Immortality in Mortality
1 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened – not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:1-10 ESV)
We are astute enough to work out a good portion of what is going on if we hear only one side of something – one letter or email, one phone conversation – and the more we know the relationship between the speakers or correspondents, the better we are able fill in the silences or the previous email. Relationships develop patterns of behaviour – ways of speaking and interacting – we know what silences or tones of voice or certain words mean – because we live this in our relationships. Of course we have to be careful that we do not read too much into what we read or hear – we only have the words to go on after all but that’s my point – words can be understood from the dictionary and from the context in which they are used.
So when we read the letters of the New Testament in particular we are only reading one side of the situation but with some caution we can piece together what is going on. Philippians is written to say ‘thank you’ for the financial support Paul received and to send Epaphroditus back to them. Romans is written to present Paul’s theological CV because he is hoping the Christians in Rome will help him do mission work in Spain. And today we are hearing from 2 Corinthians – yes, Paul’s second letter to the congregation in Corinth.
What can we say about the Corinthians? Quite a bit because of these two letters but one thing I think it is fair to say is that the congregation was fractious, troublesome, quarrelsome, and possibly found it hard to get the hang of working together and following Jesus. They seemed to have a tendency to make their own rules – with the idea that Jesus or God or Paul had to fit to their views. Jesus and God they couldn’t really confront but Paul they could – and they did – primarily it seems because they were attracted to power and miracles and it seems that anyone who gave them what they wanted or encouraged them to be successful and powerful was worth listening to. But remember Paul came along with a cross and Jesus crucified (I Corinthians 2:1-5) as well the sacraments and spiritual gifts and so from time to time it seems that wandering charismatic preachers came by and gave the Corinthians want they wanted – and got what they wanted it seems in terms of funds and food – and Paul looked increasingly problematic – not powerful, puny even, talking about Jesus more than the powerful Holy Spirit and 2nd Corinthians seems to be in response to their criticism of him and his ministry. It is a fascinating letter to read of how when under attack, only the Gospel and pointing to the cross is the way to go – because it is always a struggle to follow Jesus and if we have a choice between a hard road or an easy road following Jesus we all want the easy road, rather than saying ‘your will be done, Lord’.
We overhear in our reading today Paul coming to the end of his first message that Jesus and his Gospel does not give his followers power, health, or wealth but rather life with him which we live in our everyday lives – and this includes tough times, suffering times – and those times are not evidence of God’s weakness or failure or evidence of the Christian’s weak or lack of faith. Remember that back then and still today a god by definition is worth following if he / she / it / they help us in the way we want. Jesus, however, can’t and won’t be separated from his cross and neither are his followers. So we have this treasure – life with Jesus – in clay jars – and this shows that Paul’s ministry is by the power of God – and by inference our living with Jesus is by the power of God too (think Baptism for a start).
Because of Jesus, his followers have immortality – eternal life – but in this world it is lived in an earthly tent and that one day will be destroyed but we will be in our heavenly dwelling. Christians, at times, think of what Paul says here in terms of body and soul but he doesn’t use those terms and that is not the force of his words and images. What Paul wants to emphasise is immortality in mortality. Our eternal life begins at our Baptism and not at our physical death. And it takes faith to believe this when our bodies are frail or aged or injured or in pain. So Christian discipleship involves a groaning and a longing to leave the tough times of our body and of this world and to put on the heavenly garments in glory – and we get through the days here on Earth because we have received the Holy Spirit as a guarantee.
Once again there are those still today who say that if someone has the Holy Spirit they must be successful in ways that are important – usually health and wealth – but Paul didn’t say that back then and I don’t today – because the guarantee of the Holy Spirit is found in the disciple hanging around Jesus and his cross – regularly receiving words, water, bread and wine – and then living in the confidence that immortality is hidden in our mortality – because Jesus has given us his life. That’s why Paul can write: 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight.
And our goal is to please Jesus whether here on Earth or in the heavenly realm and it is only Jesus who will say whether Paul’s ministry is good or evil – and the word used here for ‘evil’ has the meaning of poor or paltry rather than the absence of anything good. In other words Paul is telling the Corinthians not to judge by externals and that it is only Jesus who truly assesses a disciple’s response to him. Please note Paul is not – and I am not – talking about salvation here – that is assured because of what Jesus has done – but Paul is responding in effect to the accusation ‘you are a weak pipsqueak of an apostle with no power to you’ – by saying ‘that’s not your call to make – especially if you’re judging me on the basis of power and that the ‘good life’ is what Christian should have – remember I am only going to talk to you about Jesus and him crucified as the foundation of all my teaching and ministry’.
Paul’s call to courage is a good reminder to us today not to be fooled into thinking that Jesus really should be our blank cheque book on which we can write our life in the way we want to live it but instead not to trust the things or situations of this world to show you God’s care for you. Instead always remember that your treasure is Jesus and his cross and we live it in our bodies and our lives that have ups and downs, happiness and sadness, joys and sufferings, and, unless the Lord reappears one day, death as well. We can face each day not according to the world’s way of responding but because the Holy Spirit uses words, water, bread and wine to keep us focused on Jesus and we want to live in ways that please him – and over time, we learn that is a wonderful way to live – with confidence that ‘Jesus is with me’ always.
- 2 Corinthians 5:1 - 10