2018 June 10 “The Letter”

SCRIPTURE   II Corinthians 3:1-6    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.

 MESSAGE                       “The Letter”      Rev. James Renfrew

When I prepare for the Sunday sermon I always begin with the Bible text.  It’s tempting to begin with what I think, then add some scripture to support what I think, but over time I have learned that preaching is far more authentic when I begin with a Bible text and see where it takes me and you in the direction of salvation and eternity.

Always begin with the text!  In 1980 I was a member of a peace delegation visiting Soviet Union, and during our time there we went to a service at the Baptist Church in Moscow.  One member of our group, Rev. CT Vivian, a Baptist minister who had been a colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,was invited at the very last minute to preach during the service.  I remember him in those two minutes before the service began saying over and over to himself, “I need a text, I need a text, I need a text”.  CT was a pastor with enormous experience and skill, but until he found a text to work with he was stuck.  At the end of those two minutes he found that text, and soon he was preaching, his message translated line by line from English into Russian, and the text sang, it cried, it dreamed, and it lived as CT connected that text to every heart in the room.  As I prepare for preaching each Sunday I always remember CT, and his need for a text.

So my message this morning began almost two months ago when I began to make a list of texts for preaching during the month of June.  In the Common Lectionary starting this Sunday begins a series of readings from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.   Paul visited many places around the Mediterranean world to establish the first Christian communities.  To stay in touch with his friends in these places Paul wrote letters, many of which are preserved in the New Testament.  And we still read them today.

This is what I love about the Bible.  I’ve read it through many times, because once is not enough.  On second, third, fifth and twentieth reading of a familiar text I always find something new.  This is exactly what happened with this reading from the 3rd chapter.  As I read it again, I pondered it, questioned it, prayed about it, and now in its familiar words I’ve found a new treasure to share.  It is the text from which today’s preaching flows.  Paul, of course, is well-known for composing letters to Christians, but in the second verse  he makes an astounding leap in his logic.  You yourselves are our letter.  It’s a wonderful insight.  Paul has written many letters to the world, but his most important letter to the world is the people whose lives have been touched and transformed by the Gospel.  It makes sense, what he writes, because the way we live our lives is a more powerful expression of faith than any letter written in ink on paper.  Your 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. The apostle who wrote letters that fill the New Testament makes the astounding statement that the real letters are people like us.  His readers, filled with the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ , are the letters that touch the world.

Think of it this way, that you are a living letter that communicates the Gospel to the world around you.  In your words, your gestures, your deeds and your actions become a letter to the world.

So think of yourself as a letter, a living letter, sent to the world around you.  You could begin to imagine yourself as a letter the same way that you were taught to write letters in school long ago.

A formal written letter would begin with the heading, your name, address, phone number and e-mail address?  But as a living letter what would your heading be?  Maybe “______, Child of God”, “______, disciple of Christ”, “________, seeker”, “______, story teller”, “______, encourager”, or “______, teacher”.  What would your heading be as a living letter about Jesus Christ?  Think of a descriptive phrase that captures just who you are.

A formal written letter would include a salutation to the addressee.  But as a living letter how do you address the world around you?  “Hey you!”, “dear friends”, or “I’m eager to share”, or “I’m willing to help”.

The most important part of a written letter is the body of it, or the content.  What is your content as a living letter?  What story captures the heart of your adherence to Jesus Christ?  What have been your struggles and successes?  Where have you been and where is the Spirit leading you?

I’ve been volunteering in my granddaughter’s classroom on my day off each week.  On Friday they were all writing letters to a retiring teacher.  You could tell that they have been learning how to write a letter.  Each of the letters had a heading and a salutation, but the best part was the body of their letters in which they were giving their best advice to a beloved teacher about what he could do in retirement.  One girl suggested a trip to Hawaii, another a trip to her favorite place in the world, Puerto Rico.  The content of each letter was wonderful, but in effect each one of the third graders was presenting themselves as a living letter to a beloved teacher and the main content was their love for him and their encouragement for the next chapter in his life.  I am sure that the retiring teacher will treasure those written letters, but the heart of the treasure will be his remembering their faces as they handed their letters to him.

The hardest part in writing these letters was how to conclude them.  This is something they are still learning, how to bring the content of the letter to a powerful conclusion, just before they sign their names.

The conclusion of the text from Second Corinthians is not the conclusion of the whole letter, but it concludes with Paul’s  understanding that each Christian is a living letter to the world, filled with promise and hope.   Show that you are a letter of Christ, Paul writes, 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.  Don’t just be a letter, show your letter, not written with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God.  Don’t just be a letter, sing your letter, not carved in stone but written on the human heart.

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