Every personal letter is written from the context of a relationship. And in some relationships, especially when previous communications have been misinterpreted or misunderstood, it’s important to measure out one’s words with great care.
Given the history of trouble in his relationship to the Corinthian church, one would expect Paul to choose his words carefully indeed, right from the start. As always, Paul to some extent conforms to the letter-writing customs of the day, but transforms them to suit his purposes. Thus, at the beginning of the letter that we know as Second Corinthians, Paul writes:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 1:1-2, NRSV)
It’s not one of Paul’s longer introductions, and in many ways it’s quite similar to the beginning of his earlier letter to the Corinthians. In both cases, he leads with the fact of his apostleship, asserting his authority as one who has been commissioned by Jesus in accordance with the Father’s will.
That’s not, for example, the way he opens his letter to his beloved friends in Philippi; there was no need to remind the Philippians of his divine calling. With the Corinthians, however, the situation is different. They have questioned his authority, and Paul must boldly remind them that this isn’t just a clash of personalities. If they reject Paul, they reject Jesus and God.
Here, he mentions Timothy. We might imagine that those Corinthians who had repented of their earlier attitude would feel a pang of remorse at the sound of that name, given the unpleasant nature of his last visit to them.
And he reminds them of who they are. They are the church, the covenant people of God, called to be “saints”: the holy ones who have been set apart by the Father for his purposes.
Paul adds a greeting to all the saints throughout Achaia, the region of which Corinth was both the capital and the chief cultural center. The broader greeting has two sides: on the one hand, positively, it’s a reminder that whatever else one might say about the Corinthians, they had apparently been engaged in evangelism since Paul’s founding of the church. The gospel had spread.
On the other hand, the social and theological troubles of Corinth would probably also spread! Thus, Paul must be mindful of a wider audience as he writes.
Finally, in both letters, he ends the salutation with the same words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Our family has these words hanging in the entry, by our front door; the picture above is of a piece of calligraphy I did when I was a teen, now preserved for posterity.
These are good words, words by which to orient one’s life.
“Peace”: the word echoes the Jewish greeting of shalom, wishing one the all-encompassing wellness of being in a right relationship with God.
And “grace”: the word is charis, quite similar to the Greek greeting of charein that would have functioned in a way similar to today’s “Hello.” Paul seems to co-opt the culturally accepted practice, replacing it with something more gospel-centered.
The first time people heard it, they may have been tempted to check their hearing aids. But later, one hopes, the meaning of the greeting would take root; for even the most trying of relationships between Christians stands and falls on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
What would be the outcome of this letter? Who knows. We don’t have a Third Corinthians to tell us. But hopefully, he had them at hello.