Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity - 2 Cor 3:4-11

                                                                                    Trinity 12
                                                                                    2 Cor 3:4-11

            Letters – actual physical pieces of paper sent through the U.S. Postal Service – are becoming less and less common.  One wonders if someday they will be like a phone booth with a pay phone inside – something that dates a movie or television show to the time when it was made.
            Things haven’t arrived at that point yet.  Not everyone operates in a purely digital way. And there seem to be settings where there is still almost a preference for a physical letter.  In my experience, that seems to be the case with letters of recommendation.
            As a pastor, I get asked to write letters of recommendation on a fairly regular basis.  A pastor is supposed to be an honest individual who is concerned about a person’s character, and who knows something about the members of his congregation.  Not surprisingly then, people ask the pastor to write letters of recommendation for members as they apply to scholarships and pursue opportunities.  A letter of recommendation from the pastor is usually a pretty good bet.  He is a respected source who should be able to write an articulate letter that will be helpful.  And when asked to do this, I have noticed that quite often, it is still a matter of printing a letter on church letterhead.
            Letters of recommendation were even more important in the ancient world than they are today.  If you want to learn about a person today you have several different resources you can use.  You can simply “google” the person and that can provide a huge amount of information.  You can look on social media to see the kinds of relationships they have.  You can look at the kinds of things they post and “like.”  In a very short time you can get a good idea about who the individual is and what they are about.
            Of course, none of those things were available in the first century.  You couldn’t send an email or make a phone call of inquiry.  Instead, if someone came to you asking for help or claiming to be involved in doing something, the only real assurance they could provide was a letter of recommendation.  These were very important in the functioning of the ancient world.
            Letters of recommendation were also extremely important in the functioning of the early Church.  There were small groups of Christians spread throughout the Mediterranean world.  They relied on hospitality – the provision of food and lodging for strangers – in order to support mission work and other activities of the Church.  Letters of recommendation were a key instrument in making this work.
            Some men had come to the congregation at Corinth.  They bore letters of recommendation that indicated they were people to be taken seriously.  Once there in Corinth, they stared to cause problems. They made claims about themselves and their importance. They also attacked Paul and his ministry. Paul had changed his travel plans and had not come to Corinth as scheduled.  This was used to call into question whether he was trustworthy.  Other specifics are not entirely clear, but we do know that Paul viewed them as a serious threat to the church at Corinth as he dealt with this congregation that already had enough problems of its own, without anyone coming from the outside and bringing more.
            The apostle Paul has just explained about the change in his travel plans – changes that were caused by the Corinthians’ own actions.  The apostle had gone on to say, “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”
              Then immediately before our text, Paul had said, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.”  Paul’s opponents may have needed letters of recommendation, but he didn’t.  He was the one who had first preached the Gospel to them.  Their very existence as a church was his letter of recommendation.  And indeed, in his love for them, Paul can say that they were written on his heart and that of his co-worker Timothy.
            Next, continuing the metaphor of writing, Paul shifts to a discussion of the Spirit’s work.  He says, “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”    Alluding to the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, Paul says that the Spirit had written on their heart as he made them believers.
            This work of the Spirit in Christ’s new covenant is what gives Paul confidence.  And so he says in our text, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
            Paul says that he has confidence through Christ toward God.  Though you and I aren’t apostles, the same thing is true for us because we too have been included in the new covenant. God had made the first covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai as he took them to be his people.  But Israel was never meant to be an end in herself.  From God’s promise to Abraham that in his offspring all nations would be blessed, it was always God’s plan to work through Israel to bring salvation to all people – to bring salvation to you.
            The first covenant with its Torah – its Law – was meant for the time until the coming of Christ.  But it was never meant to be the final word.  Instead, God said through the prophet Jeremiah, "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.” God said that in this new covenant he would put his law within them and write it on their hearts.
            Around the same time, through the prophet Ezekiel, God revealed more about this end time action. He said, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
            God’s Spirit began this end time salvation as through his work the Son of God was conceived in the virgin Mary.  True God and true man, Jesus Christ established the new covenant by the shedding of his blood. That is why he said in the institution of the Sacrament of the Altar that the cup of wine is the new covenant in his blood.
            Jesus Christ established the new covenant by dying for you sins.  In fact in this letter Paul says about God’s action in Christ, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Yet Jesus Christ did not remain dead. The Holy Spirit raised Jesus on the third day.  As Paul said in the same chapter, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
            You have been included in this new covenant.  It was the Spirit’s work as he created faith in Jesus.  It was the Spirit’s work as you received the washing of regeneration and renewal in Holy Baptism.  The letter of the law with its demands kills. But the Spirit has given you new life.  As those are in Christ your sins are forgiven – even the sin you commit when you do what is right!  On account of Christ God now considers your good works to be good, and the Spirit of Christ leads and enables you to do them.
            Paul says in our text, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.”  The challenge then for us is not to forget that we have the confidence of belonging to the new covenant through the work of the Spirit.  On the one hand, there is always the temptation to overlook Jesus Christ and all he means to us.  The old Adam always wants to find the sufficiency in himself, as if he has no problems when in fact he is the problem. 
            And on the other hand we are tempted to forget that we have this confidence because of Christ.  We can allow ourselves to become bogged down in guilt and regret.  Yet this is to forget that we have received blessings from a ministry of the Spirit, not a ministry of death. 
            At the end of our text Paul alludes to how Moses’ face used to shine after he had been in the presence of Yahweh, and that he would then cover his face with a veil in the presence of the people until this appearance faded away.  Paul then says, “Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.”
            Through this ministry of righteousness God has given you forgiveness and reconciliation.  He has made you part of the new covenant through a ministry that exceeds even the glory of what he did in the Old Testament.  How can we lose sight of God’s forgiveness and love when we receive the blessings of such a glorious ministry from him?
            And note what Paul says in the final verse of our text: “For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.”  The New Covenant is the covenant of the end times.  It is permanent.  The blessings of forgiveness and life with God will never wear out. They will never fade away.  Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.



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