Letters Written on the Heart

In 2nd Corinthians Paul’s Good News is one that he and his assistants like Titus, carry with them within their hearts. The witness to life in Christ that they preach is not written in stone. Of course, this is the reference to the Ten Commandments written on the stone tablets that Moses brought down the mountain to reveal to the people waiting there. Once more Paul sets his message against the message of the Hebrew Scriptures, the religious text of his Jewish upbringing. If we haven’t read or know about the texts that are alluded to here, we may miss a layer of meaning that Paul’s audience, especially the Jewish-Christians, would know. It is the contrast between what for Paul is dead, the old order of the Law (Torah) and the new order in Christ (the Good News).
Just like we often picture God as some old whited bearded man in a long white toga, until now I imagined Paul to look like some crusty old guy, with a long beard and a fierce look upon his face, weather and travel weary. But doing the math Paul would have been in his mid-twenties when he had his experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road. However powerful that experienced was, and Paul himself attests over and over to the force and impact of that encounter with the risen Jesus, he did not get automatically zapped with knowledge of the message he was meant to preach. No veil was lifted from his eyes so that he immediately saw the whole of the gospel. For a time he was blinded by the experience. He was taken to Asia where he studied and reflected on his new calling. It would be Barnabas who would come and retrieve him to begin their work of converting the Gentiles to Christ.
So Paul was a relatively young man when he began to further the cause of Christ. That would explain his stamina in the face of his travels and sheer force of will that runs through all his letters. It may also explain why he was and remained unmarried. At the beginning of this letter to Corinth, we see once more the eloquence of a young man with a heart on fire for the Lord. And it is this metaphor of the heart that he uses to send this greeting to the converts at Corinth. But it is not just a metaphor. For in his heart and the hearts of those who are within the sound of his voice and words, the affection and intensity for God’s glory as it shines on the face of Christ, is something real, tangible and lived. Surely this way of viewing the word of God derives from his own encounter with the living Jesus on the Damascus Road.
For Paul it is the Spirit of the living God who has written on the people’s hearts the introduction and commendation that is part of his letters. In fact, what he is saying is that he does not need letters in ink or words on stone, for you are yourselves our letter, written in our/your hearts, that anybody can see and read, and it is plain that you are a letter from Christ…written on the tablets of your living hearts. This is not a message chiseled on stone, it is not brittle, hard and, like the first stone tablets, it will not break. Their lives again show forth the Christ that they carry in their hearts and is visible in their lives for all to see. In his heart Paul carries the ‘letter from Christ’, within him and it burns passionately in this young man who has turned all his energies toward knowing and spreading the Word of the love of Christ for everyone, not only the Hebrew people. Paul and Titus’ work is like incense rising, the knowledge of himself (Christ) like a sweet smell. Perfume spreading about the knowledge of Christ.
Tell me this man is not a realistic romantic who carries in his head and heart a new Love, a new covenant, the new relationship and way of being with God, now a living word, etched there, and pouring out from the Spirit of Christ. His faith shines out from an unveiled face, to reveal the glory of God in Christ and Paul’s own passion written on his sleeve for all the world to see. A young Moses leading the people to the promise, the promise that goes forth now in the Lord. The promise no longer only a place, but a way of being. The resurrection of the promise that we can take to our inmost hearts, written on our hearts, to carry with us, whether at home or walking abroad, whether lying down or rising, a sign for all the world to see, no letter of introduction required.

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Singing in the Fire

Corinthians Chapters 1-3

Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians sometime around Easter. It would have been Spring time. The season of new life. The season of the Resurrection. The season when the path to becoming, becoming a new creation was paved for us. So it would follow that one of the metaphors Paul uses for this new creation in Christ is planting, sowing seeds. It is Paul who has sown the seeds of his message; it has been watered by Apollos, one of Paul’s companions. But it is God who makes things grow. Paul goes on to liken the faithful in Corinth to a farm, God’s farm.

 What Paul addresses here in his writing sounds like weighty doctrinal issues of moral conduct. Corinth was a thriving and diverse metropolis in Greece. It was a port city on the Mediterranean Sea with a divergent populace of aristocrats, tradespeople, farmers and slaves. At some point in his letter Paul will address the issues facing all strata of his new community of believers. Earlier we heard him addressing the challenges of the unreasonableness of the cross from the Greek philosophers. There was also a large Jewish contingent who had migrated from Rome, and possibly Palestine. Corinth was a great cultural and religious mix. There were various challenges to religious practices, rites and rituals that Paul would also have to address. Most of the issues facing Paul’s converts arose from the mixed cultural and religious atmosphere this thriving metropolis. The believer were also surrounded by the ever attention getting conduct, the lewd and lascivious goings on in their midst.

 But it is the genius of Paul to turn these issues on their head, uprooting them from their strangle hold on the newly elect, shaking them loose of their power to assail the budding faith. They are God’s farm and at the same time working right alongside God, the farm and the farmer.  As co-workers with God their lives are rooted in union in Christ, where they share in the freedom of the Spirit, planted in love and tended by the Spirit that reaches into the depths of thing, even the depths of God. For Christ has become our wisdom, our virtue, our holiness and our freedom. Bound to Christ we are no longer slaves to the world, life or death, present or future.

 Paul changes his metaphor to one a building whose foundation is Christ. Moral conduct then is determined by the Christ we have received, not by our status in life, rich or poor, slave or free. Freedom is to live under one sign, the sign of the cross, and one master, Christ. Our only wisdom is to know that we are God’s temple. Just as the Temple in Jerusalem was the destination, goal and center for the Jews, to say that we are God’s temple now relocates what is central, holy and our goal into the present and presence of the sacred reality that we are, our Holy of Holies the indwelling of the Spirit. It is the reminder that as God’s temple we are sacred. And this is the temple that no one can destroy. This is how we are to carry and conduct ourselves, as temples of God. (If the dating of this letter is correct it comes before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. If that is accurate then Jesus’ words about destroying and rebuilding the Temple in three days echo eerily in Paul’s words to the Corinthians.)

 Paul likens us to tradesmen who are build something, building our lives of faith. Paul asks us to think about what we are building. What is the quality of our work? Will what we build, what we do, last? Can what we have built withstand the fire. The first association with the image of the fire that comes to destroy is that this is apocalyptic rhetoric. That Paul is referring to the end times and the coming of Christ. But knowing that Paul was a devout and well-read Jewish man, a well-schooled Pharisee, who knew his Hebrew Scriptures very well, I thought of another association that Paul might have had in mind here. If you recall, in the Book of Daniel, when the King sentences Daniel and his friends into the burning furnace because they would not worship false idols, remain faithful to the Lord God of Israel, they go, into the fire singing. When the guards go to see them turned to ash, the guards burn up because the flames are so hot, but the three men are still alive, singing in the fire. The earliest Christians in Corinth were in a kind of melting pot (could not resist the pun) with challenges to their faith on all sides. Perhaps our lives today are like that. Challenges within and without to living our lives in Christ, to putting on Christ, looking like God’s fool. And yet Paul by his triune metaphors suggests that if we build it he will come. If we have Christ as our firm foundation, if we plant with God and see ourselves as the sacred beings we are, what we plant and what we build will last, and we can go about our lives singing in the fire.