Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Out of Sight

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:10

by Daniel Harrell

I’ve performed a lot of weddings in my day, and plenty of funerals too. It’s part of what we ministers do. Every now and then, for reasons I’m never entirely sure about, someone will ask me which I prefer. Pressed to choose, I pick funerals. Not that weddings aren’t great. I like being in the presence of wide-eyed brides and grooms all a-gaga as they blithely swear before God and witnesses to adore each other until they die—clearly having no idea what they’re doing. Talk about walking by faith! And then to have friends and family eat and drink and dance in complicity to the outrageousness of it all—what’s not to like? Funerals on the other hand are traditionally somber occasions; morose at times, as people mourn and struggle to imagine the shape their identity will take now that a person so essential to their existence is no longer alive. Inasmuch as we ministers are in it for the ministry—serving others with the power and hope of the gospel—the fact is that there’s generally more ministry to be done at funerals than there is at weddings.

However, if I could have the best of both, what I’d really prefer is that funerals be more like weddings. For Christians at least, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be. If Paul is right, dying should be the time we feast, crank up the band and celebrate the outrageousness of new life that now stretches into eternity. “We know,” Paul declares, “that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.” What’s not to like about that? I remember my first Catholic funeral mass and being struck by how everything was draped in festive white brightness rather than grave gloominess, and how so much of the language was baptismal language devoted not as much to mourning as to rejoicing in the fulfillment of baptism’s promises. Finally the deceased was getting to enjoy all that toward which their faith had pointed. It’s a practice that traces back to the earliest centuries of the church. As Thomas Long writes in his funeral book, Accompany Them With Singing, “the early Christian funeral was based on the conviction that the deceased was a saint, a child of God and a sister or brother of Christ, worthy to be honored and embraced with tender affection. The funeral itself was deemed to be the last phase of a lifelong journey toward God, …the grand cosmic drama of the church marching to the edge of eternity with a fellow saint, singing songs of resurrection victory and sneering in the face of the final enemy.”

Granted, the risk of festive funerals is that they deny death’s reality; that they make light of mortality. But isn’t that what Christianity is ultimately about? “Outwardly we are wasting away,” Paul writes, “but inside we are being made new every day.” And therefore all that affliction, persecution and hardship Paul endured for the gospel? “Slight and momentary stuff,” he calls it. Nothing but prep work for an eternal glory that doesn’t even compare. Which is why Paul never compares. Pain? Suffering? Death? Who cares? “We know,” he writes, “that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will raise us with Jesus too.”

Up to this point in 2 Corinthians, Paul has taken on a culture of cynics that’s insisted that his troubles and suffering on account of the gospel only proves he’s a quack and that his message is bogus. Since when is having your Savior executed on a cross good news? What sort of wacko considers a funeral a party? Persecution and humiliation? Hardly the ingredients for launching a new world religion! Paul had to agree. “We are afflicted on every side,” he said, “perplexed, persecuted, struck down. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” Definitely not the way to get a new world religion off the ground. But Paul wasn’t concerned about getting a world religion off the ground. His concern was for getting dead people out of the ground. “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul wrote, “so that the life of Jesus may be revealed.” Death is at work so that resurrection can work. Jesus buries our sinful selves with him so that he can raise us up to an eternal glory that outweighs everything.

It’s basic gospel. Good news. John 3:16. Eternal life. Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. I remember being a teenager in Sunday School and once having a visiting teacher who turned out to be the mayor of our city. His lesson went something like this: “Even if Christianity proves to be a hoax in the end, following its tenets nonetheless will shape you into an admirable and responsible citizen.” I thought to myself, “What a dumb Sunday School lesson! Just like a politician to dilute the gospel into a civics lesson. Look, if Christianity was a hoax and Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, I had other things to do. I was 15. I had hormones. I didn’t want admiration and responsibility, I wanted girls. Who cared about being a moral young man for the sake of civic pride? Why suffer for that? I was with Paul on this one: “If our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more pathetic than anybody in the world.”

But our hope is not only for this life. Christ rose from the dead. Paul knew this first hand having been knocked loopy by a blaze of glory on that famous road to Damascus. Paul was a bona fide goody two-shoes, a perfect law-abiding citizen with no real need for God except as an audience for his pious performances. He believed he could work his way up the ladder to heaven where God would owe him a lakefront mansion for being such a good boy. Jesus blew away that lie, exposing Paul’s piety as nothing but self-delusion. All the housing in heaven is Section 8—fully subsidized by grace with the keys freely passed out to people passed out in their sin. It is outrageous grace—as Anne-Marie so ably reminded us last Sunday—a glorious treasure we carry in “clay jars,” glad ware, paper bags, “…in order to demonstrate that this immense power comes only from God.” Paul wants no confusion between the gift and the box.

The outer box wastes away, but the gift is forever. “Our inner nature—our inner person—is being renewed day by day,” Paul writes. Not in some progressive sense of our getting better all the time, but in the sense of that daily manna God provided the ancient Israelites in the desert. Manna was a daily dose of God’s faithfulness that preserved and projected his people toward their promised land. God guaranteed they would get there eventually—the manna sustained them each day so that they would not lose heart.

Sort of like that 2000 foot tube into the earth sustained those 33 Chilean miners who were raised to life on Wednesday. I trust you got a chance to witness their rescue. Early reports had them tagged good as dead—which was what made their rescue so celebratory. As one miner put it: “I was with God and I was with the Devil, they fought me but God won.” Given so many of the miners’ personal faith, allusions to the gospel were unavoidable. Blogger Dan Nold described it this way: “Their world had been filled with darkness, murky air, cramped space, little beauty, and the constant awareness that there is something more to life than what they have been experiencing. Bad news. But then a rescuer arrives, he comes from a place … where light, relationships and fresh air awaits. The rescuer describes the route to life, what to expect from the journey, how long it might take. Then the first miner steps inside the rescue capsule. It’s small. No room to move your arms during your half mile journey into life. It’s like being born again. The capsule comes up out of the ground to cheers. The miner steps out, the hugging ensues, reuniting with family. His father welcomes him home. Good News.” As that same miner put it: “I never thought for one minute that God wouldn’t get me out of there.”

The same with us. “This slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure… He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” And because God guarantees it, it’s already done. Therefore we do not lose heart.

I didn’t get a chance to see the miners’ rescue as it was happening, though I read about its success. The weird part was that when I did go up to YouTube to watch a replay of the rescue, I still felt nervous. Even though I knew the outcome, my palms got a little sweaty. But then I was like, wait a minute. I don’t have to worry. They’re already safe! In fact, no matter how many times I watched the replay, the miners emerged safely every time!

This is what Paul means by faith. “Always confident,” he writes, because the outcome is certain. As Paul will assert in chapter 5, we are new creations already. And thus we don’t worry about what Paul’s calls our “earthly tent” (our outer nature, our jar of clay, our paper bag—pick your metaphor); we don’t worry about our mortal bodies being destroyed. We don’t worry about our earthly tents folding up because we already have a house in heaven. We’re good to go.

Now you may have noticed that Paul mixes his metaphors a bit in this passage in order to cover all his bases. He talks about getting clothed with a house, rather than moving into one, which makes some sense if the house is our resurrection body, but less sense once you start talking about wearing your house. We take for granted that the whole temporary tent/heavenly house language is an throwback to the Tabernacle and Temple, which both housed God’s Spirit. The Tabernacle was that temporary tent that followed the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land. The Temple was the permanent house built once they got there. Of course following Easter and Pentecost, the permanent Temple was rendered temporary too. Perhaps Paul inserts the clothing vocabulary to underscore how now God’s Spirit has taken up residence in God’s people rather than in any building made by human hands.

Moreover, “to be clothed” is likely a baptismal reference. Paul wrote to the Galatians how all who “were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” In early church practice “being clothed in Christ” was depicted by draping the newly baptized in white robes as they emerged naked from the baptismal water. Once we put on our heavenly dwelling, we will no longer be found naked—an allusion to the shame and sin of Adam and Eve. For Paul, longing to leave his tent is not the same as longing to be tent-less—not unclothed but further clothed. It’s his longing to wear his resurrection body, to complete his baptism, to experience the final reality of new creation, to be truly at home with the Lord and have his mortality swallowed up by life. And just to keep the baptismal imagery intact, swallowed up in verse 4 can also be translated as drowned; the very thing that happens to our mortal, sinful selves in Christ. Jesus buries our sinful selves with him so that he can raise us up to an eternal glory that outweighs everything.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Failure, trouble, hardship and death prove to be lightweight and momentary blips on the screen of eternity. We walk by faith without worry on the way to our own promised land. “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” And because God guarantees it, it’s already done. In Christ we’ve already emerged from the rescue capsule. We merely await the catching up of our experience to the reality. Not that we sit around waiting, of course. Whether we are at home or away, here or there, on earth or in heaven, Paul writes, “we make it our aim to please Christ.”

After all, he concludes, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”

Huh. Now there’s a curveball. Nothing like a little Judgment Day to suck all the joy out of a feel-good sermon. Thanks Paul. What’s wrong with going home happy? Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by? Couldn’t stand to leave well enough alone? Once a Pharisee always a Pharisee? Maybe. As a Pharisee, Paul knew better than anybody how easy a guarantee of heavenly reward can turn into a license for earthly arrogance. If my salvation is certain, I can do whatever I want, right? Not exactly. If you remember the story, treating grace as permission to do as you please was what got the ancient Israelites in so much trouble even though their land was Promised.

Presuming upon grace is a problem throughout the Bible—which is why Paul frequently follows his doctrinal indicatives with ethical imperatives. While we can do nothing to earn God’s favor, we must still do something to show that we’ve received it. If you are a new creation; be a new creation. Show some gratitude. Do the right thing. Walk by faith. Please the Lord, whether at home or away. In Christ the last enemy has been destroyed. Your mortality has been swallowed up by life. So do not fear. Do not lose heart. Reformer John Wesley used to remark that the sign of new creation is not only life lived well, but suffering and dying well too.

Many years ago now I knew well a delightful and faithful retired minister who exuded such love and grace to every person he met that you swore Jesus had already come back to earth. The cancer he later contracted spread rapidly through his body such that his last months were miserably confined to hospice care. I say miserably because of the way his faithful disposition darkened into obsessive fear and worry about his pending death. Among his many longtime friends was a mutual friend who would visit daily but always leave the dying man’s bedside agitated. “I don’t get it,” the friend would gripe to me, “all his life he preaches of the assurance of his salvation and of his hope in Christ, and now that it’s time to exercise a little assurance and hope, all he can tell me is how afraid he is to die. If your faith does you no good in your final days, what good is it?”

True, I thought, but c’mon, walking by faith and not by sight is a easier to say than to do; especially when you’re not the one on death’s doorstep. I thought to myself, “let’s just see what happens when it’s your time to go.”

His time to go came sooner than any of us expected. Just a year or so later he contracted his own cancer and was confined to his own hospice care. But you know, he was fine with it. I’d go by to visit and he’d ask me to anoint his head with oil, since that’s what the Bible says you do in the valley of the shadow of death. As a Congregationalist minister, I didn’t mess around much with oil. I had no idea where to get the anointing kind. The bottle of Wesson I showed up with ended up spilling so that that it ran all over his face. But when I went to wipe it off, he stopped me. He wanted to lean his head back and let it roll. He’d always insist his visitors bring a funny story or a joke because he planned to laugh his way into heaven. And if you were interested in weepy condolences, he’d lecture you for being faithless and suggest that maybe you had some un-confessed sin in your life. During his last days, his friends encircled him and sang songs and hymns and rejoiced about the faith we shared. It was pretty special. And while those of us who knew him miss him still, we were able to feel genuine gladness for him when he died. And as for his funeral—it was just like a wedding.

1 comment:

Mark Schaefer said...

Rabbi Harold Kushner, famed author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", tells a story of when he was a young Rabbi, just out of Rabbinical school. As I remember his telling, it went something like this: He was counseling a bereft woman. She asked, "Rabbi, why did God take my husband?" Kushner said he was pleased to have an opportunity to share all his hard earned seminary wisdom and quickly launched into a lengthy theological discussion only to have the woman at one point stop him and say, "Yes, Rabbi, but why did God take my husband?" Rabbi Kushner reports that at that instant he realized the woman was not asking a question of theology, but rather, was making a statement of pain.

Granted, I realize that your sermon, Daniel, uses the moods of weddings and funerals merely as metaphor for the message of Paul's reminder to us to, as you say, not "presume upon Grace". I understand that you are reminding us of the same thing Paul was reminding the good folks in Corinth of: to think again about what it means to have Salvation guaranteed, and that we need to accept and act in response to such a gift. Good stuff. Challenging to me, for sure...and appropriately unsettling.

I had another unsettling feeling, though, with your reference to happiness at funerals being an appropriate response to the gift of our Salvation and what eternity means for a believer. I was reminded of the many Christian funerals I have attended where an evangelical preacher puts such a complete focus on the “Promised Joy of Eternal Salvation” in his funeral sermon, that he fully misses the point of what else is happening at that moment. He misses two things, at least. First, he ignores the people in front of him. He ignores them AS people and the very real humanity of the pain in their throats. Secondly, he misses the rest of the theology of this moment. So attentive is he to the theology of salvation, that he misses any reference to a theology of pain with our ability to notice God’s healing presence in that pain, or the theology of community and how the church can surround us in our loss. Salvation is not just about the life-after-death, but the life here-and-now, in all it’s current mystery, pain, and, yes, happiness. I leave those kinds of funerals disappointed and irked, I suppose, not just because the pastor chose to preach rather than pastor, to put his personal theological agenda over the other theological needs of the bereaved, but mainly because he missed an opportunity to BE Christ.

The evangelical preacher might say that the THEOLOGY of eternal salvation trumps the EMOTIONAL of the temporary experience of the bereaved. But, it is not a contest between the theological and the emotional. It is a compelling opportunity for the church to showcase the theology of the here-and-now needs of the people (hope, pain, loss, making sense of all this) to be addressed. "Speak to the lump in our throats, pastor! Help us make sense of this," is my internal plea. If these pleas cannot be addressed by the church in the pressing moment of a funeral, where are they to be addressed? The therapist's couch is of great value, but only for those needs not met naturalistically elsewhere in our communities.

So I guess I am focusing more on your metaphor than your message, and my associations with the metaphor than your core message of Paul’s words to the Corinthians. But this is what was stirred. As we know, it’s not the sermon preached, but the sermon heard, eh? Thanks, Daniel, for the stirring.