With Unveiled Faces
April 07, 2013
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? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; 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. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 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. 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 one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
(2 Corinthians 3:1-6a, 17-18)
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
I’m going to begin this sermon with the sort of blanket generalization that one is never supposed to use. But I feel fairly certain that I am on the money in this case, so here goes.
Everybody wants to be known.
Deep down, beneath all our talk of privacy and appropriate boundaries, everybody wants to be understood, to be truly known. And, fundamentally speaking, we also want to know ourselves.
By “known,” I mean something more than a handshake, a warm smile, or a familiar slap on the back, although these signs of familiarity go a long way toward making us feel at home. Remember Norm, from Cheers? We really do, as the song goes, “wanna be where everybody knows” our names. Few things match the reassurance we feel when surrounded by a circle of friends or a bevy of admirers.
But what I really mean when I talk about being “known” goes far beyond the ease we may or may not feel in a social setting. Feeling accepted is one thing; indeed, it is foundational to our sense of selfworth. It is good, in our Hollywood culture, to feel that we have tucked in our emotional shirttails and put our interpersonal lipstick on straight. It is good to feel that we know the rules of the game, that we have figured out how to cover over the complicated personal tangle we often feel ourselves to be, so that we are acceptable in the sight of other people. But that is not enough. Social graces and friendships—even profound friendships—are not enough.
They are not enough because, in these four weeks of Advent, we are speaking about a way of being known that demands far more from us, and gives far more to us, than polite acquaintance and social familiarity. We are speaking about the coming of Christ. We are speaking about what that coming means to us. We are speaking, to put it bluntly, about apocalypse.
* * *
Advent, despite (or perhaps because of) the joyful scene at Bethlehem in which it culminates, is not a season characterized by its fuzzy-wuzzy scripture readings. In the four weeks leading up to the birth of our Lord, one most assuredly will not find statements about God’s cuddlier side. Oh, no. What the unsuspecting reader will find instead is transformation, the end of the world, the Second Coming of Christ.
There isn’t much of a soft side to the eschaton.
So here we are, confronted with the end of the world. But what are we supposed to make of these predictions? What is apocalypse, and why does it give us such a case of the existential willies? How are we to prepare, as our gospel text clearly commands us, for “the coming of the Son of Man”?
What are we all so eager about, and WHY, for goodness’ sake, are we so eagerly calling this whole thing down on ourselves by singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”?
* * *
A little definition of terms might give some perspective on this topic.
Kathleen Norris tells us that “the word ‘apocalypse’ comes from the Greek for ‘uncovering’ or ‘unveiling.’”1 So apocalypse has less to do with the end of the world than with showing someone, or something, for what it truly is. But this in itself is often enough to make an ending, to shatter something precious into pieces. There are, as Norris goes on to point out, tremendous possibilities in an unveiling, but there is potential for a certain embarrassing indecency, too. Apparently some things are better left safely covered up.
Ah. So perhaps the terror we feel when we talk about apocalypse (or about any kind of ending in our lives, for that matter) sits only partially in stars falling from the sky, eclipses of the sun and moon, and assorted other catastrophes. Perhaps the terror resides not only in the ending itself, but also in what is revealed in that end time. The person we truly are emerges, unbidden and beyond our control, at the fault lines in our lives, at the cracks in the armor—at the end times.
But, Norris continues, “while uncovering something we’d just as soon keep hidden is a frightening prospect, the point of apocalypse is not to frighten us into submission…its purpose is to teach us to think… in a way that sanctifies our lives here and now.”2
And that, my friends, is precisely what Paul is talking about in this morning’s epistle reading. Two thousand years ago, Paul understood our predicament. As much as anybody else, he needed desperately to be known. His anxiety is palpable at the start of this morning’s passage. “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, recommendations to you or from you, do we?”
Letters of recommendation carried tremendous power in the Roman Empire. They are powerful now in our networking efforts (ask any college applicant), but in the world of Paul’s day they were as valuable as currency. Letters of recommendation were written by higher-class patrons for their clients. They determined one’s access to nearly every privilege in life; their power extended far beyond employment. Paul wrote this particular passage in response to a group that had apparently entered his church with letters of recommendation which Paul, perhaps, could not match. His authority at Corinth was in jeopardy.
Given the circumstances, Paul’s response is interesting. He could have gone scrambling for recommendation letters of his own. Instead, though, he manages simultaneously to utter a profound spiritual insight and to make a magnificent political maneuver. “You are our letter,” he writes to the church—and while he happens in the process to deflect the church’s question about his authority right back onto itself, he also does something far more important.
He reminds the church at Corinth that, even as they demand epistolary evidence of Paul’s wherewithal, they themselves, in all their mess and magnificence, reflect more about his efforts and their own responses than any wax-sealed scrap of vellum could. “You are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all,” claims Paul.
And more than that, he says, none of us can claim our successes. They come from God. Our competence is from God. Our being, in fact, is from God, who very quietly (at least most of the time) dwells within us, giving us life and motion and what we know of wisdom, the holy of holies within our own bodily and spiritual temple.
The next line Paul writes is sheer poetry—with teeth.
“All of us, with unveiled faces,” he says, “will see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror.”
Unveiled faces. Oh, dear.
I smell apocalypse.
As I have noted, unveiling has its advantages and disadvantages. Unveiled, we may see God’s beauty all the better, but unveiled we also see every one of our own imperfections. We realize how obvious they have been to God this whole time, and—even worse, since we can imagine it more vividly—we realize how glaringly obvious they have been to others, all our weaknesses and faults and unkindnesses.
But Paul says something important in his description of our transformation, of what will come from this dramatic disclosure of our real selves. “All of us,” he says, “with unveiled faces…are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory into another.” And so this disclosure is painful at first, but it makes us new beings. In the blazing light of divine splendor, we see the (often ugly) truth about ourselves—and and find a place to begin the work of change.
Paul takes care to point out that this transformation does not mean casting off our old self and putting on a new character. There is no “putting on” here, at all. When we have a chance at this apocalyptic look in the mirror, we do not, says Norris, “suddenly change in essence, magically becoming new people, with all our old faults left behind…The detestable parts of ourselves do not vanish so much as become transformed. We can’t run from who we are, with our short tempers, our vanity, our sharp tongues, our talents for self-aggrandizement, self-delusion, or despair. But we can convert”—we can literally “turn around”—“so that we are forced to face ourselves as we really are. We can pray that God will take our faults and use them for the good.”
Norris tells the story of a woman in Montana whose own personal apocalypse transformed her in precisely this way. This woman was the member of a small-town Methodist church. She was also a terrible drunk, and caught in the grips of a drug addiction that stripped her of her dignity in the most intimate of personal relationships. She sought love everywhere, and found it nowhere.3
The woman decided, one day, to sober up. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began attending church regularly. “With her reputation,” says Norris,” it took considerable courage for her to show up in the tiny church…Not everyone greeted her with enthusiasm. But some did… and she kept coming back. Even before she became a church member, she caused some buzz in the congregation because she actually volunteered for things. She signed up for every Bible study the church offered, and volunteered to work at every church project…It was as if she had tasted salvation and couldn’t get enough of it, or of the new relationships to which these activities had led her. Salvation took such a hold in her that, as the pastor put it, he began to wonder if Christians don’t underrate promiscuity. Because this woman was still a promiscuous person, still loving without much discrimination. The difference was that she was no longer self-destructive but a bearer of new life to others.”
It was indeed with this woman as Paul said. She looked in the mirror with an unveiled face, with the vision of apocalypse, and she saw God’s glory reflected there. And so, her own apocalypse, her own unveiling, transformed her, “into the same image, from one degree of glory into another.” The woman’s essence remained unchanged. She existed in the same image, but it was an image transformed.
“You must be ready,” says Jesus. “for the Son of Man comes at an unexpected hour.”
And we can be ready. We can polish the spiritual silver and bring out our best emotional china and think about who we are, and who we want to be, and who, as bearers of the Spirit of God, we desire to be to other people. We can be ready for God’s coming and hold our breath until we are blue in the face. But, as Jesus also tells us, “about that day and hour no one knows, except the Father.”
And so, even though none of us knows what, exactly, the coming days will bring; even though we cannot be sure just what upheaval we may be calling down upon ourselves; even though we cannot imagine the blazing splendor of God’s glory; we can, in good faith and with great hope, say, “Come, Emmanuel.” For Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is already here.
The unexpected hour has come, and it is up to us to behold his glory, to see God in our own faces in the glass.
Special Note from Editor Kevin Baxter
The author of this sermon, Leah G. Goodwin (one of the editors of Our Daily Bread), is being ordained as a minister of the Gospel by the Amercian Baptist Church, on this day, April 7, 2013. She has a Master of Divinity from Harvard University and, during her time at the school, also served as the Director of Parish Ministry for the Cambridge Society of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborg Chapel) in Massachusetts.
1. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1998), 318. Return to reference.
2. Norris, 318-319. Return to reference.
3. Norris, 296-297. Return to reference.
4. Norris, 297. Return to reference.
Rev. Leah Goodwin