Saturday, August 17, 2013
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
II Corinthians 3:4-9 * Mark 7:31-37
The Epistle reading we have heard today is the source for a modern expression about the spirit and letter of the law. But, that, as worthy as it is, does not even begin to touch upon St. Paul’s meaning. To understand the Epistle reading we need to know the Old Testament reference to which it refers:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. And it came to pass, when Moses came down from mount Sinai with the two tables of testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, that Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. And when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him. And Moses called unto them; and Aaron and all the rulers of the congregation returned unto him: and Moses talked with them. And afterward all the children of Israel came nigh: and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him in mount Sinai. And till Moses had done speaking with them, he put a vail on his face. But when Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he took the vail off, until he came out. And he came out, and spake unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded. And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses' face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him (Exodus 34:27-35).”
We need also to understand how we use the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” in modern English. We use them to identify the two Testaments that, together, are one Canon of Holy Scripture. But, there is another distinction to be made, and sometimes it fails to come across in our translations. That distinction is between the Old and New Covenants. When St. Paul said, “God… hath made us able ministers of the New Testament,” the better translation, for our understanding, should be “God… hath made us able ministers of the New Covenant.”
So the Prophet Jeremiah foretold the New Covenant, and explained its difference and greater glory centuries before St. Paul wrote his Second Epistle to the Church in Corinth:
“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
(Jeremiah 31: 31-34).”
So, the Apostles understood the words of the Lord Jesus, “This is my blood of the New Covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28).”
The essence of the Old Covenant Law is called, by St. Paul, “the ministration of condemnation.” Is this a criticism of God’s Law and commandments? The answer is no. The same Apostle tells us, “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. (Romans 7:12).” It was a covenant in which the glory of God was revealed. The ethical and moral obligations of the human race were set forth, including the two Great Commandments of the Law, to love God and neighbor. Jesus taught us, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).” He said also, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. (Matthew 5:17).”
And, yet, St. Paul tells us, “The Letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The “Letter” is the Commandment of the Law – “holy, just and good.” Here we see the consistency of St. Paul’s message, and how it remains the same from Epistle to Epistle. His message was the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Whether you study Romans, Ephesians, Galatians, the Epistle we heard from today, etc., always, everywhere, the Apostle teaches us, “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24).” The Law is weak, not because it is insufficient as the revelation of God’s holy requirements, but weak through the weakness of our flesh, our fallen mortal nature.
“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 8:3).”
He condemned sin in the flesh, for “The Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14),” and in the flesh He carried your sin and mine, indeed all the sin of the whole world, and nailed it to His cross. So, for all who repent and believe, it is sin that is condemned and dead, but we who are alive in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
We have heard people ask why it is that everyone is not healed always and everywhere of every sickness? I have a better question. Look at the Gospel reading today, and ask why Jesus healed the deaf and dumb man. The real question, in light of the “holy, just and good” commandments of the Law, is “Why did Jesus ever heal anybody?” Why did He go about “doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38 )?”
According to the Letter of the Law, if that alone was God’s whole revelation, He should have come in fiery wrath and blotted everyone out. But that is not the whole of God’s revelation. He has revealed His mercy and grace. God came into this world in His Son, and redeemed us from sin and death. The greater glory of the New Covenant is the grace of God in Christ. It is revealed in the Incarnation, it is revealed in His works of mercy and healing, it is revealed on the cross where He died for the sins of the whole world, and it is revealed in His resurrection when He defeated death.
Moses hid the glory of his ministration of the Old Covenant by wearing the veil. Even so, everyone could see the light somewhat through that veil, enough to know it was there. But, the glory of God shines forever in the face of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is the greater glory of the New Covenant, of the Gospel, of the Spirit that gives Life.