Third Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
You can’t judge an apple by lookin’ at the tree
You can’t judge the honey by lookin’ at the bee
You can’t judge a woman by lookin’ at her mother
You can’t judge a book by lookin’ at the cover
These words from the legendary early rock ‘n’ roll great Bo Diddley’s song “You Can’t Judge a Book” might as well be the theme song for Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. Commonly known as 2nd Corinthians.
It might as well be the theme song because some members of this community of faith, one that Paul himself helped found, have been judging Paul, and his ministry, based on outward appearances.
Later on in the letter, we discover that Paul has had some serious competition. Folks who he calls, tongue-in-cheek, “Superapostles.” These folks claim superior wisdom. They possess letters of recommendation from important people. They perform miracles, and they’ve got lots of money. Good looking, with TED-Talk-worthy eloquent speech. You can imagine every time they speak, their website, and 1-800 number flash on the screen. Along with the words “donate now.”
They look at these entertaining preachers, and they like what they see. They criticize Paul, on the other hand, for his rather dull appearance. His baldness. The fact that he works a full time job, and doesn’t collect money from them. Meaning he’s poor. He’s not much of a speaker, probably just reads it all off a piece of paper. And he isn’t much of a miracle worker, either. Can’t give much of a show. Compared to these “superapostles,” he’s a lackluster performer at best. When they look at Paul, they see this broke, dumpy, uncharismatic, shabby bald guy who couldn’t talk himself out of a paper bag.
So they’ve been measuring his effectiveness as a minister and overseer, on outer criteria. Not the apple, but the tree. Not the honey, but the bee. The cover of the book, not the pages inside. They look at Paul, and on every account he goes wanting. No contest.
In one way, it’s understandable. I’ve seen talks where an empty chair possesses more charisma than the person giving it. Myself included. There’s a point where appearance can be an obstacle to hearing the content.
But there’s also a point where the appearance overwhelms and overshadows the content. It overrides the message itself. And can be destructive.
A few weeks ago, the Atlantic magazine wrote about the world of militant online veganism. You may not know this (I didn’t know, either) but like any other niche community out there, there’s a whole world of Vegan YouTube celebrities. A lot of it is condemning the practice of meat eating, and promoting healthy vegan lifestyles. But, interestingly enough, this piece points out that it’s not generally meat eaters who react the most strongly against these stars. The most heat actually comes from fellow vegans. Ones who criticize for not being critical of meat-eating enough. Eating the occasional piece of cheese. Not doing veganism to the fullest degree.
And the pressure can be so high that people will stop at nothing to maintain their online personas. After being an evangelical vegan for nearly a decade, one star said she developed insomnia, chronic anemia, and a whole bunch of other health problems. All of which she traces to stress and orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. And it was all about maintaining appearances. About publicly holding up the impossible outward standards of the online community.[i] We’ll let our bodies waste away. But as long as we look good, that’s ok.
And it’s not just militant vegans. Many of us spend a lot of time projecting on social media, Facebook, Twitter. We’ll post all the lovely photos of the ski trip up mount Washington. Cute play dates between kids. And the perfect broccoli quiche. All with the purpose of carefully crafting our outward public persona.
This really hit home for me recently when our family was at the Cumberland parade. I ended up fiddling for about 10 minutes trying to get my phone’s camera to work. And Cheyenne said to me, as only she can, something like “maybe put the phone down and enjoy the parade.” I wanted to post a perfect shot of the parade on Instagram. Show everybody how wonderful my family is and how good of a father I am. Meanwhile ended up ignoring my children. And missing a good chunk of the actual parade.
And before those of us who aren’t vegans, and aren’t on social media start patting ourselves on the back. Let’s keep in mind that this isn’t a new thing. Just a new manifestation of an old one. Churches can be like that. The music, the young charismatic preacher (or two young, charismatic, well-educated preachers). Especially in the past, church was often about showing up in your Sunday best. Smiling, hiding sins and shame for fear of judgment. Projecting your perfect self out of fear of judgment by peers. All the while the point of church is missed. The church becomes the company of the righteous. Rather than sinners in recovery.
Like Paul’s congregation in Corinth, we value outward appearance over inner substance. The content matters less than how it’s presented. Either way, we become less concerned with judging outward appearances than what is actually happening in our lives. Or the lives of others. The Corinthians, militant vegans, social media stars and contemporary Christians all seem to have this in common.
As much time and investment we put in to the outward, though. Whether it’s wealth, status, success, wisdom, charisma, or beauty. Paul’s response—to the Corinthians, and to us—is that none of this stuff really matters in the end. Because it’s wasting away.
First he says him and his partners preach on account of the death and resurrection of Jesus. One thing we always seem to forget is that Jesus, according to outward appearances, is a complete failure. Poor, homeless, wandering Jew. Never won any awards, no shiny teeth. Never was an entrepreneurial success. An he was executed by the state in collaboration with the upright religious authorities. Crucified between criminals.
And yet, Paul says a chapter later, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” Hidden within this shabby outward appearance, hidden in the very cross itself, is the Creator of the universe at work bringing cosmic newness.
“So we do not lose heart,” Paul says. We do not lose heart because “even though our outer nature Is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. Because we look not at what can be seen, for what can be seen is temporary. But what can not be seen is eternal.”
In Christ, there is a clear line drawn between our outer nature, Paul says, and our inner nature.
Our outer nature is what can be seen. Not only is it the human body. But it’s everything that is temporary in life. Appearances. All that stuff we and the Corinthians hold up high. Success, status, money, wealth. Sex appeal, power, the right fashion sense. The perfect speaking and singing voice. The perfect Facebook profile or highly-rated YouTube channel. Even our moral superiority. As much as we worship these things, none of them will last. Along with our bodies, this stuff will decay and one day disappear. You’ve probably heard that phrase “you can’t take it with you when you die.” Paul puts those flashy “superapostles” in that category. All that stuff we put so much life and energy in to obtaining, and maintaining. Temporary, Paul says. Whoosh. Gone with the sands of time.
But then there’s our inner nature. It’s the part of us that we can’t see. He means who we are in our totality. Who we are in our fullness. What we might call the soul. Who we are below the surface of all appearance. How God sees us, really. That’s the important bit.
And unlike our outer nature, which is fleeting, there’s something about our inner nature that mingles with the eternal. Everlasting. Something that outlasts us. Outlasts our lives, our children’s lives, that outlives everything and everybody. Now, Paul doesn’t mean a ghostly angel that floats out of us when we die. But he means that part of us that participates in the Trinity. The divine life of the Creator. Stuff we can’t own, obtain or quantify. Not because they last forever, but that they originate in the very life of God. Stuff like goodness. Beauty, truth. Courage. Integrity, self-sacrifice. Hope, joy, love. Those things experienced in loving relationship with other people. All of these unseen things… these aren’t dying. But these are the things that given to us by God’s own Spirit of life. And by which we are new every morning by Christ. “For we know,” he says. “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
We can’t see any of it. But it’s this stuff that matters. The stuff that will outlast us. And, as Paul says elsewhere—if you ain’t got these, you ain’t got nothin. Otherwise, it’s all strictly appearance. And that’s just wasting away.
We spend so much of our time worried by, and cultivating our appearances, the outer life. A crafted persona we project to the world, confusing the appearance of life with life itself. So much so that it can oppress us. And even destroy us. That’s because it’s all temporary, and can pull us in to the trash heap with it. But Paul tells us that we need not be enslaved by appearances any longer. Full life, true life, life eternal isn’t found on the surface of things. In the life we project. Rather, it’s found inside. It’s found in the transformation of our inner life, the depth of our souls. In the pursuit of God. God’s love, and God’s kingdom. And we do that by taking up our cross daily, and dying to our drive towards appearances. Dying to our perfection. Dying to our pursuit of wealth, experience, prestige, fame. Giving up on all of those other temporary, appearance-related things that consume our lives. Giving up, and giving in. Giving in to those things we can not see, or quantify. Giving in to God’s grace. And giving in to, living for, and serving in Christ’s name.
Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. Because if we’re gonna live forever, might as well start today.[ii]
[i] Jordan Bissel, “Vegan YouTube Stars Are Held to Impossible Standards,” The Atlantic Monthly online https://www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/560807/?__twitter_impression=true.