2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
12 So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence. 13 We aren’t like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites couldn’t watch the end of what was fading away. 14 But their minds were closed. Right up to the present day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. The veil is not removed because it is taken away by Christ. 15 Even today, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But whenever someone turns back to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Lord’s Spirit is, there is freedom. 18 All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
4:1 This is why we don’t get discouraged, given that we received this ministry in the same way that we received God’s mercy. 2 Instead, we reject secrecy and shameful actions. We don’t use deception, and we don’t tamper with God’s word. Instead, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God by the public announcement of the truth. (CEB)
Reading and understanding Second Corinthians is difficult. Preaching from it is even more so. It’s difficult to follow Paul’s argument when we take a small section of it, like 3:12-4:2, because Paul’s arguments are long and complex. The first words of our text: “So…” in the CEB and “Since, then,…” in the NRSV, tell us that this text continues an argument or point that Paul had made in the preceding verses.
Yet, even if we were to go back and look at the preceding verses in Second Corinthians, there’s still the problem that this letter is correspondence with a church community, and we don’t even have half of that correspondence. What we call First Corinthians was at least the second letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth (c.f. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11).
The letter we call Second Corinthians was at least the fourth letter Paul wrote to them. On one of Paul’s visits to Corinth, he experienced a falling out with the church there when one man publicly accused Paul of falsehood and no one in the church came to his defense. Paul left, and he was so upset that he canceled a later planned visit and, instead, he wrote a letter of tears in which he told the Corinthians of his overwhelming love for them. We don’t have that letter of tears.
Second Corinthians chapters 1-9 was Paul’s attempt to reconcile with the church at Corinth. In fact, having found out that the Corinthian church had punished the person who attacked Paul, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to forgive and comfort the man (c.f. 2 Corinthians 2:5-8).
But, chapters 10-13 are such a severe shift in tone from the first nine chapters that some scholars think those chapters are a fragment of yet another letter that Paul wrote sometime after he wrote the first nine chapters of Second Corinthians. So, Paul wrote at least two letters to Corinth that are now lost to history.
And, we don’t have any of the letters that the Corinthian Christians wrote to Paul, but we know that they wrote to him (c.f. 1 Corinthians 7:1). So, the obvious difficulty in tracking Paul’s already complex arguments is that we never have the whole story. That lack of information, which is a lack of context, makes Second Corinthians a little challenging at times.
What we can determine is that, in our text and in the previous verses at the end of chapter 2, Paul was defending his ministry as having come from God. The work he was doing among the Corinthians wasn’t because he was qualified for it in his own right, nor was his success at Corinth something that came from him. Rather, God qualified him for the work of ministry among them by the power of the Spirit. And, because it is a ministry of the Spirit and not a ministry of written law, Paul declares how much confidence and hope we can have that this new thing God is doing is permanent and everlasting. “So, since we have such a hope, we act with great confidence” (2 Corinthians 3:12 CEB).
Today is the last Sunday after the Epiphany, on which we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. The ministry of Jesus was to reveal God and God’s deep love for every person to a broken and lost humanity. Paul used the imagery of the veil over Moses’ face to describe the separation between God and mortals, just as there was a curtain in the temple to separate worshipers from God’s holiness. But, in Christ Jesus—who is God the Word made flesh—that veil is removed. Jesus revealed God’s glory to the entire human race and opened the way of salvation to everyone.
The separation between God and human beings is taken away, and we now operate by the same Spirit that empowered Jesus for his ministry, and Paul for his. There is freedom where the Lord’s Spirit is. We Americans love the idea freedom. We believe we’re free, we will patriotically, insistently assert how free we are… even as we’re in complete bondage to almost everything around us… not to mention sin and death, and as we approach April 15: taxes. Don’t believe me that we’re in bondage? I dare you to take off your watches and turn your clocks face-down and see how long you last without utter reliance on the taskmaster-of-time telling us exactly where to be and when. And that’s only one example. But that’s not really the kind of freedom Paul is talking about.
We might ask what we’re freed from, or for. What Paul wants us to understand is that we’re free from any sense that we have to earn acceptance from God. Those illusions are shattered so that we are free to see Christ and follow him.
You see, freedom, for Paul, is not something we can accomplish or generate for ourselves. We can’t free ourselves by revolution, or smashing our clocks to bits, or gaining wealth. Freedom is a gift of God that liberates us to be what God created us to be: namely, servants to all whom we encounter. That’s what Christ did for us, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8 CEB).
We’re free to see Jesus Christ and be who we’re meant to be because God has already accepted us and forgiven us. That freedom means we can reach out in service to others—as Christ did to the world. And we can have confidence in our activity of reaching out because we trust that God will equip us in the ways we need to be equipped for the ministry we do.
We’re also free from having to worry about human definitions of success and effectiveness in the ministry we do. Where the Spirit of God is, we’re free from the fear of failure and fear of criticism.
Paul also says, “All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 CEB). Paul dares us to imagine that we are being transformed in a way that gives glory to God. As humanity was created in God’s image (c.f. Genesis 1:27), yet that image was distorted through sin, the image of God in us is being restored as we are being transformed to more perfectly reflect God in our lives.
In that sense, our lives are being transformed by our God-given freedom. Our actions, our words, our thoughts all begin to reflect Christ as though we’re looking in a mirror. The end of the chorus of the song, Lord I Need You, says, “Holiness is Christ in me.” It’s exactly what Paul is talking about here. God’s Spirit equips us. God’s Spirit works through us. God’s Spirit leads us to lives of service to others. That is the freedom we have in Christ. We are free to be transformed into the image of God from one degree of glory to another.
John Wesley described this process as Sanctification. The work of God’s grace in us does not leave us unchanged! The Christian life is a process, and Paul is a prime example of this. He was an enemy of the church, a persecutor who approved of the murder of Stephen by stoning, who traveled around with official letters that allowed him to arrest anyone who belonged to Christ so he could drag them back to Jerusalem for prosecution. It was Paul’s encounter with Christ that began a life-long process of transformation into the image of God.
As Robert Prim put it, “…no one falls head-first into the pool of God’s transforming love and emerges fully formed as a perfect reflection of Christ” (Feasting on the Word: Year C, vol.4, pg. 451). We are all works in progress. The work of God’s Spirit moves each of us from one degree of glory to the next: oftentimes our transformation comes as one baby step at a time or like a spilled jar of molasses in a deep freeze. The Christian life is one of growth and improvement as God’s Spirit is at work in us.
Even as we move forward through this process of transformation, we experience setbacks. We occasionally flounder. And there again, Paul is a prime example, and so were the churches and people to whom he ministered. As I said earlier: this letter, Second Corinthians, was written as an attempt at reconciliation after Paul and the church at Corinth had a severe falling out. We know that change isn’t always a welcome experience. At times, it’s upsetting, unsettling, and downright annoying.
It is in the nature of God’s grace, and it is an ever-loving action of the Holy Spirit, to interrupt, turn around, and overturn so that we can see Christ more clearly and reflect Christ’s image more perfectly. Change brought about by the Holy Spirit moves us to new places, opens our mind and heart to new understanding, and opens our eyes to new views.
Our hope and confidence is in Jesus Christ and in the transforming power of God’s loving grace. When we act with love and mercy toward others, we reflect Christ to them and—by God’s grace—in some small measure, represent Christ to them. When God’s love works in us and transforms us into God’s image from one degree glory to the next, we begin to reflect, not ourselves, but Christ who lives in us and moves through us.
Even during a season as disheartening as this one must have been for Paul, he says that we don’t lose heart or get discouraged. Christ is the Lord of the church. And our ministry—whatever it might be, however it might take shape—is to invite others to the freedom we find in Christ Jesus: to live in hope as those whom God accepts, embraces, and loves. In Christ, the veil is lifted, and our lives are transformed to the glory of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay