by The Rev. Dr. Andrew Purves
Sea Island Presbyterian Church
Beaufort, South Carolina
November 20, 2016
2 Corinthians 3:3
Inscribed in Latin on the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London are the words, “If you would see his memorial, look around you.” One could say the same for this congregation. If you would see the sign of public commendation for the work of Steve and Kay, look around you.
Speaking of his congregation in Corinth, St. Paul says much the same, “You are our letter of recommendation.” This congregation, Paul insists, is the public record of his ministry, a living witness and a witnessing word to his faithfulness. Nothing else needs to be said by way of commendation. The congregation speaks for him. What he has taught them, what he has poured out from his own heart and mind into their hearts and minds, how he has shaped them and brought them to a deeper grasp of the mind of Christ – all this and more is available to public inspection. His congregation is, at it were, a living letter of commendation of the quality and faithfulness of his ministry. He needs no other validation, no other testimony, no other witness, than that people should know and read his congregation as a living letter from Christ. If you would see my living memorial, Paul in effects is saying, here, look around you, look at this congregation. This tells you all you need to know concerning the quality and legitimacy of my ministry.
The congregation, both the corporate body and the individual persons, are living letters from Christ, delivered through Paul, written on their hearts, not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. The opposite hardly bears thinking about, congregations that look alive but are in fact spiritually dead, hollow-eyed and pale imitations of the real thing. We might call them ‘Zombie congregations!’ Sadly, I preached at such a congregation a couple of weeks ago – no, I wont tell you where, but it was one of those First Church, then a city name, congregation. A congregation that is a living letter from Christ, however, testifies to, discloses, bears witness to, intimates, announces, broadcasts, proclaims, tells forth, celebrates the gospel truth that here the Word of God is preached with faithfulness, here the love of God is known in acts of care, here the mercy of God known in sin forgiven and life amended, here there is a community that knows the power of a discipleship that ministers the things of God in the life of the world. A living letter from Christ is a congregation that knows her Lord, loves her Lord and serves her Lord. Here people know the power of the risen Lord among them and within them. Here Jesus Christ reigns as Lord.
My text is 2 Corinthians 3: 3 – “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.” Thinking about this text I was struck that today it probably takes a leap of metaphorical imagination to get inside the notion of letter writing, let alone the idea of a congregation being a living letter. We no longer scratch pen nib and ink to rough parchment or paper. Paul, however, was a consummate letter-writer; in fact, here he stretches the idea of letter-writing to suggest that his congregation in Corinth, in spite of its recalcitrant, confused and erratic members, is a public letter of commendation, testifying to his ministry among them. There are three points that the verse makes for our reflection and instruction.
The first point is already stated – the congregation is a letter written from Christ. What a remarkable notion that is! It is Jesus Christ who is inscribed on their hearts. A congregation that is a living letter from Christ is a congregation that has Jesus Christ at the center of its life. He is the focus, the source, and the content of all that makes up the common life. There is a singularity, a particularity with which we are confronted: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Well, maybe this point is not so obvious. Let me illustrate.
My dear friend and colleague from Pittsburgh Seminary Charles Partee tells the amusing story of a visit to a barbershop just a few days after the start of his second pastorate when he was a young pastor in Arkansas. When his turn came, he settled into the chair and the friendly barber said, “I haven’t seen you here before. Are you new in town?” Charles responded positively. He assumed that the conversation would then take a general and safe turn – sports, the weather, small town life. However, the barber was a curious fellow. “What do you do?” “I’m the new Presbyterian pastor.” “Well,” responds the barber, “I’m not religious myself.” “Neither am I,” replied Charles. He reports that at this point things grew very quiet. The barber was clearly puzzling over how this man sitting in the barber’s chair could be a Presbyterian pastor and not be religious. The moral of the story is that it is not a smart kid who messes around with the mind of a man who is standing behind you with a straight razor in his hand.
Many people think that being Christian and being religious are the same thing. According to them religion is the general category and Christianity is a specific example of it. This would be true if religion is correctly defined as the human effort to encounter God and Christianity is understood as one of the possible manifestations of that quest, a particular illustration of the genus ‘religion.’ At many levels Christianity does look and act like a religion, but Christianity is not a religion in the sense of the human effort to find God. In its essential reality the Christian faith is not a human effort to encounter God. Rather the Christian faith is the result of God’s effort revealed in Jesus Christ to encounter us. Religion is the human trying to find God. Christianity is God finding us in, through and as Jesus Christ. I hope you can see the difference. C. S. Lewis, having defined religion in a somewhat similar manner, once wrote that religion “has, in the long run, only one really formidable opponent – namely Christianity.” (Miracles, 84/5)
The central subject of Christian faith is Jesus Christ, the One in and through and as whom God savingly encounters us, and by and in whom, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we have communion with the Father. At its center, Christianity is not about us first of all, but about Jesus Christ, not first of all about our being religious, or moral, or pious, but about the singular and unilateral act of the sovereign God who, for us for and our salvation, chose in love and freedom to come as God in the flesh as the son of Mary. The issue is not to be religious, but to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and to live accordingly.
Here, then, is the central issue with this first point. What makes a congregation a living letter from Christ is not the heightened level of its religiosity or the dynamism of its activism or the number of bottoms sitting on its pews. The heart of the matter is the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord and the utterly resolute conviction that all matters of faith and life, personal and communal, private and public, must be built from that foundation. So much should be obvious. Whatever else must and should happen in our life together, unless Jesus Christ is central, the whole thing will ultimately fall apart. Thus the basic task of all Christian life is, as the Spirit leads and enables, to apprehend ever more deeply and thereby convertingly the reality that Jesus is Lord. There is no negotiation with the central truth of the New Testament: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Now to a second point: this living letter from Christ, says Paul, is “delivered by us, or as the NRSV translates it, “prepared by us.” Think on these words: the congregation is delivered or prepared by Paul. The point here is not complex, but it is so very important. Let me put it this way. A congregation will grow in Christ, and will have Christ as its true center, only when the grace of God in Christ is preached and taught with faithfulness, and when worship is led with clear intent to bring glory to God. There is congruence between recognizing Jesus Christ at the center of our common life and the ministry of Word and sacraments. This can be summed up this way: If Christ is not preached, the people will not have faith. (Romans 10: 14-17)
In God’s gracious providence God has provided for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be delivered by this minister in the midst of this congregation. It is an odd thing, perhaps, that God has so ordered the life of the church that the ministry of Word and sacraments is a necessary part. God could have organized things in such a way that we could be communities of private illumination. Who needs ministers, in which case, when we have private lines to heaven? A private, living room faith, in fact, seems well suited for these post-modern times. Yet that was not God’s choice. Rather, the Word is to be preached in the sermon and celebrated in the sacraments for people to grow in union with Christ. Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ proclaimed in the sermon and celebrated in the sacraments. Again, perhaps, you can begin to distinguish between Christianity and religion, and to recognize, also, that the God whom we worship is no generalize, one-size-fits-all, deity, but the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Clearly the ministry of Word and sacraments has been the priority of Steve Keeler’s ministry, and the fruit is all around you. Odd, perhaps, that God chooses people like Steve and his wonderful aid-de-camp, Kay, for this work. Steve’s grace gift has been to know this priority, and that there was no more important thing for him to do than preach the Word and celebrate the sacraments. If Calvin is right that here we have the marks of the church, no congregation can exist without what Steve has done in Word and sacraments. Certainly no congregation can be a living letter of Christ otherwise. In a somewhat terrifying sense, Steve knows that the spiritual life of you, his people, are in his care, and the only Godly medicine for what ails them is Word and sacraments. Steve, and you are the witness, has done that.
My admonition to you is that Steve and Kay must continue to be cradled in your prayers. Their work is hard, often lonely, usually difficult, always demanding. There is no shortcut to faithful ministry. Your task is to uphold them with your prayers, to bless them with your friendship, and, when they stumble, as we all do, to lift them up, dust them off, and set them on their way once again.
This now brings me briefly to a final point in our text, which names specifically what I have just said: the Lord Jesus Christ, through the ministry of the Word and sacraments, acts in the power of the Holy Spirit. This living letter is not written with pen and ink, says Paul, but with the Spirit of the living God. Let me give you a Greek theological word, with the insistence that it be always part of your life together. The word is epiclesis. It refers to the invocation of the Holy Spirit. It means to call upon the Holy Spirit. It means that there is nothing we can do from within our own power to do the things of God unless the Spirit empowers us by joining us to Jesus Christ, and for that empowering we must ask. Remember John 15:5 – our Lord insists that “apart from me you can do nothing.” All of Christian life is to be lived in the Spirit – meaning that all Christian life is through the Holy Spirit a union with Christ, who alone is our life. So: pray for the Holy Spirit. Call upon the Spirit. It is the Spirit who writes Christ upon our hearts. With the Church throughout the ages we pray: come Holy Spirit, come, in the name of our Lord Jesus.
So easily we manage to parcel up our lives into compartments. All too readily we allot different claims upon our allegiance to separate areas of responsibility. What Paul is telling us here is that when a congregation becomes by the grace of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Word and Sacraments a living letter from Christ, that congregation is characterized by men and women who acknowledge Christ’s claim over all of life, every nook and cranny, every experience and all responsibilities. There is no part of us over which he is not Lord. There is now in Christ no dualism between the sacred and the secular, for everything is now in Christ. His claim upon us is total and absolute. This is what conversion means. This is what discipleship means. This is what being a living letter from Christ means.
I would like to close in a rather unusual manner, if I may. Steve, please stand. We thank the Lord for your faithful ministry, for you have written the Word of Christ upon the hearts of these people. Even so, I charge you in the name of the Lord Jesus to continue this work with this congregation to which the Lord has called you. Continue to be with them and prepare them for ever deeper faithfulness by Word, and sacrament, and the ministry that flows from that, to be living letters from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit who writes on their hearts. Be steadfast in proclaiming Christ, singularly Lord, for no one comes to the Father except through him. Others, even some in the church, will try to tell you otherwise. Pay no attention to them. Preach Christ Jesus, who alone is the evangel of God and God’s sovereign act of grace. Continue to give yourself over to the continual study of scripture, to the correct thinking about these mysteries, and to the life of prayer. Ask your people always to pray for you – insist on it. Pray always for the Holy Spirit, and teach your people to do likewise, for apart from this Spirit neither you nor they will know Christ, the living Lord. And understand that through your ministry Christ is writing his gospel of God’s grace and love upon the hearts of your people.
And now to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons and one God, be ascribed by us, and by the whole church, as is most due, the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.