Thursday, February 11, 2016

More Like Jesus

More Like Jesus
2 Corinthians 3:12-18[1]
As many of you know, I’ve had a rather interesting pilgrimage in my journey of faith. I was born in the Methodist church. In the small town where I grew up, however, the Southern Baptists had more going on for young people, so I started going there as a teenager. Although I had already been baptized and confirmed in the Methodist church, the Baptists believe you must have a dramatic, personal conversion experience, and so I was baptized again. After serving as a Southern Baptist minister for 15 years, I no longer felt I could do so in good conscience. There was a great deal of deal of political infighting. But more than that, there was much about the Baptist mindset that just didn’t work for me.
When I came into the Presbyterian Church about 12 years ago, folks in the Presbytery kept referring to me as a “Baptist.” Since I had left the Baptists over differences of conviction, I corrected them. I told them I had been a Presbyterian wandering in the wilderness until I found my way home! And, of course, we do things very differently. Especially when it comes to conversion. We tend to view conversion as a process that takes place over time. In fact, I think we would say that conversion happens differently for different people, and that’s to be expected.
Our lesson from St. Paul for today speaks to us about the process of conversion. It may seem confusing at first, with what he has to say about reading Moses. But I wonder whether Paul might be giving us a glimpse into his own experience with conversion. There has been a lot of speculation about what happened to Paul that made him turn his life around so dramatically. When I listen to this passage, it occurs to me that Paul may be talking about himself.[2] He had been one of those who had read the books of Moses without truly understanding what was there. But when he “turned to the Lord,” the “veil” that kept him from the life that God intended for him was removed. [3]
It’s not clear that Paul is talking about his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, but it seems likely to me. He says that “all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18, NLT). In the next chapter, Paul is even more specific. He says that God has given us “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).[4] I think it’s pretty clear at this point that Paul is thinking of his encounter on the Damascus road. It was that experience that changed his life.
An important part of this process is the work of the Holy Spirit. Again, the language is a bit confusing. He says, “And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Cor. 3:18, NLT). It’s hard to know whether Paul is referring to God, or to Jesus, or perhaps to both. But the point is that when Paul “turned to the Lord” the Spirit began working in his life to free him from what had kept him bound. And the goal of that freedom was to change Paul more and more into the image of Christ.[5]
It would seem to me that this is the goal that St. Paul has in mind for all of us. As we turn to Christ, we find that our whole lives take on new meaning. As we turn to Christ, we find that we gain new understanding into what God wants for us, and new freedom to experience it. As we turn to Christ, the Spirit begins working in our lives in a way that will change us to become more like Jesus himself.[6] That seems to be the primary goal of conversion to St. Paul: at this point he’s not thinking about eternal destiny, he’s thinking about quality of life here and now. And it is turning to the Lord and the work of the Spirit in our lives that gives us the chance to experience the life God wants to give us all here and now.[7]
Where the debate among churches comes into play is the question of how this happens. In many respects, there is a deep divide among churches as to how a person experiences the new life. For some, it is only the Church that can give us the chance to turn to the Lord and come to know the grace of God. For some, the Spirit works as he chooses, and that means that anyone can have a life-changing encounter with Christ anytime and anywhere. For some, this kind of conversion is a choice that the individual makes, and it only “takes” if you make that choice after seriously considering it. I tend to think our varied experiences show that it takes all of the above: the Spirit working through the Church in the hearts and minds of individuals.
In the Baptist world, people speak of their conversion to Christ by saying they were “saved” on some specific date like November 6, 1975. In the Presbyterian world, if someone asks you when you were “saved,” the answer tends to be, “I was saved on a hill outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago.” As much as I like that answer, I would have to say that I have personally had several “conversions” throughout my life. That may sound confusing as well. There have been times in my life when the Spirit was working to make Christ real to me in a way that was deeper than before. The effect was like being converted all over again. In light of what St Paul says about the Spirit working in our lives, I see salvation as a journey, one that we will not finish until we’re standing face to face with Jesus himself.[8] In the meanwhile, we all are in process.[9] I think what that means for us is that we always try to keep ourselves open to what the Spirit may be doing in our lives. As we do that, hopefully we will find ourselves on a journey, one in which God’s Spirit continually works in us to make us more like Jesus.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/7/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Most scholars do not make this connection. W. C. Van Unnik, “‘With Unveiled Face’, An Exegesis Of 2 Corinthians iii 12-18,”  Novum testamentum, 6 (July 1963):154, where he says quite clearly, “There is no other Pauline text which so clearly reveals his deepest experience.”  Cf. also Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, 73, where says, “Paul’s own experience was a living proof of the validity and force of this ‘eschatological exegesis’ of the OT.”
[3] Cf. Van Unnik, “‘With Unveiled Face,’” where he summarizes the context of what Paul is arguing here: “He had set out to prove that he, a minister of the new covenant, was entitled to use παρρησία, freedom of speech. In the Old Covenant there was no ‘openness of face’, as is shown in the person of Moses himself; but in contact with the Spirit who reigns in the new covenant this uncovering of the face, this liberation takes place and has Paul received the freedom of speech.”
[4] Cf. J. Paul Sampley, “The Second Letter To The Corinthians,” New Interpreters Bible IX:69. He says, “For Paul, Jesus Christ is the clear, visible reflection of God. Believers, ‘through Christ’ (2 Cor 3:14), experience the removal of the veil, so ‘with unveiled face’ they can gaze intently upon God’s glory as in the mirror that Christ provides.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 101-102: “As representative of the coming, redeeming rule of God, Jesus is also the representative of the true human existence that is to come. For that reason he is also called ‘the image of God’ (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:21; 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), the one whom believers are made like to, so that they may become ‘men’.”
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:277, where he says of the Christian: “Conformable to Christ means that in all his humanity, for Christ’s sake and in Christ, he is a child of God. It means, therefore, that he is directed away to the one for whose sake and in whom he is a child of God. This directing and integrating into Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit.” Cf. also Martin, 2 Corinthians, 74: “The office of the Holy Spirit is further described in vv 17b, 18; he brings the Jewish believer out of bondage to liberty, and transforms all believers, Gentiles as well as Jews, into God’s pattern, viz., the archetype of perfect humanity, Christ Jesus, as a progressive experience and by communion with the living God (Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19; Phil 3:21; 1 John 3:2).”
[7] Cf. Van Unnik, “‘With Unveiled Face,’” 167. He says, “Christians are in communion with God. They are therefore permanently in the same situation which Moses, according to Exod. xxxiv, only temporarily enjoyed. … The outward appearance of the Christians change; they now reflect the glory of God. This reflection of the glory, however, does not fade away like that of Moses, but has quite the opposite effect: ‘we are being transformed into the same likeness.’”
[8] Cf. Martin, 2 Corinthians, 72: “This process of “transformation” (μεταμορφοῦσθαι: cf. Rom 12:2) is gradual and progressive, ἀπὸ δόξης εἰς δόξαν [“from glory to glory”], from one stage of glory to yet a higher stage (2 Bar 51:3, 7, 10), climaxing in the goal reached in Rom 8:17, 29, 30.” Cf. also Sampley, “The Second Letter To The Corinthians,” NIB IX:69, where he speaks of this process as “an ongoing transformation that [Paul] considers fundamental to and characteristic of the life of faith.”
[9] Cf. Sampley, “The Second Letter To The Corinthians,” NIB IX:70: “Believers are works in progress; they are being transformed.… the transformation Paul here celebrates is that all believers are (ideally) becoming ever more Christ-like.”

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