Sunday, March 18, 2007

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 - “Not According to My Limited Way of Thinking”

4th Sunday in Lent (Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Saturday, March 17, and Sunday, March 18, 2007

I was telling a story during my Youth & Adult Bible Study a couple of Sundays ago. It was supposed to be a story to help explain the balance between being shrewd and adventurous when it comes to sharing God’s Word. Jesus tells us to be shrewd—not every situation is the time for sharing the Gospel, but other times you’ve got to ride the adventure with God as He takes you into situations that you never imagined you’d be in—and there share the Gospel.

A balance between being shrewd and adventurous. That was what the story was supposed to be about—but one comment from a dear class member made me realize God was teaching me something else through that story that day, teaching me about what Paul says in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.”

The story I was telling in class was about a time in Milwaukee after a concert by Josh and Jeremy Werner’s band—a couple of our young adult members. I dropped them off at their apartments, and by then, it was around 1:00 in the morning. I stopped along Capitol Drive at a gas station to get a snack for the ride home to Manitowoc.

At the gas station, two guys asked me if I had a jack they could use, because they had a flat. My first instinct was to say no; this wasn’t really the time of night I wanted to be hanging around trying to help somebody change a tire. Something in me, though, went against being shrewd and decided to help them.

Well, the jack didn’t do any good, because the car was so rusted out that instead of pushing the car up, the jack just started pushing through the metal. The guy who had the car took off, driving off with the tire completely flat and the wheel rim sending out sparks.

That left the other guy—who turns out was just walking by and thought that if he helped the guy with his tire, he might get a ride home. Since the guy with the flat tire took off, he turned to me instead and said, “Can you give me a ride home? It’s just down a few blocks on Capitol.”

Again, I have no idea why—except the Holy Spirit—but I ignored my instinct to be shrewd and agreed to give him a ride.

Michael, that’s his name, turned out to live more like 20 blocks down Captiol, was down on his luck, looking for work as an electrician, on the outs with his ex-wife, and was a felon. Driving those 20 blocks could’ve have been the dumbest decision I had made, but somehow God worked through that adventure to give me a chance to share God’s love with Michael.

That’s how I told the story in the Youth & Adult Bible Study. I was trying to make a point that sometimes God sets aside our careful ways of handling things so that He can share His Gospel through us. Despite the fact that I don’t usually like feeding into stereotypes, I emphasized Michael seemed dangerous—“20 blocks down Capitol,” “1 in the morning,” “a felon.” The story showed that I wasn’t being shrewd.

But then that dear class member, a sister in Christ, said to me: “Do you think that if someone is a felon that they can’t change?”

She caught me in my limited way of thinking. I was regarding Michael according to the flesh, according to how my puny human mind works, according to how my sinful, narrow eyes see the world. This dear sister in Christ knows that I believe felons can change—but she also knows that I’m not always good at remembering that I believe that felons can change.

That’s what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians: When I looked at Michael, I should have looked at him through the eyes of the Spirit—not according to my own limited way of thinking. My limited way of thinking focused on him being a felon, fresh out of prison, the dangerous part. My own limited way of thinking assumed Michael was lying when he said that he was an electrician, that he was trying to turn things around, that he was clean and sober.

But Paul—and that dear class member—calls me back to God’s Word. Jesus Christ has the power to transform us—and transform the people around us. No longer do we just look at people according to the flesh, according to our limited way of thinking. Instead, we see them like we see Christ. We see that Christ died on the cross but was raised to new life. We see that Christ looked like a weak, hopeless, broken, criminal dying on the cross, but that through the Spirit, we see Him as the victorious, powerful, precious, righteous Son of God. Our limited way of thinking leads us astray when it comes to figuring out who Jesus Christ is, and our limited way of thinking leads us astray when it comes to seeing what Jesus can do in the people around us.

There’s a 4th century writer called Ambrosiaster who wrote a book about Paul’s letters in the New Testament. This is what Ambrosiaster said about today’s reading from 2 Corinthians:

Right up until the cross there was a suspicion that Christ was weak, but once he rose from the dead all that vanished and what was previously doubted came to be believed (Ancient Christian Commentary Series: 1-2 Corinthians, 248).

In other words, looking at Christ from our limited human perspective, we suspected that Christ was weak. Yet, through faith, through believing in the Resurrection, we no longer have such a small-minded point of view. Now we see Jesus as powerful and strong, having victory over death. That’s what Paul means when he says, “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.”

Whether we’re talking about Jesus or the people of this world, when it comes to thinking “according to the flesh,” according to our human way of thinking, our limited, rational, logical, corrupted, sinful, selfish, short-sighted way of seeing the world. . .well, we’re just not that good at getting beyond appearances. People thought Jesus was weak, because He suffered, didn’t grab life by the horns during His earthly ministry, didn’t establish Himself as an earthly king, let Himself be crucified. By all appearances, Jesus was weaker than weak, and it would be better not to place your bets on Him.

It’s the same with people. We meet people who by all appearances are sinful, weak, criminals, hopeless, dysfunctional, bad influences, selfish, people who don’t have a clue. By all appearances these people are weaker than weak, and it would be better not to place your bets on them.

My story about Michael showed that I was using that kind of limited way of thinking; I was looking at Michael according to the flesh.

Yet, that’s not how God sees Michael. God sees Michael as a precious soul, a soul that has been saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a soul that is sinful and searching and needs the Gospel, a soul that has been touched by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

You see, even while driving Michael those 20 blocks down Capitol Drive, even while my mind is racing with thoughts like: “Why did I allow this guy into my car?” “Should I just stop here and tell him to get out?” “What happens if he demands money from me?” “How quickly could I call 911 on my cell phone?” Even while my mind was racing with these questions coming out of my limited way of thinking, God was working through me, despite me, putting words in my mouth that I didn’t know were there. In my limited way of thinking I was worried about getting beat up or worse, but meanwhile in God’s spiritual way of seeing the world His Holy Spirit was using our drive as a time to point Michael to Jesus.

Michael didn’t really believe I was a pastor. I didn’t bring it up right away, but when he asked what I do, I told him. Before this, he had been asking if I had been out partying, or out with girls, and bragging about his ability to woo the ladies. As soon as he found out I was a pastor, he changed what he was talking about. He started with a standard confession of sorts, saying that he was trying to quit his partying life. That really did seem like an empty kind of repentance—even through spiritual eyes.

But then the more Michael talked—trying to say something that might impress the preacher, the more honest Michael got about his spiritual life. He loved going to church with his grandma, always loved how the pastor encouraged him to turn things around. He knew it made his grandma happy when he went to church with her, and he even thought it was good for him to go and learn about Jesus, but just in that short conversation, he also hinted at his own sense of guilt, his addictions, his problems that kept him from feeling like he belonged in church. He didn’t seem to think that he deserved to be there.

By now, I had gotten him to the corner of Capitol where he said I could drop him off. He asked me for work, but I told him that even if I needed an electrician he wouldn’t make very much money after driving to and from Manitowoc. He asked if I knew anyone who needed an electrician, so I got his phone number and told him I’d try calling a pastor in the area to help him.

I did pass on that number to a fellow Missouri Synod pastor near the area where I dropped off Michael, but I’m not sure if the pastor ever got much of a response from Michael. If I go back to my limited way of thinking, I would just assume that Michael was willing to say anything to make the preacher happy so that I might give him a ride and maybe even some money, and that Michael just went back to his old ways as he walked away from my car.

However, if it is true that Christ comes and transforms people, makes us His new creation through His Holy Spirit, if Christ has the power to overcome death and has promised to share that victory with us, then I can’t just look at Michael according to the flesh, according to my limited way of thinking. In my limited way of thinking, nothing was accomplished that night except that Michael got me to go 20 blocks out of my way and he got a ride home.

But if I look with the eyes of the Spirit, I see that Michael got to meet a Christian, was reminded of his grandma’s faith, thought again about going to church, had to remind himself about why a Christian might not approve of his lifestyle, experienced God’s grace and love, and got a phone call from another pastor trying to help him. Through the eyes of the Spirit, it was a night for God to speak again to Michael. Through the eyes of the Spirit, God definitely was accomplishing something.

Despite the fact that I now can see that God was working through me that night as I drove down Capitol Drive, what I really take away from this experience—and what you can take away—is that our first instinct is to look at people according to the flesh, according to our own limited way of thinking. Before you start thinking I did something wonderful by giving Michael a ride home and telling him about Jesus, remember that mainly I was thinking according to the flesh, that it really was more like something came over me, that the Spirit really guided my actions that night, and if it had just been up to me, I would’ve never even stopped at that gas station on Capitol Drive.

Remember that—because the Lord truly can work in all of us despite our limited ways of thinking. You may approach situations—just like I did—and see people according to the flesh—as sinful, trouble, dangerous, hopeless, not worth your time, hostile to the Christian faith—but it is amazing how the Spirit works through us despite our sinful tunnel vision. God really can speak His Word of love and truth through you—even while you’re squirming in your seat, trying to find an exit, looking for a way out, or just trying to ignore a situation. The Holy Spirit really does use you to share God’s love, grace, mercy, truth, and forgiveness with the people that you meet.

Which means you have to stop thinking about yourself according to the flesh, according to your own limited way of thinking. Start seeing yourself according to the Spirit, according to the amazing ways that God has transformed you, made you into His new creation. Start seeing that God has removed your sin, given you a new heart, is working His holiness, righteousness, graciousness in you. God really can and will use you to share His love with others.

The power that transformed Christ from Good Friday to Easter, that power transforms anyone who believes in Jesus. That power transforms you, that power transforms the people around you, that power transforms our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, so that despite my sin, despite your sin, we can look around at each other and see a gathering of God’s holy people—God’s new creations designed to be His servants here on Earth.

Wherever Michael is today, I pray God will continue to work that transformation in him, and I pray that God will continue to work that transformation by the Holy Spirit in each of us.