6/12/16 – Out of the Cave and Into the World – 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10
Posted on June 13, 2016 | Posted by Pastor Daniel
Pastor Daniel’s sermon for June 12, 2016
Text: 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
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. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 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. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 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.
I want to talk to you about ancient Greek philosophy for a minute. Actually, I want to talk to you about pretty much anything except ancient Greek philosophy, but I think we need to talk about it a bit to see what’s going on here in 2 Corinthians.
The Greeks believed that there were two parts to the world. There was the part we could see. Tables and stars and squirrels and donuts and all the rest. The material world. Stuff. Stuff you can touch and hear and see and taste.
Then there was the other part of the world. The part that could not be seen. This was the sort of spiritual realm. It contained gods and idealized forms of the things that we see as stuff. You may see a squirrel running up a tree, but the Greeks believed there was some ‘truer’ ‘spiritual’ squirrel and the one we see is just a poor copy of it.
Weird, right? Except we sort of believe this, too. Maybe we don’t picture some idealized spiritual true squirrel jumping around on some idealized spiritual true tree or fleeing from some idealized spiritual true minivan flying down the road, but we do have this sense of two realms, two parts to reality. We especially believe this for ourselves. There is my body, but then there is my spirit, my soul, my inner being who really is ‘me.’ My arm isn’t me. My heart isn’t me. My brain isn’t even me. Who I am cannot be seen or touched. It’s in this other realm.
Now, the squirrel thing might sound weird, but that probably doesn’t. Dualism – that’s what this is all called – dualism is very much a part of our own understanding of reality.
Now the Greeks took this dualism really far. It wasn’t just that the world had two realms, but they also believed that the spiritual realm was far better than this one. This world, in fact, was starting to look pretty grimy to the Greeks. I mean, think about it. In the spiritual realm, things like sickness and disease weren’t there. But around here, you had that all the time. And since it wasn’t just the squirrels, but also we who were ideal and true in that realm, you didn’t have to worry there about any of this nonsense about weakness and things falling apart. No death, maybe even no sin, not for any of us.
So, yeah, this spiritual realm was considered way better. But alas, here we are stuck in this world. Stuck with imperfection. Stuck with the grimy. Stuck with these bodies which wear down and eventually fall apart. Stuck with mortality.
For the ancient Greeks, the spiritual realm was perfection, but here we are kept from it by this physical world, like it’s some sort of wall, a barrier to the truth. For the Greeks, the soul was immortal, but it was trapped, imprisoned in these blasted bodies.
And, all they wanted was a way out. A way to at least look past the barrier of this world and sneak a peek into the divine. A way to escape the prison of our bodies, and live for once as our real selves. Wouldn’t that be nice?
We sort of want that too, I think. I was just listening to This American Life the other day, and David Rakoff was talking about his experience trying a fast for two weeks. He got through it fine, but it didn’t lead to the spiritual discovery he was hoping for. He said: “Now that I’ve finished the fast and am on the other side, it’s hard to remember exactly what I was waiting for, although I do know that it was something wholly unfamiliar and thrilling, like a new color, one I’d never seen before. What would that look like? Even though our physical world makes the existence of such a thing basically impossible, I’d still really like to see that.”
We so want a glimpse of the other side. We buy books about near-death experiences. We meditate. We fast. We pray. We buy magazines which say things on the cover like “Discover your inner you.” Like Rakoff, we’d really like to see that.
And, of course, tied up in that desire to connect with what is beyond, is the desire to escape what is here. Back in Greek times, folks called ascetics would talk about the need to get out of this nasty body and nasty world. We prefer to do it by setting the nasty aside – ignoring the fragility of our bodies by skipping the doctor or covering it up with makeup. We set aside the brokenness of our world into neighborhoods and countries we don’t have to look at. We aren’t as bold or as committed as the ascetics, but I think that we’ve bought into this dualism. We believe, in some often unspoken way, that this grimy world is not the whole truth, and so we do our best to live in that other world, or at least come into contact with the griminess as little as possible. Best not to get our hands dirty.
Ok, enough of that. Let’s get to the Bible. Now there are parts of our Bible that want nothing to do with this sense of dualism. The Old Testament in particular. The Hebrews didn’t so neatly divide the world up like that.
But Paul, it would seem, does accept it, at least here in this letter to Christians in that Greek city Corinth. “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord,” he says. Paul imagines there is a ‘me’ that is different from my body, and he imagines it would be nice to escape this place and be with God. Paul, it would seem, accepts this dualism, and the sense that this earthly world is somehow inferior.
After all, he’s seen it. Remember from a couple weeks ago, this mail we’re reading between Paul and the Corinthians is not a love letter. This is one in a series of letters written between people in turmoil. We aren’t peeking in on someone’s birthday card, we’re looking at a note passed between the desks of two friends at high school who haven’t spoken in weeks after one ditched the other to hang out with a different crowd.
And the vulnerability, the griminess is on full display here. Some Corinthians are accusing Paul of being all hype, all talk and no walk. Paul retorts that they’ll just listen to anyone and believe anything they hear. They call him weak. He calls them faithless. There’s nothing like human conflict to remind us that this world is not the idealized, spiritual, true one imagined by Socrates and the like. There’s nothing like siblings fighting over a will, nations fighting over a piece of land, couples fighting over who gets custody, or churches fighting over who should be allowed in – there’s nothing like human conflict to remind us that this world is a nasty one.
And so the ancient ascetics are starting to look pretty wise. They would deny themselves of all but the most necessary of human needs. They would move into caves and monasteries and spend their days in prayer and meditation. They would do their best to separate themselves from this world, hoping instead to live in the other. And the Greeks sure didn’t have a monopoly on the idea. Almost every religion had it’s own form of ascetics. And when you see the griminess of our world in things like a church in Corinth fighting or a 18 presidential month election with nearly 6 months still to go! – well, the ascetics start to make sense.
So, Paul gets it. This world ain’t no Norman Rockwell painting. But Paul won’t be an ascetic. He may pull himself away to pray, as we do. But he’ll always come back. Because he believes that that other realm, that other world, it has broken into our own. While the goal of the ascetics and super-dualism folks might have been to escape this world in order to find the divine, Paul believes the divine has broken into this world. It happened in Jesus. And it’s happening still.
Jesus wasn’t a spiritual leader. Jesus was God coming into our world. Jesus did not lead the disciples into the wilderness, away from the world. Jesus led them further into the world, into the deepest places of suffering, into the corrupt locations of power, into the grimiest places you might imagine. And, somehow, there he showed them God. If reality is divided between the divine and the secular, Jesus came to infuse this world with divinity so that there would be nothing truly secular any longer. If we want the divine, we don’t need to hide in a cave, we need to go deeper into this world.
Using this metaphor of our bodies clothing our soul, Paul says to the Corinthians: “we wish not to be unclothed, but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal might be swallowed up in life.” Or, as he said in last week’s reading: “we have this treasure in clay jars.” This treasure of the gospel. This treasure that we are beloved of God. This treasure of eternal life and faith and unbounded grace is somehow in us! In our weakness and vulnerability and snotty, selfish, hurtful bodies. In our mortality and our sin, we somehow have this treasure. In this broken world, God has decided to take up space.
I know, Paul says, I know this world is awful. I know it hurts. I know the cave of the ascetics is tempting. But God is here. Grace is here. In the griminess. That’s the promise we have in Jesus. So, we walk by faith, and not by sight. We move and work and live in this world, because we know that what cannot be seen is what actually makes living here doable – God. God is here. So we walk by faith and not by sight. Really, there’s no other way to do it.
It is so tempting to write this world off. It is so tempting to not bother with the poor who cry for bread and shelter or the earth which cries for relief. It is so tempting to ignore the brokenness in our own relationships and the brokenness in our own communities. It’s so tempting to ignore our own brokenness and seclude ourselves away from it all and just write off this grimy secular world. But God is here. In this world. In the brokenness. In the griminess.
So, by faith, we stick our heads out of the cave, we take that anxious first step, and we look for what cannot be seen, but is all around us. And it is that which gives us courage. Courage to not write off the poor, or the earth, or our relationships, or our communities. Courage instead to walk there, among them. Courage to see that there is no longer anything secular. It’s all divine. Amen.