The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6 Year B.
We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord– for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!II Corinthians 5:6-17
If you decided to make your own Jeffersonian Bible, what would you cut? For those who may not be familiar with the Jefferson Bible, Thomas Jefferson, the one of Declaration of Independence fame, made his own version of the Bible. Though his was a bit unique. Rather than re-translating the Bible, he simply took his own Bible, and cut out all the miracles and “supernatural” stories about Jesus, leaving only what he believed were the sayings and teachings of Jesus. He did this because many of the stories about miracles, resurrections, healings, etc. were too fantastical and offended his enlightened sensibilities.
So I ask again, if you decided to make your own Jeffersonian Bible, what would you cut? I know that there are plenty of verses that I would remove simply because they have caused too much trouble over the past millennia, I Corinthians 14:34-35, where “women should keep silent in churches..” immediately jumps to my mind. But the Bible is a large book, or if you want to get technical about it, a small library, and since I’m putting all of you on the spot let me ask a more manageable question, if you were to cut anything from today’s readings, what would you cut?
Now if I had to guess, I would imagine one of the first verses that would get the scissors would be Paul’s declaration “…we walk by faith, not by sight…”. While it is by no means the most offensive verse in the Bible, and really more of an offhand remark in the context of Paul’s letter, it has become one of those troublesome oft-quoted but rarely understood passages that is an affront to our enlightened sensibilities.
In a world where we try to live out the message of love in the Gospel, a message of welcome, curiosity, and humility, Paul espousing that we always have confidence, and that we walk by faith rather than sight, makes us queasy. While Paul may have been more free to be confident and walk in faith, millennia of over-confidence and missteps by the Church has led us to a place where it feels irresponsible, even wrong to be confident and walk by faith not sight. We can point to too many examples of people ignoring their sight, ignoring truth and evidence that any rational person could agree on, because they would prefer their confidence. It would be one thing if those who prefer their confidence were only hurting themselves, but as we are all one human family, overconfidence and the wrong path taken can come at the cost of others’ spiritual and physical lives.
What are we to do then? Should we take the scissors to Paul’s letter? Should we remain confident in our lack of confidence, so that we do not misstep and harm others? Well, as Paul would say: “By no means!”
As harmful as it is to confidently walk the wrong direction, it is equally harmful to not walk at all.
There is a false notion that faith is an opposition to good sense. That faith is something to fill in gaps of materially demonstratable knowledge. An evolutionary holdover from our ancestors; an appendix that holds no modern relevance that at the best of times does nothing at all, but if left unchecked and grows too large must be surgically removed. Too often faith is seen as nothing more than mere doctrine, a set of claims from dubious ancient texts and myths demanding adherence without humility.
But these are not faith.
Faith is not the opposite of good sense, loving-kindness, or humility. Faith is not a set of intellectual claims that must be accepted. Faith is not making extraordinary claims without presenting extraordinary evidence. Faith is not something quietly personal, but a living community. Faith is walking.
In a world with only sight these are whimsical claims. Naïve optimism as a coping strategy for a cruel and unjust world. But that is the trouble with mere sight, you can only see what’s in front of you. Jefferson cut out what he thought were superstitious miracles from his Bible, that which he could not witness nor verify. We on the other hand are not so skeptical of miracles, whether they happened as described, or perhaps less grandiose, the old stories of miracles are not so offensive today, because miracles can be interpreted. They can be seen and explained, even if miraculous. What we cut out of our Bibles is the hope, the confidence that the world and humanity are worth saving, even worth boasting about.
Walking only by sight limits our view, we cannot see past the mountains of evil or past the horizon of what we believe is possible. With our future so obscured we look backward, seeing the mistakes made from walking the wrong way and decide its better to stay put. It is comforting to stay put and pretend we can only see the material. We may not be happy where we are but at least most of can tolerate it. At least we who are not being actively oppressed.
How do we walk by faith with confidence and kindness? How do we know that we are walking on the right path? How do see beyond the mere material? Are we to rely only old stories, traditions, or authority figures? Certainly not! Those too are material. The most difficult truth to realize is that we will never be totally sure we are on the right path. In truth, the more we have learned the more we have realized that we can never be entirely certain about anything, especially when we realized how easily our senses can be fooled and discovered problems with induction. The good news is that while that may sound scary, it poses almost no practical problem.
Last summer I built a set of shelves for the first time. I just needed a simple three-shelf unit that was a non-standard height to slide under a countertop to fit cookbooks and other odds and ends. I had two power tools: a drill and a saw, a place to work, my lumber, and no real idea how to do it. I didn’t even bother to look up a guide as I figured it was simple enough. To put it mildly my project took probably three times longer than it needed to, but it was fun and I learned many valuable lessons. The first was the scope of how little I really knew about basic woodworking, measuring, and as a son of a math teacher I’m ashamed to admit: geometry, but I also learned that though it may look it, the wood that you buy at the big box stores isn’t actually flat or straight. I have no planer, no table saw, no shooting board, no plane, no tools or great skill to correct this, though even if I did, I only realized that things were not quite right until it was too late. I had already assembled it.
But here’s the thing about my odd little shelves. They aren’t quite straight, or even, or particularly well-made. Yet they fit perfectly where they were meant to go, they are sturdy, and they hold the books exactly like I intended them to. The aren’t perfect, but they work exactly like they are supposed to. And the best part, they don’t even rock on the floor, because it turns out that my floors are crooked too.
Certainty is little more than idolatry, a vain attempt to wrest control over a world too wonderful to be kept confined. Since the world is more than mere material, we have always walked by faith, only lately we have been reluctant to admit it. Concepts like the economy, or justice, or even basic human trust are not material, but they are very real. Much like God, by their invisible works they are clearly seen [paraphrase of Romans 1:20]. Once we lift the veil of certainty, and the self-assuredness that puts ego before our fellow man, we can walk without fear holding us back. Faith is not creeds, doctrine, codes, intellectual assent, or personal conviction. Faith is walking forward. Faith restores our sight. Faith lets us see beyond the obstacles that lie before us, through the lies that deceive us, the goodness in all creation, and the kingdom coming just beyond the horizon. “Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave Himself for us…” [Ephesians 5:2]