I pulled up to a gas station in my newly rented car and started to get out when another car pulled up alongside me. It was a little beaten up. As we emerged from our cars, he greeted me with something that I, frankly, had never heard before, “How would you like to do a swap?”
I didn’t quite know what to say without insulting him! So, I said, “I am not sure that the car rental company would appreciate me returning with a car other than the one they loaned me.”
He laughed, and then he said, “It was worth a try.”
We talked some more. You see, we were situated on the Evangeline trail in Nova Scotia just a week last Saturday. I was excited and getting ready to teach the course at Acadia. My mind was on high and lofty things like homiletics!
He said, “Hey now, look at my car. What is wrong with it? It has some beautiful orange stripes over the fenders, and underneath it is air conditioned all year long, the tires are so bald that they give very nice slide in the corners! If you really want this vehicle, my wife can come with it as your chauffeur. Are you sure you don’t want to swap?”
She was sitting in the driver’s seat, what am I to say without insulting her?! I reminded him again that this was a rental car and under no means was I to swap it for clearly his very beautiful orange-striped (rusted), hole-ridden vehicle.
“Now, tell me,” he said, “what do you do?” I was about to tell him, but he continued, “Stop! I know what you do. You must be at the University.”
I said, “Well, why?”
He said, “You have Acadia University on your jacket. Not only that, you seem to have a lot of big words, and I am assuming that you are at the University.”
I replied, “Yes, I am for a week. I am a visiting professor for a week.”
He said, “That is nice. What are you teaching?”
I said, “Theology.”
He asked, “What is that?”
I replied, “It is about God.”
“Oh my!” he said, “God! Oh! Wow! God!” and he looked at his wife and said, “He is teaching on God.”
She looks mightily impressed. Then, without further ado, he tells me his story of woe. Classic Maritimes! I knew that by the time he finished I would know his whole life. He talked about how he had once lived in Ontario and owned a business, but had to return to Nova Scotia because his father was ill. Because of that, he had lost all his money. He talked about the two children he had and how difficult it was when you don’t have a job to look after them. He said, “We were even thinking of foster care at one point.” At that point, his wife clearly was distressed. He continued, “The problem is I cannot get a job, and I have to keep up the rent for my trailer in the hills.” I thought he was trying to hit me up for money at that point, but he wasn’t. There was nothing duplicitous or greedy about this man. He was just a simple genuine guy. He continued, “Sometimes I get to go out on the boats and I make a few dollars, and sometimes I mow lawns but it is not enough.” I told him how sad I was to hear of his situation. I wished I could help. Then, just as I thought the conversation was ebbing to a close, he told me “By the way, I have been diagnosed with this thing called MS. Is this bad?” At that point, I could have melted on the floor. He ended up by saying, “You seem to have a lot of words. Maybe your words could be heard by this God that you teach about. I really wonder at times what this God is really like.” At that point, I was so distraught for him I felt my words totally inadequate. I just offered to continue to pray for him, and I will. I probably will never meet him again, but the image of this man with MS in a trailer with two children and little prospects just breaks my heart.
He asked a question that’s timeless, isn’t it: what is this God that you speak of really like? He got me dwelling on our passage this morning, for it seems to me that when we turn to the Apostle Paul and this incredible ending of the Book of Corinthians, we have a glimmer of insight into what God is like. Paul was writing near the end of this incredible series of two letters to the Corinthians. They were probably written around 55 or 56 AD, some twenty years after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. He is writing to exhort them to a moral purity. He wants them to be ethical in the way that they do things. For example, the language that he uses to describe the community of believers is that they act in a harmonious way, and build each other up.
The language you see even after the moral exhortation is one of encouragement, one of peace and harmony and the mutual building up of the Church and the body of Christ. He knew that after his exhortation he needed to give them a positive impulse from which to support and encourage each other. It is a magnificent passage! But it all comes together in the last line in what really is a triadic formula to describe God. It is not the classic Doctrine of the Trinity that we find 200-300 years later at the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. It came to the Church fathers to put together the doctrine in the formal sense of the word. This triadic formula is there really early on in the Christian faith, and it is there in the Apostle Paul. He simply writes this: “May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Simple, uncomplicated, non-dogmatic, but God in a triadic form!
Why is it powerful? Why would it make any difference to the man in the car at the Irving station in the Maritimes? The answer lies in three key words, all of which are used to describe the three persons in the Godhead, and the first of these is “grace”.
“May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ”. “Grace” is a word that Paul uses a great deal. He ends every other letter that he wrote with it. Grace for him was absolutely central. But in this particular passage, he extends it – “the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ” – and then “the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” Be under no illusions, it is the “grace” of Our Lord Jesus Christ that was central to Paul’s understanding of who God is. For Paul, there is no doubt that the grace is seen in the death and the resurrection of Jesus. It is seen in the life and witness, in the parables, teachings and the healings of Jesus. We describe what God is like by describing what Jesus is like. It is the grace of Christ that is not the second or the third thing, but the first thing.
In his wonderful book about grace Philip Yancey quotes the great theologian Helmut Thielicke, who talks about grace in the most beautiful way. He talks about grace, in essence, as the forgiveness of Christ and the way that Christ looks at the world:
Jesus gained the power to love harlots and bullies and ruffians. He was able to do this only because he saw through the filth and crust of degeneration because his eyes caught the divine original, which is hidden in every way in every person. First and foremost, he gives us new eyes. When Jesus loved a guilt-ridden person and helped him, he saw in him an erring child of God; he saw in him a human being who his Father loved and grieved over because he was going wrong – The Prodigal Son. He saw in this God originally designed and meant him to be, and therefore he saw through the surface layer of grime and dirt to the real man underneath. Jesus did not identify the person with his sin, but rather saw in this sin something alien, something that really did not belong to him, something that merely chained and mastered him, and from which he could be free and bring him back to his real self. Jesus was able to love men because he loved them right through the layer of mud.
This is grace! This is God looking at human beings through the mud, through the mire, through the complexity from the sins and the brokenness of the world, and seeing what God wants them to be. This was Jesus’ great gift. But it was not only a great gift in terms of eyes to see, it was a cross to bear. It was a moment in time where for all of those who were only being looked at through the eyes of mud, Jesus breaks through and redeems. If only I had been smart enough to say that to that man in that broken down car! If only......! That is the power of grace! That is the power of the first person of the Trinity in the way Paul sees uses it, who is Jesus Christ.
Then, Paul talks about the love of God: “the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God”. This might not sound particularly radical. We associate God as “love”, the God of “love”. But do you know that in The New Testament only once is the phrase “the God of love” used, and it is in Verse 11 of this final chapter of Corinthians 2. Paul goes to great lengths to show that God is love, not in the Greek or Hebrew translations of The Old Testament do you find the words “the God of love”. Even in the other Epistles you might find some references to the love of God, but the definition of God as love is in Corinthians 2. For Paul, there is no question that this love is manifested in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The two are not separate. Rather, the love of God is witnessed in the very power of Jesus of Nazareth himself. To the Romans, in Chapter 5, he wrote this:
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Here is the thing that joins the love of God and the person of Christ. Here is part of the unity of the body of Christ. Here is the unity of God manifested: God is love.
You might say to yourself, “Is that particularly radical?” Oh, yes, it is! Is it not radical in the light the diabolical activities that we have seen recently in Manchester and London, where people are murdered in the name of God? People are confused about the nature of God. When you are that Nova Scotian man in that beaten up car with an illness that is going to affect the rest of your life, you want to know what kind of god is looking after you. Paul has the answer.
No one knew suffering more than the great Feodor Dostoevsky. In The Brother Karamazov, he suggests that this love of Christ manifests itself not only in the body and the person of Jesus, not only in the body of the redeemed, but in the world:
Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light, love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If thou love each thing, thou will perceive the mystery of God in all, and when one conceives this, thou will thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all embracing and universal.
Boy, Dostoevsky is good! And right. The love of God is a universal love. It is not a love that accepts everything, but it is a love that looks through the mire, the dirt, the filth and the violence of the world. It looks beyond what we see with a passion borne out of the majesty of the Almighty God.
Then, that beautiful line “and the fellowship (there is another word for it, the communion) of the Holy Spirit.” As many of you know, I was teaching last week in Nova Scotia. I had twelve students, and I believe many of them are listening today to make sure that I practice what I preach and teach! One of them wrote a lovely note at the end to all the other students. It simply said, “I have become acutely aware that in our age and in our activity as preachers and in the Church we need each other.”
What struck me in the course was that indeed we did! That mutuality, that recognition across denominational lines – we had ‘em all! – Pentecostal to Presbyterian, there is a bond and a spirit that is greater than anything you can manufacture in the world because there is a commonality of purpose, of drive, of vision, and of faith. Where Paul is writing to the Corinthians and he talks about this coherence, this up-building and this peacefulness, he is talking about that bond, that fellowship in the Holy Spirit. It is something that both creates the Church in that kind of subjective, genitive form, but it is also something that we participate in – an objective, genitive form. It is both something that is outside us and creates us as a people of God and molds us together to reflect the very unity, love and power of God, but it is also there in our particular lives. If only I had thought of that when I spoke to the man in the broken down car with his wife in the front seat! If only you knew there was a fellowship that is beyond you, a fellowship to which you can belong.
There is a wonderful story of a young child who sat on the banks of the Mississippi river. He noticed there was a man fishing so he goes up to him and asks him a whole lot of questions. The man is not interested in his questions at all, and finds it rather irritating. He is there to fish, and fishing is a very private and quiet affair. The boy bugged him! When all of a sudden, down the river came the very famous Mississippi River Queen – that incredible ship! The boy stops his conversation with the old man and he hollers to the ship, “Stop and let me on board!”
The fisherman looked at him and said, “Are you silly? It isn’t going to stop for you! This is the River Queen of the Mississippi!”
But the boy continued, “Stop for me! Stop for me!” Surprisingly, the ship steers towards the bank of the river. The plank is lowered and the boy runs up to the very top and calls down to the fisherman below, who is incredulous: “I knew they would hear my voice. The Captain is my father.”
I know God will hear our voices for the Captain is our God. When we feel insignificant, and when we feel like that man in that beaten up car, and wonder where the world is going, and what God is like, there is One who hears our voice, and that is the power of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit honours the Father and the Son. The Son is the manifestation of the love of the Father. The Father is holy, never-changing love. This is the God I want the man in that car to know! My prayers for him continue. Amen.