One of the things I enjoy on trips to Israel and this spring on the trip to Greece is studying the road signs while riding on the bus. I know just enough Hebrew and Greek to be dangerous, so I try to puzzle out words on the signs. Well, early on in the Greece trip I noticed the Greek spelling of the word “exodus” on one of the signs. I soon realized it was regularly on the signs, and confirmed with the bus driver that it simply meant “exit.” Two perspectives hit me then. One was that maybe this was why the exodus took so long. All the signs they passed said “exodus” with an arrow, so they took them all thinking they were staying on the exodus route rather than exiting from it. The other was to wonder if it is a faith enhancing experiencing for Greek Christians to see that word many times every day and be reminded of God’s liberating activity. My guess is that it becomes just another word.
Today’s passage has a lot to teach about perspectives. I’d like to talk about a few of those things. The passage follows the one we looked at last week, in which Paul talked about death in terms of the temporary tent we live in on this earth, our bodies, being taken down; and knowing that God has prepared a building not made by hands, eternal in the heavens, for us to replace it. As we age our outer nature is wasting away but we have confidence that something far better awaits us.
In today’s passage, Paul continues with this thought by saying, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” I like to read other translations for different perspectives, and listen to how the Jerusalem Bible translates this passage, using another very important biblical word and image to communicate the meaning: “We are always full of confidence, then, when we remember that to live in the body means to be exiled from the Lord, going as we do by faith and not by sight – we are full of confidence, I say, and actually want to be exiled from the body and make our home with the Lord.” That is vivid imagery. While we are in the body we are exiled from the Lord. Only when we are exiled from our bodies will we be fully and truly at home with the Lord. Since this life is really all we know and we are pretty attached to it, I don’t think most of us have this perspective which allows us to view our deaths as a net positive for us. If we are not likely to choose to leave this earthly life behind, perhaps it is accurate to say we will have to be exiled from our bodies to get to heaven.
Then he concludes, “Whether we are living in the body or exiled from it, we are intent on pleasing him.” And then something you never expect from Paul: “For all the truth about us will be brought out in the law court of Christ, and each of us will get what he deserves for the things he did in the body, good or bad.” Paul actually has a very personal reason for saying this. Other preachers have come to Corinth presenting less than flattering pictures of Paul, and the Corinthians have accepted some of what they have heard as true. So in various places in II Corinthians we find Paul standing up for himself, defending himself and his reputation and his methods.
Here he writes, “God knows us for what we really are, and I hope that in your consciences you know us too.” Then this curious statement: “If we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right minds, it is for you.” The Jerusalem Bible renders it, “If we seemed out of our senses, it was for God; but if we are being reasonable now, it is for your sake.” The New International Version says, “If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” Obviously one of the criticisms being leveled at Paul was that he was unstable, that he claimed religious experiences which were unverifiable and could not be trusted. The Damascus Road conversion, for instance; being lifted up to a third heaven in the spirit; perhaps speaking in tongues. These are things critics could seize on as weaknesses or attempts to be sensationalistic and underhanded in his evangelistic methods.
His answer is to remind them of the unwavering basics of his message, which is Jesus Christ who died for all so that all might live for him and not for self. There is nothing sensationalistic or mystical about this message.
Now, having reflected about how skewed people’s perceptions of him have become, he takes the ultimate leap in changes of perspective. He writes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
How do we judge people? Paul knew what it felt like to be judged only partially or erroneously. He also knew the mistake he had made in judging Jesus from a human point of view as one who was undermining the Jewish system and way of life, who associated with outcasts and taught people to disregard the law. He has learned that judging by his human eyes and ears and standards is inadequate. He had to be struck blind in order to be able to see this. The new filter for judgment is the cross, where we see God reconciling the world to himself through his Son, Jesus Christ. Paul says, “It is all God’s work. It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation. In other words, God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, not holding our sins against us, and he has entrusted to us the ministry of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ, and the appeal we make is: be reconciled to God.”
I don’t think I can overestimate what an important passage this is. You may recall from I Corinthians some of the issues there. They had divided into factions. “I belong to the church of Apollos.” “I belong to the church of Peter.” “I belong to the church of Paul.” “I belong to the church of Jesus.” They placed a high value on wisdom teaching and philosophy. They argued over which spiritual gifts were most important. They pushed and shoved in the line at the covered dish supper. They argued over whether morality mattered or what foods you could eat. They were making a lot of judgments about preachers, leaders, styles of being church, personal conduct and worth. Division was the order of the day. Paul was really just one more subject to slice and dice and dissect. Paul knew how to play that game as well, and he got caught up in it from time to time in defending himself and criticizing his opponents or people he just thought were off base.
But the perspective he offers in this passage just clears all that off the table in one motion. “We no longer regard anyone from a human point of view.” This is what he ultimately meant when he said we walk by faith and not by sight. How do we set aside years of prejudices and expectations and profiling? “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation; the old creation has gone, and now the new one is here.” Something in us has to die with Christ on the cross in order for the new creation to take hold in us. It is the desire to judge, to be superior, to have someone to look down on and blame, and to pay someone back for past wrongs that has to die. These are not things that most of us are eager to let go of.
Let’s use one of America’s recurring most difficult problems as a case study about this – the racial divide and tensions related to law enforcement. It’s an emotional issue. It’s easy to jump on one side or the other of the bandwagon and make an all out case for that side. But that is walking by sight rather than by faith and judging by human standards.
Do you know the old saying that you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes? We could use a whole lot more of that and a whole lot fewer Facebook rants and working each other into a likeminded frenzy on whatever “news” channel you gravitate to.
What would we find if we did this? Here’s what I think. We’d find police officers who wonder why in the world they chose this profession. They are under intense scrutiny for whatever they decide to do in the heat of instantaneous decisions and life and death situations. They are regularly called to go into communities that you probably never even drive through, to knock on doors, to confront domestic violence, to break up fights, to respond to crimes. They are undertrained and badly undercompensated to do this. Do they profile people based on color and appearance? Absolutely, and they do it based on experiences they have had. Do they make mistakes? Yes, sometimes terrible ones.
What else would we find if we tried on someone else’s sandals for a while? We’d find, among other things, a number of people who are trapped in the low education/poverty/crime cycle and have been for several generations. A home life that is lacking, poor role models, lots of bullying and temptations to get caught up in the lifestyle of the streets. Police officers have never been a helpful, friendly presence, and they have not been able to protect them from the traumas they have faced in life. In fact, if something bad has happened the police are automatically going to start their search with people who look like this. Is there a reason for that? Absolutely. Does it create anger among those who are assumed to be criminals whether they are or not? Absolutely.
The best solution, it seems to me, would be to have police officers trained from each community who would know the residents by name and know at least some of the stories. That seems so common sense that I guess it has proved impossible to do.
But one way or the other, building relationships and bringing down barriers is essential. Otherwise, increasing polarization, alienation, and segregation will surely lead us down the path Israel has trod, to where “troublesome” communities are walled in and isolated from the rest of the world. Surely we are not interested in that.
So what can we do? We can embrace a new and different creation, claiming the ministry of reconciliation that God has entrusted into our hands. We can refuse to get swept up into the rhetoric, the hatred, the blaming game. Get involved in a community group that is trying to establish relationships between races, between communities, between economic groups. As we get to know “the other” it becomes easier to care about that person, understand that person, and pray for that person. Get to know a police officer, or do something kind for an officer or the department to know their work is appreciated. Be a mentor in school for a child without much support at home.
The problems seem so great as to be insurmountable. But we walk by faith, not by sight, and we have a confidence which comes from that faith in God. One person can make a difference. We are ambassadors for Christ, carrying the message of reconciliation to all. God help us.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
June 14, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church