Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday 17th June, 2018
Deep into territory where life meets death, St Paul keeps pointing beyond superficial appearance to hidden reality. Maybe he has in mind God’s guidance when Samuel amazed Jesse by selecting the youngest, least mature of his sons: “Pay no attention to outward appearance and stature... The Lord does not see as a mortal sees; mortals see only appearances but the Lord sees into the heart.” In this resumed correspondence with Christians at Corinth, Paul repeatedly contrasts the way we see with the way God sees. Paul had been through trials and hardships, seemed to be physically failing but knew that his inner self was being renewed. Committed as he was to mission here-and-now, he still asserted that Christians are exiles here – earth is not our home and we would be happier in heaven, however reluctant we may feel about leaving our present bodies.
“We never cease to be confident” – we should hold our heads high, knowing that we answer to no one on earth. Our lives, a mystery to others, lie open to God and will have to be laid open to the searching scrutiny of Christ – the Lord sees what we don’t see, what we hide and what we attempt to disguise. Paul had already had a problem with people who tried to dazzle the Corinthian Christians with their oratory and voices, supposed wisdom of impressive charisma. These rivals assessed Paul’s ministry and found it wanting; he mentioned their competitive boasting in a previous letter to Corinth. Now they seemed to think he had gone mad, but Paul drew from Samuel’s insight on seeing to the heart, and told his readers “you will have something to say to those whose pride is all in outward show and not in inward worth.” If Paul appeared mad to them, it was because they intruded on his communion with God. He was rational enough when he spoke to the church. Nor was he going to accept their charge of using “hidden persuader” techniques to deceive. But what he had to say was so important that he would go on trying to persuade people by addressing them in words which conveyed crucial truths about Christ. The way he puts it he has no option: “the love of Christ controls us.” At one time he had seen Jesus as a failure, destroyed on the Cross and a disgrace to his nation. That’s how headline writers and local gossips would have seen Jesus. He could no longer see Jesus like that. And it made all the difference in the world: “With us therefore worldly standard have ceased to count in our estimate of anyone; even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so now no longer.”
And the difference demanded response. Paul’s Damascus Road conversion penetrated through externals to reveal the Lord laid low by love. One man has died – not just any man, but the Lord of glory. “One man died for all and therefore all mankind has died.” The life status of the human race is altered by Christ’s self-sacrifice. Nothing will be the same again.
And those of us who are persuaded of it must be utterly changed: “He died for all so that those who live should cease to live for themselves, and should live for him who for their sake died and was raised to life.” If only it were true; if only we did cease to live for ourselves and lived instead for Christ and neighbours. Yes, thousands of Christians have ceased to live for themselves and have gone to tremendous lengths to serve Christ and meet the needs of others. We would probably never have heard of Christ’s love nor received it if people before us had not exerted themselves to make sure we heard the gospel. Teachers, preachers, evangelists, parents, friends and folk whose names we don’t know are in that chain who ceased to live for themselves and lived for him who for our sake died and was raised to life. Heroines and heroes of faith, imprisoned, persecuted, ridiculed, reviled – many of them seemed failures. The love of Christ controlled them. The same love controlled Paul and many who worked with him or received his letters back in the first century. They had to put up with all kinds of problems, but Paul saw their experiences as part of the needful transforming process. As he had said a few lines earlier, again contrasting appearance and reality: “Our troubles are slight and short-lived, and their outcome is an eternal glory which far outweighs them provided our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen but on the things that are unseen; for what is seen is transient, what is unseen is eternal.” This is, of course, about death and hereafter. We know this earthly body of ours will fail. We know our life on earth will end sooner or later, and possibly at a time we least expect. But we believe our life is not rooted on earth. God has a future in mind for us. It’s scary to think of this body collapsing and us leaving it for a different future we cannot see and can hardly imagine. But God has a home for us. We don’t like to think about dying which may be accompanied by pain, loss and suffering, but God is shaping us for a different future and the pledge he has given us is the spirit of Jesus. Paul said that just before today’s epistle reading began.
There’s a destiny out of this body for which God has shaped us and the pledge, the guarantee – the word – can mean a deposit or down-payment like the amount paid at exchange of contracts – this guarantee payment is the Holy Spirit. When we think about this we may ask ourselves: “Have I got it? When did I receive it? We may not use ecstatic speech of led spontaneous prayers or make the contribution in meetings that everyone recognizes as the voice of God. No; the gift of the spirit doesn’t have to come in those forms. But the quiet prayer on our own; our meeting with God and with the mind of Jesus, that’s an operation of the Spirit, a first instalment of a fuller and lasting relationship with God. That’s where the spiritual transformation begins. It’s a thorough-going transformation, Paul says, nothing less than new creation. We Christians are newly-minted people; with us worldly standards have ceased to count: “the old order has gone; a new order has already begun”. We can hardly claim to be the finished product yet. Still on the production line, we inch forward and need to be ready for more changes to come. It doesn’t just happen automatically; like the seed growing, it needs an ever-willing spirit on our part. A lot of self needs to be hollowed out. Thoughts and desires, ambitions and feelings have to be brought under the control of Christ’s love. But we can be sure of this: the new order has already begun.