Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sweet Scripture

The second lesson in Morning Prayer today (2 Corinthians 14-3:6) is a good example of what I call "sweet Scripture". Notice the vibrant images which St. Paul uses in writing to his beloved church in Corinth
with such obvious tenderness and love:  

"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not peddlers of God's word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence. Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

The most "triumphal procession" I can remember takes me back to the old days of our annual parish Corpus Christi processions at St. Patrick's, Troy, OH. All us school children were decked out in our best: the girls in white dresses, the boys in dark suits, with ties (!), each carrying full bouquets of snap-dragons, roses, carnations, etc. We were followed by the vested deanery priests who preceded the Blessed Sacrament in the gold monstrance, carried by the golden-coped celebrant walking under a canopy borne by four Knights of Columbus, with plumed hats and shiny swords, and assisted by a gold-vested deacon and subdeacon. In front of them walked a server whose incense-filled thurible poured forth clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Talk about fragrance and aroma! We paraded around the whole perimeter of the side aisles, then back up the middle aisle to our pews, the altar party continuing on into the sanctuary.

By our lives, Paul says, for good or ill, you and I are "the aroma of Christ to God" and to one another, either a life-giving or death-dealing "fragrance". He intimates that if we constantly live in God's presence, we'll take on what some in the past used to refer to, sometimes seriously, sometimes in jest, as "the odor of sanctity". For Paul it bears a deeper meaning: that you and I are "persons of sincerity...persons sent from God". In spreading the Good News, the fragrant, life-giving Word embodied in Jesus, Paul says, we're not "peddlers of God's word like so many". Peddlers of the Word are interested in one thing: promoting themselves and their own "infallible"version of salvation, and making money on it in the process. Tune in to almost any of the current so-called TV evangelists, and you'll get the idea.

The other image St. Paul employs is that of his hearers being his "letter, written on our hearts". The heart, the seat of love, is where Paul holds his beloved Corinthians, even with all the good and not-so-good traits which he accords to them in his first Letter. Holding them in his heart, he prays that this "letter", written not in ink but in the living Spirit who brings us, through our confession of Jesus as Lord, "into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all of creation", as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, may become visible and read by all in the lives which you and I lead.

Paul's final reminder is that this is all possible, not by anything we can do of ourselves, but through God's competence alone, empowering us to be "ministers of a new covenant": a covenant of self-giving love, a covenant not of the confining letter but of the living Spirit.

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