Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, when we remember the Transfiguration of Jesus. We heard this story in our Gospel reading when the glory of Jesus shone before the disciples. The lectionary seeks to build on this theme and add in Old and New Testament readings on the glory of God. Our second reading fits the bill as it looks at how the Gospel may be veiled to the lost, but how the glory of God points us to Jesus. Rather than look at the Transfiguration story as I did when I preached on this Sunday a few years ago, today I want to look at the passage from Second Corinthians.
Over the last several weeks, we have been hearing passages from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In that letter, Paul was responding to a number of issues which were disturbing the church in Corinth, undermining the Gospel and causing disunity amongst the believers. Today’s passage is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In this letter Paul was responding to some in the church at Corinth who were seeking to undermine his ministry.
As we read Paul’s words, it is important to understand this context. From the preceding two verses, we know that Paul’s opponents were accusing him of using deceptive practices to distort, misrepresent and veil the word of God. Paul responds to these charges by declaring “On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”
This gives important context to our lectionary passage. Let’s listen to the preceding verse again, and then the first two verses of our lectionary passage. Paul says “On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel.”
Paul is admitting that not everyone will be see the Gospel clearly and be convicted by it. But this is not because the Gospel is somehow unclear or hidden from us. No, the problem is that the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers, so that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing. This brings to mind an interesting experiment on awareness and perception that I came across last year during some training I had at my work.
We were attending a workshop on diversity, and we were learning about our penchant to only see the things we want to see. We were shown a video of eight people tossing basketballs to each other. Four were dressed in black and four were dressed in white. We were instructed to count the number of times white clad individuals passed a basketball to each other. Given that there were several basketballs in play and that we needed to count only white to white passes, our focus was on getting an accurate count. We were all very immersed in counting basketball passes.
When the video was paused, and we were asked “how many of you noticed the guy dressed up like a gorilla moonwalk through the middle of the video?” We all laughed and thought this was a joke, but the video was rewound and sure enough, smack dab in the middle of the screen, we all saw the moonwalking gorilla. Because we had been intentionally preoccupied with counting basketball passes, the moonwalking gorilla had become veiled to our sight. Not because the gorilla was disguised or hidden, but because we were focusing on the wrong thing. We were successfully distracted.
This is what Paul is telling us. The Gospel is very clear and can be plainly discerned if we care to see it. But the problem is that we are distracted by god of this age. Scholars believe that Paul was referring to Satan when he spoke of the god of this age, but I think that Paul’s statement can apply to all of the distractions of our lives. We are so distracted by the noise of our lives and our culture, things that should be secondary, but which we make primary. And in so doing, we can veil our minds to the Gospel.
These distractions can be finances, money, material goods, our job, our pride, politics, social media, and even religion. Anything that keeps us from putting Jesus Christ first in our lives is a distraction that veils our minds. What can be so insidious is the normality of these distractions. Without realizing it, we can let all the unimportant things in life become so pressing that we lose sight of the only thing that really matters. The first lesson from today’s passage is to stay focused on Jesus Christ. It’s the moonwalking Jesus that really matters folks, not the basketballs.
The rest of the passage tells us that our ministry ought to be about preaching the Gospel and how the light and glory of Jesus Christ can burn through the chaos and darkness that veils our minds from him. Let’s break this all down a bit. First, we need to understand what Paul meant when he used the word preaching. Unfortunately, the concept of preaching has developed something of a bad reputation for many people. It’s never a complement when someone is referred to as “preachy” and you know that someone is not happy when they tell you that a friend preached at them for an hour.
Even Christians can misunderstand what Paul meant. The American church has made two basic errors over the years. The first error, assumes that the job of parishioners is to somehow convince their skeptical friends to come to church, where they will hear the wonderful preaching of the minister and become a follower of Jesus. The second error is that it is our job to go around and badger people with preaching until they tell us that they have accepted Jesus as their Savior. Both of these approaches are wrong.
The word that Paul uses for “preaching” is better thought of as the sort of thing that a TV news anchor does when announcing a piece of major news. When Paul says “preach Jesus Christ”, he is simply saying that we need to tell others of Jesus. And this is the job of everyone – not just whoever happens to be giving the sermon on Sunday. As for the other error, it is not the job of a newscaster to come and browbeat you until you believe her news report. So it is not our job to browbeat anyone into a confession. We can tell others about Jesus, but it is the Holy Spirit that will work in that person to actually convert them.
Paul writes that “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Our job is to point others to Jesus, and not to ourselves. There is a common saying that is commonly, but erroneously attributed to St. Francis that says “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” I think that this saying can lead us astray if we are not careful because it can lead to a misunderstanding about what we are to preach. We are not to focus on ourselves, our good works, our virtue, our social service, or anything like that. We need to focus on Jesus Christ. And I don’t know how we can tell others about Jesus if we don’t tell them the story of Jesus, and that requires words.
Jesus Christ is what we should preach, not ourselves. If we focus on ourselves, we distract from the Gospel. This is true for church and worship as well. Church should not be about us, our desires or our tastes. Worship should not be about the great music, good coffee, or personable preacher. The whole purpose of church and worship is to point us to the Good News of Jesus Christ and to equip us to tell others about him.
When we tell others about Jesus, Paul tells us that we have important things to say. Paul makes two very specific points as to how Jesus Christ reflects the glory of God. He first says “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” and then about how we have “the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” Paul’s point in these comments is to make it clear that Jesus Christ is God. As Christians, we may think that this is well established, but it wasn’t in Paul’s time, and it isn’t really in our time either.
Whether Jesus Christ is God or not is absolutely foundational to the Gospel. If we regard Jesus as just another wise teacher among many, then we can adopt whatever teachings we want and ignore the rest. Maybe another wise teacher has some more palatable teaching. This was the general approach in the pagan world of the New Testament. There were a plethora of gods and goddesses and people would pick and choose which religious rituals worked best for them. Today, we face a very similar situation. To accept Jesus Christ as God requires us to take seriously his claims. And if we believe that Jesus Christ is God, then we have no choice but to follow him, and him alone. This is a very unpopular position to take in a pluralistic religious culture such as the one we live in. But this is what Paul sets before us.
Paul concludes by telling us of the power of the light of the Gospel. Our passage began with Paul admitting that the gospel is veiled to those who are perishing. But he concludes by asserting that the light of the gospel has the power to break through the sin and darkness to shine in our hearts and give us the knowledge of Jesus. Paul writes “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
This statement had a special meaning for Paul, because, as you might recall, Paul was not always a great apostle for Jesus. In his earlier life he was a leading persecutor of Christians, riding from town to town to shut down the church. But when Paul was on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus, Jesus Christ appeared to Paul in great glory, shining his light into Paul’s heart. And from that time on, Paul became one of the great apostles, spreading the gospel across the Roman Empire.
Paul’s comment also points back to the story of creation when God created light. In the creation story, the light came to chase away the darkness and chaos. Paul is telling us that in just that way, the light of the Gospel can chase away the sin and darkness in our own lives, those things that veil our minds to the Gospel. So while Satan and the distractions of the world can keep us from seeing the truth of the gospel, the gospel is powerful enough to break through. Satan can blind us to the Gospel, but God can restore our sight.
Our ministry is to preach Christ simply and forthrightly. Point others to him, and let the glory of Christ and the simple truth of the Gospel burn away the sin and distraction.
Let us pray.
Almighty Father, your Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; Amen.