15 Feb 2015
“Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:5-6) In the name …
If you would, please take a look at the Holy Spirit clipart on the front page of today’s Song Sheet. I chose this particular one out of the hundreds of images available on the internet because it reflects the mystery conveyed in today’s Lesson from Second Corinthians. In the image, is the Holy Spirit descending into the yearning hands of the expectant people, or are the people setting the Spirit free to do what it must in the world, or is it supposed to convey both ideas simultaneously? In today’s Lesson, Paul is telling the church in the city of Corinth that he can do what he does as an apostle because of the Spirit. Without that unflinching assurance of God’s presence and power, I can’t imagine how Paul could have done what he did. In his words: “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.” (2 Cor. 3:4) But at the same time, what he does as an apostle is to free the Spirit to do her work in the world. The Spirit is received and the Spirit is given.
In the earliest church, the Spirit was a physical reality. The Spirit was as real as crosses and candles are today. People would interrupt worship services by saying, “The Spirit says …” The Spirit was so real that Paul had to tell those first Christians to calm down a little bit so there could be a tad more order to their worship. (cf. 1 Cor. 14) They trusted that God was working and speaking through them. They based their authority on a living relationship with God. In words that would not be spoken with such enthusiasm any more, Paul says to the Corinthians that his is not a formal authority. For Paul church authority was not officers and titles, but grace and inspiration. He’s not worried about letters of recommendation coming from anyone else justifying his ministry. It’s all personal with Paul. He says today his commitment to Christ and church is “written on our hearts.” (2 Cor. 3:2) He writes to the congregation that he organized, and as they’re reading his letter when assembled together, they hear the message: “You yourselves are our letter [of recommendation].” (2 Cor. 3:2) Those people sitting in some nondescript house-church in that ancient commercial hub of Corinth looked at each other and were able to see in themselves the authority of the living God.
I want us to think about where those people are coming from who are sitting in that Corinthian church. There must have been both Jews and Gentiles in that congregation. Either way, they were familiar with the idea of temple worship. A regular person at worship didn’t walk into a temple and offer a sacrifice. Every practice was established and set in stone. The person at worship was a spectator. This is the religious tradition that everyone in that ancient church would have been familiar with. Then comes Christianity. Paul claims competence directly from God. That’s the Spirit. And he proclaims a “new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Cor. 3:6) All of a sudden, these people are empowered, as well. It is their experience of God in real time that defines the covenant. It’s a living relationship. It is the Spirit being received and given simultaneously, not only by the apostle, but by everyone.
Friday and Saturday Sharon and I went up to see Kristin at college because it was Senior’s Day for her basketball team. Now she’s home for winter break. She’s played her last college game. She’s played through rec department, high school and now college. At each stage, it was right for her, but each stage was different for her. It’s the same game, but you’d have to be even more ignorant of sports than I am to not see how much that same game has changed for her. Rec ball is not college ball, but they’re both basketball. Try and use this example as an analogy for the meaning of a living church. Church remains church, but it is constantly changing, growing, and all to meet our needs. The amazing thing is that it can meet us wherever we are. The same words, the same practices, the same place can mean different things to different people. That’s because the covenant isn’t, as Paul says today, written “on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Cor. 3:3) Change is not the enemy of tradition. It is our tradition. And it’s because of the Spirit, the living, changing presence of God.
This is why Paul says that the letter kills. It’s his protest against the idea of locking the Spirit into one form or statement that is unchangeable. Paul contrasts this with the Spirit, and the confidence and competence to grow as church. You know, I smiled when I heard the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court of Alabama try and countermand the order of the Supreme Court on the subject of gay marriage this past week. He has religious objections I’m sure. Some of his probate court judges came right out and said this. I smiled because none of these justices have any moral qualms about presiding over divorce cases. Jesus really has nothing to say about gay marriage because it just wasn’t an issue 2.000 years ago. But Jesus definitely has objections to divorce. If they close their courts to gay marriage, they should do the same for divorce if they are serious about using religion as a legal guideline. But they won’t and they shouldn’t. That inconsistency is an example of the letter of the law that Paul throws out as opposed to a Spirit-filled church.
The Spirit not only allows, but urges the church to change and grow as needed. The earliest church fed on this powerful presence of God. We need to tap into that same enthusiasm today. As we face hurdles of finances and volunteers, as we ask ourselves how we are to grow in spirit and in numbers, we can’t only rely on ourselves and our plans. We have to count first on God. The Spirit, not our talents or our wisdom, is the source of our competence, says Paul. As we face obstacles today, let us find our strength and our direction in the renewed and living covenant of the Spirit. For this pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo