2015-06-14 by Jeremy Clarke
Preacher: Veronica Zundel
14th June 2015
Readings: 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
6 So we are always confident; even though 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 do have confidence, 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 all of us must 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.
11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.
12 We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart.
13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.
14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.
15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,
27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.
29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?
31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;
34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
I’m going to start with a confession. When I was in sixth form, from 1969-71, a school friend and I used to go up to London for a few days every six months – once in summer and once in winter. In winter we hung around in Coventry Street, because the name reminded us of home, and picked up boys; in summer we hung around in Hyde Park and picked up boys.
It’s not quite as bad as it sounds; we actually met some really interesting people, including a couple of architecture students at whose flat we went to to spend the night. I don’t know what my friend got up to, but I made it very clear to the student who’d been allocated to me that I was a virgin and wanted to stay that way, which he respected. However he made an intriguing remark which has stayed with me; he said, “you seem too much at ease with your body to be a virgin.”
I thought it then, and I still think it, a strange attitude. Why would I need sex for me to be at ease with my body? I’ve had it all my life! Is sex the only thing the body is made for? I had used it to climb trees, to hike up hills and stand at the top enjoying the wind blowing through me, to swim in cool lake water and feel it flowing over me, to order a bowl of whipped cream in Vienna and eat it neat. Why wouldn’t I feel at ease with it?
Yet Paul, in the passage we just heard from 2 Corinthians, makes that disturbing statement: “we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Do we? I rather thought God made our bodies along with the rest of creation and delights to dwell in them by the Spirit. And he goes on: “and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Well no, I wouldn’t rather be away from my body, even though as I get older it’s increasingly failing me. I want to be embodied. And I don’t see “being with the Lord” as some sort of disembodied existence in which we can still somehow play harps even though we are immaterial.
Nor do I think this is actually what Paul means. In fact it’s rather unfortunate, and perhaps a symptom of skewed thinking about our physicality, that this lectionary reading starts at verse 6 of chapter 5, and not at verse 1. Listen to what he says just a few verses earlier:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in 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 be clothed with our heavenly dwelling — 3 if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
In other words, our eternal destiny is not to be ‘naked’ in the sense of being bodiless, not to live in some kind of non-physical realm, but to be ‘clothed’ with a new, different kind of body, one that is not subject to injury, pain, disability, aging, death. And in his first letter to Corinth he elaborates on this:
1Cor. 15:35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain….1Cor. 15:42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
This doesn’t sound like a rejection of physicality, of the matter that God made and pronounced good – and indeed, once human beings came along, pronounced very good. St Paul is a Jewish rabbi, not a Greek philosopher, so he is not working with a false division between “spirit = good, matter = bad”. He has a Hebraic, holistic view of the human person, body, mind and spirit in unity. And what God has joined, let no one put asunder.
So why is he so keen to leave this glorious world and the amazing body God has given him? After all, Paul is not necessarily an old man at this stage, struggling with all the aches and pains and stiffness of joints that begin to hamper us as we age. He is described as “a young man” in Acts 7 when he holds the coats at the stoning of Stephen and though this is perhaps 20 years later and life expectancy wasn’t so long then, he is still vigorous enough to travel, on foot or by boat, all across the Roman Empire to not only share the good news but also found churches.
I think we have to go wider in the context of the letter to know. Right at the beginning of the letter, in 1.8, he tells his hearers:
“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.”
He is not going to spin them some yarn of continual blessedness; he wants them to know that he has been having a really tough time, both spiritually and physically. Later on, in chapter 4, he lays it on even thicker, though always with hope lurking in the despair:
“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 made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”
What does it mean to “carry in the body the death of Jesus”? Some traditions have taken this literally to mean that Paul had the stigmata, the actual wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion in his own body, as many saints are claimed to have had since. I think as well as being fanciful and rather morbid, this lifts Paul to a level of sainthood that the rest of us don’t have, and which he would never have claimed. The fact is that all of us, in one way or another, carry in our bodies the death of Jesus.
We all, of course, live with “the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”, as Shakespeare puts it in Hamlet. But we are also called to bear some sort of suffering that is peculiar to our lives as Christians – not necessarily physical persecution, though that is happening all the time to Christians around the world – but sacrifices that come with our choice to follow Jesus. Those sacrifices may be material, for instance being called to live in a less comfortable and safe place than we might otherwise choose, or social and emotional, such as the single woman who knows if she continues to follow Jesus she may never find a husband who shares her faith because there are simply not enough Christian men to go round. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why Jesus said there’s no marriage in heaven – there aren’t enough men! (Apologies for heterosexism…)
To be human is to live with limitation, with loss and grief; and to be a follower of Jesus, perhaps particularly an Anabaptist one, is to insert oneself into a tradition of bearing violence rather than inflicting it, of giving up wealth to serve the poor, of being marginalized not only in society but in the church. No wonder Paul has a longing to be out of it all, to be transformed and completed and live for ever in the new life God promises. The last boyfriend I had before Ed, used to say, “I wish it was 100 years from now and we were all dead.” I thought that unduly negative at the time, but as I get older I can sympathise with it more. My mother really didn’t want to live to 96; she wanted a rest.
Yet Paul also tells us this suffering, the “carrying the death of Jesus” is the only way we can also carry the life of Jesus, which we see not somewhere in the heavens but precisely “in our bodies”. “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” It is in our very physical existence, our daily lives, that Jesus is made known to the world, because our salvation is not about a ticket to somewhere else, but about how we live in this material world, God’s world. And this thought is also hinted at in today’s passage:
For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil (5:10).
Our ‘family likeness’ to Christ does not consist of many prayers we pray, or how many hours we spend in church, or how theologically correct our doctrine is, but in how we live Monday to Sunday, how we share our money or our food, how we treat the last and the least, how we make political decisions, how we use our gifts to nurture others.
So – does this mean we have to work ourselves to death trying to make ourselves good enough for God, so that God will give us our new bodies at the resurrection and not cast us into outer darkness? Absolutely not! For Paul goes on to say, in vv14-15,
We are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
Or as I put it on my Facebook status on Wednesday: “We don’t have to carry the weight of the world; that’s been done already. On the cross, Jesus wasn’t just physically killed; he bore the weight of all the world’s violence, oppression, greed, lust, rage, hatred; and also all its pain, sickness, grief, longing and hunger. We don’t have to repeat that.”
In the words of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese:
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Because if the Holy Spirit, who made the world and who is redeeming it, lives in you and among us, you will love what God loves, which is the creation, your neighbour and your enemy. You won’t seek to own it or destroy it, but to serve it humbly in whatever way God has called you. Yes, you will suffer and not be able to take away all the suffering in others, but as the poem goes on:
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Or as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Many translations put this as ‘if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation’; but the Greek bears both possible meanings, and I prefer this, because it describes how in Jesus we can see the whole world anew, see it washed clean, see it in the light of its future transformation. The seventeenth century writer Thomas Traherne describes this as recovering our childhood vision of the created world, as a place full of wonders:
The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown…. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things… Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels…. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire…. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.
In Traherne’s view, and I think in Paul’s here, Jesus’ exhortation to become a child again is not just about becoming innocent, or dependent, but about seeing the world anew, our inner eye cleansed and restored, so that the world looks to us is as God first made it and as God wants to restore it, a place that belongs to God and in which we have our own God-appointed place and role. And this connects directly to the visionary statement in Revelation 21:5:
“And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Of course we don’t yet live in that reality. The Kingdom of God is not fully come. But our Gospel reading from Mark tells us that the seed of it is planted, and is already growing in the dark. It isn’t comfortable to be planted in the dark, to have to split open and become something new and different. It might feel like dying, like losing everything we have ever valued, everything we have ever been. But Jesus also tells us in John 12:24 that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’. Being planted in the dark earth is essential to bearing fruit. Bearing the death of Jesus in our bodies is central to carrying his life to the world.
2 Corinthians 5 is not telling us to reject our bodies, to live as though we did not have them, just waiting till we die so we can experience eternal life on the other side. Rather, it is calling us to surrender our bodies, our physical lives, to God so that while we are still physical we can live the life Jesus lived, live eternal life right now in this material world. So that when we encounter the fullness of eternal life, it will not be strange to us, but just like, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, putting on a new outfit, a new body, over our old ones; being clothed with Christ, with that strange phrase, “a spiritual body”, in which we can continue to live for God. I think we’d better start practising now.