Reality, Grief, and Transformation

Lessons from Paul’s Letters to the Church at Corinth

Nearly two millennia ago, Paul founded a Christian community in Corinth, a port city characterized by all the diversity and rough-and-tumble usually associated with busy transport hubs. He had spent eighteen months there working to mold a socially and economically diverse group into a cohesive community of faith in Christ. But soon after he left Corinth, the community began to unravel and to exhibit, and tolerate, behavior that put its existence at risk. Paul’s letters, intended to address this turmoil, contain insights which may help us to respond to the turmoil in the Church today, which needs to face the reality of its own sinfulness, learn to grieve, and open itself to transformation.

The Reality

Paul begins both 1 and 2 Corinthians by addressing the community as God’s holy ones or saints. Yet the behavior and attitudes which Paul tackles in these letters belie the designation “saints.” It was a divided community (1 Cor 1:11) where acknowledged sexual immorality was left unchecked (1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:12-20). Some were involved in civil litigation against other community members (6:1-11). When gathered to commemorate the Lord’s supper, a shared common meal and source of unity, some wealthier members of the community ate and drank in complete disregard for poorer members who were left hungry and humiliated (1 Cor 11:17-22). The “spiritually enlightened,” who believed their practices, especially speaking in tongues, demonstrated their spiritual superiority, turned community prayer meetings into chaotic gatherings which benefited no one (14:1). Some even denied the resurrection of the dead, the bedrock of Christian faith (1 Cor 15).

Eventually, some became disaffected with Paul, pushing his relationship with the community to near the breaking point (2 Cor 1-7). Among other things, the Corinthians thought they deserved a cultured leader, with impressive credentials, and a stature befitting a man who was God’s ambassador and their apostle. Paul, who admitted being frail and ineloquent, did not measure up.

Beyond the deteriorating relationship between the community and himself, and the deplorable behavior of some, Paul’s deeper concern was the Corinthians’ failure to relate to one another in love and assume their responsibility to safeguard the church’s unity and holiness. These were the twin hallmarks of those in Christ. Yet the community failed to see that when any one member engaged in behavior that destroyed a person’s status as God’s holy one, whether through self-serving choices or immoral behavior, then the whole body suffered. They failed to understand that once an individual became part of that body, his or her choices and behavior necessarily affected the rest of the body, whether positively, for the body’s upbuilding, or negatively, to its detriment. Through baptism each had been incorporated into a community, a living, pulsating reality, which Paul refers to as the body of Christ. Belonging to that body was a privilege, which came with responsibility for the common good. No one could simply withdraw into isolation to act as if one were not a part of the body.

If you read Paul’s letters, you realize that as much as he was upset with the individuals whose behavior negatively affected the entire body, he was more upset with the community. New Testament scholars are not sure why the Corinthians failed to act to safeguard the community’s unity and holiness. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the community did not assume its responsibility for the spiritual health and life of the whole. While they had no problem with boldly proclaiming their spiritual giftedness and insight, there was no comparable recognition or admission of their failures.

Paul realized that Christian existence was a complex, double-sided reality and understood the danger involved in focusing on just one side and ignoring the other. Yes, on the one hand, the Corinthians had really been united, and sanctified, in Christ; they were saints; yet, on the other, they were sinners, engaged in the kind of community-destroying behavior that betrayed that reality. In Paul’s mind, there was no way this church was going to survive if it continued to point to its many graces and blessings, while turning a blind eye to the reality on the ground. The Corinthians had to accept that, though sanctified, they were not yet perfect, nor were they immune to the pull of sin.

Grief

Paul expected the Corinthian church to confront its sinful side and grieve over its failure to live as those in Christ. In relation to a case of egregious immoral behavior, Paul asked the Corinthians who tolerated this behavior, “Should you not grieve?” (1 Cor 5:2). Now for Paul, not all grieving was the same. He makes this clear in 2 Corinthians, where he distinguishes between “worldly grief,” which was a dead end, and “godly grief” which was salutary (7:10).

The problem with worldly grief was not so much that it was insincere but that it led to “death.” Paul uses this term metaphorically here, and elsewhere in his writings, to refer to a spiritual dead end.  Worldly grieving is a dead end precisely because it has no point of reference beyond the self. One remains focused on oneself, wallowing in self-pity, filled with regret but often over the wrong thing, for example, the shame of getting caught, the loss of one’s reputation, or some other personal loss. Worldly grieving often takes the form of self-condemnation leading to despair, depression, and paralysis, or perhaps superficial lamenting without real repenting. This is not the kind of grieving Paul expected of those in Christ.

In contrast, Paul wanted the community to experience godly grief, which is active and constructive. It is the kind of grieving that makes us come to terms with and accept the ambiguity of human existence: we are saints and sinners at the same time; we are people capable of both loving intensely and hating intensely. We can offer tender forgiveness but also hold eternal grudges; we are capable of generosity as well as crass egocentricity. We have been created in goodness, to be and do good, but we also have the potential to do evil and destroy. We are destined for glory but still live in the here and now, with all its brokenness, confusion and suffering. Godly grief awakens believers to the damaging ripple effects of sin, elicits from within believers a repugnance to sin, and, as Saint Paul says, moves them to metanoia.

Metanoia, which is the Greek word Paul uses here, is usually translated by the English word repentance, a term often associated with remorse or shame, which are sentiments, things we feel. But metanoia is not about feelings. Its literal meaning is to change one’s mind. In Paul’s day, this term was consistently used to express a fundamental change in thinking that leads to a fundamental change in behavior. Genuine metanoia involves a change of mind so profound that it is no longer possible for us to continue acting as before. With true metanoia, we begin to move beyond making excuses for our actions. We move beyond self-loathing, which Paul says is a dead end, and begin to abhor and distance ourselves from behavior we once tolerated. We begin to recognize the new possibilities before us and experience a heartfelt desire to change, to live in a state of openness and transparency before God, giving God the opportunity to complete his project for us, which is to transform us into the image of his Son.

Transformation

In 2 Cor 3:18, Paul tells us that God’s project for us is our transformation into the image of his Son. When he speaks of that transformation, he uses the verb metamorphein. Except for its use by Paul here, and only twice elsewhere in his writings, the word occurs in the rest of the New Testament only in relation to Jesus’ experience of transformation in the presence of those who had gone up a mountain with him. Each of the synoptic gospels reports that on this mountain, usually identified as Mt. Tabor, Jesus underwent a wondrous transformation (Mk 9:2-10; Mt 17:1-9; Lk 9:28-36). Each gospel reports that Jesus was resplendent, glowing, and that his face shone like the sun. That glory, which shone on Jesus’ face, is the glory of a human being fully made in the image of God, fully on fire with God. Seeing this human, we see God as in a mirror.

Saint Paul tells us in 2 Cor 3:18 that all of us who are in Christ also reflect the glory of the Lord, and “are being transformed into His image from one glory to the next.” Most of us have a hard time believing we can be so transformed, so on fire with God as to be a mirror reflection of Him to others. Yet, Saint Paul insisted, this is precisely what God intends, the total transformation of each believer, which is, of course, at the heart of ecclesial transformation.

Our Church suffers from many of the same behaviors and attitudes that plagued the Corinthian church, which present threats to the holiness and unity of the Church in our own day. There is partisanship right at the highest level, with some who champion Pope Benedict while renouncing Pope Francis and others who champion Francis while renouncing still others whose views diverge from their own. Every day there are new reports of gross immorality, lack of respect for human life and dignity at every level. The abuse scandal has plunged our Church into a crisis that some say goes beyond what the Church experienced at the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. There is growing disaffection with Church leaders on the part of some, while others have simply walked away. There is a lost sense of the Church as one body, with more and more people insisting that they have a right to advance their own interests even when doing so is to the detriment of others. The list could go on — we have it all no more perhaps, but certainly no less, than the peoples of other times and places who were “church.”

Rather than pointing fingers, we might begin instead to cultivate grief, not worldly grief which falls short of action and leads nowhere, but godly grief which is life-giving and hope-renewing. Whether we are the kind of people who constantly make excuses for our behavior, or the kind who are paralyzed by self-loathing and sadness, we are challenged to be honest with ourselves, and to recognize that we as church are a community of both saints and sinners. Perhaps more than ever, we should admit that we desperately need a true metanoia.

Let’s face it: sometimes feeling bad is much easier than opening ourselves to change. But true metanoia requires change. It happens when we are willing to break with the past, change directions, and start anew. While it is a daily struggle for each of us individually, and all of us together as the Church, to change course and free ourselves from sin and its destructive effects, we know that if we open ourselves to God’s transforming grace, God will not abandon us. With this confidence, we can move from repentance to hope and from the cross to resurrection. We just need to allow God to finish His project for us, until we are all fully formed, and transformed, in Christ.

Sister Maria Pascuzzi About Sister Maria Pascuzzi

Sister Maria Pascuzzi is a Sister of St. Joseph, Brentwood NY. She completed an SSL at the Pontifical Bible Institute and an STD at the Pontifical Gregorian University. She teaches and writes on the letters of Paul and, currently, is an Associate Dean in the School of Theology at Seton Hall University.

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Sister Maria,
    I agree we need metanoia. Our conversations, as church people, are so often about defending our own version of the absolute truth. I find great hope in knowing the image of God, the true self, is in everyone, no matter who they are, nor what they have done. Thomas Merton described the true self. His description came after he went through a profound conversion at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville.

    The true self…” is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”

  2. Avatar Kennedy Njau says:

    Thanks so much for this explanation. You have helped me with my struggling for change. Be blessed.

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