Spirit Enables Ability
"Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? (2) You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; (3) 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, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (4) Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. (5) Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, (6) who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (New Revised Standard Version).
Writing has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. Indeed, I have made writing my vocation, my profession, my calling.
Not only do I enjoy actually writing: letters, notes, articles, sermons; but I have had a lifelong fascination with the instruments that make writing possible: Pens, paper, typewriters, and nowadays, the computer, word processor, and the Internet. I remember as a child how my Dad allowed me to plunder through the desk drawers in his Study. I can see him now sitting at his typing stand, "cutting his stencil," that messy green film we had to type on and then put it on the mimeograph tube, so that the Church Bulletin, or the sermon could be distributed. I was always particularly fascinated by his fountain pens and lead pencils. Dad allowed me to write with his prized Parker 51. I am today an advanced amateur pen collector and can't wait to get to next week's "Sixth Annual Atlanta Pen Show" at the Perimeter Marriott: I am always able to find a couple old Parkers.
In our text, which was originally written as a letter from St. Paul to his mission church, he is saying that as their founder, he needs no ink on paper letters of recommendation, because the Spirit has written spiritual letters in the believer's hearts. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel had prophesied that in a future new age God would extend himself in a more intimate friendship and that, "stony hearts being made into hearts of flesh." (36:26). The metaphor is meant to say that, whereas the Old Testament Law and Ten Commandments were chiseled by an iron pen into stone tablets, our New Testament relationship is based on a potential feeling level, subjective, soulful, love between the Creator and His Supreme Creation.
After receiving three degrees in theology, I still feel God's Spirit as a Dad who glances over at me now and then as I attempt to write with his Parker 51. He smiles, and I know that my scribbling is just fine. Every now and then he comes closer and takes my little hand into his big hand and directs my letters. After all these years, I have learned some calligraphy, although I still feel like a novice when I look at a "real" calligrapher's beautiful writing. I am trying to relearn cursive writing, after too many pages scribbling classroom notes. I recently found a 1949 copy of "The Palmer Method of Business Writing," I have not had time enough to really practice, but I know that I am doing a better because I can now usually read my own handwriting. I sometimes wish my Dad could take my hand in his and make it better.
This feeling may just be something close to what Paul was trying to communicate to the Corinthians. The spiritual truth that he is addressing lies at the very core of our ministry; either through the ministry of the baptized Christian; or, full time ordained vocational ministry: "...our competence is from God... Who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant..." (v. 5&6).
Bishop Bob Morris spoke to our North Georgia Annual Conference a couple of years ago about competence, sufficiency, ability, qualifications, to be ordained ministers: He made a very personal and insightful observation. Looking back on long years of experience, he shared that "the young and fearless prophets" who seemed to have the most ability and personal charm, were the ones to have in many cases failed in professional ministry; but, as he thought back on the faces of the young ordinands that he had come along with. It was those who seemed to lack many gifts and graces that have done the best and been the most effective. He further said that it was his opinion that the "slick ones" had started out getting by on their looks, and their intellect, and in some cases their political connections in the conference; but that those that were just average had to reach out in dependency on a Higher Power than themselves, and in so many instances had been remarkably effective beyond anyone's expectations. The Bishop placed himself in that last category. He said that what little he had been able to accomplish that really mattered he had always felt was empowered by the enabling hand of God upon his hand.
Now don't feel omitted if you are slick and good looking, suave and debonair, cute and fun to be with. It only becomes a problem when you run out of steam, or when your face becomes faded glory, and style leaves you behind. Yet, God still hounds us into old age calling us to surrender to His Amazing Power. Not that you have to accomplish some great work in order to qualify for we are Made qualified through Christ! Indeed, we can say that "God Enables Ability."
What does He need from us? Are we to turn over a new leaf? Are we to just try harder in school, in work? Should we focus all of our efforts at living up to the letter of the law? Maybe we need to enroll in some special class or fly out of town to another seminar? All of that might help, on a human level, and there is certainly nothing wrong with any of it as we try to get ahead. However, is Paul not leading us to another level beyond the letter of the law?
"...for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." Eventually, all that is seen will be dust and all that will remain will be of God's doing through us.
a sermon synopsis
by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor