Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Close Shave

2 Corinthians 5:13-6:2

by Daniel Harrell

So after Gillette came out with their five-bladed Fusion razor a few years back, I decided I’d had it. Five blades? Really? Where would it all end? How many blades are enough? 8? 15? 20? For me it was now going to be one. I went retro. Old-school. I ordered a double-edged single blade razor from Germany. I bought a badger hair shaving brush and a hand thrown ceramic shaving mug to go with a tub of Truefitt and Hill high-end British cream. And now, every morning, not only do I get to experience the greatest shave imaginable, but I also get to imagine myself as somewhere between Cary Grant and Don Draper—too cool for the bathroom. A class act. A man’s man. Suave. As it turned out, my conversion to what’s called wet-shaving did not occur in isolation. It was part of a mass revival of men who threw off their Fusions, their Quattros, their Mach3s and all their pressurized cans of white goo for the sake of grooming glory.

Among wet-shaving’s fellow converts is old friend and author Andy Crouch who flamboyantly berated the Fusion “as safe, but ultimately dull. By contrast, the single blade razor,” he writes with apologies to Aslan the Lion, “is not safe, but it is good. It is good to be at risk. Only a single sharp blade can give the sound of every one of the hairs on your head being numbered. Now each shave leaves our skin as smooth as it was before we became men.” We are restored. Redeemed. Made new creations each morning. Born again every day.

NBC’s Today Show eventually ran a segment on wet-shaving that turned it into something of a minor craze. The reporter, Cory Greenberg, went on to start a Shaveblog. Because my own conversion turned me into something of a wet-shaving evangelist, I couldn’t help but preach about it (like I’m doing now). Picking up on my sermon podcast, Cory Greenberg posted on his blog how, “a church full of innocent young children sat in hushed silence a few Sundays ago to receive the word of the Lord, and that word was wet-shave. And it was Good. Dr. Daniel Harrell is a man of deep Christian faith who has journeyed the world over to carry the message of Jesus Christ and to save men’s souls from hellfire without respite, much in the same way I recommend the best razors, brushes, shaving creams, and techniques to those who would otherwise suffer eternal damnation. We are kindred spirits, Dr. Harrell and I. So it should come as no surprise that a recent sermon segued nicely into comparing the Day of Judgment with—and I’m not making this up—a very close shave. Listen jackal and disciple alike, and go forth as a new man.”

He was correct. I do imagine final redemption as something of a razor’s edge experience. If St. Paul is right, just as we face ourselves in the mirror each morning and take responsibility for all that we see, so with our lives we rehearse for a final day when we “must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” If you’ll remember from last Sunday’s foray into 2 Corinthians, that’s how Paul put it. In the verse that leads into our passage this morning, the apostle wrote, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” A very close shave indeed.

It was also a very wet blanket thrown onto what had otherwise been a feel-good passage. Paul had assured us of God’s surefire grace which rendered failure, hardship and even death as nothing but lightweight and momentary blips on the screen of eternity. Our futures secured, we can walk by faith without worry. “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident,” Paul wrote. And we could have gone home confident had Paul not gone and spoiled it all by bringing up Judgment Day.

His reason, you’ll remember, was to tacitly indict that ancient tendency believers have always had to take God’s grace for granted; or as Paul says here in chapter 6, “to receive God’s grace in vain.” From the apple to the ark, from the golden calf to drinking the golden cup of Babylon, the guarantee of salvation—aka the doctrine of divine election—gets treated by many like unchallenged incumbency. If there’s no way you can lose your election, why not live it up and do as you please? Paul counters that grace as free gift is not a free pass. While you can do nothing to lose God’s grace; you still must do something to show you’ve received it. “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said. Therefore, Paul wrote, “we make it our aim, our practice to please Christ.” If pleasing Christ is not your practice, the implication is that your seat may not be as safe as you presume.

Martin Luther applied this connection between grace and pleasing Christ to the petition about forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Luther wrote, “The outward forgiveness that I show in my deeds is a sure sign that I have been forgiven my sin in the sight of God. On the other hand, if I do not show this in my relations with my neighbor, I have a sure sign that I do not have the forgiveness of sin in the sight of God and I am stuck in my unbelief.” In other words, if you do not forgive others their sins against you, there’s a good chance that the grace of God has not truly rooted your heart, even if you believe it has. “You can tell a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said, “And every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and tossed into the fire.”

Such a severe word from the Lord explains why today’s passage begins with “the fear of the Lord.” “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others,” Paul wrote. Grace is both good news and serious business. Of course, to Paul’s critics in Corinth, this is what made Paul’s good news look so bad. The gospel Paul preached brought him a lot of trouble and suffering. Getting serious about following Jesus does that. Paul’s wasn’t a testimony you wanted to hear at one of those old-fashioned revival meetings: “I came to Jesus and my life got worse. Praise the Lord.” How would that persuade anybody? Paul’s detractors thought he was nuts—which Paul himself allows in verse 13. “If we are beside ourselves—if we are out of our minds—it is for the sake of God.”

At first you think this is just another way for Paul to admit he’s a “fool for Christ.” But then he tacks on the next line: “if we are in our right mind, it is for you” referring to the Corinthian believers. It reminds us of a problem Paul had back in 1 Corinthians. Among the ways Paul never measured up in the eyes of many was his lack of charismatic charisma. In 1 Corinthians, Paul’s critics judged his failure to ecstatically speak in unintelligible tongues, for instance, as proof of deficient faith. Some churches still teach that you have to speak in tongues to be a real Christian. Paul did agree that ecstatic expression is a fine thing; but like dancing in your underwear when you’re happy, it’s not something you should flaunt in public. “In church,” Paul wrote, “I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in tongues.” Why? Because his goal is persuading others, not freaking them out; loving others, not showing off. Living an honest faith, not performing a pretend one. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love,” Paul famously wrote, “I am only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

He reiterates this same sentiment here in 2 Corinthians chapter 5: “The love of Christ urges us on.” The verb is a strong one. It means to control and compel, to impel and propel. It’s Christ’s love that seizes us and captures us and pushes us on to love others.

Of course if you stretch the verb to its limit—Christ’s love kills us too. Paul writes, “The love of Christ compels us because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” This isn’t what you expect Paul to write. What you expect Paul to write is that “Christ died for all and therefore nobody dies.” You know, John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”? Jesus dies our sinful death so that we get his righteous life. We call it substitutionary atonement. As our sub, Jesus serves our death penalty and we get set free.

It’s a theology not without problems. I remember a conversation with a woman who wandered into a pew during a Lenten service. To her Jesus’ unwarranted death for sinners made no sense. How does executing an innocent third party atone for the crimes of a guilty offender? Moreover, having a heavenly parent punish a blameless only child for the sins of everybody else sounded like divine sanction for child abuse.

She had a point. While it is legally possible for an innocent person to serve another’s sentence, that doesn’t make the innocent person guilty of the crime. Even if I pay your speeding ticket; you’re still the one who drove too fast. I can’t take on your guilt because I can’t become guilty of something I never did. The deed and the doer are inseparable. So what do you do with the guilt? Jesus died for our sins. He paid our penalty. Paul writes, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin;” but no where does Paul write that Jesus became a sinner. No where does he say that Jesus was ever guilty himself.

It’s important to emphasize first that God did not send his Son to the cross as an innocent third party. Christ who bore human sins on the cross did so as God himself. Christ is one with God as part of the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God. Yet at the same time, in the mystery of the incarnation, Christ bore human sin as a human being. Jesus who is one with God is also one with humanity. Thus when Paul writes “one died for all, and therefore all died,” he does not mean that Christ’s death replaces our death. Instead, Christ’s death includes our death and in so doing his death redeems our death. Because we are one with Christ, what happened to Him happened to us. He was condemned, we were condemned. When he died, we died and suffered our death penalty. But then Christ rose from the dead, and we did too. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the deed and the doer finally divide. Our tickets get paid and our guilt get buried. We are now truly free.

And as free people, we are free to be reconciled to God. If we were still guilty, reconciliation with God would not be possible. But in Christ, Paul writes, God “God no longer counts our trespasses against us.” “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We do not make ourselves right with God. God makes us right with himself through Jesus. And because God does it, it is as good as done; which is how Paul can have the audacity to assert that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation now. The old is gone away. Resurrection has started. Everything is brand new. On earth as it is in heaven.

But then by way of reiteration, Paul goes on to make clear again that being a new creation is not solely for your own personal enjoyment. “God who reconciled us to himself through Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” “Christ died for all so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” The love of Christ urges us on as ambassadors of Christ to persuade others to be reconciled too. Paul concludes by citing the prophet Isaiah. The prophet had foreseen a day of salvation when God would make all things right. Paul declares Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. “This is the day of salvation,” he says. The right time is now. As new creations in Christ, do not receive God’s grace in vain. Don’t take it for granted. As ambassadors for Christ, don’t be ashamed to share it, afraid to live it or afraid to suffer for it. Make it your practice to please Jesus. “For we must all appear before Christ’s Judgment Seat,” or if you prefer the metaphor with which we began: his barber’s chair.

For a recent birthday, Dawn treated me to a haircut and shave at this old-timey barber shop in downtown Boston. As a wet-shaver, I loved the idea of spending an hour or so under scented hot towels, followed by brushed on hot lather and the clean swipe of a straight edge across my cheek. The barber shop was just as I expected it to be: lots of wood and leather, the smell of witch hazel and lime, a striped pole whirring outside. The place reeked of testosterone. There were Sports Illustrated and Maxim magazines on the table and complimentary beer. This was place for real men, and as any real man knows, the only that matters to real men after sports scores and women is what you do for a living. Now I’ve already shared with you my anxiety about admitting I’m a minister. In Boston, it brought every conversation to a drop dead halt. So I got a little scared. What if my barber was one those dudes who thought faith was for freaks and wussies? Or worse, what if he packed a truckload of religious resentment due to some horrible experience he’d had with church in the past? What if he had it in for hypocrites? He was going to have a straight razor at my throat!

I swallowed hard as he honed his razor’s edge sharp on his strop. I tensed as he dabbed the hot lather across my now exposed and defenseless neck. Then came the dreaded moment. He asked: “so what do you do?” A bead of perspiration sprouted out on my forehead. My mouth went dry. My heart picked up its beat. I wanted to say that I “work for a local non-profit.” It wouldn’t have been a total lie. The bead of sweat trickled downward and the words of Paul rang in my ears: “do not accept the grace of God in vain.” “OK, OK, I’m a minister!” I confessed, “I preach in a church! I talk about Jesus! I believe he rose from the dead! I pray and I read the Bible! Please don’t cut me!”

The barber stopped sharpening his razor. He said, “Really? Me too. I read the Bible. I go to this little church just north of the city. You should come sometime. Our minister plays the accordion.” I was afraid for nothing.

If St. Paul is right, just as we face ourselves in the mirror each morning and take responsibility for all that we see, so with our lives we rehearse for that final day when we “all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, where each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” For most of us it will be a very close shave. It will be the best a man can get. That’s because on that day, as Andy Crouch reminds, for that final shave, another will hold the razor. Another will serve as the barber. And if we have practiced well, we will know what is coming. The blade will be applied at just the right angle to shear off the stubble. It will be terribly sharp and terribly close; but wielded with tremendous skill and care—it will divide doer from the deed; who we truly are from what we were never meant to be. Then cold water will splash against our skin; fragrant oil will leave us glistening and new, and together we will rise and go—with Christ, like Christ—into that light where no shadows grow.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Out of Sight

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:10

by Daniel Harrell

I’ve performed a lot of weddings in my day, and plenty of funerals too. It’s part of what we ministers do. Every now and then, for reasons I’m never entirely sure about, someone will ask me which I prefer. Pressed to choose, I pick funerals. Not that weddings aren’t great. I like being in the presence of wide-eyed brides and grooms all a-gaga as they blithely swear before God and witnesses to adore each other until they die—clearly having no idea what they’re doing. Talk about walking by faith! And then to have friends and family eat and drink and dance in complicity to the outrageousness of it all—what’s not to like? Funerals on the other hand are traditionally somber occasions; morose at times, as people mourn and struggle to imagine the shape their identity will take now that a person so essential to their existence is no longer alive. Inasmuch as we ministers are in it for the ministry—serving others with the power and hope of the gospel—the fact is that there’s generally more ministry to be done at funerals than there is at weddings.

However, if I could have the best of both, what I’d really prefer is that funerals be more like weddings. For Christians at least, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be. If Paul is right, dying should be the time we feast, crank up the band and celebrate the outrageousness of new life that now stretches into eternity. “We know,” Paul declares, “that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.” What’s not to like about that? I remember my first Catholic funeral mass and being struck by how everything was draped in festive white brightness rather than grave gloominess, and how so much of the language was baptismal language devoted not as much to mourning as to rejoicing in the fulfillment of baptism’s promises. Finally the deceased was getting to enjoy all that toward which their faith had pointed. It’s a practice that traces back to the earliest centuries of the church. As Thomas Long writes in his funeral book, Accompany Them With Singing, “the early Christian funeral was based on the conviction that the deceased was a saint, a child of God and a sister or brother of Christ, worthy to be honored and embraced with tender affection. The funeral itself was deemed to be the last phase of a lifelong journey toward God, …the grand cosmic drama of the church marching to the edge of eternity with a fellow saint, singing songs of resurrection victory and sneering in the face of the final enemy.”

Granted, the risk of festive funerals is that they deny death’s reality; that they make light of mortality. But isn’t that what Christianity is ultimately about? “Outwardly we are wasting away,” Paul writes, “but inside we are being made new every day.” And therefore all that affliction, persecution and hardship Paul endured for the gospel? “Slight and momentary stuff,” he calls it. Nothing but prep work for an eternal glory that doesn’t even compare. Which is why Paul never compares. Pain? Suffering? Death? Who cares? “We know,” he writes, “that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will raise us with Jesus too.”

Up to this point in 2 Corinthians, Paul has taken on a culture of cynics that’s insisted that his troubles and suffering on account of the gospel only proves he’s a quack and that his message is bogus. Since when is having your Savior executed on a cross good news? What sort of wacko considers a funeral a party? Persecution and humiliation? Hardly the ingredients for launching a new world religion! Paul had to agree. “We are afflicted on every side,” he said, “perplexed, persecuted, struck down. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” Definitely not the way to get a new world religion off the ground. But Paul wasn’t concerned about getting a world religion off the ground. His concern was for getting dead people out of the ground. “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul wrote, “so that the life of Jesus may be revealed.” Death is at work so that resurrection can work. Jesus buries our sinful selves with him so that he can raise us up to an eternal glory that outweighs everything.

It’s basic gospel. Good news. John 3:16. Eternal life. Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. I remember being a teenager in Sunday School and once having a visiting teacher who turned out to be the mayor of our city. His lesson went something like this: “Even if Christianity proves to be a hoax in the end, following its tenets nonetheless will shape you into an admirable and responsible citizen.” I thought to myself, “What a dumb Sunday School lesson! Just like a politician to dilute the gospel into a civics lesson. Look, if Christianity was a hoax and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, I had other things to do. I was 15. I had hormones. I didn’t want admiration and responsibility, I wanted girls. Who cared about being a moral young man for the sake of civic pride? Why suffer for that? I was with Paul on this one: “If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more pathetic than anybody in the world.”

But our hope is not only for this life. Christ rose from the dead. Paul knew this first hand having been knocked loopy by a blaze of glory on that famous road to Damascus. Paul was a bona fide goody two-shoes, a perfect law-abiding citizen with no real need for God except as an audience for his pious performances. He believed he could work his way up the ladder to heaven where God would owe him a lakefront mansion for being such a good boy. Jesus blew away that lie, exposing Paul’s piety as nothing but self-delusion. All the housing in heaven is Section 8—fully subsidized by grace with the keys freely passed out to people passed out in their sin. It is outrageous grace—as Anne-Marie so ably reminded us last Sunday—a glorious treasure we carry in “clay jars,” glad ware, paper bags, “…in order to demonstrate that this immense power comes only from God.” Paul wants no confusion between the gift and the box.

The outer box wastes away, but the gift is forever. “Our inner nature—our inner person—is being renewed day by day,” Paul writes. Not in some progressive sense of our getting better all the time, but in the sense of that daily manna God provided the ancient Israelites in the desert. Manna was a daily dose of God’s faithfulness that preserved and projected his people toward their promised land. God guaranteed they would get there eventually—the manna sustained them each day so that they would not lose heart.

Sort of like that 2000 foot tube into the earth sustained those 33 Chilean miners who were raised to life on Wednesday. I trust you got a chance to witness their rescue. Early reports had them tagged good as dead—which was what made their rescue so celebratory. As one miner put it: “I was with God and I was with the Devil, they fought me but God won.” Given so many of the miners’ personal faith, allusions to the gospel were unavoidable. Blogger Dan Nold described it this way: “Their world had been filled with darkness, murky air, cramped space, little beauty, and the constant awareness that there is something more to life than what they have been experiencing. Bad news. But then a rescuer arrives, he comes from a place … where light, relationships and fresh air awaits. The rescuer describes the route to life, what to expect from the journey, how long it might take. Then the first miner steps inside the rescue capsule. It’s small. No room to move your arms during your half mile journey into life. It’s like being born again. The capsule comes up out of the ground to cheers. The miner steps out, the hugging ensues, reuniting with family. His father welcomes him home. Good News.” As that same miner put it: “I never thought for one minute that God wouldn’t get me out of there.”

The same with us. “This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure… He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” And because God guarantees it, it’s already done. Therefore we do not lose heart.

I didn’t get a chance to see the miners’ rescue as it was happening, though I read about its success. The weird part was that when I did go up to YouTube to watch a replay of the rescue, I still felt nervous. Even though I knew the outcome, my palms got a little sweaty. But then I was like, wait a minute. I don’t have to worry. They’re already safe! In fact, no matter how many times I watched the replay, the miners emerged safely every time!

This is what Paul means by faith. “Always confident,” he writes, because the outcome is certain. As Paul will assert in chapter 5, we are new creations already. And thus we don’t worry about what Paul’s calls our “earthly tent” (our outer nature, our jar of clay, our paper bag—pick your metaphor); we don’t worry about our mortal bodies being destroyed. We don’t worry about our earthly tents folding up because we already have a house in heaven. We’re good to go.

Now you may have noticed that Paul mixes his metaphors a bit in this passage in order to cover all his bases. He talks about getting clothed with a house, rather than moving into one, which makes some sense if the house is our resurrection body, but less sense once you start talking about wearing your house. We take for granted that the whole temporary tent/heavenly house language is an throwback to the Tabernacle and Temple, which both housed God’s Spirit. The Tabernacle was that temporary tent that followed the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land. The Temple was the permanent house built once they got there. Of course following Easter and Pentecost, the permanent Temple was rendered temporary too. Perhaps Paul inserts the clothing vocabulary to underscore how now God’s Spirit has taken up residence in God’s people rather than in any building made by human hands.

Moreover, “to be clothed” is likely a baptismal reference. Paul wrote to the Galatians how all who “were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” In early church practice “being clothed in Christ” was depicted by draping the newly baptized in white robes as they emerged naked from the baptismal water. Once we put on our heavenly dwelling, we will no longer be found naked—an allusion to the shame and sin of Adam and Eve. For Paul, longing to leave his tent is not the same as longing to be tent-less—not unclothed but further clothed. It’s his longing to wear his resurrection body, to complete his baptism, to experience the final reality of new creation, to be truly at home with the Lord and have his mortality swallowed up by life. And just to keep the baptismal imagery intact, swallowed up in verse 4 can also be translated as drowned; the very thing that happens to our mortal, sinful selves in Christ. Jesus buries our sinful selves with him so that he can raise us up to an eternal glory that outweighs everything.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Failure, trouble, hardship and death prove to be lightweight and momentary blips on the screen of eternity. We walk by faith without worry on the way to our own promised land. “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” And because God guarantees it, it’s already done. In Christ we’ve already emerged from the rescue capsule. We merely await the catching up of our experience to the reality. Not that we sit around waiting, of course. Whether we are at home or away, here or there, on earth or in heaven, Paul writes, “we make it our aim to please Christ.”

After all, he concludes, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”

Huh. Now there’s a curveball. Nothing like a little Judgment Day to suck all the joy out of a feel-good sermon. Thanks Paul. What’s wrong with going home happy? Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by? Couldn’t stand to leave well enough alone? Once a Pharisee always a Pharisee? Maybe. As a Pharisee, Paul knew better than anybody how easy a guarantee of heavenly reward can turn into a license for earthly arrogance. If my salvation is certain, I can do whatever I want, right? Not exactly. If you remember the story, treating grace as permission to do as you please was what got the ancient Israelites in so much trouble even though their land was Promised.

Presuming upon grace is a problem throughout the Bible—which is why Paul frequently follows his doctrinal indicatives with ethical imperatives. While we can do nothing to earn God’s favor, we must still do something to show that we’ve received it. If you are a new creation; be a new creation. Show some gratitude. Do the right thing. Walk by faith. Please the Lord, whether at home or away. In Christ the last enemy has been destroyed. Your mortality has been swallowed up by life. So do not fear. Do not lose heart. Reformer John Wesley used to remark that the sign of new creation is not only life lived well, but suffering and dying well too.

Many years ago now I knew well a delightful and faithful retired minister who exuded such love and grace to every person he met that you swore Jesus had already come back to earth. The cancer he later contracted spread rapidly through his body such that his last months were miserably confined to hospice care. I say miserably because of the way his faithful disposition darkened into obsessive fear and worry about his pending death. Among his many longtime friends was a mutual friend who would visit daily but always leave the dying man’s bedside agitated. “I don’t get it,” the friend would gripe to me, “all his life he preaches of the assurance of his salvation and of his hope in Christ, and now that it’s time to exercise a little assurance and hope, all he can tell me is how afraid he is to die. If your faith does you no good in your final days, what good is it?”

True, I thought, but c’mon, walking by faith and not by sight is a easier to say than to do; especially when you’re not the one on death’s doorstep. I thought to myself, “let’s just see what happens when it’s your time to go.”

His time to go came sooner than any of us expected. Just a year or so later he contracted his own cancer and was confined to his own hospice care. But you know, he was fine with it. I’d go by to visit and he’d ask me to anoint his head with oil, since that’s what the Bible says you do in the valley of the shadow of death. As a Congregationalist minister, I didn’t mess around much with oil. I had no idea where to get the anointing kind. The bottle of Wesson I showed up with ended up spilling so that that it ran all over his face. But when I went to wipe it off, he stopped me. He wanted to lean his head back and let it roll. He’d always insist his visitors bring a funny story or a joke because he planned to laugh his way into heaven. And if you were interested in weepy condolences, he’d lecture you for being faithless and suggest that maybe you had some un-confessed sin in your life. During his last days, his friends encircled him and sang songs and hymns and rejoiced about the faith we shared. It was pretty special. And while those of us who knew him miss him still, we were able to feel genuine gladness for him when he died. And as for his funeral—it was just like a wedding.

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.