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The Spirit Giveth Life

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue gave this sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church
in Savannah, Georgia on August 23, 2015

The Spirit Giveth Life
II Corinthians 3:4

“This is not a pipe.”

So reads a t-shirt owned by most every French major in recent decades. On the shirt is a painting of a pipe by Rene Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist painter. Magritte painted “The Treachery of Images” in 1929. The pipe, which looks like a fairly realistic depiction not unlike something Magritte would have drawn for advertising work he did at the time. Underneath are the words painted by the artist: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The painting seems like a contradiction for what is clearly a pipe to have the words proclaiming it not to be a pipe. When asked about the contradiction, Magritte said, “of course it is not a pipe, just try to fill it with tobacco.”

In our Epistle reading, the Apostle Paul compares the law written quite literally in stone to the ministration of the spirit. Paul writes, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” This is not because the younger Saul, who would be renamed Paul when called to be an apostle, did not find God through adherence to the law. He did come to know God and understand God’s will through the Torah. But then he encountered Christ and came to understand that we see the fullness of God’s will for us in his life and ministry, and especially in his passion and resurrection.

Writing a few centuries after Paul, the early Christian writer Ambrosiaster commented on our Epistle reading, “Paul does not deny that there was splendor in the law and on the face of Moses, but it did not endure because in his case it was a symbol and not a reality.” The church Father went on to clarify, “The difference between the face of Moses and the glory of Christ is the same difference between the picture and the person whom it portrays.”[1]

So the difference between having the law of Moses and having the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus is like the difference between a painting of a pipe and an actual pipe.

The first Christians took sharp criticism around this difference for the people around them found Jesus’ followers to be poor imitations of the original. The word “Christian” itself began as a jab at Jesus’ followers.

In the earliest days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the followers of Jesus described their approach to Judaism as “The Way.” It was The Way for they taught and practiced the way of Jesus. You find this in Acts chapter 9 where it says,

“And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).

The ones Saul sought to persecute were those belonging to The Way. The name change to Christian came in modern-day Turkey. Two chapters later in the Book of Acts we are told “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” What we are not told is that the term meant “Little Christ” and it was used to make fun of those who wanted to be like Jesus Christ. Christ is the Greek word for “Messiah,” so rather than the positive association we have of someone wanting to be Christ like, the term Christian was more like calling a person a “Little Messiah.”

But the Christians took the name on willingly as they saw a desire to be like Jesus as an important part of belonging to The Way. They didn’t consider themselves imposters or fakes, for their faith was authentic and their desire to be like Jesus was heartfelt and genuine. They knew that they were not little Messiahs, but like a realistic painting they longed to be as close a copy as they could manage. The early followers of Jesus hoped that they would be transformed over time into something more like the image of God within them. So the name Christian stuck with us. We still acknowledge with that title that we want to become a little Christ.

The good news in our Epistle is that we do not accomplish this by our own sufficiency. For as Paul writes we know that we are not sufficient “of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God.” For rather than pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps through our own effort alone, we have the Holy Ghost, our advocate and comforter, the Spirit that bears witness to our spirit.

We are, thanks be to God, “accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.”[2] For the sufficiency comes from God.

To understand this passage more clearly, I want to add a little context from the verses immediately after our lesson. Paul goes on to write of the veil Moses wore after being with God so that his face would not shine too brightly for the Children of Israel. He says that “Unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart. But for those that turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”

Paul here gives us the key to becoming more and more conformed to the image of God as found in Jesus. He writes,

“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (II Corinthians 3:14-18).

Our Epistle reading then has forward movement from showing us that our sufficiency is not our own, but God’s. Like a picture is not the thing portrayed, so the law did not clearly reveal God’s will for us until we could see more clearly through Christ. And now, we too might be changed into the same image from glory to glory.

By faith in Jesus Christ, we do not see with veiled faces, but “with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord.” So then, if we would be more than a poor imitation, we need to be conformed more and more to the image of God as found in Christ. For this we have the Means of Grace—the Sacraments, prayer, and scripture.

There is no more Anglican practice than reading the Bible daily. We are, after all, the group that gave the world perhaps the only great work of literature created by committee with the King James Version of Holy Scripture. And through the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, we have appropriate devotions which combine worship with reading and reflecting on the scripture.

This not only will help with the ongoing work of Sanctification as you seek to become more and more like Jesus. But the side benefit of daily scripture reading is that: 1) No one will be able to lead you astray as you will know the text yourself, and 2) People I know who have marinated themselves in scripture are better able to navigate the chances and changes of this life.

Otherwise, when tragedy strikes; people run to the Bible for answers. The text wasn’t designed to work that way. The Bible is not a troubleshooting guide for life. The Bible is God’s living word created to speak to your heart each day. The spirit that gives life is in that text.

With a brief commitment of time added to your morning routine, you can marinate your life in God’s word. What this will do for your outlook over time is revolutionary. Rather than encountering issues in life and running to the Bible for answers, you immerse yourself in the Bible daily and live into the answers from that new outlook. As a priest, I of course follow this pattern of life, but beyond that I have routinely met people, as we all do, who are just more closely conformed to Christ than I am. And I find these are uniformly people who have been faithfully reading and reflecting on scripture for years. For as Paul counsels us, when we do read the Word “we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”

This is how one goes from merely wearing a cross as an ornament, to carrying one’s cross and living a cruciform life.

There is a story Søren Kierkegaard told of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear their duck preacher. The duck preacher quacked on eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go. With those wings they could soar. Shouts of “Amen!” were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left telling the preacher what a stirring sermon it was and then they waddled back home. Not a single duck flew. Not even the preacher.

When you read the scripture and pray, you are beginning to stretch your wings. And as you come each week to church and hear how to live a more Christ like life, you are getting flying lessons. But if you, as I can do as well if I am not mindful, have been waddling on home unchanged now is a good time to consider what needs to be different in order to be more authentically Christian. For unlike the Magritte picture of a pipe emblazoned “I am not a pipe.” You actually do want to be more and more like the image of Christ.

What needs to be repented and let go of to be more like the image of Christ? What might you want to change to be closer to Christ? What would it look like to not just wear a cross, but to take up your cross and live a cruciform life? Not yet sure, try reading the Bible day by day and see how God might use Holy Scripture to inspire you anew.

Ask God and then have the courage to act on what our Lord shows you. Have the courage this week to soar rather than waddling about the farmyard.

Amen.

[1] Ambrosiaster’s Commentary on Paul’s Epistles in the Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum Latinorum vol. 81.216

[2] Article XI of the Articles of Religion.

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