Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.
There is a decidedly different tone in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians than in other writings. It seems that something happened, something profound and serious; something painful and sobering had taken place in his life. Theologians have scoured history and scripture looking for what that might have been.
The speculation runs from a horrific prison experience, to a profound encounter with rejection, to the witness of people dying because of something Paul said or did, but Paul never tells. You’ll come to see why I hope as we move through this sermon.
N.T. Wright, the great Bishop of Durham, suggests that Paul had a nervous breakdown. Hard to say based on the evidence, but something happened, and we see it reflected in this, his Second Letter to the Corinthian.
Now if we go with the nervous breakdown theory, which I am inclined to do, two questions arise for me about the time before the breakdown occurs. In asking these questions I am doing some forensic speculation based on Paul’s history and personality, and his relationship with Christ. These are my questions: What was the precipitating event that triggered the breakdown? And what had separated Paul from Christ in such a way as to make this precipitating event so precipitous?
Here is my hunch, I suspect Paul felt that he had fallen out with Jesus. I suspect Paul waivered or hedged or maybe even doubted, and then wasn’t quite sure, so he reverted back to his greatest strength, as we often do in such cases. For him it was the legalistic, analytical judgment of the law he knew so well.
You may recall his past. He was born a citizen of Roman in the colony Tarsusto to affluent Jewish parents. He spoke Greek, Hebrew, and most likely Aramaic. He attended the best schools and then went to Jerusalem to be a disciple of Gamaliel, the head of the Sanhedrin and the most famous Pharisee of that time. Clearly Paul was the best and brightest of the best and brightest. It was Paul who accused the Christians of breaking the Law of Moses. It was Paul who held the cloak of those who stoned the first martyr Stephen.
And it was Paul on his way to Damascus to root out Christians there who had a spiritual experience, a revelation, an epiphany, where Christ came and stood before him and said, “Saul, (his Jewish name) Saul, why do you persecute me?”
And Paul fell to the ground, off the back of his horse, blinded by what he saw. He then traveled on to Damascus, and met with a Christian leader there, Ananius, and in that conversation the scales fell from Paul’s eyes and he could see clearly. Accounts of what happened next vary; some say he went to Jerusalem, others that he traveled to Arabia where he spent three years studying, fasting and praying.
In any event, he was changed, and became the champion of Christianity, moving it throughout the world. Then something happened. N.T. Wright calls it a nervous breakdown. I noted earlier, speculation about what might have occurred. But whatever it was, it sowed doubt in Paul’s heart.
Conversion, you see, is never a once and for all event, even one as powerful as Paul’s. This is because of how God made us, in God’s image and likeness, because we are living mirrors through which to glimpse the nature of God, and so we are susceptible to seeing ourselves as gods as well. This is tempting, and I suspect this was the temptation Paul turned to in the face of his doubt.
It started before the calamity, whatever that was. Paul was having success building the church. The power of his conviction and charisma and logic were irrefutable, and the church grew and grew. And as it did the logic of Paul’s mind and the power of his words sculpted people and built institutions. And from this height, this heady place of achievement, I can imagine, because it is so easy to imagine, that Jesus slipped off the pedestal and was replaced by Paul’s own competency.
And as we know, as perceived competency goes up, dependence on Jesus often seems to go down.
Paul knew this, and Paul didn’t know this, all at the same time. That is how the tempter works. That is how evil insinuates itself into our lives – slowly and carefully. Often hand in hand with the tempter himself, we hoist the idol of our competence onto the pedestals of our greatest hopes and dreams. And slowly, maybe even imperceptibly, we nudge God off.
Then came the fall, at least in Paul’s case. The ground under his feet did what the ground always does; it moved. A pit opened and Paul tumbled in, and as he was falling he did what we all do, who prepare for calamity. Paul pulled the rope from his waistband, tied a lasso and tossed it up out of the hole and around the pedestal that held up his idol that was no longer there because the idol itself was in free fall.
And what I suspect happened to Paul next comes to my mind based on a famous story told about a Dean that had served at my Seminary many years before I attended. They say he came to Chapel one morning, ashen, and a bit disheveled, very uncharacteristic for him. And he went to the pulpit, though he was not on the Rota to preach, and said to the students, and faculty gathered there, “I have seen the bottom of the pit. It is where I stand today, in front of you. My son unexpectedly died last night. And what I now know is that when one hits the bottom of the pit, it holds, and Christ is there.”
Paul hit the bottom. And in the crisis, when the power of his conviction and charisma and logic fell from the pedestal, and the comfort of friends failed, and he was truly alone, as we will all be truly alone, when Paul hit the bottom, it held and Christ was there. And that is all Paul can talk about…not the doubt, not the temptation, not the pit, not the fall, not the old idol, or his competence or his incompetence, or his history or his formative pains and influences…all he can talk about is Jesus, and this glorious relationship with Jesus.
And here is the revelation. It is what Paul is so excited about; it is what he now knows for certain– that we can never fall out of relationship with Christ. It is a lesson that he and we may have to learn over and over again throughout life. It is true, we never fall out with Christ.
So then how do you get out of the pit?
Paul gives us some insight to that. His first set of instructions are to stop dulling our senses against the rough surface of our idols. The way he says it is – “stop hardening your minds. Hardening in Greek is propo which means to put a callous over, sort of like a cataract on one’s eyes that makes things dull & blurry.
This is what he accuses the Jews of doing, an accusation which is probably more a self-reflection…they usually are.
The veil Paul wore, to use his metaphor, was the law. It kept him from seeing his glory. And it took a crisis, as it too often does, for Paul to really reengage the presence of Christ. And that is OK. Jesus really doesn’t care what it takes.
You know when I feel my idols pushing their way back onto the pedestal their influence usually corresponds with an increase of busyness in my life. And so I do what feels counterintuitive, I spend more time in prayer.
I actually set an alarm to insure the discipline doesn’t get short changed by the spinning of my mind and the speed of my activities. And in these prayers I try to pay more attention to the disproportionate allocation between my competence and God’s grace…for God’s grace is so much more. And it is grace, the abundance of grace that shines the mirror of my soul, in a way that reflects back the image of God to those I meet along the way. And in the same way, it gives me eyes to better see the divine glory reflected back to me from each of you.
How easy it is to shut our eyes to the glory of God in the people around us!
We can be like the Israelites hanging out with Moses, who beg him to wear a veil so they don’t have to gaze upon the glory of God shining on his face; a glory that reminds them that there is a God and they are not the god.
Jesus presents us a different option, a more luminous way to live. It is a life of freedom, of levity, to step over the pits and beyond the temptations. And so we might ask, as everyone asks; if I live this way, putting Jesus on the pedestal, will this keep bad things from happening to me? Will there be no pain in prison, no violation of trust, no accident of fate?
And to that I answer no.
But when your lasso goes up out of the pit and around the pedestal it will hold under the heft of Christ. When the pain, the violation, the accidents do happen, as they will, they will be smaller than your glory and less powerful than the presence of Christ.
Which is why Paul doesn’t talk about his doubt, why Paul doesn’t talk about his temptation, why Paul doesn’t reflect on his crisis, and outline how he over came it.
All of that is too small and not worth mentioning when he can talk with boldness about something that gives him real freedom, and great courage, and boundless joy.