St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (June 12, 2016)
2 Corinthians 4:16—5:10 – “Out of Body Experience”
We continue the Narrative Lectionary series on 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul’s fourth or later letter to the church he founded at Corinth. As we’ve noted before, Paul had a tumultuous relationship with that congregation, and he faced a lot of criticism and conflict in dealing with it. A lot of that had to do with defending his teachings and even his own apostleship from detractors. He’s doing both in the context of our reading for today: clarifying again his belief about the resurrection of the body and reasserting that his conscience is clear before Christ, especially given the hardships he’s endured for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. Let’s listen:
So we [don’t lose heart]. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.
We know that if the tent that we live in on earth is torn down, we have a building from God. It’s a house that isn’t handmade, which is eternal and located in heaven. We groan while we live in this residence. We really want to dress ourselves with our building from heaven— since we assume that when we take off this tent, we won’t find out that we are naked. Yes, while we are in this tent we groan, because we are weighed down. We want to be dressed not undressed, so that what is dying can be swallowed up by life. Now the one who prepared us for this very thing is God, and God gave us the Spirit as a down payment for our home.
So we are always confident, because we know that while we are living in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord. We live by faith and not by sight. 8 We are confident, and we would prefer to leave the body and to be at home with the Lord. So our goal is to be acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home. We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad.
I didn’t make the deadline to submit a sermon title for the bulletin but I was thinking, how about “Out of Body Experience?” What do you think? A little corny, maybe, but that’s what I think about when I read Paul’s thoughts on life after death, on the resurrection body. “Out of Body Experience” because that is, in some respects, what he’s talking about here: the feeling that one’s essence isn’t at home in here, in this mound of flesh and bone, but elsewhere.
But what does he mean exactly by all of this?
Our first task is to acknowledge how bizarre this text is. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around. I also think that it’s generally healthy to be suspicious of dualistic thinking. And there are a lot of dualisms here. Did you catch them? Outside/inside, temporary/eternal, seen/unseen, earth/heaven, dressed/undressed, at home/away, body/spirit. This is typical of ancient Greek thought and not necessarily the Hebrew imagination, so it’s strange in that respect, too.
But you have to give Paul credit. He’s hard to understand, maybe, but what he’s written here is consistent with his thoughts elsewhere about the hereafter. But not just life after death in general, but the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgment, specifically; see 1 Corinthians 15.
I’m probably not the best person to preach on this passage, to tell you the truth. I can’t connect with it as well as I can with others pieces of Scripture. What Paul writes here about “bodies breaking down on the outside” isn’t my experience… yet. Maybe down the road! I can’t relate to the desire to be somewhere else other than this body and this life. I’m a relatively healthy person in his early thirties. I have no major medical issues. I am a privileged American, middle class male, so my body hasn’t had to endure the suffering and oppression that other bodies do. I’ve never known war or famine or abuse. I am cisgender, meaning my biological sex matches my gender and self-identity. I’ve never really wanted to be anywhere else than in this skin and in this wonderful life, as I know it. But that’s a very personal experience not everyone shares.
Take verse 5:1, “We know that if the tent that we live in on earth is torn down, we have a building from God. It’s a house that isn’t handmade, which is eternal and located in heaven.” I guess what I’m saying is, “I like my earthly tent! I like earth!” Along those lines, I have to confess that–and this might surprise you to hear coming from a pastor–I don’t really like thinking a lot about or speculating about heaven or the afterlife. Maybe that’s unfaithful, I don’t know, but it’s something that doesn’t interest me much, possibly because I’m young or there’s little we can know about it.
I came to this realization early on in my ministry. One of the homebound members of my first congregation, we’ll call her “Emily,” was such a kind woman, very gentle and thoughtful. She couldn’t get to church or most other places because of crippling, incredibly painful rheumatoid arthritis. She suffered from it for years. Her hands were very knotted up and shaky. She was a deeply faith-filled person who read the Bible and prayed a whole lot, and even assured me each visit that she prayed for me daily. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that!
But Emily always wanted to talk about heaven. And I struggled with that because the Bible doesn’t say much about it. It says more about the resurrection of the dead, the new creation, God’s new heaven and earth, and all of that, but it’s not very descriptive of what our experience will be after we have, to quote Hamlet, “shuffled off this mortal coil.” I’m drawn more to the here and now, to what implications faith has for our present life, to what we can do now to make the world a better place. But that’s not where Emily’s mind went. The arthritis was bad enough, but she outlived her husband “Harold,” who she loved dearly and missed greatly.
These words probably made more sense to her: “While we are in this tent we groan, because we are weighed down.” And these were probably comforting:, “So we [don’t lose heart]. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day” and “God gave us the Spirit as a down payment for our home.” Home…
Some of these words can also be interpreted dangerously. Another story from my first congregation: there was a man there in his early 50s named “John.” John once said to me, not emotionally but rather casually as we were setting up for an event, “I don’t really see why you ought to bother much in this life. What’s the point? If we’re going straight to heaven and heaven is perfect, why does any of it matter?”
I didn’t really know how to respond to that, but I wish I could show him 2 Corinthians: “So our goal is to be acceptable to [God], whether we are at home or away from home. We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad.”
Out of the body or in the body, it’s all about how you live.
Our young adult group watched a TED Talk by the psychiatrist Robert Waldinger several months ago. He discussed the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which may be the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done, 75 years. His conclusion? “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
The famous preacher, Fred Craddock, who died recently, once wrote, “When I was in my late teens, I wanted to be a preacher. When I was in my late twenties, I wanted to be a good preacher. Now that I am older, I want more than anything else to be a Christian. To live simply, to love generously, to speak truthfully, to serve faithfully, and to leave everything else to God.”
The game doesn’t change: our call is always and everywhere to love God and love neighbor. That’s what counts now and then, whatever then is. We are measured by how much we love. Our virtue is assessed by what we do with what we’ve been given in these bodies, whatever their limitations. Do we serve others or only ourselves? How did we or do we respond to “the least of these,” the hungry, the broken, the outcast?
Or another key question, framed by the Franciscan Brennan Manning, who is quoted as saying, “I am utterly convinced that on judgment day, the Lord Jesus will ask one question and only one question: Did you believe that I loved you?”
May it be so…