(2 Cor. 6 : 1–10)
St. Paul rites to the Christians in Corinth to beware lest they receive the grace of God in vain (2 Cor. 6:1).
As a priest, I sometimes compare myself and my stand with these words of the Apostle and I must admit that in these moments I am overcome by fear before the immense honor to which I was called. I do not know what answer I would give to the holy Apostle if asked to give an account for all the talents I was given and for my stand towards the grace of God which I received. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!
However, I am also very much tormented by my conscience for the feeling, and very often, the real and sad realization, that through me, as the officiating priest in the rite of holy Baptism, many have received the grace of God in vain.
It is not without reason that St. Paul writes to the Corinthians of this. He is afraid that, just as the serpent deceived Eve by its craftiness, their own minds might become corrupted from the simplicity of heart which is in Christ. “For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not yet received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted – you may well put up with it!” (2 Cor. 11:3-4).
And to the Christians in Thessalonica he writes, “For our exhortation did not come from error or uncleanness nor was it in deceit. But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts. For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness – God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from, when we might have demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. So, affectionately longing for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:3-8).
St. Paul warns them of false apostles, deceitful workers, “transforming themselves into apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13).
Unlike the false apostles, St. Paul reveals himself and his apostolic ministry for all to see and judge: “But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings” (2 Cor. 6:4-5).
We heard about St. Paul’s trials and tribulations by which he proves his apostolic calling. The Lord told his disciples that they would be persecuted just as He had been persecuted (Jn. 15:20). The apostle bears on his body the marks of the Lord Jesus (Gal. 6:17).
It would take a very long time to enumerate all of his physical torments. In the Holy Scriptures it is mentioned that he was imprisoned three times. However, St. Clement of Rome, who lived and suffered immediately after the death of St. Paul, bears witness that St. Paul had been imprisoned seven times. Can you imagine yourselves being locked up in a dungeon for even one day? And here we have St. Paul, who was thrown into prison seven times, and every time before being imprisoned he was subjected to brutal beatings. “From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one” (2 Cor. 11:24). This was from the Jews who at the time had no judicial authority. What, then, can we say about the Romans who had the supreme authority to impart punishments.
In order for you to understand the extent of the Apostle’s sufferings, I would like you to imagine a stick thicker than a human thumb held by a human hand driven by hatred, bearing down with full force and smashing into the flesh of Apostle Paul, a frail man of slight build. He received almost two hundred such blows. “Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked” (2 Cor. 11;25).
The holy Apostle Luke, author of the Acts of the Apostles, writes that even if St. Paul had wanted to, he could not have escaped his destiny. When they were in Iconium, both the Jews and the Gentiles, with their rulers, attempted to stone Paul and his disciples. “They became aware of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding region (Acts 14:5-6). However, in Lystra the Jews persuaded the multitudes and stoned Paul (Acts. 14:19) and dragged him outside the city, supposing him to be dead. Can you imagine how amazed and shocked they must have been when they found him again the following morning, doing the very thing for which they had stoned him: preaching the word of his Lord.
It is as if Apostle Paul were saying to the Corinthians, look at me and see what I have endured for the Lord and what sacrifices I am ready for, even now. And look at these false apostles, whom you put up with if they bring you into bondage, “if they devour you, if they take from you, if they exalt themselves and strike you in the face” (2 Cor. 11:20). Compare and reflect.
The beatings and the stoning were very painful for St. Paul, but he considered the burdens that weighed down his soul an even greater torment. “Outside were conflicts, inside were fears” (2 Cor. 7:5), he says. When he talks about his afflictions, he mentions the danger of false brethren as the greatest affliction of all (2 Cor. 11:26).
The Apostle is not complaining. The only reason he spoke of his sufferings was to open the eyes of the Corinthians, to give them strength in case they found themselves in similar situations, so that they would not falter and wave the white flags of defeat if their faith was put to the test. Succumbing to pressure would mean receiving the grace of God in vain.
The epistle reading is meant to encourage us, as well, not to fall back in times of trouble and to be vigilant, “giving no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed, but in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses” (2 Cor. 6:3-4). All this is even more true, “knowing that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed “(Rom. 13:11). The time is now, the day of salvation is today.