Setting aside Donald Trump’s recent exigetically disastrous and self-serving use of a verse in this week’s Epistle lection, most of us who preach would admit that this is not an easy text to get right. Paul’s second letter to Corinth contains wonderful pockets of now well-known words and images. But weaving in and around those better known words are long-ish patches of rambling prose containing Paul’s self-defense in the face of critics as well as some sets of images that are just plain puzzling.
This passage is one of them. On Transfiguration Sunday when we have a dramatic story about Jesus to preach on, I wonder how many preachers would opt to make their sermon all about 2 Corinthians 3-4. It’s clear enough why the Lectionary chose these verses as they tie in with a kind of pre-Transfiguration transfiguration of Moses’ face when he came down from Mount Sinai with the Law.
Moses was literally aglow with the glory of God—think of it as the equivalent of a holy sunburn—and even this reflected glory was more than the people could handle. Who knows whether the people just found it embarrassing that Moses was so radioactive with God’s holiness or if that same glow stood in such stark contrast to their own recent tawdry actions around a certain Golden Calf that they just couldn’t bear to see the truth of it all reflected on Moses’ face.
Either way or both ways they insisted he cover it up. Moses veiled his face so those with non-glorious visages could handle it until the glory faded away.
Now if you read Exodus and this story, then you know that we’re talking about the real man Moses here and a real glow and a real veil. For his part, however, Paul riffs on it all to turn the whole thing into a kind of allegorical metaphor. So it’s a good thing Paul can claim Holy Spirit inspiration in all this because otherwise—if, say, this were some seminary student making this move in a sermon written for one of my preaching classes—I’d have to chalk the whole thing up to a ridiculous over-extension of a narrative text’s imagery and detail. I mean, sometimes a veil is just a veil, a glow is just a glow. What’s all this old covenant / new covenant imagery that gets larded over the real narrative?
There is not a lot of middle ground here: Paul is either getting this spectacularly (albeit weirdly) right or this allegorical analogy is just plain goofy. A high view of Scripture commits me to pursuing the former option. Paul is onto something here as to the meaning of the original story in ways that went beyond what even the people in the original story could have been aware of. What might the meaning of it all be?
Well, I once heard a pastor suggest that among the things that were hard to bear when considering Moses’ glowing face was the fact—reflected in verse 13b—that as a matter of fact the glory was in the process of fading away. Great though the reception of the Law had been and wonderful though it was that Israel really was now a nation (in fulfillment of what God had promised in Genesis 12 to Abram), the fact is this was not the end of the line. This was not the end-all and be-all of God’s ultimate plans for this fallen creation.
Whatever glory there was to associate with this early part of God’s covenant relationship with human beings, it was temporary, stop-gap, not the end of the game. And there was something heartbreaking about that even as at the same time there was something hopeful about it—Moses’ reflected glory was a preview, a sneak peek, a sign of what was to come in all its abundant fullness when God finally fulfilled his covenant through the Messiah.
The Law, Paul writes in another place, was all along to be like our babysitter who would keep watch over us and keep us safe until the Father fully arrived for his children in the person of the Son, who was sent by the Father and was his Father all over again (cf. John 14). But until the Christ arrived in all his non-fading glory, we would never quite perceive the Law correctly—we’d always try to turn it into our ticket to heaven (“If only I can keep it perfectly on my own . . .”) instead of seeing it as God’s gift for grateful living that comes after salvation has already scooped us up into the divine embrace by grace alone. The only reason you keep looking to the Law as the source of your salvation is because your heart still has a veil over it—you’re not seeing clearly. Let Jesus take the veil away and shine on you with all his Transfigured glory and you will see as you need to see.
And what you will see is the glorious freedom of grace, the wonderful freedom of knowing that you are now a child of the heavenly Father and no one and no thing can remove you from his loving grasp and embrace. Better yet—and now Paul is really on a roll—far from being put off by the glory we see on Christ Jesus—far from having to then turn back to our own sorry reflections in the mirror only to be reminded how fall short we fall of the glory of God in our own lives—the glory of Christ is contagious! WE start to glow! WE start to be transformed more and more into what CHRIST looks like!
It’s a grand theological riff on the whole pattern of Jesus’ ministry. The rule in Jesus’ day was simple: touch a leper, touch a dead body, touch anyone deemed “unclean” and YOU become unclean. But not with Jesus. The contagion of holiness and healing was so powerful that when Jesus touched the unclean, they got infected with his glory, with his life. They became clean and Jesus stayed clean. Being associated with Christ means that his life is your life, his glory bit by bit becomes your glory.
So OK, yes, at first glance Paul’s curious wielding of a narrative’s details in such allegorical fashion looks sufficiently odd as to almost count as incorrect theologically and exegetically. But upon further reflection, it turns out to be not just correct but gloriously so. When you embrace Christ as the Lord of all, you are flooded with goodness and light and life and glory. And then everything that God has done from the beginning—including the place that the Law occupies in our lives and in salvation history—all falls into place. It all makes sense. No more veils. No more confusion. What remains is . . . glorious!
Indeed, what remains is our ever-increasing glory in Christ—the very glory of being the children of God that God had in mind when in the beginning he created the heavens and the earth.
2 Corinthians 3:17 has always generated for me a good Oral Comprehensive Exam question for seminary students. If Paul here claims that “the Lord” (who we presume is Jesus) “is the Spirit,” does this chip away at our Trinitarian notion that the Holy Spirit is a divine person in the Godhead in his own right? Should we be Binatarians and not Trinitarians after all? Is the person of the Son/the Lord identical to “the Spirit” such that they form one person and not two? Well, there is enough other evidence in the New Testament to warrant our Trinitarian conclusions that this one verse need not derail the whole doctrine. (There is, by the way, a similar line in The Nicene Creed when we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life.”) The meaning here seems to be that FOR NOW as Christ is the Ascended Lord at the right hand of the Father, the Spirit is the active presence of Christ as Lord in our lives today. The Spirit is effectively the Lord Jesus in that he is the living connection—the living mediator—who brings Jesus to us and us to Jesus. Jesus is Lord but we cannot access him without being filled with the Spirit.
In other words, “the Lord is the Spirit” can be seen as a functional reality not an ontological one.
The notion that Christ’s glory is contagious (as noted above in this sermon commentary) and that we get infected with his life through our association with him reminds me of the movie The Green Mile. In it John Coffey is a man convicted (falsely) of murder. But John Coffey seems to be a special agent of God, possessed with divine powers of healing and with a kind of “second sight” that allows him to see into people’s souls to learn the truth about them.
At one point in the movie, Coffey revives (resurrects!) a fellow prisoner’s pet mouse after a cruel prison guard on Death Row had smashed the little critter to death. At another point Coffey shares some of his powerful insights with Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard played by Tom Hanks, whom Coffey had also previously healed of a painful infection.
When the movie ends, we flash forward about 70 some years only to discover at the end that the mouse, Mr. Jingles, is still alive and so—now well into his 100s—is Paul. In explaining to a friend why Mr. Jingles and he now have such extraordinary long life, the long-since retired Paul Edgecomb suspects that when someone with as much divine life in him as John Coffey had touches you and heals you, sparks of that divine life get into you (even if you’re a mouse!).
The Green Mile is just a movie and one that many would regard as a kind of fantasy at that. But theologically if we connect this idea to Christ and to what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3, it’s just right. When we become united with Christ in our baptisms, all his divine life flows into us and not just a little and not just temporarily but for all eternity as we transform from glory to glory until finally we by grace attain the full stature of Christ Jesus the Lord.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 7, 2016
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 Commentary