Following is a homily for 13 June 2021 (3 Pentecost) for the residents of Manor House Assisted Living Facility.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SAINT PAUL WROTE the words of Scripture we just heard (2 Cor 5:1-10) as he was beginning to come out of the darkest period of his life and ministry. It was likely a time of physical exhaustion, psychological depression, mental confusion, and perhaps even spiritual desolation. All the details need not concern us, but these few will paint the picture. Paul had been rejected and dismissed by a church he had founded in Corinth, one he had served for a year and a half — an enormous investment of time and energy on his part. He was experiencing serious opposition in his current work in Ephesus; economic, religious, political, and spiritual powers were aligned against him and were on the attack. It is thought by many scholars that he had just been released from a Roman prison in Ephesus, having been deserted by many of his trusted companions. Those were dark days for the Apostle, and you can hear it in his own words:
2 Corinthians 1:8–11 (ESV): 8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.
2 Corinthians 4:8–10 (ESV): 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
Afflicted, utterly burdened beyond his strength, despairing of life itself, at least metaphorically under a death sentence, crushed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down: that is how St. Paul describes those dark days. He’s feeling a bit better — believe it or not! — as he writes this, and he’s able now to see God’s providence at work: everything that happened had forced him to rely on God who raises the dead. Paul has, in some sense, experienced his own resurrection now.
So, what got St. Paul through those dark days? Well, he mentions prayer — the prayer of others on his behalf. It’s possible sometimes to be so burdened that we can’t even pray for ourselves; then the prayers of others are essential. He also mentions hope, specifically the hope of being delivered by God in the present as he had been in the past and expects to be in the future, if necessary.
In our reading today though, Paul points toward another source of hope that had been crucial to him in surviving and coming out of the darkness. Listen again to a portion of that reading:
2 Corinthians 5:1–5 (ESV): 5 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.
This was Paul’s ultimate hope. But what does he mean with all this talk of tents and houses, of being naked or clothed? It’s metaphorical language for a simple notion: if Paul doesn’t survive, if he’s killed here, then something better is awaiting him in heaven. His death would not be a loss for him, but a gain.
Paul speaks of his earthly body as a tent. A tent, even if it’s a fine one, is a temporary shelter, a place of sojourn, but not a permanent home. But, in heaven, there is a body waiting for him that is not another tent, but a house. This heavenly house, this heavenly body, is not made by human craftsmen, but by God himself. This heavenly house, this heavenly body, is not temporary, but permanent. Here we live in a one-man pup tent; in heaven we move into a mansion. Which is better? For Paul, the answer is obvious: a home in heaven.
Now, Paul changes metaphors from tents to clothes; he speaks of our bodies as clothes. I’ll offer a paraphrase. Have you ever had the very common dream that you are either naked or walking around in your underwear? You’re looking everywhere for clothes — real clothes — but you can’t find any. This is something like what Paul has in mind. Living in our present bodies is like walking around in our underwear. We’re not really happy about it; we groan and grumble. Dying doesn’t make matters worse; we don’t go from underwear to our birthday suit. No: we go from underwear to tuxedos or ball gowns. The difference between our earthly bodies and our heavenly bodies is the difference between boxer shorts and bespoke suits or designer gowns — better in every way.
It is this truth — this exchange of earthly tent for heavenly house, of underwear for formal wear — that gave Paul the hope he needed to hang on through the dark days and finally to come out of them. He says it this way:
2 Corinthians 5:6–9 (ESV): 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.
“We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord,” Paul says. That is a powerful and profound statement. Paul’s dark days had nothing to do with the fear of dying, but with the pressure and anxiety of living: with fear of failure, feelings of betrayal, worries over the faithfulness of the churches. Paul knows that something better awaits him. But he also knows that living and dying are both in God’s hands. The choice wasn’t his and it isn’t ours. The timing wasn’t his and it isn’t ours. Paul wasn’t suicidal; he had not given up on life. It is simply that death held no fear for him. He knew something better was waiting. And he held on to that hope to make it through the dark days.
Why do I mention all this? The choice of Scripture for today wasn’t entirely mine. It is one of three appointed for this day in the Book of Common Prayer: an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, and a Gospel lesson. But I did choose this one out of the three because I think it speaks to our recent and current conditions. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has been in dark days, and it has impacted every facet of our lives. I watched as our world shut down; you did, too. I watched as our churches shut down and tried desperately to find ways to do and to be church safely. I watched a world in the grips of fear trying to figure out where to place its hope. And where did the world place its hope? In isolation, in social distancing, in masks, in vaccines, in scientists, and in politicians. I don’t want to disparage any of those things: I stayed at home more than ever before myself; I maintained social distance in public if not in private; I wore a mask; I drove many miles to receive the vaccine as soon as it was available; I am thankful for God’s gift of medical research and pharmaceutical production; I’m thankful — and amazed — that the politicians mostly put partisan bickering aside long enough to mount a successful vaccination program.
But, in the midst of our global and personal fear, in the midst of struggling to find hope, what the world most needed, and what I fear it failed to hear loudly and consistently enough, was the church proclaiming the same hope that Paul proclaimed: hope in the God who delivers, hope in the future and eternal reward awaiting the faithful in heaven. Frankly, the church — and by that I mean not just the organization, not just its leaders, but many of us who claim the name of Christ — seemed just as scared as the rest of the world: afraid of getting sick, afraid of dying — as if we didn’t trust the God who has already defeated death for us, as if we thought this life is better than the life to come. Let me be clear. I’m not talking about the demonstrably false notion that if we just have faith enough God will keep us from getting sick and dying. No. I’m talking about the biblical proclamation that if we do get sick and die, something better than this life, some glorious awaits us in heaven.
I don’t want this to be heard as a critical message of judgment on anyone or anything, but rather as a hopeful message of encouragement to everyone who bears the name of Christ. We have a hope that the world doesn’t have. We have a God who rescues his people in life and in death. We have a body awaiting us in heaven that is beyond our imaginations: immortal, incorruptible — a mansion, not a tent, royal apparel and not underwear. We have a reward kept in store for us there, because we are sons and daughters of God and fellow heirs with Christ Jesus. What, then, are we afraid of? To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and to quote songwriter Sara Groves: from what I know of Him, that must be very good.
Paul doesn’t call us to be foolish or irresponsible. It is not Christian to court danger or hasten death. But it is also not Christian to live in fear of death, as if we have no great hope. Dark days come and dark days go. But our hope remains eternal: hope in the God who raises the dead, hope of a new and perfected body awaiting us in heaven. Hope and not fear is our way. Amen.