I don’t know if I have told you this before, but ever since I started studying theology I have had a strained relationship with the Apostle Saint Paul. By that I mean I find some of his letters, some of his thoughts to be nothing less than inspired words of blessing and grace. I love his image of the body of Christ being the church and that we are all one body even though we bring all our wonderful differences to the very same table. We bring our different ideas and talents together and form one body; I just love that. I also live by St Paul’s creed that with Christ we there are no longer slave or free, no longer Greek or Jew, no longer man or woman, but all are radically, powerfully equal in the loving eyes of God.
And then there is the other side of Paul. His various letters to the churches of the ancient region prove, if nothing else, that he is surprisingly self-centered, robustly immodest, and clearly prickly in attitude to those who disagree with his largely self imposed prominence in the early Christian Church. If you add to this some of his contested letters, that is letters we are not sure that he actually wrote, you would have to include that he contradicts himself in later writings and for instance says women are not in fact equal but should, in effect, be barefoot, silent and sit at the back of the church. Given all this, I do have at times an uneasy and troubled relationship with funny old Saint Paul. However, today I do turn to Paul’s writing in Second Corinthians. Given my misgivings I don’t preach upon Paul often, but this passage is one of those remarkable and inspired works that I just have to comment upon and share with you.
Let me start with a very short story. After my Curacy at the Cathedral was over I was given the post of interim Priest at St Thomas in East Vancouver. I remember that in my very first week there I had to do something by myself that I had not yet done before in my career as a minister. I had to go to the bedside of a dying person and give the Anglican version of Last Rites. When I arrived the family was already there, surrounding her bed and looking at me as if I should know what I was going to do. There is a lose liturgy for such an occasion, but I was mostly just copying what I had seen done before. To be honest, I was feeling uncomfortable and awkward. I finished the rite, but it felt to me inadequate; I felt I should do something more. The elderly woman lying on the bed had been in a coma for a couple of days. I took a deep breath and relaxed and let the Spirit guide me. I felt the nudge of God lead me to make it personal and keep it simple. I then sat beside her, took her hand into mine and softly read the twenty-third Psalm into her ear. As I finished the Psalm this woman who had not showed any sign of life for two days had tears rolling down her face. It was nothing at all that I did. It was the Holy Spirit bringing the two of us together with God in a moment of simple and profound grace.
Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century German theologian and philosopher, once said, “The spiritual life is not a process of addition, but rather subtraction”. What we take away or subtract from our lives is of course very much dependant on what it is that we put into it. Fear, greed, addiction, material wealth, prejudice, are among the many things we might want to subtract for a meaningful spiritual life. In today’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us how such a transformation is possible. Paul instructs us to take our burdens and our baggage and subtract them by inviting Christ into our lives and letting the Holy Spirit transform us into a new creation. Paul here is promising something quite remarkable and radical; Paul is saying if we let God into our hearts and minds and our very soul, we will be changed from the inside out and become like a new person. To quote Paul directly, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new”!
Additionally, I believe what St Paul is saying here is that our being in Christ is most certainly not removing ourselves from the real world into some sort of mystical realm. Quite the contrary, St Paul is saying being in Christ is standing on new ground and launching a new life in reality, starting anew in the real world of our daily lives. This new life motivates us differently, it directs us differently, and it changes our outlook and brings us closer to God and to others. St Paul tells us that our faith in God does not take the hardships of our existence away, it does not guarantee us an always untroubled passage through life, but it does give us a different perspective to view and deal with these challenges and hardships. We are strengthened and indeed transformed with this knowledge and as Paul says in another passage, ‘If God is for us who can be against us’.
I have a little story to tell you from a long time ago that relates to what I am saying. When I was in grade seven, our class went on a weeklong trip to Camp Elphenstone. This Camp was for children and is in the wilderness on the Sunshine Coast. On one day we were divided into small groups and with our leader and councilor who was in his late teens we were to go hiking in the forest. To cut a long story short my group got lost. The councilor clearly did not know where we were going and we were no longer on any sort of path, but were treading through rough bush and not going anywhere fast. Then to make matters worse, I got separated from this group and all of a sudden I was lost alone in the forest. I made my way around looking for my group, but did not find them. Just as I was starting to get a little panicky I ran into a friend of mine who himself got lost and separated from his group. It makes me wonder to this day the level of training those camp councilors had, but that is another story. At any rate this classmate was, and still remains today one of my best friends, and there we were both lost, we had no provisions, we had no map, we were not clothed to spend a night alone in the bush and it was getting darker.
As we were traversing through the woods we came across a creek. It was a fairly large one and we decided that if we just followed the creek down stream, we must eventually come to some sort of civilization. So down the bank of the creek we went and not soon after we started I slipped on a slippery rock and fell into a rather large and deep part of the creek and ended up neck high in the water. My friend thought this was very funny and began to laugh uproariously. I was not so impressed. In fact, I was quite infuriated. Then, as if God not only has a sense of humour but also a sense of comedic timing and comparable justice, my friend also slipped on a rock and ended up in the same pool of water. So there we were, lost, it was getting darker and we were both completely drenched and bruised. At that point we both laughed at our situation and at each other. We laughed and laughed until it hurt. As I recall we were still laughing as we made it down the creek and eventually found a cleared patch of field from which we could see the camp a few hundred meters away. We still both talk about it to this day as being one of our favourite and most fun times together.
Now you might be wondering what that story has to do with St Paul’s passage from second Corinthians? And I would not blame you for asking that question because truth be told I was wondering that my very self. What I mean is I felt that gentle nudge of God again this week as I was preparing this sermon and I felt the need t tell this story, but I was not sure why or how it fit in. Then it hit me again, the Holy Spirit was directing me to make it personal and keep it simple. My little adventure in the woods with my friend can be a simple parable. In life sometimes we can get lost. Even if we think we know the way, even if we rely on others to guide us, we can still get lost. And so what do we do? We come across a creek, and let’s call that creek God. We immerse ourselves in the life of God and go with the flow of God, and trust in the direction we are going. And one more thing I have learned – don’t go on that journey all alone. Walk with God with family or friends or in a community. When we do that we will have peace and joy in our lives and we will find our way home.
Almost twenty years ago now I did as St Paul suggest to us in today’s reading. I let God in, and it changed my life. The old saying, ‘today is the first day of the rest of your life’ finally made sense to me. I viewed life from a different vantage point and witnessed the energy and the beauty and the vitality of creation as if for the first time. In a way I was a new creation and it was as if everything was new again. The recipe is so very easy. Subtract the unneeded and unwanted baggage from your life and let God in. You can do that at any time in your life and you can do it over and over and over again. And remember to keep it personal and simple. Try a prayer like this sometime soon. “Hi God, it’s me. Let’s go”. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney