Act with Great Boldness
ACT WITH GREAT BOLDNESS
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Preached at the Rossville-Bismarck Parish
Feb. 10, 2013
Monday morning, I flew to Nashville, Tennessee on American Eagle. A basketball player’s face adorned the cover. It was Magic Johnson, one of my favorite basketball players. Of course, his smile lit up the cover page. Inside, the article talked about his life after basketball. Philanthropist, businessman, and part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers had been added to his resume of husband, father and lover of all God’s children. Also, it recalled a bold act Magic Johnson took in 1991. Johnson announced that he had contracted “the deadly HIV virus.” To his astonished hearers, Magic vowed “to beat it!” Most people thought he’d be dead in six months. Magic’s bodacious vow has worked; today, he still lives.
Like Magic, the apostle Paul urged his Corinthian Congregation to “act with great boldness.” If the church was going to make its mark in a city dominated by the Roman Empire and polytheism, the church would have to stand up for Jesus come what may. How could that be? In his first letter to the Corinthians; Paul made it known publicly that his church in Corinth had problems. He knew their problems inside out, having spent 18 months tilling the ground for Christ.
What diminished the boldness of the Corinthian Church? The church was divided. Some people followed Paul. Others preferred the leadership of Appollos, Cephas, Chloe or Christ. Consequently, the church floundered. Too many chiefs wanted to lead. Too few non-chiefs declined to follow. Doing mission and ministry on the same page seemed to be a figment of nobody’s imagination. Lawsuits against one another and abuses at the Lord’s Supper, as if drinking too much, publicly embarrassed a church called into being by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To top it off, Paul accused the Corinthians of sticking their heads in the sand. An upstanding member of the congregation was guilty of immorality. But nobody in the church said a word about it. For tolerating such indiscretions and more, Paul let the Corinthians have it.
Beyond the Corinthians being absolutely ticked (angry) at Paul for washing their dirty linens in public, the Corinthian Church was stymied theologically. They had lost their edge, their fighting spirit, their belief that all things are possible because of a religious belief and practice connected with Moses, the great lawgiver.
When Moses goes upon the mountain to get the Ten Commandments written on tablets of stone, the radiance of God dwells upon his face. It shines like the noonday. (See Exodus 34:29-35.) However, there is a problem. Moses’ shining face scares the stew out of Aaron and the Israelites. So the people have nothing to do with Moses or the Ten Commandments. After a little explaining, the people settle down and listen to Moses. From then on, Moses wears a veil when he addresses the people. Why, because every direct conversation with God leaves him with shiny face which frightens the people. If Moses showed up today with a shiny face in this service, any woman could take him in the backroom and fix his shiny face with a bit of make-up.
So, we have laid out the dilemma. The radiant beams on Moses’ face produced at least two problems. One, it scared the people. If you’re scared it’s hard to be of service to anyone, follow orders much less listen to their message no matter how relevant and powerful. Two, Moses’ shiny face forced him to wear a veil. That was a problem. People were used to communicating with one another and Moses, face to face. Donning a veil was unprecedented. If the Lone Ranger, Phantom of the Opera, Freddy Krueger or Jason of Friday the 13th spoke or preached from this pulpit every Sunday wearing a mask, you’d have problems. “Bishop, why can’t we have a preacher who we can be seen, heard, and interacted with face to face?” you might say. Inherently, veils aren’t to be demonized.
To let his people know about the Ten Commandments, Moses had to hide his face. He picked a veil. Some brides have used white veils to disguise her facial beauty from the groom until the walk to the altar on their wedding day. Some widows have used black veils to conceal their deep emotion, grief, pain and tears evoked by the death of a beloved husband. In other cultures, some women are completely veiled except for their eyes.
Today, the apostle Paul might ask Rossville and Bismarck UMC, like he asked the Corinthian Church; do you have a veil keeping your congregation from being the best it can be in the service of Jesus Christ? Do you have a veil that won’t let your light shine before your community and glorify God who is in heaven? Do you have a veil called the “spirit of fear” about the longevity of the church? Do you have a veil that won’t allow a stranger to enter your beloved congregations? If so, why don’t you share these concerns in prayer with the One who knows “resurrections” from the inside out?
As Paul reflects with his congregation about the veil separating Moses from his people with regard to the Law given to them by God, I’ve imagined him reeling from the veil between himself and the Corinthian Church. Of course, his main task is to encourage their active discipleship with Jesus Christ. At the same time, there was a dividing wall of hostility between the two. Why? Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was full of rebuke and chastisement with the exception of First Corinthians 13 and a few other passages. Although his accusations were well founded, the Corinthians didn’t like it. As a result, Paul’s status in the Corinthian was persona non grata; persona non grata until their anger abated. Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians church helped. It was more conciliatory and loving. Drink in one excerpt.
“So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” (2 Corinthians 2:1-4)
And the wall of hostility came tumbling down.
Barbara Wendland, lay author of Connections, shared a story in her November 2012 newsletter that highlighted the difficulty of tearing down veils. Years ago, co-founder Clarence Jordan of Habitat for Humanity challenged an Anglo –Saxon church to promote integration. A member of the church reacted bitterly saying “my granddaddy would be horrified by what you said.” Jordan replied, “Well Madam…that means you have a choice. You can either follow granddaddy or Jesus.” That’s easier said than done. Someone might quip: “I know granddaddy; but I don’t know Jesus. Or, I know Jesus and granddaddy; I’ll hold on to them both.” Yet we know the time comes when Christ alone is the last one standing. Put another way. It’s not about our will but His. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
For centuries, Moses had been held in high esteem by God‘s chosen people and the Christian community. That never meant that some of the things he said or did weren’t challenged. Paul, a former Jew by faith, turned aside from Moses and embraced the mission and ministry of Christ alone when Moses resorted to the veil. “Only in Christ is the veil set aside…when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed,” the apostle declared. What he did had historical foundation. According to Paul, when later generations heard the same Exodus passage read; when they heard about Moses, the Ten Commandments inscribed on two tablets of stone, his shiny face and the response of their religious ancestors, a veil came down on their minds as well.
There is no comparison in embracing the law written on tablets of stone and a living breathing, serving, crucified Christ whom all God’s people can embrace face to face. With Christ, no mask is needed. His light shines. But we can still embrace his glory. Christ came to earth as a living breathing Son of man. He is accessible. He is the best thing that ever happened to humankind. One songwriter speaks nobly of Jesus’ earthly presence. “And He walks with me, and He talks with me. And He tells me I am his own; and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever none.” When the church has this kind of personal relationship with Jesus the Christ, transformation is stamped indelibly on its heart, mind and our reputation. Based on what Christ has done and will do, people in our communities ought to see Rossville and Bismarck UMC acting with great boldness for Jesus Christ.
At the recent Covenant Keepers meeting in Springfield, I talked about Adam Hamilton, a United Methodist Preacher who delivered the Sermon at President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast. During the sermon, Pastor Hamilton mentioned how his congregation had grown bold. The Church of the Resurrection adopted this goal among others namely “to address the root causes of poverty in Kansas City.” Here’s what followed. One, 2,284 children in six elementary schools received free or a reduced lunch program through their partnership with other concerned citizens and groups. Two, 2500 of their members volunteered at those schools building playgrounds, reading to children and painting. Three, 300 children who slept on the floor at home were blessed. The church provided three hundred beds for them. Four, the church took a Christmas Eve offering to support projects benefitting a thousand orphans in Malawi and 2,284 children in Kansas City. They raised $1.235 million dollars. According to Adam, that vision has unified the church composed of all God’s children.
I have not raised this example for Bismarck or Rossville to make you feel bad or match you against the Church of the Resurrection in money raised, children in the community served or orphans nurtured overseas given a membership of 19,000. The Church of the Resurrection has been raised in hopes of moving the ongoing ministries in your communities to the next level. Don’t forget this lesson. When our Lord compared the giving of the poor widow to the giving of those who placed great sums in the temple offering plate, Jesus said she gave more than they did. They gave out of their largesse. She gave out of her poverty. In both cases, others were benefited by the giving of the whole church. A church transformed by the power of the Jesus has that capacity.
That’s not all; Paul complimented the Corinthians on the way they carried themselves in daily life. If this could be said about every congregation regardless of denominational affiliation, our world would be a better place. “You yourselves are our letter (of recommendation), 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…on tablets of human hearts.” Can’t we recognize the miracle working power of Christ? A congregation, as messed up as the Corinthians, did an about face enough so much so that Paul declared the very essence of Jesus Christ to be indelibly written on their hearts (2nd Corinthians 3:1-3) Glory Hallelujah.
Last, but not least, Paul admonished the Corinthians “not to lose hope.” They were Christ’s major hope of transformation in a great city dominated by a government and religions devoted all kind of gods save Jesus Christ and him crucified. I believe Christ is counting on your congregation to maintain its religious beachhead striving for the transformation of your community and the world. When little boys get kidnapped or little girls are abused. When men and women lose their way with guns, substance abuse and other sins that come our way; when clergy called out to lead God’s people wander afar from home or laity refuse to let God be God, when a young mother needs her baby baptized though out of wedlock or the beggar needs a crust of bread without the church looking down their nose at his/her poverty or inept state, the church must shine forth as a beacon of light with the fortitude of the woman whose constantly pleading changed the mind of the unjust judge. Healing and transformation are our gifts.
Or, we can remember the bold gesture of Magic Johnson who vowed to beat the deadly HIV virus. Twenty two years have passed since his shocking announcement. Words and vows alone have not helped him beat the virus. Magic has taken his medicine and exercised. Magic has gotten his rest and watched his diet. Magic has loved his wife and family. Magic has led an exemplary life and leaned on God. How’d I know about the God Thing? The article I cited earlier did not mention an honor Magic Johnson received in 2012. The city of Birmingham, Alabama gave him a key to the city. As Magic looked at the crowd, the first words out of his mouth were these. “They said I was supposed to die…But God kept me safe.”
If you ever feel like the fell clutch of circumstance is pronouncing death on your church, “walk by faith not by sight” as did Magic Johnson. Then bear witness when the occasion arises with words like these “They said our little church was supposed to die…but God, but God, but God kept us safe” in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.