In our second reading today, we catch St. Paul at an awkward moment in his ministry. If he sounds defensive, there’s a reason: he’s under attack. Faced by critics in the congregation, he writes to recount what he’s suffered for the sake of his ministry, for the sake of the Christians in Corinth to whom he’s writing. People there are questioning his judgement, and Paul is trying to make clear his own efforts on their behalf without sounding resentful. A difficult task, and you can judge the result.
The causes of this dispute between apostle and church are obscure. One issue was Paul attempting to mediate issues of forgiveness in the congregation (2 Cor. 2:5-11). People were offended at others, and appealed to Paul for his judgement. You know how that turns out: it’s impossible to please everybody. He did his best to seek reconciliation in the church, but not everyone was happy with the result.
Then again, another issue centered on leadership in the congregation. Some new leaders, “false apostles” (2 Cor. 11:13) as Paul calls them, accused him of being weak and ineffectual. They set themselves up as “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11:5), claiming to be far above Paul in spiritual gifts and abilities. St. Paul marks that he may sound boastful in reviewing his own accomplishments, but the true defaulters are his critics, with their own “boastful confidence” (2 Cor. 11:17) that is totally lacking in humility.
Compounding all of these disputes is the sheer distance, the physical separation of the pastor from the flock. We think social media distorts: St. Paul was subject to some of the same distortion. The nature of Paul’s ministry as an apostle meant that he was elsewhere when these issues arose in Corinth. St. Paul writes about the “daily pressure” caused by his “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28), referring to the care of multiple communities for which he had responsibility.
We sometimes lose sight of the fact that much of the New Testament is composed of letters, written precisely because the apostolic writers were somewhere else when the difficult question arose in the congregation. Early Christianity was a global phenomenon, and the New Testament itself witnesses to the strains that arise when the church is dispersed and contextual. The possibility of dispute and misunderstanding is built in to the nature of the Catholic or universal church, that takes particular form in particular places. On the other hand, St. Paul’s letters, conveying his desire for connection, testify to his own conviction of the importance of resolution and reconciliation in the life of the church.
“Our heart is wide open to you” (2 Cor. 6:11), the Apostle writes to his critics. He speaks to them frankly, he says. There is no restriction in his affections, he claims, but there is in theirs. They need to open their hearts as wide as he has opened his. He’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on them, to point fingers, or to assign blame, but instead to clear the air so that they can be reconciled.
To open the heart involves extending oneself to the other, making oneself available for “come what may.” It’s a disposition of humility and service. To open the heart also involves vulnerability, the possibility of having the heart broken. I think that St. Paul means all of the above when he says that his heart is open, available and vulnerable at the same time.
St. Paul sees the members of the church in Corinth, and himself, as engaged in a common ministry. He’s not a provider of services, nor are they mere spectators of the amazing things he’s doing, but they are fellow workers together. As Paul says at the beginning of our reading, “as we work together with him” (2 Cor. 6:1). He and his critics have a common ministry together. In the end, they have a ministry that is rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which means new life for them and for the whole world. It’s this common root that unites different communities in one faith, one baptism (as St. Paul says elsewhere in the Letter to the Ephesians).
“Our heart is wide open to you” (2 Cor. 6:11), St. Paul writes, reminding the Corinthians and us as well of the necessity of open hearts and minds. We prayed at the beginning of this Eucharist, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open… cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.” May God open our hearts as we approach the altar today, to receive the free gift of grace and salvation in Christ’s Body and Blood. We all live on the wide margin that God has extended to us. We are, after all, recipients of grace, of God’s open-hearted acceptance of us. It’s incumbent upon us all to open our hearts wide to receive the gift.