Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Rock, Paper, Spirit

2 Corinthians 3:7-18

by Daniel Harrell

Up to this point in 2 Corinthians Paul has taken on hecklers who insisted he was not a real apostle mainly because real apostles don’t suffer all the trouble he’d suffered for the gospel and then boast about it. To them—as we saw last week—the whole thing smelled awfully fishy. The stink of humiliation and weakness smells rotten—which you know if ever you’ve suffered humiliation yourself. And yet Paul ironically described it as sweet perfume. “To the perishing we are the stench of death;” Paul wrote, “but to those being saved, our stink is the fragrance of life.”

The very things perceived as discrediting his work—his failure, weakness, humiliation, disgrace—for Paul these were qualities that displayed God’s power. In this week’s passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul further defends his work by walking us through undoubtedly one of the Bible’s most confusing lines of logic. A better preacher would stop here, admit he or she has no idea what Paul is talking about and call it a day. But I need to make up for scoring a 93 on the religious knowledge test. So here goes.

Given the direction Paul takes with his roundabout logic, we assume his hecklers were either Jewish or aware of Jewish resistance to the gospel; a particular problem given that the gospel’s claims derive from Old Testament promises. Paul’s defense thus begins with that pinnacle of Old Testament events; namely, God’s giving the law on stone tablets to Moses. More than a list of “thou shalt nots,” the Ten Commandments represent God’s covenant with his people. God promised to guard and to bless in exchange for obedient lives lived out in conformity to God’s character.

Paul alluded earlier to the law inscribed on tablets of stone; but not as a source of his authority. Responding to his hecklers’ previous insistence that he provide letters of recommendation to validate his credibility, Paul wrote that the Corinthian Christians themselves were his letters of recommendation. Their transformed lives served as “letters from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

The contrast of tablets of stone to tablets of flesh was a throwback to the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah—two of Moses’ successors. Through Ezekiel, God promised to give his people “a new heart and a new spirit.” “I will put my Spirit in you and cause you to follow my decrees and keep my laws,” said the Lord, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” Likewise through Jeremiah, God promised to “…put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. …I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Jeremiah labeled this divine rewrite as the “new covenant;” the very language Jesus himself used to describe the cup of communion as “the new covenant in my blood poured out for you.” The problem had always been that God’s people, chosen to partake in a covenant relationship with God, could never live up to their chosenness; they could never keep their part of the covenant. Therefore God, inexplicably in love with his fickle people nonetheless, determined to keep their part of the deal for them. The “new covenant” was not a negation of the law but a radical change of the human heart for the sake of obedience, for the sake of relationship.

This change of heart is at the heart of the gospel: In Christ God forgives sinners and grants us his very own Spirit so that we might live in new covenant relationship with him. Whenever we look and love like God’s people, it’s Jesus who died for us and who lives in us making that possible. Paul’s hecklers weren’t buying it though. To them the shameful death of Jesus on a cross for their supposed sins was insulting. It’s one thing to be forgiven for confessed wrongs, quite another to be forgiven when you view yourself a law-abiding citizen. That’s offensive. If you’re already a good person, why do you need forgiveness? This is the danger I mentioned last Sunday: how success in life easily warps into pride turning people initially humbled by grace into people who don’t need grace anymore.

Paul goes back to Moses in order to pull the pride out from under his opponents. He refers to Moses as the minister of death. You may remember the story (depending how you did on the religious knowledge test): Moses descended Mt. Sinai, twin tablets in tow, only to discover the checkered chosen making all sorts of idolatrous mischief with a golden calf. [SLIDE 23] In a rage of holy fury, Moses smashed the tablets and torched the golden calf, grounding its remains into a swill he made the Israelites swallow. He followed this with a wholesale slaughter of 3000 who refused to repent as well as calling down plagues on those who did. It was all God could do not to completely obliterate his chosen people. [OUT]

Nevertheless, moved by that inexplicable love, determined to stay tied to his people despite their infidelity, God granted them a do-over. He re-chiseled his commandments on a second set of stone tablets. When Moses descended the mountain this second time, his face glowed from his encounter with the glory. Naturally this freaked everybody out since a] Moses’ face was glowing and b] they remembered what happened the last time Moses came down the mountain. Like the brilliance of the sun that can fry your eyes, the glory of God proved to be as deadly as it was beautiful. It’s with this backdrop that Paul refers to Moses and his stone tablets as the ministry of death.

It is a strong term, but certainly one descriptive of Israel’s experience. To worship an idolatrous golden calf not only snubbed God’s grace but repudiated his very existence. And since Scripture teaches that God ultimately holds in his hands the life and breath of every living thing; to repudiate God’s existence is to renounce your own. The Israelites reaped the fatal fruit of their own bad choices.

“The ministry of death came with such lethal glory,” Paul writes in verse 7, “that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face.” Clear enough. But Paul then muddies things by describing God’s glory as something “now set aside.” He writes that “what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory;” which is Paul’s comparison of Moses to Jesus, only with Moses, the glory wasn’t really lost. In verse 13, Paul mentions Moses having to veil his glowing face so that Israel might not gaze at it, which doesn’t seem to imply that any glory went away.

A more accurate translation might be the word annulled or made ineffective; a rendition we find in some Bibles. But how does that help? Did you see any of those X-Men movies or read the comic books? There’s this mutant named Cyclops who has a problem with these optic rays that blast out from his eyes blowing away everything in their path. To protect people from demolition, Cyclops puts on these special goggles of ruby quartz that block the rays. Now I’m not saying that Moses was a mutant X-Man, but I do imagine glory being something like those dangerous rays, threatening to demolish sinful Israel with divine fury. To protect the people from God’s fury, Moses deployed a veil. Thus what was annulled or made ineffective was not the glory but its outcome—the end of the glory, as our pew Bible puts it. What was the end of God’s glory? Well, the end of God’s glory would have been the end of the Israelites had Moses not veiled his face. The end or outcome of glory was the demolition of Israel due to their treachery, an outcome that was made ineffective by the veil that saved the people, kind of like Cyclops did with his goggles, just like Christ would do on the cross.

Of course Moses’ veil, unlike the cross of Christ, was only a temporary fix. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament God’s glory brilliantly and fiercely exposed the persistent stubbornness of human sin, but nothing changed. God’s will chiseled on stone tablets crashed up against rock hard resistance time and time again. So much so that Paul goes on in verse 14 to employ a bit of double entendre. God’s inexplicable love for his people, symbolized by Moses’ veil of protection, eventually became the people’s own veil of indifference. God’s long-suffering mercy made his threats of doom ring hollow. A veil covered the people’s hearts, Paul writes, hardening their minds whenever they read the old covenant. They no longer believed that God was serious about his holiness. They no longer believed that God was serious about their sin.

But he was serious. So serious, in fact, that to preserve his holiness he had to destroy their sin with a new covenant—poured out in the blood of Christ as chiseled on our hearts by the spirit. God destroyed human sin in Christ in order to save us from His glory—a glory that proved to be as beautiful as it was deadly. Through the dying and rising of Christ, the end of God’s glory was no longer condemnation but righteousness, a righteousness now written inside us. Thus Paul can assert in verse 13 that he is not like Moses “who would put a veil over his face to protect the Israelites from gazing at the outcome of glory,” because in Christ the outcome of glory is no longer death but life. He can let out the light. The same goes for the veil of indifference. “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord,” verse 16, “that veil is removed.” We can see our sin and see God’s grace and watch our lives change.

“With unveiled faces,” Paul concludes, we boldly see and boldly shine, like mirrors “we reflect the Lord’s glory and are changed into his mirror image with ever-growing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” As “the light of the world,” Jesus changed Paul’s life. The light of the world who is Christ changes us too—so much so that Jesus can have the audacity to call you and me “the light of the world” too. It is his light, God’s glory now in us that makes us shine. “You the light of the world,” Jesus said. “Therefore let your light shine before all people that they may see your good deeds and credit the glory to your Father in heaven.”

With baseball playoffs fixing to start, PBS is running Ken Burn’s new film entitled The Tenth Inning. I am grateful to now live in a city where postseason baseball will be played, but this fails to fully eradicate the sting of my beloved Red Sox’ elimination from postseason play—especially since the Yankees are in yet again. Thus I was especially gratified by Ken Burns’ focus on the magical season of 2004, when the Red Sox finally ended 86 years of futility by historically coming back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the evil empire of New York. Among the highlights of that series was pitcher Curt Schilling in game six, the torn tendons of his ankle stapled to the skin of his heel in quasi-Frankenstein fashion. His literal red sock is now enshrined in the Hall of Fame. After the Game 6 victory, the first words out of Schilling’s mouth on national television were these: “I became a Christian seven years ago and never in my life have I been touched by God like I was tonight. I tried to do it on my own in Game 1 and you saw what happened (they lost) But tonight that was God’s work on the mound. God did something amazing for me. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do this alone. I didn’t pray for a win, just for the strength to go out there and compete, and God gave me that.”

Admittedly, multi-millionaire athletes giving God credit for throwing strikes always sounds somewhat suspicious, theologically speaking. While it’s become customary for professional athletes to point to the heavens after crossing home plate, or to kneel and pray in the end zone after scoring a touchdown and then give glory to God during the post game interview (at least if they win); you still have to wonder whether the one being praised is the God of Jesus Christ (for whom the last are first, the weak are strong and from whom showers descend on the just and unjust, Red Sox and Yankees and Twins alike) or some other more domesticated dugout version. The Lord of the Universe may keep track of falling sparrows and the numbers of hairs on your head, but isn’t it a stretch to think he cares about balls and strikes—especially with all the misery that continues to pervade our world?

On the other hand, Jesus did say “let your shine before all people that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven.” It may be a stretch to label winning Game 6 of a championship series a “good deed,” but bringing so much happiness to decades of previously miserable and accursed Red Sox fans has to count for something! Whether Curt pitched or God pitched or God pitched through Curt or God simply just sat back and enjoyed the game while he cheered for both sides, I don’t know. But I do know that God got some glory that night from an overpaid and injured athlete who could have kept quiet and kept all that glory for himself but instead deflected it onto the One from whom all blessings flow. It may not be the best theology, but it was fine light.

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