2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
When I was back on the East Coast a couple weeks ago, I went to visit my maternal grandparents’ grave. I went by myself and took flowers and water. I brushed off the stone, pulled the dead grass from around the edges, and then sat for a while and talked. My grandfather has been dead for just over eight years and my grandmother, for not quite four.
I miss them frequently. When I was sitting at their graveside and talking to them through my tears, I kept thinking about what I was doing. If I believe they are resting here until the last days, why have I occasionally perceived them with me? Or if I believe that they are now in the presence of God, why is it so much more meaningful to be here in the place where I last saw their bodies?
Somewhere in the mix of experience and emotion, in the tangle of reason and hope, somehow I hold to be true that my grandparents are resting in God, cheering me on, and waiting with all until the time of judgment. Yes, I realize some of those things seem contradictory, but they are all part of the presentation we receive in the written Scriptures about the life after death.
Paul exhibits that same mix of future hopes in the passage from 2 Corinthians that we read today. 2nd Corinthians is pieced together from at least four or five letters that Paul wrote to the community at Corinth. If you read it straight through, it feels a little disjointed and Paul’s emotions and examples seem all over the map. In this section, he’s talking about how God calls the faithful into different kinds of ministries. That sounds like familiar Pauline stuff- the different gifts or different members of the body.
He is also saying that all people receive help, through the Spirit, for the ministry of hardship and the ministry of reconciliation. Regardless of what your other gifts may be, Corinthians or Anchorage-ites, you will come to learn that there is struggle in the life of faith, but that you are never alone in that struggle (ministry of hardship). As we are learning to live and to die in and with Christ, we are also equipped for and brought into the work of sharing his message with those around us (ministry of reconciliation).
Paul is writing so vigorously about these things that he points that out that he only sounds sane when he’s making the effort to talk to people. Usually, he’s just crazy for God. (“If we are beside ourselves, it is for God. If we are in our right minds, it is for you.”) As Paul writes furiously, he comments, “while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord.” What is Paul saying about the body here? And about when we return to Christ?
When Paul talks about the body as treasure in clay jars or that being in the body means being away from the Lord, he is not lamenting that somehow our physical existence separates us from God or from God’s love in Christ. (Think Romans 8:36-38.) Paul does not believe in the immortality of the soul without the body. In the same way that he trusts in God’s resurrection of Jesus in the body, Paul trusts that this will happen to all those whom God has redeemed through Jesus.
The struggle for Paul, in part, is that the degradation of the body in this life makes it hard for us to do all the work to which we have been called. By the time Paul is writing his 8th, 9th, 10th letters to the Corinthians, he’s older. He’s been beaten and jailed. Things are not quite as easy as they were. While this might not take a toll on the faith of his heart, the literal walk of faith has become more of a stretch for him. Paul laments to the Corinthians that the breakdown of our physical bodies in this life can make it hard to perceive or to dare to hope for (or to desire) their resurrection in the next.
The other issue is that Paul expresses here, in one sense, the expectation that the dead are immediately in the presence of the Lord. This is an immediate hope. Elsewhere, in Philippians and in other letters to Corinth, the judgment and the life eternal are far off- a future hope. When we combine Paul’s own lack of timeline with other parts of the Bible, we can have a confusing landscape of expectations. Hebrews talks about the cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on in our race. Revelation talks both about the saints who are already around the throne and the judgment that is to come. Part of understanding what Scripture says about the life of the world to come is to consider who is writing about it and what their purposes are. The separate books and authors that make up the Bible are working together with Spirit to assure us, regardless of details, that our life begun in God remains in God forever. But the mechanics of what happens after what we know for sure are a mystery.
This is part of the ministry of reconciliation that Paul talks about and to which we are called. The love of Christ urges on to this work- to loving and serving our neighbors, not to insure our future, but because we trust that it has been insured by work that is not our own.
That’s the heart of the parable from Mark that Jesus spoke to his disciples. The sowing, the growth, the harvest is not ours. We’ve been called into the work, but the success of the kingdom is God’s work and God’s secret work. What we are called to do is obvious. What God does is mysterious. We have to learn to live with the mystery, the parable, and to let it go enough so that we can do the obvious to which we are called. If we refrain from feeding, from visiting, from healing, from teaching, from companioning until we understand everything… nothing will ever get done. The tasks we have from Jesus are plain; everything else is a mystery.
This mystery is most certainly true about the life that is to come. I had a professor in seminary whose his first wife died of cancer when they were both young. When I talked with him about grief I was experiencing, he was very helpful. He also emphasized what we know and what we don’t. He talked about how he wished both of his wives knew each other, though he knew that was not possible right now. He also talked about wanting to know that his first wife was happy for him. He noted, to me, that he did not know that she wasn’t.
All of my grandparents are dead. I wish that they could see Daniel, my son, and know what he’s like and how he’s growing. But I don’t know that they don’t know. I hear them speak to me sometimes. Maybe it’s that I really want to. Maybe it’s because they are encouraging me or advising me.
I have no idea what comes next. All I know is what I believe is true and I believe what Jesus says is true, not because I want immortality, but because of what I have experienced and encountered through reason and Scripture through the Spirit. That God sees all people through the eyes of Christ and that we am called to do this too. That this is the life in which I am in now, and you too, and whatever comes next is beyond my control (and yours). That I have body that’s not what it once was, but is also not what it will be. That there is a new creation since the resurrection- a creation of reconciliation, healing, and hope unlike any other.
And in the mystery that is the new creation, we all (even the pastor) walk by faith, and not by sight.
Now, but not forever.
And we do not walk alone.