Saturday, February 27, 2010

No More Fear

No More Fear
Exod 34:28-35; 2 Cor. 3:12-4:2[1]
Religion can be pretty scary to most people. Although for those of us who have spent our lives in a religion it may seem hard to believe, the fact is that the average person you meet on the street probably has some anxiety related to religion. What is it about religion that is so frightening? It’s true that many unscrupulous people throughout human history have resorted to religion as a means of instilling fear in order to control people. And yet, even in this day and time when we have nobody breathing down our necks and we have perfect freedom to believe what we choose, we are still plagued by fear when it comes to religion.
I’m not sure why that is entirely, but I think at least part of it has to do with the fact that we hear the gospel message of free salvation as a kind of bait-and-switch. I think deep down inside, most people believe that the real truth is that we have to earn our way into eternity. The gospel promises us new life by the free grace of God that comes to us freely as a gift and promises to set us free from the chains that bind us. But we think, whether we say it out loud or not, that it sounds good but we don’t really believe it. We still think we have to somehow earn the free gift of new life that God wants to give to all people. We still think that we somehow have to make an effort to qualify for the new world that God is in the process of creating for us all.
We hear the good news, and it strikes a chord deep inside, but we’re afraid. Where does the fear come from? Perhaps we’re afraid of getting too close to God. Or maybe we’re afraid of acknowledging that there really is nothing we can do for ourselves when it comes to our eternal destiny. Or it could be that we’re simply afraid to step over the boundaries that have been drawn by religion for fear that we might fall headlong into a bottomless chasm and forfeit our eternal soul!
Last week I talked about how the typical human response when God gets too close to us is one of fear and trembling. Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures today provides a great illustration of that fact. The people of Israel, newly liberated from their slavery in Egypt, come to the mountain of God to joyfully express their thanksgiving to their redeemer. But when they get close to the mountain, they turn to fear instead of joyful worship. Maybe it was the fire and smoke or the thunder or maybe even the notion of standing before a Holy and awe-filled God. But whatever it was, they begged Moses to talk with God so they wouldn’t have to. Then, when Moses did as they asked, and he came back down the mountain with his face freshly shining from his “conversations with God,” Aaron and the leaders of the people of Israel who ran away! So the Scriptures tell us that Moses put a veil on his face to convey the word of the Lord to them without them high-tailing it! [2]
Centuries later, St. Paul saw Moses’ veil as a symbol of all that prevents people from embracing the glory that God wants to instill in us all—God’s glory that fills the whole earth with God’s joy and love and life. [3] It is a glory that is overwhelming, and awe-inspiring, to be sure. It is a glory that will not leave us where we are, but instead convicts us, cleanses us, and commissions us all. Paul’s experience with religion taught him that we all instinctively respond to such things with fear. But Paul’s experience with God taught him that radical transformation leads to freedom.
In contrast to the people of Israel who were unable to bear the glory of God reflected on Moses’ face, Paul insists that the presence of the Spirit of God sets us free so that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18, RSV). In the freedom of the Spirit we can look full in the wonderful face of Jesus, and the life-giving presence of God reflected there transforms us. He describes the Christian life as an ongoing process of the glory of God becoming more and more a reality in and around us. [4] It is a process of becoming more and more like Christ in every way, and therefore more and more like God.
In contrast to all the ways in which religion has provoked fear in people throughout history, we now have the freedom to look full in the face of Christ and experience the glory of God, and through that experience to know the joy and love and life that the presence of the Spirit conveys to us. In contrast to all the ways in which religion has contributed to the death and destruction in our world, the presence of the Lord through the Spirit is a life-giving presence. It is a presence that transforms us all—in particular by setting us free from the fears that have plagued us. The presence of God in the Spirit blurs all the lines we like to use to restrict where we do our “coloring” and breaks down all the walls we throw up to keep people out of “our space” and bursts through all our boundaries. And what all that blurring and breaking down and bursting through does for us is to set us free to live in love and justice and peace of God’s kingdom.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/14/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] There is a significant amount of debate about Moses’ act of veiling his face in light of Paul’s interpretation in 2 Corinthians 3. The traditional understanding of this passage is that Paul believed Moses veiled his face so that the Israelites would not see that the glory of the Old Covenant was fading. Scott Hafemann advocated a view that Moses used the veil to render the glory on his face “inoperative” because in the situation of addressing Israelites whose hearts remained hardened, the glory would have consumed them. The contrast with the New Covenant is that now by the presence of the Spirit, our hearts are transformed by the experience of God’s glory in the face of Christ, so the veil is no longer needed. Cf. Scott Hafemann, “Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in 2 Corinthians,” Interpretation 52 (July, 1998): 246-257.
[3] Cf. the address by Tamara Grdelidze to the World Council of Churches, “God, in Your Grace, Transform the World,” Ecumenical Review 56 (July, 2004): 327-333. She raises the problem that Christians around the world would understand the theme for the assembly (her title) in different ways by discussing the Orthodox belief in “deification” of Christians and indeed all creation—a word admittedly problematic to many Western Christians, but in its meaning not far off from what we mean by concepts like “sanctification” and “new creation.”
[4] Cf. Grdelidze, “Transform the World,” 328, where she describes 2 Cor. 3:18 as a “dynamic process” that we can “step into” by practicing the faith (i.e. participating in the Lord’s Supper).

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