1 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.2 Corinthians 3:1-6
Today we’re going to talk about letters; specifically, love letters. Coming right off a defense of why he couldn’t travel to Corinth as he once planned, and how this change actually affirmed God’s work through our brokenness, Paul returns to painful topics. In 3:1-2, he begins to speak of commendation and recommendation letters. Letters fill this letter – letters of recommendation, letters that kill, and letters that somehow give life. What is Paul on about?
In the ancient world, they did not have the benefit of photo ID, background checks, instant communication, and email. Instead, people had to be on their guard about the identity of those who claimed to be part of the Jesus movement. Sometimes it is easy for us to forget how much living outside the status quo of Emperor worship could cost you. As a result, communities like Corinth would rely on letters from apostles like Peter, for example, to establish the identity and credentials of the person making a visit.
You can find a perfect example of Paul doing this in Romans chapter 16. There in verse 1, Paul commends Phoebe to the house churches in Rome. It is likely that she is the one that has been commissioned to deliver the letter. As the deliverer, she is also the one tasked with explaining the letter to the communities. As the expositor of Paul’s thought processes in Romans, Paul’s recommendation seals her place of authority.
On a side note, I think this passage, along with the fact that the first person to proclaim the good news the Jesus was risen was Mary Magdalene, makes an excellent case as to why women are called just as equally as men to the task of ministry and proclamation. If Paul thought enough of Pheobe to commission her to explain Romans, no mean feat in itself, then maybe churches and denominations that double down on their exclusion of women in roles of leadership should take another look at the their stance in light of what Scripture actually says.
Back to 2nd Corinthians. In light of the disastrous visit between the letter we know as 1st Corinthians and this one, as well as Paul’s very public problem of not being a very compelling speaker and his seeming inconsistency to be where he said he was going to be, these passages bear witness to the fact that some have begun to question his authority and trustworthiness. They’ve even gone as far as to ask him for a letter of reference or commendation. Talk about a slap in the face!
Think about that for a second. Here is a church community founded by Paul, and in which he has poured countless hours, days, weeks, months, and years into nurturing, and now they have the audacity to ask him for his credentials! Most of us would be outraged.
But not Paul. Instead, he makes his case plain: he needs no new letter because they are the letter. If God in the power of the Spirit had not been present in Paul and his ministry, how else could they explain the continued existence of this fledgling community of Christ followers? Their existence as an outpost of the body of Christ is all the letter that is needed; the proof is in the pudding! No letter bearing seals or ink could ever give better testimony than this.
Yet, it is here that we see Paul’s genius at work. He makes this argument one one level, while at the same time speaking at a deeper level. He weaves into the argument a fulfillment of one of the deepest longings in Judaism, spoken of in Ezekiel 36:26-27 and Jeremiah 31:31-33. In light of all the promises God made to Israel, shown in power at Sinai and the giving of the stone tablets of the Law, the prophets longed for the day when what was written on stone and upheld by tradition would become such an overwhelming reality that what was once written on stone has now been imprinted on the human heart. In other words, the deepest longing of the Law was that it would move beyond prohibitions and guidelines and become so entrenched in our inner being that we might become the truly human beings we were created to be.
By making this reference, Paul is saying that all the community longs for – vindication, cohesion, community, fellowship, accord, and fullness of love – these things will never come by a credentialed letter or works of power and prestige, but instead, by the Spirit already at work in them, correcting and mending their brokenness, and bringing unity out of a mixed community that had no parallel in the ancient world. Through their love and fellowship, what was once only a promise and dream has become a lived reality. And wonder of wonders, while this promise was at first given to Israel, it now bears fruit amongst a bunch of formerly pagan Gentiles. How’s that for a “yes” from God!
In closing, there is much we can take from the way Paul formulates his argument here. We live in a time and in a society in which competency, at least on paper, is given a premium. What credentials you bring to bear on a problem or to a position like education or experience determines whether you even have a shot of someone listening to what we have to say, or allowing us to help. I get it, and in some ways, this is a good thing.
However, there is a dark side to this dependence on letters. What is often lost when we rely on such markers of prestige is a dependence on our natural disposition towards relationality. Sometimes, you can have all the expertise and credentials in the world, but without that mysterious chemistry of personality and accord, the smartest among us will meet with failure – just ask the 2004 US Olympic Men’s basketball team!
When it comes to being the church, what this means is that we must put a premium, not on the credentials of a pastor or the supposed expertise of lay leaders who are convinced they are right, but instead, on the inner workings of the Spirit who often works contrary to our expectations and what our proficiencies suggest on paper. If the letter of over-reliance on ourselves and our own capacities can kill, then the Spirit promises and gives life through God at work in us by Christ’s faithful presence.
In my own experience, I have been amazed time and time again as God has produced marvels from the simplest of human material. In the end, our confidence can never be in ourselves, but the power that is at work in us. In each of us, by faith, God is at work, writing a letter of love and presence and transforming power to a world more than happy to hum along, convinced it has everything figured out.