I have always been drawn by the words of George Fox, recorded in his Journal, refusing the commissioners’ request of him to become captain of new soldiers in Cromwell’s army: "I told them I knew from whence all wars come, even from the lusts, according to James’s doctrine, and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars."
I want to know that life and power. I want to be part of peacemaking, like Fox, rather than war-making. Aware of the possibility of my exploding in anger or reacting defensively to a slight, of being blinded by the level of my material comfort, I hunger to live in what Fox knows.
Today’s topic came to me in the night, without a biblical passage. I didn’t know from Fox’s words what biblical passage to talk about. I caught the biblical reference to James 4:1. I understood that the word "lusts" as Fox used it was not about sex, but rather about our greed and me-centered way of living. I didn’t get the biblical connections about "living in the virtue of that life and power." The reason is that Fox isn’t quoting Scripture. He is proclaiming the life-giving message that had seeped into him from his deep acquaintance with Scripture.
I will show that Paul’s writings contain this message. I’ll begin with some explanation of Fox’s words, and then I’ll turn us to Paul’s writings and a specific passage in 2 Corinthians.
The quotation from Fox describes two ways of being, two kinds of knowing. One kind is that which comes out of our very human, worldly, natural, limited, selves—an ordinary or lower kind of knowing, which can be helpful, but which also includes what Fox calls lusts or passions, which take us to war. To me, "war" refers to all life-denying actions. For example, the loans we’re learning about in the national news these days—made to people who did not have the ability to repay them— were surely done out of this worldly kind of knowing.
The other way of being or knowing is what we have been talking about all week—hearing the voice of Truth, knowing the love of God, being given a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone, taking up the cross daily, choosing life by attending to that which is so close to us, that which is in our mouth and in our heart, in order that we know God’s commandment and have the power to be and do according to God’s way. This deeper wisdom is of God, from God, available to be known in each of us and in the faith community. It shows us our condition and empowers us to live in inner freedom and love; as Buddhists would say, without attachment. It unhooks us from having to choose fight or flight, from being oppressed or oppressor, and points to a third way.
The way Martin Luther King Jr. lived and witnessed, finding strength despite death threats, courageously speaking truth in love, refusing to demand an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, must have come from that life and power. All of us can think of our own examples of making decisions based on worldly knowing versus those coming out of that deeper place.
Have you ever had a profound spiritual experience you wanted to tell others about? Words are completely inadequate. They only point toward the meaning. Fox’s language about that life and power arose from his lived experience, confirmed by his interpretation of the Scripture that dwelt in him.
So also the apostle Paul used familiar words in fresh ways to try to explain what he came to know from his experience that began with the blinding light on the road to Damascus. Many of those words have become rigidified in church doctrines and have become for some of us meaningless or off-putting. You may have to listen under the words in order to hear the voice of Truth.
Because of what happened to me through this passage during my journey in preparing this presentation, I want to focus on 2 Corinthians 5:16-20. It is full of Paul’s troublesome words, and it is easy to get lost. Let me read the verses and we’ll wrestle with it together:
16 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. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (NRSV)
Let’s start with the first verse. "According to a human point of view" is also translated "according to the flesh." Spirit versus flesh is a dichotomy that Paul often uses. Some people have understood his use of flesh to be dualistic and anti-body, but I disagree. He is simply setting up the same two kinds of knowing that Fox presents. When Paul speaks of once knowing Christ according to the flesh, we can catch the two kinds of knowing. You remember from the accounts in Acts 9:1-19 and Acts 22:4-16, Paul’s early response to Jesus was vigorously to persecute his followers. When Paul experienced the blinding light from heaven, he was on the road to Damascus to bring to Jerusalem for punishment any who belonged to the Way. Paul had a notion of Jesus from a human point of view, from the flesh, from a knowing based in what Fox called "lusts."
After the light flashed and he fell to the ground, Paul heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him. Following Paul’s direct, immediate encounter with Christ, he was given a new way of knowing. This kind of knowing is what Paul refers to in other passages as "according to the spirit," the kind of knowing Fox refers to by "the life and power."
The question is, what did Paul come to understand from his experience? What new perception was he given? One answer is in Colossians 1:25-27: "I became [the servant of the church] according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints [set-apart ones]. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." The new perception, the mystery that had been hidden, is that we can be "in Christ" or have "Christ in us," which is what happened for Paul, and that makes a "new creation." Being "in Christ" or "Christ in you" are very common phrases in Paul’s letters.
Tim Peat, the Biblical Studies Tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker Centre, sums up the main points of the opening Paul had: "Jesus continues to live and speak in us [individually and corporately] as God acted and spoke in [Paul]. Living by faith is living by this direct guidance from God." This is not something you have to believe. It is something you can find, you can know, you can experience. This Fox refers to as "the life." (See Ben Pink Dandelion, Douglas Gwyn, and Timothy Peat, Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming.)
And there is a second piece to Paul’s new perception, according to Peat, which is "the Spirit of Christ which is now in us puts an end to sin, there is no longer any struggle to do right, but right action arises from a natural obedience to the voice of faith sounding within." This is what Fox called "the power." And it is why he refers to the life and power together— knowing what to do and being empowered to do it, hearing within and being enabled to live accordingly.
Liberal Friends tend to resist the word "sin." It seems so negative and unhelpful, raising up specters of good and bad, being judged and condemned. Let’s look at the state of sin in a different way. It is the fundamental assertion of humankind over against God. I’m going to do things my way, from my human knowing. I separate myself from God and divine wisdom. This is the state we choose over and over. It is willfulness rather than willingness. And it leads to discord and war.
But, again from Peat, "In Paul’s new understanding, Jesus is the one in whom there is no opposition to God, completely united with the will of God." That is, when we "put on Christ" or are "in Christ," we are liberated from division and from that separation, and we are reconciled with God and with each other. This is the way to live in the life and power that takes away the occasion for war.
Let me now tell you my story with the passage, in case it can give you your own experiential connection to the good news.
In January 2009 I attended the Contemplative Retreat at Powell House in New York State, co-sponsored by School of the Spirit and led by Linda Chidsey of New York Yearly Meeting and Carolyn Moon of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I was looking forward to a time of silence and spiritual preparation for this week. But things didn’t go as I expected.
Early on, during the night, the heating system for the whole building went out. The next morning when I went into the dining room for breakfast, Ann Davidson, the director of Powell House and a friend of mine, grabbed my hands, which were freezing cold. I thought she was trying to warm me up. Instead, what happened was that I had a very real sensation or experience of having Jesus move into my body, being filled with Jesus like a balloon being filled with air. As he filled me, my ribs expanded and my bones were strengthened and I stood tall and strong and boldly alive. I don’t know why that happened. I know Ann has a gift for spiritual healing. I know it gave me a tangible inner experience of "Christ in me" or of "being in Christ," maybe even of being a new creation.
One of the things you do in the retreat is a work time. I chose "cleaning tiles," which turned out to be recycling used ceramic tiles by scraping off the glue on the back and the grout on the edges. We had been told that the time was not about productivity and accomplishment, and that we were to pay loving attention to our bodies. But what I did was scratch and scrape to perfection three tiles—only three tiles!—in an hour and a half. I was proud of my accomplishment, even though my hand, arm, elbow, shoulder, and back hurt. By that afternoon in group spiritual sharing time I saw my perfectionism in all its ridiculousness, and I was upset at myself for being so stuck in that pattern, for not being perfect. Aaargh!
That evening we were given a long list of possible passages to pray into. The 2 Corinthians passage chose me. Feeling frustrated by my perfectionism and aware of the pain it causes me, I was struck by the words about being a new creation and being reconciled to God. I heard it speaking of being liberated from sin, stuckness, the experience of oppression or of being an oppressor. I wondered if it could be true, if the promise could be real. Could I indeed be liberated? Can we be liberated from our wounds and passions that destroy life? Is it true that there is life and power, that we can be shown what gives life and be enabled to do it?
In his Pendle Hill pamphlet Getting Rooted: Living in the Cross, Brian Drayton asks the same question. He talks about how one experiences a growth in faithfulness, a moment of peak clarity, an assurance of the power of the Light in one’s life, the loosening or breaking of some bond of self and sin—and then, maybe only hours later, it’s back to the old behaviors and patterns. Is the promise of being a new creation real?
Drayton answers, "Yes." Even as a young, inexperienced Friend, when he couldn’t see the life and power at work in him, he had seen in others in his meeting that "good was possible, that people could live it," because he saw in some "the telltale signs of the Divine Life at work in them," and he "felt a Spirit present who invited and enabled that work."
I assume I will be a perfectionist until the day I die; yet it is also true that transformation happened at that Powell House retreat through this 2 Corinthians passage. The sting of the wound was diminished. I learned some things. For one, I don’t have to look at myself "according to a human point of view," which criticizes and condemns. I can open to the divine point of view, to the life of the Spirit, which is Love. "Mind the Light first and foremost," says Drayton, "waiting to feel the Presence, quiet and peaceful, and to receive assurance of the love and light that God sheds freely. In that place strength can be found." Loosing ourselves from that human point of view really matters.
I also learned that the fact that we stumble over and over again is not a cause for despair. It is not a cause for assuming that we are not a new creation after all, that the old has not passed away. Rather, the fact that we have moments of clarity and ability to choose Life confirms the promise. It is far better to celebrate the times of blessing and let them feed our souls and draw us to hunger and watch inwardly for more, than to go to despair and emphasize our waywardness. We are a new creation in Christ, both now and yet to be. Celebrate the gifts, and let the stumbles be just an invitation to seek the life and power again.
The final point is probably even more wonderful and freeing. It connects to what I understand Paul is saying in verse 18: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ." It is that all of the selves we are—the ones that catch the moments of vision of the gift God offers us and the selves that do what we don’t want to do—are gathered up in Christ, in God’s time, and are being transformed. So we need never give up hope when we see the discouraging signs. Even they are part of being and becoming the new creation.
Moreover, this good news is not just for us: We have been given "the ministry of reconciliation" (verse 18).
By the end of that Powell House retreat, my heart was on fire with love. Mercy and compassion, gratitude and unity, flowed toward all. I don’t know if what happened to me changed anyone else there.
What I do know is that after I had worked on this talk, a friend who is a Vietnam veteran came to visit. In meeting for worship he had had a flashback that frightened him, and he wanted to know how to understand it now that he is a Quaker.
As I spoke insights I have shared here, I watched him take in the love of God. I saw healing begin—reconciliation with himself, with God, and with others. In a tiny corner, the wounds and brokenness, separations and passions that lead to violence and war were melted away. And the melting will continue to spread.
Friends, there is life and power, available to us: "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"
This text is taken from the Thursday, July 2, 2009, Bible Half-Hour at the 2009 Friends General Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia. ©2010 Quaker Press of Friends General Conference. To acquire a pamphlet, downloadable PDF, MP3, or CD (for newer computers with MP3 capability) of Patty Levering’s complete 2009 Gathering Bible Half Hour Series,go to http://www.quakerbooks.org.