My sermon for Washington Union Alliance Church in New Castle, Pa. I'm always warmly welcomed and encouraged by their fellowship. I ended up doing quite a bit of extemporaneous exposition that is not recorded here. I was also overwhelmed at my own unworthiness to handle God's Word and to think about teaching it to others. As St Cosmas said, "Not only am I not worthy to teach you, but not even worthy to kiss your feet, for each of you is worth more than the entire world."
The Christian Faith is hard. There seems to be an idea, put forth both by those outside the Faith and those inside, that once you know Jesus, everything is automatically put right, all questions are answered, every struggle finished. We often like to live as if that were true as well; we put on the imagery of the happy Christian couple, the perfect Christian family, the well-adjusted Christian worker. Yet, we know – usually by hard experience – that this isn’t the case. Any respite from the temptations to sin, or freedom from the heartache that seems to define our human experience, is hard won and even harder kept. The Corinthians, our ancient brothers and sisters in Christ, knew this to be the case. We have only to look through the first epistle we have to them from St Paul to see this: factions divided over which Apostolic leader to follow, abuse of one another during Communion, sexual immorality that even the rather loose pagans of their metropolis found abhorrent; how can the Apostle speak here, in today’s passage, about “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”? How can he speak so boldly of glory and us seeing it without needing a veil over our eyes or our hearts?
Paul, as he often does, retells a story from the Old Testament. He doesn’t do this so that he can have a pleasing anecdote on the way to the real point; no, he reads the Old as a way of pointing to Jesus. What God has done in the past is what He has perfected in the incarnate Lord Christ. In his previous letter, Paul draws the symbolism of the Exodus into his congregants’ lives: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:1-5). These things are “examples written down for our instruction, on whom the goal of the ages has come” (v. 11). What instruction, then, can we gain from the narrative Paul brings before the Corinthians here in chapter 3?
Again, we have a story of the Exodus. The people have left Egypt; they have seen God’s mighty wonders and deed: the staff turning into a snake that eats the Pharaoh’s snake-staves; the Plagues; the crossing of the Red Sea; the continuing pillar of cloud and fire. They are now encamped around Mt. Horeb in the Sinai, Moses bringing them the Torah of God that constitutes their national identity and mission in the world, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Yet, when they heard God speak from the fiery cloud, they said, “You, Moses, speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (20:19). When Moses, later, comes back down from the mountain, having renewed the covenant after the golden calf incident, he exhibits a greater miracle: his face shines with the glory of God Himself. “Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him…and when Moses had finished speaking with them [about what God commanded on the mountain], he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him” (34:30, 33-35).
The people did not want to hear the voice of God, out of fear. Because of sin and the corruption of death, even the Lord said that “you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (33:20). Through Moses, though, the people can see the glory of God, so they again are afraid. After he speaks with the authority of the Lord, he then veils his face. Why? St Paul reveals this to us: “Moses…would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (2 Cor. 3:13). The glory of God, so brightly shining, would fade over time. This was a sign of the covenant Moses mediated. St Paul here calls it “the ministry of death” and “the ministry of condemnation,” both terms hearkening back not only to Mt. Horeb, but also to the Garden of Eden. Adam was given instruction to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest he become separate from the Life of God and die. However, as we know, he did this very thing with his wife and so was condemned: “for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). After that point, any command of God led to some sort of death or another; either the death of one who breaks God’s law, or the death of sin in a person as they strive to keep it. One death led to further condemnation, another led towards life, but could not give it. The law, that ministry of death, could only bring knowledge of the pervasive and powerful nature of sin and death, causing any who tried to keep it, or delight in it as David does in the Psalms, to cry out with the Apostle “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death!” (Rom. 7:24). This covenant, which consigned everything to futility (yet not without hope), was glorious: but a fearsome glory, one that was feared even as refracted through Moses. So Adam and Eve hide, so the Israelites shirk away, so Moses is protected in the cleft of the rock: “no man may see Me and live.”
Yet, the Face of God, which naturally shines out this glory, is the hope of our salvation: we long to see God and be transformed into His image and likeness once again. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His Face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His Face upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26), or “Hide not Your Face from me. Turn not Your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation” (Ps. 27:9), or “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let Your Face shine, that we may be saved!” (Ps. 80:19). As St Paul puts is, “Through Christ we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). As St John puts it, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). The very thing that we are to participate in – the glory of God shining out from His Face – is the very thing we, under death and condemnation, cannot have: “no man may see Me and live.” But the “ministry of death” which has come through Moses is not the whole story, no, it is temporary and its glory has faded away under the veil. Instead, St Paul proclaims that there is a “ministry of righteousness” and a “ministry of the Spirit,” the Spirit who gives Life (2 Cor. 3:6). This ministry has even more glory than that of Moses. Why? “When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”
St Paul has done something very subtle here in the passage: the whole context of 2 Corinthians is a defense of his apostleship. The third chapter has been a defense of his authority, as it has come under attack. The Corinthians have even requested “letters of recommendation” for proof. Paul’s ministry has not been one of glory, like Moses’, but one characterized by scandal, by beatings, by dishonor, by death. How could he represent the Lord of Glory? Paul counters that the Corinthians themselves are his “letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (3:2). Unlike Moses, with the “ministry of death,” Paul and his companions are “very bold” to proclaim the crucified and risen Lord. Paul, taking the role of Moses, proclaims the glory of the Gospel, looking at the Corinthians so that he can say “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This glory, shared between the Apostle and all who have turned to the Lord, will not fade away, but rather will increase “from one degree of glory to another.”
This shining glory, the hope of mankind, which previously we could not see under pain of death, is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the Image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4-6). If we see Jesus, if we know the incarnate One, we have seen the glory of God and are being transformed into the same image: we are becoming more and more like Christ and less and less like Adam as we behold the glory amongst ourselves, shining out of the hearts of the Apostles and all who turn to the Lord. But how is this possible? How can we see the glory of God and live? St Paul tells us that “the Spirit gives life” (3:6), and whenever anyone turns to the Lord, who “is the Spirit” (17) then the veil is lifted and “there is freedom.” God Himself, through the work of the Son and the sending of the Spirit, makes it possible for us to behold His glory and radiate it to one another in love, so that we might be “conformed to the image of the Son” (Rom. 8:29).
What does this mean on the level of our lives? I must confess that I have never had a vision, whether “in the body or out of the body” of the glory of God. It is hard, often times, to read passages like this, as they seem to promise something that I’ve never seen or experienced. It is easy to lose hope, or worse, to just interpret what Paul is speaking of here as pious metaphors for psychological experiences. This is why I started by saying that the Christian Faith is hard. But, Paul does not leave us without hope; rather, he gives explicit instructions for us in our quest for the glory of God. He says in chapter 6, “we are the temple of the living God.” This is vital for our purposes today, for the Temple was the place in which God’s glory most particularly dwelt. If we are to shine with the glory of God, we must be in the place where God’s glory is. However, there is no building in Jerusalem where this glory dwells; rather, it is those who have taken upon themselves Christ’s death in baptism and have been justified by faith. The Church is God’s Temple, where His glory resides. However, as we also know, no unclean thing was ever allowed in the Temple; if uncleanness was brought it, it had to be cleansed with sacrifice. In fact, the Temple was cleansed of any defilement at least once a year on the Day of Atonement. We know that, regardless of what we were before, we “were washed, were sanctified [that is, made holy to God], were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Yet, we also know that we continue to fight against sin, and, to our shame, actually sin. Here is where Paul brings his argument in 2 Corinthians to a head: “Since we have these promises,” the promises to be the Temple of God, to have the glory shine out from our hearts and through our faces to each other, transforming us into the Image of the Face of God, Jesus Christ, “let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (7:1).
The Christian life is hard; let us never doubt that. Arrayed against us are “principalities and power, thrones and dominions, visible and invisible,” set opposed to us is the Dragon, the Serpent of old, the first murderer, in our own beings we have the “law of sin and death” at work. But, if we are in Christ, if we have come into His Body, if we have shared in His death and tasted His resurrection, if we have been cleansed by the Lord Jesus and the Spirit of God, we are the Temple of God, constructed by Him for the outflow of His glory. Shall we not wage war against sin, against wickedness in high places, so that we might be further cleansed and become conformed to the Image of God? “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete” (2 Cor. 10:3-6).
What are these weapons, if they are not “of the flesh”? “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put of the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:14-19). Our weapons are the Gospel, prayer, forgiveness, longsuffering, love, joy: all the weapons of the Cross, which is the victory over all the world. In hope of this glory, let us cleanse ourselves from unrighteousness and take up the banner of our God, who goes before us, to convert the whole human creation into His Temple, that His love and mercy and peace might overflow the whole earth.