9 I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. 10 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” 11 Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.
I preached upon this passage two weeks ago at church, and was struck by its forcefulness. Here Paul issues a thinly veiled threat to the church of Corinth, telling them this:
“You think I’m hardcore in my letters, just wait until I come and see you in person.”
Whew! We should remember that Paul doesn’t always write this way to every church, but that the incisiveness of this comment is driven by the fact that the Corinthians had been bringing Corinthian understandings of class, wealth, and sex into the house of God: the disciples were being divided into different classes (super-apostles), the poor overlooked at meals, and children fornicating with step-parents. Paul rightly finds this cultural amalgamation reprehensible.
But in a larger sense, the sternness of Paul’s words here remind me of the words of Christ as well. That seems strange given that quite often when we recollect the sayings of Jesus, we remember his call to the weary to come and find rest in him, or else the parable of the prodigal son, passages that highlight his compassion and forgiveness. And these are without a doubt a large part of his ministry, and a revelation of his character. But they are not by any means the only lessons he taught, and words that he uttered. He also made clear that it is better for a person to cut off an arm that causes sin, or gouge out an eye that does the same, than to have that appendage prevent entrance into the Kingdom of God. Many of his parables ended with chaff or useless vines being discarded and burned, or sheep being separated and left to eternal punishment. These are not the teachings of Jesus that we usually recollect, but they are as much a part of his ministry as anything else he taught.
I think this is a good reminder that Christianity is not solely a soft type of religion. Now I won’t get into the whole discussion of masculine vs. feminine approaches to Christianity, as that I think that is a discussion that has a lot of basis in Western understandings of gender. Through the example set by my mother, I in no way equate females with “softness” or some deficient lack of will.
But these days, I do think there is the tendency to over-soften the Christian faith and edit out its harsher and more disciplined elements for the sake of greater palatability with the world at large. I think this tendency is dangerous, and false. Surely Christianity is a religion of peace, but not peace as the world understands it, i.e. people getting together and working things out. No, the peace that is described in the Bible takes place when God is seated at the center of all, and all kings stream towards God to worship him. The Christian faith as seen in Jesus’ own life is not at all militaristic, but in no way is it impotent, as Jesus spoke powerfully to centers of power, both of this earth and not.
Faith in Christ is not easy nor convenient, equivalent to becoming a temporary fan of Kaballah as so many celebrities are in the habit of nowadays. According to Jesus, it is a life that requires complete commitment and willingness to sacrifice all, and will put us at nearly complete odds with the world, not in its graces. It is supposed to be a difficult life…but an eternal one.
But I would be representing myself quite badly if I said I was a fan of the movement to make Christianity a manly man’s MMA kind of faith, because I don’t see myself that way, nor Christianity. Rather, what I am advocating here is balance, that the softness and hardness of faith be held in simultaneous tension, rather than a rejection of one over the other. This balanced dynamic is anathema in the West because here, there always must be clear winners and losers, no ties (that’s why we hate soccer and are ambivalent to hockey), but I believe that our faith supports such a tension. After all, God is a righteous judge who demands his moral law be upheld! But he upholds that law by allowing his own Son to stand as a sinner in our stead – justice and mercy, held in divine tension. Christ exhibits total acceptance of humanity, allowing anyone to draw near to him regardless of their moral failings: tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers. But none of those who followed him remained in those lifestyles of sin, but forever left them behind in order to be more like Christ – total human acceptance balanced with total moral transformation.
So don’t let the MMA’s and the Mamby-Pamby’s tell you that their way is the only one because most likely, the path in between them is the best one to take.