Mandy Sloan Flemming
Saint Mark United Methodist Church
February 14, 2010
Where the Spirit of the Lord is…
2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2
12Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13not 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. 14But 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. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And 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.
4Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2We 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.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the day when the Church celebrates Jesus revealing the fullness of his identity to his closest disciples – Peter, James and John. They were his closest friends, his inner circle, and as you heard [Bill/Carol] so beautifully read, Jesus took them to a mountain, and while he was praying, his face and clothing changed to dazzling white. His friends suddenly saw Moses and Elijah, who "appeared in glory," and as Peter was offering to make a monument to what has occurred, a cloud overshadowed them. Peter, James and John were afraid, but a voice from a cloud said, "This is my Son! My Chosen. Listen to him!"And, they were left alone once again with Jesus.
This is a beautiful story – a classic, Jesus story where something strange and miraculous happens and the disciples keep silent about it. And, in typical "mountain top" fashion, they descend from their mystical experience into a world that's filled with demons and unrest. Jesus rebukes the demon out of the man's son, and chastises his followers saying, "You faithless and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you and bear with you?" It is an understandable crash after a very big high. Jesus has revealed himself in all of his glory, in company with Moses and Elijah, and in response, the disciples aren't even able to rebuke a piteous demon. Their thick-headedness is clearly getting the best of our Messiah.
Jesus says little to interpret this experience for them. So, this leaves us to try and do so. Is this the gift of the Holy Spirit? Is it the culmination of the prophecies of old? Is this a foretaste of glory divine? This is where we turn to Paul.
In the letter to 2 Corinthians, Paul is writing an apology of sorts. Paul writes at the end of 1 Corinthians that he will visit them after he passes through Macedonia. He doesn't; the events that transpired in between writing these letters caused him to cancel his visit. He feels terribly about this, and grounds his letter in a plea for forgiveness and understanding. This leads him to speak of the work they are doing together, as people who have the confidence through Christ toward God.
In our text, Paul is just getting warmed up. Maybe he is still trying to console the jilted Corinthians, but he makes brazen claims about "such a hope," that allows them to "act with great boldness." He speaks about moving from "one degree of glory to another," and talks of finding freedom in the Spirit and hope in God's mercy. It all sounds good – wonderful, even. He encourages the Corinthians to consider that they are "not like Moses," who veiled his face to see the "end of the glory" that was found in Christ. I assure you that on our best days, we can only hope to be anything like Moses, who was welcomed into the presence of God, and did his best to lead God's wayward people.
But Paul puts great confidence in the Corinthians, exhorting them to do be bold in their faith. It's as if he thinks that they have truly been converted, that they truly believe that there is something new happening in their midst. He thinks they really believe this stuff…
He thinks this because he does really believe it. Paul had the hardest of hearts – one that literally left him blind on the road to Damascus, until the scales fell from his eyes, and he came to understand that Christ's love was for him – even him, a sinner and persecutor. It was this man, hated and feared by many, who was chosen to be an instrument for the revelation of God's great mercy in Christ. He was threatened and plotted against, and the people who came to his rescue were the very ones he had persecuted. It is difficult to find a bigger zealot for the grace of God than Paul, and he imparts his own enthusiasm for the Gospel in these letters to the Corinthians. Paul writes as one who understands what it means to be veiled – and his criticism of Moses, even if not literally true – points to his understanding that the glory of God is being revealed, and nothing should prohibit those who have received it from sharing the good news of their salvation.
We encounter this text, as people who have not seen Jesus or Moses or Elijah. We have read the Scriptures, found our footing, and are trying to walk a life of faithfulness and hope. But, it feels sometimes like our hope is foolish and our faith is empty. We read things like Paul's letter and hear of the hope that we share that should lead us to act with boldness, and we think… really?
This week opened our latest round of "Theology on Tap," and we encountered Flannery O'Connor's twisted story, "Revelation." In this story, she tells of a woman who sits in a crowded and small doctors office, chatting with a fellow patient. She criticizes everyone – judges all of them – until a young woman grows tired of her ranting and throws a book at her head, shouting, "You warthog from hell!" The incident stuns Mrs. Turpin, and sends her into a good fit of Catholic guilt. She returns home, recounting the incident to her husband and the folks who work for her family. She seeks their assurance that she most certainly is not a warthog from hell, but she cannot shake this image. She asks herself, "How can it be that I am me and a warthog at once?"
In her fretting, she sees a vision on the horizon of all the people she knows marching toward heaven. She is at the end of the line, and joins their number in singing "Hallelujah!" as they go. It is a stunning vision, a bleak one. We wrestled with whether or not this story was hopeless or hopeful. Her vision was powerful, but couched in her own limitations – each person was still grouped, classified. In our conversation, there was little expectation that she might be changed by this vision or helped into her own glory by turning aside from her judgmental ways and embracing the understanding that we are all headed down the same path – into God's arms. This story is the antithesis of Transfiguration. It does not call us to believe, but to reject her vision of the world.
Paul is writing with conviction, as one who has had a revelation that led his life to change radically and completely. The book of Acts tells us that, "a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' 5He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." It was Christ who blinded him that he might know true darkness, and it was Christ who gave him sight, through a man in Damascus named Ananias. When Ananias laid his hands upon the man, who has done "much evil to your saints in Jerusalem," he imparted forgiveness and restoration from God to the man who would become a testament to God's abiding grace to all people. If Paul could be forgiven, so could the most egregious of sinners.
But, Sisters and Brothers, I wonder if we could have the same conviction. Do we know that Christ died for us – even for us? Me and you. Today. Here. Do you have that bold assurance that Christ is yours, and that you are going "from one degree of glory to another?" If so, then what are we doing about it? Do you have the confidence to say, "My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine?" (I hope so, because we're singing it as our closing hymn.) Do you have the hope to act boldly and invite a colleague to church? Do you know God's mercy in your own life that you might not lose heart when life is difficult?
It was common growing up for me to hear of our church's prayer warriors. Do you know them? They were the brave souls who dared to pray without ceasing, who talked openly about how they had prayed for you, and who seemed to have a direct link to God. It was funny how often their prayers were answered – more quickly than mine and yours. The hard times did not faze them, but encouraged them to pray with thanksgiving, rather than lamentation. I often wondered how they could remain so steadfast. My flimsy prayers seemed to go unheard, and they became flimsier. But God never gave up on me. God gave me examples – gave me prayer warriors – that I might see that what it means to be faithful. I learned from them how to put my own words into action, how to pray and really mean it.
And, I ask you today: do you really mean it? What brings you here, my friends? Is it the fellowship you find? Wonderful. Is it the nourishment for your soul? Fantastic. But these things can change and even fade. If that is what has brought you here, then I encourage you to consider what it would mean to change your answer to what Paul has written: that you have such a hope that you may act with great boldness.
We see so much good being done in our midst. This church is filled each day with the presence of the Holy Spirit as we go about our work driven by your efforts, time and giving. You feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and give generously of your time. But, I ask you… when was the last time you did so and experienced the boldness or freedom we are promised in the Spirit? Paul writes, "when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed."
I am desperately trying to avoid the sermonic cliché of asking you about the veils that you wear, but consider what it is that holds you back, keeps you from acting boldy, hidden from the glory of the Lord? Is it embarrassment? Fear? Shame?
I ask because we are a few days from turning our hallelujahs into silence. We will be entering into the reflective season of Lent, and your faith will be asked to deepen, root, grow. Some of you will give things up for Lent. All of us are being encouraged to read the Gospel of Luke together. But, can we do it with the understanding that Christ is our all in all? The true supplier of our every need?
My family and I watched clips from the Opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics, and we stopped and listened to K.D. Lang's haunting version of Cohen's "Hallelujah." It was such a moment of pause in an otherwise celebratory event. The death of Georgian luger (Nodar Kumaritashvili) earlier on Friday hovered in the air as the parade of nations took place. It was strangely liberating to hear this powerful voice sing with such unabashed passion, "It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah…" My children asked, "Why is she singing such a sad song?" We explained that the Olympics were fun, but people both won and lost. Some train very hard and yet, they go home without a medal. They had heard of the death of the Olympic athlete, and they understood that even fun and games aren't all fun and games. As she sang, a thousand doves, created from light, flew around her. This symbol of peace was a comfort in a difficult time. It was a reminder that there is the possibility of hope in the midst of sadness. It was glorious.
I don't think the Olympic Committee was trying to make a theological statement, but they did a fine job regardless. The doves that encircled this single figure, in a shining white suit, standing bravely in the center of a massive structure as she sang to the fullness of her own voice, represented what God has promised to us: that the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. K.D. Lang was unbound by embarrassment or shame, but sang as if no one was watching, even though the world looked on. And all of us, with unveiled faces, could see the glory of the Lord in this truth – that when we renounce our shame and refuse to hide, when we are transparent about the faith we share in Christ – then we are turned from darkness to light. We open ourselves up to seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, and we are transformed into that same image of God from "one degree of glory to another."
Paul writes of the church's ongoing access to the glory of God in the face of Jesus. This is a gift we have received, and it changes us. The next time you look in the mirror, I want you to stare deeply into your own eyes, and look for the reflection of the living God, the passionate Spirit we have been given. It is alive in you – you are created, loved and embraced by God, and we have that Spirit in us to prove it. So, act boldly! Proclaim your faith! We may be burying the hallelujahs today, but we are entering into a time of reflection and spiritual growth. There will be a time for shouting our "hallelujahs," but now is the time to claim the freedom we receive in Christ and act with authenticity and integrity in our faith. My Jesus, I love Thee, I know thou art mine...
Let us sing boldly.
Let us act faithfully.
Let us claim the Spirit that has been given to us.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit we pray. Amen.