"Lasting Hope when Life Hurts"
Feb.19, 2006 2Cor.5:1-10
Groans, Aches, & Crashes
The Winter Olympics, currently being held in Italy, celebrate what the human body can accomplish. Every event is an opportunity to marvel at what athletes' physical bodies can do. We're awed by the beauty of figure skating, the mid-air antics of snowboarding and moguls, the rhythmic gliding of speed-skaters, the dare-devil speed of the luge. Truly the athletes deserve applause and honour for their discipline, effort, and dedicated training as they endeavour to excel at their particular event.
But there is another side to the Olympics, a more painful side that happens when mortal humans bump up against the limitations of their physical abilities. A CBC news article reports, "Doctors in Turin, Italy, probably were as deserving of a medal as any of the 2,500 Olympic participants on Monday. No less than 11 athletes were injured at the Torino Winter Games as several crashes occurred on the ski slopes and luge track, in the centre of the halfpipe and at a skating rink. During a women's downhill training run, Canada's Allison Forsyth tore a ligament in her left knee when she lost control of her ski and skidded into the protective fencing. Forsyth will return to Calgary on Tuesday for surgery and begin at least six months of rehabilitation." The article states the defending Olympic champion in the downhill from France suffered rib and back trauma, while an American gold-medal favourite was airlifted to hospital after sustaining a severely bruised hip in a free-fall crash. In the luge, an American woman sustained a concussion and experienced short-term memory loss after slamming into the wall. A Canadian hurt her ankle during a shaky run in which she nearly came off her sled.
Yvonne and I were enjoying watching the pairs free skate Monday evening when China's Zhang Dan crashed to the ice splits-fashion and slid into the boards after a failed throw quadruple Salchow. However the pair amazingly resumed their routine and won the silver medal - along with a standing ovation, which they very much deserved. Had I suffered a fall like that, I don't think I'd ever want to venture onto the ice again!
In the Christian worldview, our bodies are viewed more positively than in some religions where matter is considered inherently evil. Paul asserted in 1Cor 6(13) that the body is meant "for the Lord, and the Lord for the body." He says our bodies "are members of Christ Himself"; that you are to "honour God with your body." (1Cor 6:15,20) So our bodies are good, as part of God's created order, not to be viewed as inherently suspect; yet our bodies suffer pains and breakdowns along with the rest of a sin-struck creation. You don't have to go to the Olympics to find people suffering pain. As hospital chaplain at Wingham I routinely visit a dozen or so new people each week who are afflicted with some ailment, usually 1 or 2 warranting palliative care. Our own congregation suffers a wide range of painful conditions: everything from the nuisance of cold sores to the ache of arthritis, the debilitation of fibromyalgia, the burden of sleeplessness, the agony of bad backs, on up through to the seriousness of cancer tumours: we are well acquainted with the groaning of our human physical condition. As BBE translates v4 in our text, "We...give out cries of weariness, for the weight of care which is on us." However, the apostle points us to a brighter picture beyond this world's groanings which gives us strength to cope.
Belief in a Better Building
The resurrection body was very real to Paul; remember, he'd had a face-to-face encounter with the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus. Defending his qualifications to the Corinthians, he asked, "Am I not an Apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1Cor 9:1) He'd also had a near-death experience in which he'd been caught up to be made aware of heavenly things most mortals have never witnessed (2Cor 12:4,7). So the resurrection body was as real to Paul as his own fingernails. In fact, more "real", more lasting - not perishable as is our physical body. In 2Cor 5 he uses a variety of metaphors to contrast this body's temporary nature with the permanence and ultimacy of the glorified heavenly body such as that in which Christ appeared to him. V1, he says we live in an "earthly tent" that is "destroyed" - literally, the same term as when a tent is "struck" down. Take out the centre pole, and whoosh - down comes the whole thing! When we die, Paul contends that "we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands." What comes after we die is a building, more solid and stable and lasting than a flimsy tent. It's built by God's hands, not mortal craft.
In vv2-4, Paul switches his metaphor to contrast being "naked" in this life but "clothed" in the next. He means, even our completely-dressed bodies now are un-clothed compared to the glory and ever-lasting quality of resurrected spiritual bodies. We're reminded of Jesus' garments becoming dazzlingly white on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2); in all these things, Jesus is our fore-runner, the example of what will happen to those who follow Him. When Adam and Eve sinned and suddenly realized they were naked, was there some sort of glory-covering that disappeared? (Gen 3:7) Ever since, we have all in some way experienced the shortcomings of our own physical bodies, trying to cover them discreetly in a way that diverts attention away from their imperfections, and the inevitable signs of aging. The resurrection body will be glorious, it won't need such concern about covering-up. As Paul said in 1Cor 15(42ff), "The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power..."
Another expression Paul uses is very brief but catchy. He says at the end of v4, "so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life." The original verb is that of being drunk down, devoured, swallowed down - kind of like "big fish eat little fish" but here the "big fish" is eternal life, the lasting resurrection body engulfing the mortal perishable one. Gulp! It's gone! The giant fish swallowing up a floundering, drowning Jonah to bring him to a safer shore (Jonah 1:17). In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet, we are changed (1Cor 15:52). Life has swallowed up the mortal.
Also, Paul in vv6-9 switches to terminology of being "at home in the body" and "away from the Lord", although we "would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." Paul's language is clear-cut and distinct: it's one or the other, it becomes automatic at death that as soon as you're away from the body, you're at home with the Lord; an instant transition into the awareness of the Lord's presence, while receiving a physical resurrected body may be another phase in conjunction with Jesus' earthly return.
Literally, "at home" or "away from" is about being amongst or distant from one's "people"; the "away from" is like emigrating, moving to a distant land. Lately Yvonne and I have experienced this to some degree in that one of our daughters, Allison, has emigrated to become a student in Australia for 3 years, after being "at home" with us for most of 2005. Australia's a long way away, and until she gets better telephone or internet connections, it seems especially far. We're experiencing "empty nest" all over again. Similarly, Paul's saying we're really "citizens of heaven" temporarily emigrated to planet earth; there's an "empty nest" the Trinity experiences until we're reunited after resurrection, then we'll truly be "at home" with our heavenly Father. Until then, there's a longing in heaven and in our hearts, a "homesickness", a yearning to be physically present with our Saviour and see His loving face.
So Paul employs a variety of metaphors or wrod-pictures to describe our temporary status now: tents versus enduring buildings; nakedness rather than being clothed; life swallowing up what's mortal; and being away at a long distance rather than "at home" around the family hearth, all chicks back in the nest.
Positives of the Christian View
At the risk of offending some who may have used it at a loved one's funeral, there is a certain poem used frequently nowadays that does not originate from the Christian stream of thought and that tends to paint a different view of what happens at death; I think, to negative ends. It's attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye (1932) and goes like this (and again, I don't mean to step on toes if you've used this, but let's be careful what we're saying) : "Do not stand at my grave and weep, / I am not there, I do not sleep. / I am a thousand winds that blow. / I am the diamond glint on snow. / I am the sunlight on ripened grain. / I am the gentle autumn rain. / When you wake in the morning hush, / I am the swift, uplifting rush / Of quiet birds in circling flight. / I am the soft starlight at night. / Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there, I do not sleep. (an alternate ending): Do not stand at my grave and cry. /I am not there, I did not die!"
Now, what is it about this poem that clashes with the New Testament view? After all, there's some beautiful imagery - "diamond glint on snow", "the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circling flight." But beautiful words do not a theologically sound poem make. For one thing, what happens to recognizable personhood if one were to become "a thousand winds that blow"? Let's leave omnipresence to God. From snow to rain, from grain to birds to starlight, this spirit claims to be able to morph into the form of just about anything. This is more of an eastern reincarnation concept than distinctive Judaeo-Christian one-life personality. Particularly dangerous is the alternate ending about not drying because the person didn't actually die: healthy grieving involves acknowledging and, with God's help, coming to grips with the very real physical loss of the loved one; already we 'dress up' the death process sometimes as if pretending the death hasn't really occurred. This poem mutates the dearly departed into a strictly natural will-o'-the-wisp that has lost the benchmarks of human-ness that makes what we call a person. And the mourner is forbidden to express normal tears and sorrow; it's as if the death (or even that concrete personhood) never actually existed. (So, please be careful - if you're pre-arranging a funeral, which is a good idea, or helping plan a memorial service for a friend, that the pieces you use convey meanings that don't undermine Biblical reality.) While attempting to soothe the sorrowing, such a poem leaves the hearers, in view of eternity, fundamentally unsatisfied.
It's OK to mourn; it's good to shed tears. Christianity doesn't mean denying our feelings or pretending we're not going to miss someone who's died. Again, Jesus is our model: after Lazarus died, John records that "He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled...Jesus wept." Onlookers commented, "See how He loved him!" (Jn 11:35f) Tears and emotions definitely have their place, expressing the deep feelings we can't put into words.
What the apostles want for us is that we "not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope" (1Thess 4:13). Grieve, yes: it may take a year or two or five - things will probably never return to the way they were before the loved one died. But allow the Lord to transmute the sadness with His word of hope for all who die trusting in Him, and His healing for our memories. In this passage, for example, we see 3 positive aspects that the Christian worldview brings to the area of dealing with death.
First, in vv 6&8 Paul speaks of CONFIDENCE we can have, despite the worst that may happen. "Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord...We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." The word "confident" can be translated "bold, to take heart, cheer up". It's the same expression in Matthew 9(2,22) when Jesus says to the paralyzed man, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven," and to the woman with the haemorrhage, "Take heart, daughter: your faith has healed you." That Chinese figure-skater was bold, she "took heart" after the fall and surprised everyone by completing the performance despite her injury. Paul's saying we can have a surprising confidence when faced with death, knowing we're going to a better place. He said from prison, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." (Php 1:21) What gives us this confidence, this certainty and boldness? The "therefore" at the start of v6 points back to the close of v5 as the reason: God "has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." The Holy Helper's encouragement already in this life is a pledge, a 'down payment' guaranteeing that better things await beyond this earthly life. So we can be confident and know God's peace in the face of danger or threat.
Second, the Christian perspective on death and the afterlife gives SIGNIFICANCE to our whole being. V5 says "Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose..." God's created us for the goal of sharing eternity with Him as Jesus' own dear sisters and brothers. There's additional significance in vv9&10, "So we make it our goal to please him...For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." The Greek for "make it our goal" has to do with aim, purpose, to make it our ambition - in a good sense of the word. All believers in Christ will be required to show up before Christ's "bema" seat; the word means a raised platform, or judge's seat, as when Pilate had Jesus on trial - kind of like the "judge's bench" in modern courtroom parlance (Mt 27:19). We will have to give account for our words and actions; the Lord will reward whatever good we have done, testing our work by fire (Mt 12:36; Eph 6:8; 1Cor 3:13ff). This is different from the "Great White Throne" judgment at which those who reject God, whose names aren't written in the book of life, will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11ff). So, eternal significance is attached to our actions in this life because Christ rewards, repays, and praises those who do good in obedience to Him (Lk 14:14; 1Cor 4:5).
Third and finally, this doctrine of Christian resurrection provides lasting COMPANIONSHIP. Never again need we feel like "lost souls" in a vast universe. God's Spirit with us now as a deposit guarantees the "at-home-ness" we anticipate in eternity. Life is about an ongoing relationship, seeking to please the Lord, whether in the earthly body or not. Jesus invites us to 'abide' in Him, and He says, "I will remain in you." (Jn 15:4) He promised, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." (Jn 14:23) What could be better than being "at home" non-stop with a loving heavenly Father?
Light in the Window: Someone's Home, Waiting
Thomas Kinkade is a Christian painter who lives in California. People have wondered why all the lights are on in the houses in his paintings. Kinkade explains, "When I was a child, I would come home after school and our house would often stand empty, dark and cold. I'd hope, as I approached, that the lights would come on suddenly - that someone would swing open the door and wave and smile as I quickened my step. I could hope, but I knew that no one would be home. My father had left us when I was little, so my mother worked late as a secretary to support the family. My brother and sisters frequently got home from school after I did. I would scuff my heels along the sidewalks beside shadowy hedges...stop and study a bird's nest or some wildflowers...but mostly I'd look at all the other houses I passed, the lights on in all their windows, the brightness so inviting I wanted to dash up and ring the bell and wait to be offered some cookies and warm cinnamon milk. When I finally reached my house, I was hesitant to open the door and go in. It was more than just being afraid of the dark. The lights within other houses on our street filled me with longing. I wished the whole world could be lit up like those houses."
Thomas' mother nourished his dream of becoming a painter, framing his drawings on the living room wall right next to inexpensive prints by his heroes, Norman Rockwell and Rembrandt. Attending university at Berkeley, though, Thomas found his paintings were deemed cliched, sentimental, and outdated. In his dorm room at night, he would lie awake, plagued by doubts.
One day when he was 22, a friend asked Thomas to a revival meeting and Thomas agreed. He recalls, "As the enthusiastic young preacher's voice rose and his words, like a long-lost lifeblood, reached my heart, I felt something good within me stir. It was like the feeling I once got looking at a house all ablaze with the warmth of light, as if I at last had found home. The preacher was saying, "God's in the room; He's waiting to touch your life, to meet your every need, to fill your life with light. He's here. If you want to know Him, come down to the altar. Come down to the altar now." Without consciously willing it, I was suddenly rising and making my way down the aisle to the preacher...At the front of the auditorium, I found myself kneeling. Open the doors, I was praying. Open the doors You want me to go through, God. I commit whatever talents I have to you. If there is any way You want to use me, please show me the direction clearly, dear God.
I felt myself filled with what I'd always wanted to fill my canvasses with, felt lifted out of the dark morass of confusion. I sensed a freedom I'd never known before, freedom to paint as I had always wanted to. And from that day, it has been my life's mission to fulfill that dream of light and bring it to people...
For me, the brightest light burns inwardly. With this supernatural, inspiring light, God illuminates our spiritual path and leads us to heaven through the love of His Son. And heaven, at least in my artistic imagination, is a place where the windows always glow...A lighted window says home to me. It says all is well with the world, someone's waiting, someone cares."
Our earthly bodies don't last forever. But for those who trust in Jesus and make it their aim to please Him, the groans of our earthly life will one day be swallowed up by life. We can look forward to being "at home with the Lord", looking for His light in the window, as it were. That gives great comfort and confidence! Let's pray.