One of the problems we might have to confront this Lent is our perception of the “way things are.” Our language for describing the inevitability of sinfulness in our lives – whether Darwinian, Freudian, or drawn from the world of classical economics – can seem much more sophisticated than lurid stories of spiritual struggles against demons or the embarrassing naïveté in so many of our writings about holiness. As Phyllis Tickle told us, this language can move us to compassion for our “fellow prisoners.” But it still traps us – “it assumes as well an immutability or impersonality of conditions and principles that blocks us from hope.” Our spiritual lives are then the matter of an uneasy “balance” that comes from managing or compensating for the inner darkness to which we have resigned ourselves. Very often, we cope by directing our anger towards the scapegoats who seem to represent our darkness to us.
Do we really believe that we can change?
In a sermon at Westminster Abbey, the Anglican priest Nicholas Sagovsky said, “It seems that one of the most cherished beliefs we have about each other is that we cannot and do not fundamentally change. However, one of the most cherished beliefs of Christianity, which distinguishes it from all the other major world religions, is that we can and must fundamentally change.”
Rev Sagovsky preached on 2 Corinthians 3; here is a longer excerpt:
In the passage from the second letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning, we can hear Paul reminding the Corinthian Christians of the good news he had brought them. He alludes to a story they would have known well, the story we heard as our first lesson, of Moses going up Mount Sinai, entering the cloud of the glory of the Lord, and receiving from God the tablets of law: but, even more, he has in mind a second version of the same story which tells how when Moses met with God – ‘face to face, as a man speaks to his friend’ – the skin of his face shone, because he had been talking with God (Ex 34:29). From the time that this began to happen, Moses put a veil over his face until he went back to speak with God again, which he did ‘face to face’, with no veil.
Paul takes this idea and turns it around. He suggests, presumably from his experience preaching in the synagogue, that it is the Jews who have a veil over their minds when they read the Scriptures – so they cannot see the glory of the Lord, which shines out of the face of Jesus Christ. He wants to tell them, yet again, that ‘It is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6). But the Jews whom he knows and loves, and amongst whom he had first learnt of God’s covenant love for Israel, as Paul sees it, read the Scriptures with a veil over their hearts, so that the real glory of God, which is to be seen in the face of Jesus Christ, is hidden from them. ‘But when a man turns to the Lord’, he says, ‘the veil is removed’ and by ‘the Lord’, it is clear he means Jesus Christ, known through the power of his spirit.
The climax of his argument is this: ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:17-18). Paul’s good news is that each one of us can be like Moses: we can meet God face to face without a veil over our faces. When we meet Jesus spiritually, as Paul did on the Damascus road, we meet God. Looking at Jesus is like seeing a reflection of the God whom we can’t see. And Jesus is the image of what we, each one of us, are created to be. By looking at Jesus we are spiritually changed. To hold his gaze spiritually, as it were, is to emerge from the dark shadows of our human situation into the glorious light of God. This change, from start to finish, is made possible by God.
Paul believes in real change. He doesn’t think the Jewish people, and he doesn’t think non-Jews, are a lost cause. He thinks anybody can be fundamentally changed by meeting Jesus Christ as he did on the road to Damascus, and after that we can go on being changed, from glory to glory, into the image of Jesus Christ himself. Hence his encouragement to each one of us to let ourselves be changed, as he puts it, ‘from glory to glory’. Paul invites us to open ourselves to the power of God’s transforming spirit and to spend time ‘face to face’ with Jesus as Moses did with God on the mountaintop.