1 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God. 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant– not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:1-6)
There are some vocations where it is easy to measure success. Competitive sports come to mind with their championship rings and endless statistics. Still the arguments about the greatest of all time persist because some athletes are not satisfied with the accolades that come with winning. In other vocations success and acclaim are much more subjective. If a person’s ego is big enough, we can count on constant self-promotion as the person is determined to make their public perception match their self-perception. Often this process is painful to watch.
Paul has an interesting challenge. He knows that he has been called by God to guide and care for the congregation that he started in Corinth. Some in the church are questioning his authority to do this. This letter contains some lengthy defenses of Paul’s authority and it is easy for us to see them as self-promotion. If that is our view, then we see Paul as having an oversized ego and it becomes easier to dismiss the message that he writes.
Given all the troubles within the Corinthian congregation I find Paul’s defense surprising. He asks the members of the church in Corinth to look inside their own hearts to determine how effective Paul’s ministry has been. Paul is confident that if they take a serious look at the change in their own hearts, they will have to acknowledge that God, through His Spirit at work in Paul, has done a good and great work.
Paul grew up in a religious system that put great emphasis on knowledge, on understanding and practicing the letter of the law. The law is fixed and unmoving. This does not mean that we all agree with how to interpret the law. I have been listening to The Legal Docket podcast. In the podcast two attorneys explore in detail various Supreme Court cases from this past year. Very often the decision is based on the majority understanding of the definition of a word. Unanimous decisions are rare, but they do happen. We know from our own experience in Bible study that it is difficult to find a unanimous opinion about any passage of scripture. The more central the passage is to our faith the wider we will find the disagreement. All this focus on disagreement, which is really a focus on our being right, divides us and moves us away from each other. Death is separation and focus on the letter kills because it often leads to separation.
Paul’s desire for the Corinthians and for us is that we would be “Spirit” led rather than “letter” led. The Spirit is alive and moving. He is not controlled by us and desires to bring us closer to God and each other. When the Spirit is leading, we should expect a congregation and its individual members to be growing in their demonstration of the fruits of the Spirit. It should be obvious that people are working together.
We have been watching the NBA playoffs and different teams have different styles of play. We miss the Warriors because they play a team style of basketball and they play with joy. We have discovered we also enjoy watching the Miami Heat, because they play with a similar style. We do not miss the Houston Rockets, because they tend to play one-on-one basketball. In my opinion, it is not nearly as fun to watch.
Many congregations today are trying to attract people to their services. The temptation is to put together a small team of people to perform up front and rely on their performance to attract new people. This approach may produce numbers, but I do not think it is what Paul had in mind when he concluded that the Spirit gives life. I think the most attractive congregation is the one where the most visible person is Jesus. I believe that this is what happens with a group of people who are being led by the Holy Spirit on a God given mission.
I am hoping that this pandemic will challenge all Christ-followers to get creative about how to make the body of Christ visible in a virtual world. I am hoping that we will be able to return to gathering soon, but I’m also hoping that we will figure out ways to connect with one another and the world around us that go beyond the few that are visible in our virtual services. We begin volunteering in a second-grade virtual classroom tomorrow. I have missed children and am looking forward to it. Where could you show up and make the letter written on your heart visible?