I have a photo of something that is probably increasingly rare. This is a hand-written letter. We don’t get these much anymore since the advent of email and texting. But there was a time when getting a real letter, hand-written and addressed, was a big deal. I remember as a small child living in Michigan that I would receive letters from my Aunt Nett in Minnesota. Those were very special things for no matter what she wrote, a letter was personal and conveyed her love for me. A personal letter said, and still does, “I care about you and I love you!”
This is what Paul’s letters in the New Testament were like. They were always personal but also sometimes confrontational. They brought news and were always full of teaching. These letters were so important that they would be circulated among the churches in a particular area. They were that important and that special. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul says that the church itself is a letter and not just any letter, but a Spirit-written letter from Christ.
This morning we celebrate Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit was poured out on the early church. Today we look at how the Holy Spirit is working in our lives so that our lives are letters from Christ to those around us. Let’s read 2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6.
I. Letters of recommendation were very common in Paul’s day.
When a person would move from one locale to another, a letter of recommendation – like what Paul writes here – would like accompany them. This letter would state the person’s qualifications for a job or a position. So for example, if a tentmaker moved from Ephesus to Corinth and wanted to make tents for a living in his new location, he would have the people for whom he had made tents write letters saying what a good tentmaker he was. Such letters would establish you as a qualified person in what you did.
When Paul sent his assistants to various churches, he would write a letter of recommendation for them so the churches would accept them as representing him. In 1 Corinthians 16:10, Paul writes: “When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No one, then, should treat him with contempt.” In the letter to the Romans, Paul endorses Phoebe: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.”
Apparently some false teachers were using such letters of recommendation to benefit themselves. In chapter 11, Paul calls these teachers “Super Apostles” who would go from town to town preaching their two or three sermons in order to make a living. They carried letters of recommendations saying they had a worthwhile message. Paul says that he doesn’t need any such letters of recommendation. Why not?
In verse 2 Paul states clearly that the Corinthian church itself is his letter of recommendation written on his heart. Paul didn’t need actual letters since everyone in that area knew about the Corinthian church and recognized the radical change that had occurred in their lives. Everyone in that area knew of the reputation of the Corinthian church and so Paul needed no such letter about his message, character and his work. Moreover, the people around that area of the Corinthian church looked to that church as an example of what the church in general should be like. They could “read” the Corinthian church to see Paul’s character as well as see a model of what the church should be.
Now what Paul says about the Corinthians church is true for us today as well. We as Christians are letters of recommendation for Christianity to all around us. We can be certain that the world is watching us. We are being looked at carefully as an example of the Christian faith. Now this is a bit frightening because all these people are looking to us as an example. And we are not perfect! We have a lot of things to work out in our lives! How can we be a recommendation letter when we are full of sin and problems?
You can be certain that the Corinthians were thinking similar things. “You can’t be serious, Paul! We have sexually immoral people in our church!” “We have serious problems with the way we celebrate the Lord’s Supper because some show up drunk and some don’t share with others.” “We are divided into factions and we are arguing with each other.” “Our lives are not anything close to what should be imitated!”
II. In verse 3 Paul says that we are a spiritual letter.
The church is not a letter written with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God. The church, as a letter, is not written with ink which can fade or be destroyed. Rather the church, as a letter written with the Spirit of God will last forever.
Moreover, when Paul says that this letter is not written on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts we get to the core of what Paul is writing about. We have to understand this within the context of the Old and New Covenant. The Old Covenant was based on the law, which was written on external stone tablets given to Moses when he met God on Mount Sinai. In order to live under the Old Covenant, you had to keep the law. However, no one was, or is, able to do this and so as verse 6 says that the letter kills for without Christ, it points to our own execution. Now the New Covenant is here and it is based on the law, not written on external stone tablets, but written internally on our human hearts by the Holy Spirit.
This is what the prophets had said would happen already in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 31:33, the prophet Jeremiah wrote that the law of God will be written on the hearts of God’s people. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” In Ezekiel 36:26-27, Ezekiel said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
Now because the Spirit is in us, we are can be ministers of the New Covenant. With the Spirit living in us, we are able to begin to fulfill the law. Even more, with the Spirit living in us, we can be used by God to reach others. In fact we may be a letter to those around us because we have the Holy Spirit in us and it’s all because of God’s grace.
III. Let’s think a bit more about the fact that we are letters from Christ.
Our Lord Jesus is sending us out to the people in our community, to our neighbors, to the people we work with and especially to our families. We are a letter addressed to the people around us and signed by Jesus himself: “Dear neighbor, this is what the Christian faith is all about. Love, Jesus.” Christ’s name is on the line and his name is at stake. We typically will do whatever is necessary to protect our own reputation so that our name is not smeared; we don’t want others to think bad things about us.
We must also be careful that we do not discredit the name of the one who is sending us. Remember: people around us are reading us. Don’t be fooled into thinking that no one is watching us for they are! People in this neighborhood are carefully and critically watching us as a church. As we gather for worship, they are watching us and reading us. As we help Tusculum School, they are watching us. As we begin another season of the Community Gardens, people are reading us and seeing what it means for us to be followers of Jesus.
People are also watching us as individuals and we need to be very aware of that. What do they think of Christ’s name when they see us being uncaring to others? What do they think of Christ’s name when we treat others as being inferior to us in any way or when we put others down for whatever reason? What do they think of Christ’s name when they hear us gossiping about others? What do they think of Christ’s name when we don’t ever even talk about our faith or what we believe in front of them?
If they see those things, that is the “letter” they are reading and they may well say, “So that is what the Christian faith is all about? No thanks.” Remember whose name you bear in your life. Let’s not discredit the name of Jesus. However, being a letter from Christ is more than just being a good person. We must not be ambiguous about who we are and what we are doing. Maybe you have heard of this ambiguous recommendation of a lazy man seeking a job: “You will be fortunate if you can get him to work for your firm.”
The letter Christ is sending is an active and positive letter to those around us as well. We are continuing to do the work Christ began to do when he was on earth. Acts 1:1 describes the work of the Apostles and also us: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach...” Jesus began the work and now the Holy Spirit is completing it through us! We must continue the mission of Jesus by being letters from Christ.
The message we bear is that it is possible to have life by following Jesus. The message is not that we are so good or perfect for we are very far from that. That message is that we are a mess but God has redeemed us anyway because of his great love for us.
Let’s bear that message to others as we give depth and richness to the message of grace through Christ. Let’s serve and help our neighbors as a church and as individuals. Let’s be kind and compassionate to those around us, whether they are living next door to us, or work next to us or are in a town in Venezuela. Let’s let the fruit of the Spirit be evident to everyone we encounter whether it is the person in the grocery store or the person you work with day after day.
There’s a story about a Chicago bank that once asked for a letter of recommendation for a young Bostonian man being considered for employment. The Boston investment firm couldn’t say enough about the young man. His father, they wrote, was a Cabot; his mother was a Lowell. Further back was a happy blend of Saltonstalls, Peabodys and others of Boston’s first families. His recommendation was given without hesitation. Several days later, the Chicago bank sent a note saying the information supplied was completely inadequate. It read: “We are not interested in using the young man for breeding purposes. Just for work.” We are to be more than just being a Christian bearing Jesus’ name. We are to be working actively being a spiritual letter from Christ.
That is the purpose in being a letter from Christ. So how are we as a church being read in this community? Are we just a bunch of people who do odd things together in a strange building? Or are we seen as a loving group of people who are living for our Lord? How are we being read as individuals by those we come into contact with every day? Are we viewed as just another religious or church person? Or as a loving, compassionate and devoted followers of Jesus Christ? What will people read as they watch you and read the Holy Spirit-written letter from Christ this week?