posted Mar 4, 2013, 8:04 AM by David Hawkins   [ updated Mar 4, 2013, 8:04 AM ]

02/10/13 Sermon (February 10, 2013)

“Transformational Freedom”

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 (Liturgist)

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not 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. But 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. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And 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.
Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We 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.

Sermon: Transformational Freedom

I think that for me, the most amazing thing about the Bible is the way that it continues to tell the truth about us, and about our relationship with God, after all these years. I am fascinated by the fact that the issues that perplexed Paul in the 1st century of Christianity still perplex us today. There is something real and human about Paul’s frustration with his friends in Corinth that has not faded over time, in fact, it is something that is still echoing in our world.

Paul has had a hard time with this Church in Corinth. Ever since he planted this church, it has been plagued by a series of conflicts that he has had to address from a distance, through these letters that have been passed down to us. We don’t know all of the circumstances that made Paul write these letters, but we can guess at some of them.

Paul especially makes frequent references to a group of people that he calls false apostles, peddlers of God’s word, deceitful workers. He even compares them to Satan, calling them angels of light, ministers of righteousness.

Obviously these folks have gotten under Paul’s skin. And he wants the church in Corinth to have nothing to do with them. But there is a problem, you see. Paul has to do his ministry long distance. In fact, half the time Paul is either shipwrecked, or in prison, or wandering around the Mediterranean, putting out other fires that are cropping up in the various churches he’s planted. He’s a busy guy, and he just can’t be there in person.

But these other folks have been there in person. They become involved in the life of the congregation. And not only that, they’ve got a real organized system going on, where they introduce each other to various congregations with letters of recommendation, providing references for each other. It’s the earliest parachurch organization, with a slick marketing system, an attractive message, and they are giving Paul fits.

But what is it, exactly that concerns Paul so much about these outside apostles? What is that Paul finds offense about their version of the Gospel? Why does he feel like he needs to write this long distance polemic against them? What are they saying that gets Paul so riled up?

Well, again, it’s hard to say exactly what is going on here, because we only have one side of the discussion, and Paul doesn’t really outline for us the problem. But we do know that this group that Paul is warning the Corinthians about has a bad habit of trying the convince people that they have to follow the Law in order to be Christians.

In order to put this in perspective, it’s important to remember that Paul is constantly having to convince the early church that while Jesus was a Jew, and while his disciples were Jews, and Paul himself was a Jew, it was not necessary for Christians to become Jews in order to become Christians. There was a huge movement during Paul’s time in which roving evangelists would go around convincing new Christians that they couldn’t be Christian unless they became Jewish, specifically, unless they were circumcised.

Along with this was the message that in order to be a Christian, one had to follow Mosaic law. One had to follow the Torah, and if you didn’t, you weren’t part of God’s plan of salvation. Your relationship with God was dependant on obeying the law.

Now before I go any further, I need to remind y’all that when I’m talking about the Law, I’m not talking about the laws of the United States, or of Texas, or of Plainview. I’m not talking about civil or criminal law. I’m talking about moral law, dietary law, ethical law. We need civil and criminal laws to protect the community, and to ensure justice. This discussion is not about those kinds of laws. I’m absolutely in favor of separating those who would harm others from the rest of the population. This sermon is not about that kind of law. I just wanted to make sure that we were all starting in the same place.

Anyway, Paul hated the idea that unless you became a Jew, you couldn’t be a Christian. He hated the fact that there were people going around to his churches putting up roadblocks between them and their savior, that these people were putting Christians back into the prison of the law, when Paul had worked so hard to open their eyes to the freedom found in Jesus Christ.

And this is where I find that Paul is not just writing to the early church in Corinth, but he is also writing to us here in the 21st Century, Plainview.

Because we are still surrounded by people who insist that we have to follow the law in order to be Christian. That God can only forgive you if you do things a particular way. That you can only be saved if you live, or say, or think, or pray, a particular way. That God’s grace and his love are limited by our actions. That God’s ability to forgive is bound by our words or deeds.

And Paul just can’t abide this Gospel to be preached. He can’t stand it, in fact, he calls this sort of preaching ‘a ministry of condemnation’. And he believes that it has no place in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Paul is writing to the Corinthians to warn them against this kind of theology. He wants them to know that the Grace of Jesus Christ is not limited by our understanding or our observation of the Law. That forgiveness is given to those who need it, not to those who have earned it.

Paul wants his church in Corinth to know that those who would require them to follow the law are actually preventing them from following Christ. In short, Paul wants them to be free from those who would judge them. Paul wants his church to hold onto the hand of a liberating Christ, not cower inside the jail cell of the Law. And he knows how difficult this will be. He knows that it takes courage to trust that freedom.

Because this is a radical concept, even for Paul. Paul is trying to convince the Corinthians that it is freedom that transforms us, not the law. That the law, by it’s own nature, cannot change us into something new. The law, for Paul is death. And those who preach it, preach death.

But the problem is, as Paul well knows, and as we all know, freedom is abstract. It’s hard to pin down. It’s scary. How do we preach freedom? What are the boundaries of freedom? How do we make people behave, if we don’t insist on the law? What weapon, or lever, or mechanism do we have to keep people in line, if not the law?

Everybody knows you can’t make people behave with freedom. Only the law is effective at making bad people good. And only good people can be saved by God. You can see the logic of their argument. It is persuasive and attractive. It is concrete and easy to follow.

But this is where Paul reveals his true colors as the first Presbyterian. You see, for Presbyterians, it always comes down to this: God is the one who is in charge. God is always the one who is in charge. We do not limit God. We do not control God. We don’t say what God can or cannot do. All we can do is witness and confess.

We are witnesses to what God has already done. And what God has done is given us Jesus Christ, who died for the sins of the whole world.

We confess our faith in what Jesus will do: Jesus has come not to condemn the world, but to save it.

And so for Paul, it’s not a matter of what we can do to change people. It’s not a matter of what we need to do in order to be changed. All of that is up to God, in God’s own time, in God’s own way, according to God’s own terms. The saving, the healing, the transformation is not a result of following the law. It’s the result of God’s own mysterious desire to save, to heal, and to transform us.

This is the Gospel, according to Paul: that the love of God is written on the hearts of his people, not onto stone tablets. That the forgiveness of God is available to anyone who seeks it. And that it is the freedom of the Spirit, not the law, that transforms us, and makes us into the image of the glory of the Lord.

As I was thinking about this scripture this week, I happened to be reading the news, and I was reminded once again how relevant and topical Paul is when he writes this letter to his church in Corinth.

Because the world is full of folks who trust in the law for their own salvation. And one of the best representatives of this mindset (if I can use the word ‘best’ in this context) is Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Westboro has consistently embodied Paul’s description of these false apostles, these ministers of death. For decades, they have been peddler’s of God’s word, according to Paul’s definition, they have been deceitful workers, and they have preached a Gospel of hatred and condemnation.

Westboro is infamous for its pickets of funerals for veterans, and they even picketed the funerals at Sandy Hook. They carry signs that claim that God hates us, that God hates America, and that we should thank God for roadside bombs in Afghanistan. They insist that God’s love is reserved for those who follow God’s law. That God’s grace can never fall on those who sin.

The Westboro church preaches a vengeful, despairing message that offer no hope for salvation. There is no freedom in their message, no transformational liberty, no trust in God’s ability to change, to save. For Westboro, we are all going to hell, except for the very few people who attend that church.

And the hard thing about Westboro, the thing that perplexes me, is their absolute belief that they are the only ones who know what is wrong, and what is right in this world. They think of themselves, to use Paul’s words, as ministers of righteousness. And they feel almost trapped by their own ministry. They don’t like having to say these things. But apparently they must say them. They know that their message is one of judgment and condemnation. They know the pain and the hurt they cause. They know the anger they provoke. They know that they are hated. But this is simply how they think about God. This is their understanding of Jesus Christ. That God hates the world, and that the world hates God. They believe they have no choice but to preach this Gospel.

But there is good news. Because that church just got a little bit smaller this week.

Two members of the church, grand-daughters of the Founder, Fred Phelps, decided that they did have a choice. Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper have left the church. They decided that the Westboro message of hate and judgment isn’t their idea of the Gospel anymore. They have come to see that their church’s trust in the law has gotten in the way of trusting God’s grace.

And it had to be painful to leave that congregation. The church is their family, everything that they have known their entire lives. To leave that behind took an extraordinary amount of courage. It’s hard to leave a cult, especially when the cult is your parents, your uncles, your cousins, and your grandparents. It’s hard to leave an organization in which you have invested so much of your time, and your energy.

Their family didn’t make their leaving easy, either. They have been excommunicated, shunned, they can never be forgiven, at least as far as the church goes. Their family wants nothing to do with them, in fact, they have been condemned to hell the same way that the rest of us have been, condemned for pursuing the way of the flesh, of consorting with the Devil, of leaving the true church, of apostasy, you name the sin, they’ve been accused of it.

And the outside world hasn’t been much kinder. Many people are angry with the Phelps family, and are unwilling to believe that any of them could have a true change of heart. Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper now find themselves rejected by their church and their family as well as by many people in their community and the rest of a nation horrified by their signs and slogans.

It has not been easy for them to leave their former life behind them. They are very aware of the pain their words have caused. But Megan and Grace did leave. The veil on their faces has been lifted. Their eyes have been opened to the glory of God. They have spoken with boldness, and they have left their church and its message of death behind.

Their courageous story holds hope for all of us, I think. We all have pockets inside our hearts that believe that certain things cannot be forgiven. That certain words have been said, certain things have been done that can’t be un-done, and can’t be forgotten. We ourselves have done some of these things, said some of these things. We find it hard to believe that we could ever forgive someone who betrayed us, and we find it even harder to believe that we ourselves could be forgiven.

But the good news of the Gospel is this: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, and we given permission to live in that forgiveness. Our sins are forgiven, and those who sin against us are forgiven. And we are called to respond to that grace, not with words of judgment or condemnation, but with lives of compassion and freedom. It takes courage to trust that in Christ, we are all made new, but that’s exactly what Paul is trying to tell us.

The veil has been lifted. We are being transformed. The glory of God surrounds us, and his love is written on our hearts. Be at peace, and live in the Spirit of Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.