apostle Paul never really quite got over the Pharisee or the Roman citizen bit of his complex identity - a right to power that underwrote his view of the world. When Jesus went to Jerusalem and was brought before the authorities he was silent. But when Paul went to Jerusalem and was hauled before the authorities he put up quite the speech; he always knew he could end up in Rome where his rights would be protected.

Another replied with a 'Hmmm, you should read 2 Corinthians. Because this is where Paul becomes weak and all of that pretence is undone.'

Which interested me because I'd just read 2 Corinthians and concluded exactly the opposite.

2 Corinthians is very strange. It's part of the ongoing correspondence between the Apostle Paul and the church at Corinth. Really it should be called 3 Corinthians (and 1 Corinthians called 2 Corinthians) because there was an earlier letter from Paul (see 1 Cor 5:9) which has been lost to history.

It's a letter that contains a whole heap of memorable - and powerful - ideas. Treasures in jars of clay, a thorn in the flesh, that those in Christ are a new creation, power made perfect in weakness. These are some of the seminal images of the Christian language, so inspiring and challenging has this work of Paul's proved over time.

But it is very strange because these gems are found within what is a barely controlled attack on a church that failed to bow to Paul's leadership. I find myself loving (some) of Paul's words but finding their author really quite alarming.

The context for Paul's letter appears to be that he is making a financial collection for the church in Jerusalem and is urging the church at Corinth to contribute (8:10-16). But it's also clear that his last letter to Corinth (what we call 1 Corinthians) didn't go down so well in certain quarters (7:8). So, once again, Paul must write to navigate conflict, but this time between the church and himself!

For the first seven chapters of the letter, Paul takes his readers through a theological tour. The view is simply breathtaking as he narrates a story of weakness; the kind that can bring reconciliation and empower the broken. These are words to make your spine tingle and your soul heal. But then the journey turns.

From chapter 8 Paul begins his extensive fundraising appeal, barely focussing on the need that has prompted this collection, but instead on the act of obedience that Corinthian giving would demonstrate. And then in chapter 10 he really starts to lose it.

'Don't test me!', Paul continues, to paraphrase my reading of his words. 'Don't think about questioning me; don't you know what I've done, what I've been through? I'm overwhelmed with my commitment to you, and this is what is making me to be so in your face. Whatever those who compete for your attention have it is nothing compared to the credentials I have! I've suffered for you, so I can boast about you.' And the unspoken implication: I can tell you what to do.

'But', he goes on, 'I'm coming to you again and you'd better be ready!' And then in 13:4 comes the moment of truth: 'For to be sure, [Christ] was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God's power. Likewise we are weak in him, yet by God's power we will live with him in our dealing with you.' In other words, 'You might think we're weak - and I've just spent this letter completely agreeing with that - but that weakness is going to catch you off-guard in a power that will make you quake.'

2 Corinthians raises a powerful question: what does weakness really mean? If Paul has endured so many hardships only so he can boast in Christ, does that give him the validity to assert authority? Does it stamp his status as the stand-out spiritual one?

Or is that just a blinkered irony?

Power is so subtle, so subversive. Who can ever make a credible claim to authority? On what basis can it be granted? When Pilate makes his in John 19 Jesus replies 'you would have no power over me if it were not not given to you from above' (v.11). Which is a bold thing to say to a Roman Governor, but not much help in discerning the right to power in our world. Everyone can look to the heavens, but authority is determined through very earthed practice; it is forged through complex claims to credibility, sifted through social structures and placed on a precarious pedestal that could topple anytime a fragile consensus fails.

Paul's case for credibility - that peppers so much of 2 Corinthians - is admirable from a world, like ours, where most claims were made on the basis of wealth, might or intellectual prowess. Instead he chooses relative poverty, weakness, and 'folly' as his references. But this masks a deeper, ancient question that I doubt we will ever resolve but should never be far from our psyche: can power ever really be good?

A question that will forever sit alongside it's partner, Paul's shadow: can there ever be such a thing as a truly powerful weakness that doesn't ultimately lead to the eternal weakness of power?