Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
2 Corinthians 13:11
I’m currently working my way through a massive pile of Common Entrance examination marking. My Year 8s are sitting their mock exams this week, and it’s fallen upon me to mark the evidence section of the History exam. Most of them are pretty good, but there are some that could be better. What I find particularly dispiriting is that some of my pupils, having been taught by me for two and a half years, still aren’t following advice on how to answer the questions. It pains me to read through work that could be so much better if only the child concerned had listened to my advice. Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. Maybe the advice that seems simple and straight forward to me is not easy for a thirteen year old child to follow. Perhaps it’s not as easy as I think it is!
That’s similar to how I feel about the verse above. I’ve just finished reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Towards the end of this letter he offers this parting guidance to his recipients. Strive for full restoration, he says, encourage one another, be of one mind, and live in peace. This is good advice that we should all try to follow. Upon first reading, it struck me as a simple instruction that would help us as we strive to live as citizens of God’s kingdom. On further reflection, though, these instructions don’t seem quite so straightforward.
Firstly, we have the question of what “striving for full restoration” even means. The New International Readers’ Version of the Bible has this as “try to be perfect,” which seems to take up Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:48, to “be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Suddenly Paul’s request doesn’t seem quite so straightforward! How can we possibly be perfect? Surely that’s impossible? Well, yes, it probably is whilst we live in a fallen world afflicted with sin, but it certainly shows that we should set our sights high as we strive to live for God! It certainly shows that we need to take our faith seriously, and aim to live as Jesus did. We need to try to live out our lives as if the fall had never happened, as if sin had never entered the world.
Perhaps Paul recognised just how difficult this instruction was, since his next request was that the Corinthians “encourage one another.” This brings to mind a verse that I particularly like, Hebrews 3:13, which says, “but encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” As we aim for perfection, or full restoration, we should be able to rely on the support and encouragement of other Christians, our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is a two way street, though. If we are to rely on the support of other Christians, we need to ensure that we are playing our part in the support network of the Christian church, and are encouraging those around us in their daily lives. I don’t think that it is particularly common for Christians to do this. I know of some churches where they encourage members to ask each other how their “journey of faith” is at the moment, but in my view this kind of questioning is not particularly helpful, since answers tend to be mainly half truths or attempts to brush away the question as quickly as possible. Other churches and Christian groups encourage “accountability partnerships,” in which two or three people agree to hold each other accountable, particularly in areas of their life that might see a particular struggle against a specific sin. Such partnerships can be invaluable, but are generally focused inwards rather than outwards, to the wider body of Christ, to others in the Church. Perhaps if we are to adhere to Paul’s exhortation we need first to build tighter bonds within and between Churches, and to deepen our relationships with other Christians. Perhaps this is the only way in which we will be able to effectively “encourage one another.”
Paul’s next instruction is to “be of one mind.” It doesn’t take even a second glance to understand that this plea is difficult. Very difficult indeed. The Church is heavily fragmented around the world. Different denominations exist that put a particular spin on some scripture – or even on what scripture actually is. Even within a single congregation there will be differences of opinion, theologically, theoretically, practically. Should we baptise (christen?) babies? Should gay people be allowed to marry? Has God predestined some people to go to heaven, and others not? Should we have PG Tips or Tetley tea? I’ve heard some Christians urge “unity, but not at any cost.” I’ve heard others say, “unity is only necessary around the key points of the Gospel.” But what if we can’t decide what the key elements of the Gospel actually are? Perhaps we need to accept that being “of one mind” is fraught with difficulties, but if it is a plea in God’s word, we need to try to do our best-to talk to people we disagree with, to establish why we disagree, and reflect on if and how we can “be of one mind.” Perhaps we need to look for areas of agreement and work together in those areas and see where that gets us. Perhaps, most of all, we should pray for the Holy Spirit to move through God’s people and help us to “be of one mind.”
“Living in peace” clearly has a link to the instruction to “be of one mind.” Understanding each other, and striving for unity and agreement will clearly help us as we strive to live in peace. If we can’t manage to live in peace with our fellow Christians, it will be very hard for us to be God’s messengers of peace to the wider world.
The final section of this verse must be more straight forward. “And the God of love and peace will be with you.” A simple statement, surely? But is Paul saying that if we do these things then the God of love and peace will be with us? Or is he saying that the God of love and peace will be with us as we strive to do these things? It depends, I suppose, on if you think that we have to work to earn God’s favour, or if you believe that he freely bestows his blessings upon us, even if we do not deserve them. Personally, I believe very strongly in the latter. God loves all his people and showers his love and peace upon us all.
If God is with us, then perhaps we might be able to make a stab at following Paul’s instructions after all. Otherwise, just as my guidance to my pupils might at first seem easy to follow, the exhortations that Paul urges the Corinthians to adhere to, which at first glance look straightforward, might be rather more difficult than we thought.