I like getting an email from a friend. Texts are okay. But, if you want to see me smile, there is just something about getting a handwritten letter from someone. Maybe it is because in this electronic era a handwritten letter has become something out of the ordinary, something special. When I get one I can just imagine the other person sitting down at a table or desk and thinking about what they wanted to say, then lifting pen to paper, writing a letter intended just for me. The act of writing the letter seems almost as important as what the letter itself might say.
Any time we look at a passage from 1st or 2nd Corinthians we have to remember a couple of things. First, the church in Corinth was an important congregation. It has grown in size and strength where it would have been seen as a leader in the early church. Second, while Paul was a part of the birth of this church he had a complex relationship with it and its leadership. Where most letters from Paul are designed to encourage the developing congregations, these two letters spoke frankly and directly to places where Paul saw their behavior, and their attitude toward him, as self destructive and counter to the witness they were called to be. Third, while our Bible portrays two letters, it is pretty clear that these two are a blend of three letters that shared the same heart, passion, and plea. I tell you these things because when we look at our focal passage I want you to be able to see it as a handwritten letter from a father to a prodigal son, or a pastor to a people in spiritual confusion.
We listened as Ariel read our focal passage earlier in our service. These words flow from Paul’s heart and frustration as he tries to justify his right to speak so directly to the issues in the life of the church. If you look closely you can hear the hurt in his heart as we read; Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? He comes to those whom he has taught and loved and seems to have to ask, do I need to come to you as if we never knew each other before? Do I need to get a letter of recommendation for you? Does someone else need to write a letter telling you that I am worthy of your hearing? Does someone else need to write and tell you that I matter? Paul continues; 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. Paul tells them that if they are looking for a letter of recommendation for his ministry, then look in the mirror. They are the product of his ministry. The testimony of their faith walk with God is more convincing than any words. Their church is a reflection of who he is as a missionary and minister. They are forever engraven – tattooed - on Paul’s heart and their place as a people of God is clear for all to see.[i]
Paul continues, and out his cry of frustration and pain comes one of the most beautiful images I find in Scripture. . 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. I continue to be somewhat confused by those whose passion is life is to have monuments made of granite or stone of the Ten Commandments placed at schools and government building. I do not have a problem with them, but I think they are missing the point. Here Paul tells us that the living witness of God’s people is something much more important than any statue or monument, building or sanctuary we might construct. Rather than a focus on tablets of stone, Paul tells God’s people that they are a letter from Christ, written not with ink but instead written by the power of the Spirit of the living God. Rather than a focus on tablets of stone, Paul tells God’s people that they are a letter written by God on human hearts. We can gaze for hours at monuments, tablets, or buildings made of brick or stone and admire the quality of the craftsmanship, but be unmoved by their message. No matter how beautiful or well constructed, in the end they remain cold lifeless stone. But when we see someone whose life and way of life is changed by their relationship with God we cannot help but see the wonder of God’s love and grace.
I love this room. There are times that I come in and simply relish in its beauty. When a friend of mine from North Carolina walked in this room he stood and stared for a moment and then called it one of the great Baptist cathedrals. I agree with him, but what I love about this room is not its stained glass windows or incredible wood work. What I love about this room is what I have experience with you together in this place. I come in this room and think about the testimonies of lives changed by God that have echoed from this pulpit over the past few years and I imagine the testimonies that would have been offered in years gone by. When I come into this room I can almost hear the music of worship services gone by. I sometimes feel that if I listen closely enough that the beautiful song sung by our choir that still might be lingering in the air. I wonder if I can sit still enough if I might hear the songs of worship that rise from the pews toward God. Beyond this room, as I wander the hallways I can almost picture those that lift their voices to help others better understand God’s word. There are other places in these great walls where I so vividly remember seeing people serving others in Jesus’ name that I think of them every time I walk in those places. It is so easy to become captivated by this building that we think of it being “the lighthouse on the corner.” But we must let Paul’s words call us to see things differently. You show that you are a letter from Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. What made The First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City great in earlier eras were the people who walked its hallways and worshipped in this room. What makes us a special church in this era is exactly the same thing. It is the people – it is you – who are living letters of Christ written by the Spirit of the living God. The witness of your walk with God has the capacity to point others to the Jesus who changed your life, and can change the lives of others as well. You are God’s living letters to one another, to our community, and to the world. You are the witnesses of the way God changes human hearts through faith in Jesus Christ. You are a letter from Christ to the world.
At the close of this worship service I begin my sabbatical period. I hope you know how much I love you and how thankful I am you have invited me into your lives as your pastor. I will miss you. I will miss our worship services. I will miss serving beside you in ministry. But, I take these ten weeks away believing in the strength and giftedness of our church staff who will continue to serve you and lead you. I leave knowing of the power of your witness well before I ever walked in this room and being confident in the work and worship you will do in the name of Christ while I am away. I leave knowing that those who will fill this pulpit and will lead you in Bible study on Wednesday nights and at SALT are some of the best out there. You will learn much from them. I leave for this summer season knowing that you are a letter from Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. God’s work among you is unmistakable. When I return I look forward to sharing stories of how I have seen God at work in the world. But, I will be even more anxious to hear your stories of how God has spoken to you and through you as his love letters to our community and the world. Words cannot express my appreciation for you. You move me and encourage me. You are a remarkable church family and truly amazing people. May God bless you in our short time apart.