II Corinthians 4:13-5:1
June 7, 2015
The gospel passage just didn’t grab me this week. That happens sometimes! But the epistle reading did grab me, and in fact, it wouldn’t let me go! Possibly, it attracted me because of a magazine article I encountered this week. In the June 1 issue of the New Yorker was a piece entitled “House of Secrets.” I can’t resist a good mystery. But it turned out to be not the sort of Miss Marple mystery I was expecting, although it did take place in England.
The article was about Witanhurst, London’s largest private house, built between 1913 and 1920 in a wealthy neighborhood near the city center. It was an 11-acre plot, huge for one in the city center, and the mansion had 25 bedrooms, a 70 foot ballroom and a glass rotunda. The view across its gardens toward London was said to be among the loveliest in London. For decades, parties at Witanhurst dominated the social scene and attracted potentates and royalty. But as things go, family fortune declined and the building had been unoccupied since the 70s. The author of the article had toured it in 2008 and noted its ravaged interior with water leaking everywhere, and brittle floorboards cracking under one’s footsteps.
It was sold later in 2008 for 50 million pounds and sold to an offshore shell company, with an unknown owner. That is where the mystery comes in….the owner’s identity is a well-kept secret. The article is about the subsequent renovation of this palatial estate. It is being re-built into something second only in size to Buckingham Palace! The basement itself will be 40,000 square feet and include a car elevator, parking for 25 cars, a cinema, staff quarters, gym and an Olympic size pool. All told the mansion will include 90,000 square feet of a vast and lavishly appointed house. Purchased for $50 million pounds, it is assumed that renovations will top $100 million pounds. Even in a city used to Middle Eastern oil sheiks and Russian oligarchs snapping up high-priced properties, it has people abuzz. It is assumed, by the way, that it belongs to a Russian oil and mineral magnate.
The cynic in me says that in another 50 years the property will once again be in ruin, the family in bankruptcy, and its current owner long dead. So what does all this sound and fury signify? Well, according the apostle Paul, absolutely nothing. It is simply an earthly tent that even in its beginnings, is already wasting away. It ultimately means nothing and it will come to nothing. Jesus himself warned us about building bigger barns!
Our earthly tent, on the other hand, is another matter. The term could refer to the ancient Hebrew tent of meeting, or it could refer to our individual bodies. Cynthia Kittredge suggests that these different interpretations of the term point to an important insight. For Paul (and Mark) the meaning of house as an individual body, or house as a community overlapped. That means that both our individual bodies, and the Body of Christ will be transformed in the age to come.
So hear this: Even though our outer nature may be getting older and creakier day by day, our inner nature is being renewed daily. Moreover, we, unlike that London mansion, have a glorious and eternal future ahead of us. This is the promise of scripture. This is the good news of the gospel.
“The things you can see” last for such a short while. An inheritance based only on what we can see now is very insecure indeed. They are of a temporal nature. Paul’s point is that at some point we all die, and indeed everything human and of human hands will one die crumble into dust. Remember you are dust and to dust you will return, is what we say on Ash Wednesday. But then we move on from Lent to the cross. And we know that what the world saw at Calvary is not all there was to see. There was an unseen hand and unseen Spirit moving across that terrible and chaotic time, just as the breath of God moved over the waters of chaos at the beginning of time. There is always more going on than we can glimpse, because God is always at work.
The song Day by Day from Godspell comes to mind. This song from the show’s score reprises a 13th century prayer:
May I know Thee more clearly, Love Thee more dearly, Follow Thee more nearly.
That speaks of a process that is being worked out over time, renewing our inner nature. These small everyday steps are signs of the renewal of which Paul speaks. Paul is teaching us how to live in the in- between time when the new age has already begun in the life and resurrection of Christ, but in which the old age still persists. And he is offering true Christian hope, the hope that the sufferings of this life are nothing compared to the glories of the next life.
The present body is only the beginning. As NT Wright puts it, this earthly tent is the initial clothing for a true self that will one day be much more fully clothed. When you think about, when we put on our best clothes for Sunday…we are really rehearsing for that beautiful garment of the resurrection that will be donned when we finally see Christ face to face. Our Sunday clothes are a sign of wanting that “something more. ” T he funeral pall with which we cover the casket is a symbol of that fuller existence that we glimpse, but cannot fully grasp in this life. We will be covered in Christ in a new and glorious way.
The Christian hope for the future is not for some dis-embodied state where we float around for all eternity. We are born body and soul, and that is the way we will be resurrected. Paul says we will be re-embodied. “Whereas the present body is mortal and doomed to die, heading for corruption and decay whether we like it or not, the body that is to come will be full of life, a life that nothing can harm or destroy.” According to Paul, here and in I Corinthians 15, our new resurrection body will be somewhat like our current ones, but immortal, incorruptible, and genderless.
I know that we would all like to have more specifics about this whole life after death business. But personally, I think that Paul gives us just enough, and not too much. I think we should all err on the side of mystery and modesty when it comes to details about the afterlife. After all no one really knows. And at the risk of offending someone, I want to be clear that books, TV programs, and movies aside…anyone who says they’ve been to heaven and back to tell the tale, is just selling something. All we know is what is between the covers of the Bible. And frankly, that’s not much. But it is enough. Each and every one of us should believe in a bodily resurrection. The idea of an eternal, disembodied soul is not biblical.
The topic for my dissertation concerned the Resurrection, and one of the main reasons I was drawn to the topic was because my mother had just died. Where and how would I see her again? Well as one of you pointed out at our church chat last week, it doesn’t matter what anyone of us think, it matters what God says in scripture.
Paul says that God has spoken through the resurrection of Christ. Paul is basing his teaching on the fact of the resurrection…that Christ was raised and we will be raised like him. “for since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has come through a human being, for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (I Cor 15: 21) The order is this….Christ first, and then at his return those who belong to him. Paul looks at what the witnesses to the resurrection have testified to, and concludes that this earthly tent is sown as a physical body, but will be raised as a spiritual body. Remember what Jesus looked like in the post-resurrection appearances. At first they couldn’t recognize him and he walked through closed doors. But he was still Jesus, and they did recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
The perishable will not inherit the imperishable. But when the trumpet sounds the dead will be raised imperishable and all will be changed. All of heaven and earth will be renewed. I have staked my ministry on that belief and I commend it to you. And further, it is my belief that at the resurrection we will not only see Christ face to face, we will see each other.
So, to sum up. And here I thank theologian Jaime Clark-Soles for her marvelous explanation of Paul’s arguments.  I used it to great advantage in my dissertation and rely on it still!
- For the believer, the afterlife will be glorious. The path to that future lies through death.
- It is not clear to Paul, and thus to us, if we receive our spiritual bodies immediately after death or at the general resurrection. That is part of the mystery.
- We should behave now because all will be judged by God on our works, at the resurrection.
- At the resurrection, believers will receive bodies but these bodies will be immortal, incorruptible and genderless
- Dead believers are somehow closer to Christ than us living believers.
It is that last in which I take great comfort, and I hope you do as well. For just as we will know the glory of the afterlife, our loved ones who have passed before us already share in that glory. And those who believe that their wealth and power in this life, like the ability to build a huge mansion, that that power will somehow last beyond the grave—they are sadly mistaken I fear. Their energy and time would be better put to renewing their inner nature day by day.
Our present body is only the beginning. It is merely the earthly tent for a true self that will one day be much more richly clothed.
 Feasting on the Word, year B, vol 3, 115.
 NT Wright, Paul For Everyone: 2 Corinthians, WJK, 53.
 Death and the Afterlife in the New Testament, t & t clark, 86 and 97.