The Third Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Lessons

“…for we walk by faith, not by sight.” You can get a decent sermon out of that line from Paul. But some care is needed, since it’s vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse. Misunderstanding: thinking that the invisible per se is more valuable than the visible. Abuse: recall Orwell in 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Bluntly, when we talk about faith, what distinguishes us from the folk who wear aluminum foil hats to keep the aliens from controlling their minds?

It turns out that appeals to the senses show up at some key moments in Scripture. For example:

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matt. 11:4-6)

[From the beginning of John’s first letter:] We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– (1 Jn. 1:1)

Not to mention the very visible harvest and fully-grown plant in Jesus’ parables. And Paul, earlier in the same letter to the Corinthians:

…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:10-11)

In the middle of the last century the then Archbishop of Canterbury captured it well: “Christianity is the most avowedly materialistic of all the great religions.”

So when does sight or, more broadly, the senses, become problematic?

First, in our lesson from the Book of Samuel, the prophet Samuel anoints David. Working through the line of older brothers we hear:

“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Appearances can give incomplete information. This is a point the Book of Proverbs, solidly empirical in orientation, makes repeatedly. You see a wealthy person. Wealthy through hard work or through theft? Can’t judge by appearances. You see a poor person. Poor through sloth or oppression? Can’t judge by appearances.

(Paul uses the same outward appearance/heart contrast in v.12. I wonder if he is alluding to the David story, which might align Paul with David and “those who boast in outward appearance” with David’s older—and rejected—brothers.)

Second, we’re in a story, and where we are in the story can determine what’s visible or invisible. That appears to be what’s in play in that line from Paul with which we started. Here it is in context: “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.” In this part of the story the Lord’s out of sight, so, faith.

In the previous chapter, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18 NRS). The glory is now invisible—but still worth attending to!

And story (time) is central to the logic of both of Jesus’ parables. Someone scatters seed, and for a good stretch nothing seems to be happening. But, oh, the harvest. Again, the proverbial mustard seed. Looking at the seed, we’d write it off. But just wait!

So, reliance on sight can be problematic because it gives incomplete information or because what’s visible depends on where we are in the story. The third reason is more profound—and more challenging. God coming in Jesus’ vulnerable flesh which climaxes in Jesus’ death and resurrection profoundly recasts what it means to see glory. So in the Gospel of John’s vocabulary Jesus being glorified and Jesus being crucified can be synonymous.

Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:23-24).

And this in turn shapes Paul’s understanding of glory. Recall what we heard earlier:

…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:10-11)

When I cited this earlier I focused on the “visible” part. Now notice what is visible: a cross-shaped combination of death and life. If the Corinthians aren’t paying attention they’ll conclude that Paul isn’t to be taken seriously because there’s little worldly glory in his ministry. But that’s to miss the point. If the crucified Jesus is the central revelation of God’s glory, then what we look for when we look for glory needs serious readjustment.

Where does this leave us? Briefly:

First, “the Lord looks on the heart.” We do well to remember the limits of our perceptions. And faced with decisions we pray for guidance.

Second, where we are in the story can determine what we can see or not. As often as not I find this very good news. With the problems we face “you can’t get there from here” can haunt me. Jesus’ parable reminds me that there are situations in which I not only don’t need to see—I don’t need to understand. “…and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

Third, Paul’s cross-shaped combination of death and life: the losses, the deaths we experience: united to Jesus’ story these can also make life visible. This isn’t a matter of technique; it can encourage our hope and patience.

Earlier in the letter to the Corinthians the issue of letters of recommendation comes up, and Paul doubles down on the visible: “You yourselves are our letter…to be known and read by all.” Paraphrasing slightly, “We don’t need no stinking letters.” That’s Paul’s hope for Corinth…and for Sun Prairie. “You yourselves are our letter…to be known and read by all.”

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