“The Lifting of Veils”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
12Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. 15Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.(NRSV)
Sitting with this passage last week, our Sunday school class felt some dis-ease. Several of us heard Paul’s comparison of Jesus and Moses as disparaging to Judaism. Speaking of the Jews, Paul says, “…theirminds were hardened…[and] to this very day, when theyhear the reading of the old covenant…a veil lies over theirminds…”
Then he says, “…but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed…And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord…are being transformed into the same image…”
While Paul does criticize himself as frequently and as rigorously as he criticizes anyone else, the us/them distinction can sound arrogant, elitist, and altogether artificial because we all have veils over our minds. We all tend to color the world with broad strokes of our own preconceived notions. Paul was no exception. He engages the present, imagines the future, and remembers the past through the eyes of a transformed and liberated hit man. Having just learned how amazing grace is, Paul approaches his new missionary work with the same mercenary zeal with which he had once executed Christians. His own veil has been lifted, or as Luke describes it, “something like scales fell from his eyes.” (Acts 9:18) I think a redeemed Paul wants his readers to feel something of both the depth and the urgency of his relief.
Back to Moses: The story to which Paul refers comes from Exodus 34. Moses returns to Sinai to make new tablets containing the commandments and to receive God’s renewed covenant with Israel. When Moses finally descends from the mountain, it’s evident that he has had an overwhelming spiritual experience. His human face shines with a light not of his own making. The brilliance is too holy for the Hebrews. So, Moses veils his face to protect them from this reflection of a vision of holiness for which they’re not ready – but for which they are called to prepare.
It seems to me that Moses’ experience at Sinai does for the ancient Hebrews what Jesus’ life does for first-century Jews. Both of these encounters reveal that God is, and has always been, both greater and more intimately present than human theologies often teach. The lifting of veils exposes the deep flaws in our familiar assumptions about who God is, who we are in relationship to God, and who we are in relationship to each other.
The Mosaic Law, for example, revealed the eternal foundation beneath and the broader boundaries surrounding the Hebrews. With the Law, they could no longer see themselves as an insular community, but one which, by divine command, opened their land and their arms to widows, orphans, and aliens.
Jesus opens the borders even wider to say that it’s not just widows, orphans, aliens, or even Samaritans to whom we show hospitality. In Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, humankindis one community, indeed, the earthis one community. Our well-being is tied inextricably to the well-being of each part of andthe whole of creation.
It’s easy to feel threatened – blinded– by Jesus’ unveiled vision. As much as anyone else, I find myself seeking solace beneath veils of sameness. I stick to my routine, telling myself that what I amdoing is all I cando. I tend to discuss the big issues in cozy little echo chambers of like-minded folks. I find myself comfortable behind the culturally powerful veil of a straight, white, Protestant, male in the American south.
If I take Jesus – and my own preaching about Jesus – seriously, I stand to lose a lot. So, part of my sin is to remain happy enough when someone says Good sermon, Preacheror gives me healthcare updates after worship instead of challenging something I said or requesting further conversation.
Having said that, some older ways of doing things do seem superior to newer ways. That’s why I’m so taken with the spirituality of the ancient Celts and their understanding of God not simply as transcendent (“up there” and other – as steeples suggest), but as immanent (“down here” and within all created things). An immanent God makes incarnation more than something that happened 2000 years ago, but something that has been ongoing since the beginning of time.
My respect for certain older ways also makes me want to support small farmers who, for the sake of wholeness and joy, work a patch of land that they know, respect, and love, instead of today’s 10,000-acre corporate farms that, for the sake of profit, treat the environment, livestock, and even employees like appliances or slaves, thingsthat can be used, abused, and pumped with chemicals until they die.
The removal of veils opens us to thatkind of newness – newness that restores us to relationship with God, the earth, and humankind. That new relationship reveals our interdependence, our mortality, and our holiness. On the one hand, life beyond the veil may sound like ludicrous optimism, on the other, it may see that everything comfortable and secure is in jeopardy. (In fact, if we don’t feel that way when reading the Beatitudes, we’re not paying attention!) The thing we begin to understand, however, is that with each veil that is lifted, we reflect, more and more, God’s presence within us.
The purpose of lifting veils is not just to open eyes, but to broaden and deepen vision. When guided by grace, new vision creates individuals and communities of greater compassion, justice, and service. When our veils are lifted, we see beyond concern for ourselves and those like us. We see the suffering of others and the suffering of the earth as our suffering. In the presence of the unique gifts of others, we see signs of our own incompleteness and of God’s fullness. And we see in things as common as bread and wine, fresh hope for this tired old world.
I’ve been using the passive voice with regard to veils: They are lifted. And while this is the Spirit’s work, the lifting of veils is also part of the discipline of faith. We bear a responsibility to acknowledge them and surrender them. We don’t enter the healed and healing life of the kingdom while clinging to old ways of being in the world. And right now, it feels as if our world is changing faster than our hearts and minds can tolerate. And as changes come, Christians waste time asking, Why is God allowing this?
The kind of veil-lifting questions to ask are:
How can I be grateful for the person standing in front of me now?
How can I live generously with people who are hurting and hurtful?
How can I receive and offer forgiveness?
How can I embody the grace of Jesus, and live as a reflection of the gift that he is to the creation?
Meditating on and acting on these questions may make a good Lenten discipline. Through such a practice, we begin to see and to follow Jesus, who is The Way of God’s transforming grace in our lives.
This is not my “advice.”
“This,” says Paul, “comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”