The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
— 2 Cor 13:13 (CEB)
This final benediction of Paul’s is the basis of what some know as The Grace Prayer. The different parts of the statement can be found elsewhere in his letters. But this is the only time Paul ends a letter with such a fully Trinitarian formula. If the words have become too familiar, it’s worth reflecting again on their meaning, for an entire volume of theology is bound up here. What do the words mean, and what do they mean for us?
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Everything Paul has written to the Corinthians comes back to a right understanding of the grace given to us by God through Jesus. But it would also do us well to consider what it means to utter the phrase “the Lord Jesus Christ.” The man known as Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the King anointed by God. And more than that — he was and is Lord. That’s more than just the king. The Pharisee Saul of Tarsus would have considered such a statement to be a blasphemous declaration of Jesus as God. It is a mark of miraculous conversion that Saul, now Paul, can call Jesus “Lord.” Do we take the term for granted?
“The love of God.” Paul has already referred to God as “the God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11). The Corinthians, as products of their pagan culture, would hardly have thought of their former gods in that way. Moreover, love was sadly lacking in their congregation, hence the need for Paul to teach them the nature and superiority of love while answering their self-centered questions about spiritual gifts (1 Cor 13, in the context of chapters 12 and 14). Do we forget that God is the God of love, who wants us to demonstrate that love in our life together?
“The fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” The NRSV translates the word “fellowship” as “communion,” and for good reason. The word “fellowship” has sometimes been lost in the midst of advertisements for church events promising “food, fun, and fellowship,” as if the word meant nothing more than having a good time with your friends. But the root meaning emphasizes what we share in common.
So what is it that unifies the church? There’s nothing wrong with the camaraderie that comes from having a good time together. But ultimately, true fellowship is grounded in a shared faith, empowered by the Spirit who helps us overcome the differences that might otherwise keep us apart.
“Be with you all.” All? Does Paul really mean that? Throughout the letter, he’s addressed two audiences. There were those who humbly and faithfully accepted his authority as an apostle. And there were those who were at best were still on the fence, and at worst were opposing him directly. Does Paul’s benediction embrace them all?
I believe it does. In the time of conflict between First and Second Corinthians, Paul was confident that the Corinthians would repent even before it happened. The same is true here: he hopes that this letter will have its intended effect, so that he doesn’t have to invoke church discipline when he arrives in Corinth again. And he knows that the Holy Spirit is active in the congregation. Thus Paul, in faith, hope, and above all love, embraces his supporters and detractors alike. It’s a fitting benediction to end a deeply personal appeal.
The fellowship of the church requires a firm grasp of God’s love and grace, as embodied in the man Jesus and empowered by his Spirit.
May we receive Paul’s benediction with gratitude and wisdom, for the life and vitality of the church depend on the reality to which he points.