Written for and delivered at South Lake Presbyterian Church. Primary Text: Ephesians 3:1-6
There are times in our lives when letters like the ones Paul is talking about here are important. The millions of freshman settling into college life right now spent last year gathering recommendations from counselors, coaches, scout leaders and teachers to include alongside their applications. A good reference letter or call can make the difference between getting passed over and getting an interview for a job.
A letter of commendation can open doors for someone new to a community. I certainly give thanks for the kind words that people have shared with friends around the presbytery, which has allowed me to share my gifts by preaching and teaching.
Working with interns over the years, I have learned to read and write letters of reference. But I have always found it even harder to write a cover letter – the sort that goes with your own resume when you are trying to introduce yourself. It’s hard to sell yourself without feeling like a braggart. I think it has to do with the warning of “Pride going before a fall…”
Paul definitely understands that tension. Throughout this letter and others, even in those moments when he is at his most arrogant, Paul knows it is not ALL about him. As he describes where he has been and the work he has been doing, Paul consistently points to the work of the Spirit and the presence of Christ in his ministry.
Paul is keenly aware that his intellect, his Roman citizenship, and anything else he might put in the “Skills and Experience portion of a resume, NONE of that is worth anything outside of Christ.
He described it this way in his letter to the Philippians:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage….
Paul longs for all followers of Christ to understand this- to know that God’s love – expressed to the world in the person of Jesus – and God’s power – mediated to us in the presence of the Holy Spirit – is worth more than anything we can purchase, claim or earn in this realm. That is the gospel Paul preached and taught wherever he went.
Now in this passage – in the snippet of conversation we overhear between Paul and the Corinthians – we can see that Paul is frustrated with them. It is especially clear in the first verse of our passage, when he asks if, like “some people”, he needs to send along letters of commendation.
Based on what we know about the history of the early church, it is possible that there were other apostles bearing letters of commendation who came to Corinth, preaching a different gospel and perhaps even discrediting Paul.
I can imagine how Paul might have felt wounded by this. After all, this is a community in which he has invested his time and his love. But even if he managed not to take it personally, these developments would have worried him as their pastor and mentor in the faith. He would not want to see them drawn into confusion about what it means to live in relationship with Christ and with one another. He would not want them to miss out on the transformative and life-giving nature of God’s work. This is why he points back to them (the Corinthians themselves) as the only letter of commendation needed.
Here is how Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul’s words:
Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives—and we publish it.
Paul was the one who brought to them the good news, and the lives they were living in response to that truth – those lives were the proof of Jesus being at work within them. Their lives made evident the work of the Spirit, transforming them day by day, stating clearly for everyone to see that they belonged to God.
They were living letters, addressed to the world.
This is true of us, each of us, even today. In a world that has seen the name of Jesus invoked to start wars, to oppress and enslave, and to protect abusers, people are watching more than listening. Our lives are the strongest witness we can offer, a letter of commendation – not for Paul or any other pastor, but for the God we know and love.
Paul is playing with a couple of images from the Hebrew scriptures here, both of which point to the way that God sought to teach the people of Israel how to live. The most obvious reference is to stone tablets,
bringing to mind the ten commandments that Moses brought from God to the people. The tablets would have also reminded the Corinthians about the whole of the law as captured in the Torah.
Paul also calls to mind the words of Jeremiah, where the prophet writes:
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.”
The covenant Jeremiah describes shifts the law from external tablets and scrolls to something internal. It makes the relationship between the people and God all the more intimate. What we do – who we are – as we live out that covenant, then, reflects the mind and heart of God.
This astounding truth is reinforced in what Paul says to the Corinthians next – that our competence comes from God in Christ. We are competent as ministers of – and as witnesses to – a new covenant. This covenant is about the life-giving spirit of the law, not about a follow-me-to-the-letter law that kills hope and relationships.
This is the good news to which we bear witness: God sent Jesus, out of love, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. Christ is our competence, provided as our means to remain in relationship with God. We can bear witness to this truth because we have experienced it ourselves, the love of God has been written into the story of our lives.
Now – It’s easiest to hear these words and consider them in light of our own individual faith journeys from salvation toward sanctification. But knowing Paul and knowing the theme of his other letter to the church in Corinth, it’s important to look at what all this means to our lives together as a community of faith.
How do we extend to South Lake Presbyterian Church this image of being a living letter… together… as a body?
South Lake is one of the congregations I have been privileged to visit several times over the past few years. I have read your letter more than once…
You have been gracious and encouraging to me as I have grown into my call as a minister. You have offered authentic praises to God in challenging times and in seasons of joy. Your hospitality was on display as you helped your pastors welcome their sweet daughter to America and into their family a few years ago, and as you hosted the Presbytery meeting last spring. You displayed faith in calling Pastor Melanie as your interim and in the good healing and visioning work you did together. You have shown perseverance in your search for the right pastor to serve alongside you in the coming years. And along the way, you have offered to one another the gifts of prayer, friendship, honesty, accountability, faith, hope, and love.
As you welcome Pastor Drew and Suzi, they will become part of the community, part of the letter, as well. The Spirit will continue to move and challenge you to bear witness to God’s faithfulness and love. And because this community is made of people, all of whom are – well – fallible, it will sometimes be a challenge to remain together… on the same page, as it were.
But the law written on your hearts and minds is the law of love, commanding and empowering you to love God and to love others with those very same hearts and minds.
And so I can’t wait to come visit you again, to read you again, to see how God moves among you and gets you moving into new places or into familiar places with greater boldness:
Places where you will run into strangers and friends who need proof of God’s presence in this crazy world.
Places where you meet people willing to believe that God is here and might even be good, but question whether Jesus would want to be seen among his people
Places where you will be read by people longing for a community of love and hope.
And I have faith in that same Spirit to empower you to love each of them as deeply and truly as God loves you.