A few years before my grandma died, she had fallen and broken her hip. She got up in the middle of the night, walked through the door of her bedroom on her way to the kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee (something she had done hundreds of times), when a motion-activated light my uncle installed flashed on, temporarily disorienting her and causing her to fall in the hallway. She had hip surgery and the subsequent weeks of rehabilitation required, which all took place in the nursing home in my hometown. Now, my grandma - she's from south Alabama - she had sworn to us if she ever wound up in the nursing home, she'd kill us, and while she may not have technically been a resident in the nursing home, she was inside the building. So whenever my dad and I came to visit her, as soon as she saw us coming down the hall she'd start into calling us names - names I cannot repeat in a sermon!
I don't recall exactly how many weeks she was in rehab, but while she was there, my uncle (who lived with Grandma at the time) decided to change a few things around her house: push the kitchen table up against the wall, reorganize the bathroom, make a clear path in her bedroom from the bed to the door, and rearrange the furniture in the living room. While I think he had the best of intentions in doing all that he did, when we brought Grandma home, all the changes left her confused - I'd go so far as to say I don't think she was ever quite right after that. She'd look around the living room from time to time while I was there, then look at me and say, "Chris’fer, I want to go home," to which I'd say, "You crazy old lady, you are home!" But it all looked different to her; there were literally corners of rooms she hadn't seen in years, patches of carpet that were a different color because they hadn't been faded like the rest, even discolored rectangles on the wall where the same pictures had been hanging for decades. It was the same place, yet it was completely different, and all because a few things had been rearranged and exposed. For Grandma, the whole place had been changed - transfigured - because a few things had been uncovered.
You know, I can't help but wonder sometimes how this whole place, this whole world, might appear to change - be transfigured - if we could just uncover a few things, how the world might look a bit different if we rearranged the furniture of our faith to expose the darkened corners a bit, how jarring it might be to discover how much we've worn a path around the objects, ideas, and concerns we've used to decorate our consciousness. I wonder... would the world be transformed by what it witnessed? Would we be transformed?
Perhaps that's why Paul was having to explain himself in this letter to the Corinthians: his preaching of "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" had perhaps uncovered something within the believers at Corinth, something that had been ignored, blazed over, or contradicted by the so-called "super apostles" and other preachers and philosophers who were attempting to woo the congregation there with other thoughts about life, faith, and the divine. Paul's words before us clearly sound defensive: "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing." It's as if he's saying, "Oh yeah? If we're wrong, it's only to those who think they're always right!" But what Paul is getting at is something much deeper, I think, something that touches on what just may be the biggest conundrum facing the contemporary Church (or perhaps the Church of any era).
You see, Paul speaks about a "veiled gospel," a gospel that can only be identified by its reduced appearance. While there's definitely some connection with Moses and his veiled face in Exodus, guarding the people from the frightening transformation that had taken place in the presence of the glory of God, I think Paul's words go farther, hinting at what just may be veiling the gospel in the eyes of many today. To tell the truth, it's not any one particular issue (though there are many who would line up at the soapbox for their turn to plead their case for the singular cause of moral corruption in our present age), but I might be so bold as to say it can be summed up in the further words of our text from Paul: "For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
In other words, when we seek to proclaim the gospel, to unveil the truth of God in Christ Jesus to the world, we do not do it in a way that seeks to put ourselves first, to lift ourselves up as some shining example of pious righteousness. When we seek to "let light shine out of darkness" we do so while proclaiming ourselves servants – slaves, in fact - for others. Any other method, any other attempt at proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, will always present a veiled gospel.
I can remember hearing a couple of rather famous televangelists one time talking about how they absolutely had to have a private plane whenever they traveled the world to preach. One of them said he had learned that lesson (the necessity of flying in his own private plane) from his mentor. He said about him, "[He] used to fly airliners... but it got to the place where it was agitating him... people coming up to him - he had become famous - wanting him to pray for them and all that..." [You can check out the video of this conversation here: https://youtu.be/UWt5PJhCmmg (accessed 2/2/2021)] Imagine that! A famous preacher, and folks wanting him to pray for them! They went on to say how a private plane allowed them to do the Lord's work better because it meant they'd be protected from being trapped in a commercial plane with all those - in their words - all those "demons" - you know, all those people traveling to visit family, to go on mission trips, to attend conferences and business meetings, those "demons." If we need to keep others at arms' length in order to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus, if we need removed, private, velvet-roped pulpits from which to preach, if we need to make sure that the real awful folks, the real dirty folks, the just plain real folks are kept out of our way, then at best we are preaching a veiled gospel.
Of course, it's not just the prosperity preachers who present a veiled gospel to the world. You see, Paul says, "We proclaim Jesus Christ... For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ means that there is in fact something different about our acts of benevolence, that we are more than just doers of good deeds seeking to earn a merit badge, a few good words said at our funeral, or an award named in our honor. Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ means that our lives are lived in such a way that our actions, our words, are unmistakably grounded in who Christ is.
On the wall in my old office, I had hung a picture of Clarence Jordan, with one of my favorite quotes of his. It said, "The measure of a Christian is not in the height of his grasp but in the depth of his love." I believe Clarence embodied that quote. He's been growing in popularity among some younger folks these days, but in his lifetime Clarence was all but despised, especially in his home state of Georgia, for preaching a gospel of acceptance and inclusion - most especially when it came to matters of race. Clarence, however, didn't just preach that gospel, he lived it. What's more, Clarence didn't just live his life in the quietness with the other folks at Koinonia (the interracial farming community he started in Americus, Georgia), he preached in whatever church would welcome him into the pulpit, even if they only welcomed him once. Clarence didn't just live his life, leaving the rest of the world to draw their own conclusions about his motives, he was unapologetically vocal about his allegiance and obedience to the calling of the gospel of Christ, and as such, I believe Clarence exemplified what's missing from the veiled gospel of some of us on the more progressive and liberal side of Christianity. Clarence was not ashamed to say that he did what he did, he lived the way he lived, because he believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that Jesus meant what he said when he said, "You shall love the Lord your God... [and] your neighbor as yourself." [Matthew 22:37-40]
Today, it seems as if we are stuck with two options as contemporary Christians, two veiled gospels in need of transfiguration, in need of having their furniture rearranged, in need of full revelation to "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." On the one hand, we can confess with our words that we are Christians - reciting creeds, signing statements, and quoting Bible verses at those we have determined are sinners worse than we. But this veiled gospel places us at the center, fooling us into believing that what matters most is our personal, cognitive agreement to some argument that will secure our seat in heaven. It veils the full-orbed truth of Christ's gospel because as "we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord" yet fail to proclaim, "ourselves as [others'] slaves for Jesus' sake."
On the other hand, we are presented with a muted gospel, indistinguishable from the benevolent deeds of those who donate their time and money for the tax break, a gospel veiled by the still self-seeking actions of philanthropists hoping to have a wing of their college named in their honor. Even this half-hearted gospel places us at the center, for we will all but hide Jesus from the spotlight, hoping instead to either pass it off without the embarrassment of faith to the ear of reason or to claim the work as our own along with the adoration and praise. It veils the full gospel of Christ because it flatly fails to "Let light shine out of darkness," by "[giving] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
Friends, I am becoming more and more convinced that what we truly need - what the Church needs - is an unveiled gospel, a gospel that rearranges the furniture and exposes the worn-out rugs of our faith, a gospel that puts action to our confessions and confessions to our actions, a gospel that demands more from us than pious attitudes with proof-text bumper stickers and politically watered-down doctrine. We need an unveiled gospel that demands that our actions are undeniably driven by our faith in Christ and not by our need for attention or praise. We need to fully take hold of the whole gospel of Jesus, the selfless gospel that always puts Christ first and all others ahead of ourselves. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as... _slaves for Jesus' sake.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Giver of the Holy Spirit, help us to proclaim with our lives an unveiled gospel, to proclaim with our actions the truth of who you are and with our words the convictions that lie at the heart of our actions and very being. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.