The Letter & the Spirit

“Our sufficiency is from God,  who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new testament, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Corinthians 3:5-6

If you are a fan of the legendary science fiction TV show “Star Trek” you might remember an episode where Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise encounter a strange race of aliens called the “Organians”. The plot of that particular episode had the evil Klingon Empire invading the Organian’s home planet. The good guys in the person of Captain Kirk and company come to save the Organians from their impending enslavement. But the Organians behaved with a strange kind of indifference to their fate. They willingly submitted to the Klingon’s brutal occupation and even passively allowed themselves to be slaughtered by their evil conquers. At the end of the episode, we find out the reason for their bizarre indifference to the loss of physical life. It turns out that the Organians were not physical beings at all. They had “evolved” into pure intellect; creatures who were pure idea without any material form at all. The Enterprise’s Science Officer Mr. Spock ends the episode with the comment: “It appears the Organians are as high above us on the evolutionary scale as we are above the amoeba.”

Indeed, this has been the great lie that we sinful humans have been chasing since our fall from the Garden. The original sin of mankind was to refuse God when He came to us in creation; in material things. Instead of worshiping, taking pleasure in, and trusting God in physical things like Apples and our own bodies, we humans instead pursued God in what we believed to be a better and more pure form: in the realm of ideas. In short, we turned God into an abstract idea and refused to recognize His presence in the world.

The so-called “Fall” into sin is in reality an inward turning of the human soul into the realm of self and ideas. We prefer to turn God into an abstract idea where he can be safely locked up inside our thoughts were He can be molded to fit our own personal notions and tastes. But this attempt at bottling up God and controlling Him in our thinking can only lead to one place: Hell because God refuses to be found in ideas.

This is what St. Paul warns us about in these verses from 2nd Corinthians: “The letter kills but the spirit gives life.” What he is saying is that God is not an idea. He is not a law that can be read from a book then processed in our intellect into an absolute rule to follow. But this is exactly what the scribes and rabbis of Jesus’ and Paul’s day tried to do. They would preach in the synagogues by saying “Well, Rabbi so-and-so read the scriptures and thinks that God wants us to do this. Rabbi so-and-so was somewhat correct, but I also think that God will be pleased if we do this too…..”

This way of preaching was and is very popular because it seems to put us in charge of our own destiny. It sounds like freedom at first. We are enticed by the dream of being just like the Organians who safely escaped out the messiness of physical things into the realm of pure thought and perfect law. Sinner’s like us think that material creation is our problem and if only we can escape into the realm of pure ideas then we can be finally become the makers of our future.

But this a deadly delusion because “the letter”, which is God as an abstract idea in Law or commands, can always be further parsed or split into ever more stringent requirements. Remember the young man who approached Jesus asking what must He do to be saved while at the same time claiming to have kept the Law? How did Jesus respond? By giving the young man yet one more good and righteous law to follow. He parsed the abstraction yet one more time for the young man. What did the Bible say about the fate of that young man? It said “He went away sad.” (Matt. 19:22)

Paul makes his warning about the letter killing because perfect knowledge of much less obedience to the Law is not possible for we finite creatures. Martin Luther put it this way: “Either the law remains to be fulfilled eternally by [inside of] us or it has been already eternally fulfilled [outside of us] in Christ.”

The good news for us that we need to remember is Jesus also spoke the Gospel promise to all those who remained after the young man had left. He said: “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Jesus Christ is the Spirit who gives life because He is the grace of God. He always comes to us from the outside, through the material things of the Father’s creation, to brings us the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the prison of self. When we encounter Jesus, He is a real person who is decidedly not a figment of our own intellect or imaginations. We can hear, see, and even touch and taste Him repeatedly in our lives in the word, water, bread & wine were He gracious told us He would be found.

When Jesus comes and finds us, He brings God’s promise of forgiveness of sins. When we hear God speak to us His Gospel, what He is saying is: “I chose you. You are my beloved child”. With those Words, God creates new life for us. We no longer have to dive deep into the darkness of self to escape from creation, but can embrace it as being for us. We are drawn back into the light of life where we can have joy – eternal joy and love – for both the creation and the Creator who is the One who truly make us more than sufficient in all things. Amen.


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