Sunday, June 10, 2012

Looking At What You Can’t See

Looking At What You Can’t See

© copyright 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: June 10, 2012

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1               

One of my professors in seminary – long since gone to his full reward – used to say that every pastor should preach one sermon about the subject of death at least once a year. I have come to learn that since most pastors are involved in several funerals a year, we have more opportunities than that. Still, I think he was suggesting that it is important for us to reflect on death now and then when we are not gathered for a funeral but for a regular Sunday service on the Lord’s day. Our hearts may not be captured then by immediate sorrow and grief, but by a desire to gain fuller understanding. I have a vague memory of Garrison Keillor – on his Prairie Home Companion radio program – telling a story of a pastor who, at the end of funeral services, was given to saying, “And to whichever one of you is next, may God grant you safe journey and peace at the last.”

It’s a bit startling, that benediction, isn’t it? Even though we come face to face with death at funerals or memorial services, still it is someone else’s death with which we are face to face. The idea that one of us is next is a little unnerving. But true.

Ours today is one of those passages which we might just as soon wish we did not have to consider, with lines about the “wasting away,” the “momentary afflictions,” the destruction of our “earthly tent.” What disturbing images! There is no doubt that in this passage Paul was writing to people who were concerned about impending death – if not their own, then of others close to them – and the meaning that had for their lives of faith. We know how it was for them. The death of anyone close to us always calls to mind the deepest questions of doubt and faith.

How much more bluntly could Paul have put it? His words simply call to our attention what anyone who has observed the human scene will already know to be true: With age comes increasing disability until, in the end, our bodily tents collapse. Rather than telling us about some mythic Fountain of Youth – which we all know does not exist – Paul is here engaged is helping us learn to drink gracefully from the Fountain of Age. It is a considerable gift, one granted to us in any grace-filled death in which someone passes with blessing in their last breath or forgiveness on their lips for those who had may have wronged them, believing that a greater, better reality awaits them.

In his day, for people with first-hand experience of nomadic lifestyles, the contrasting images Paul used between tents and permanent houses was telling. Tents are, by their very nature, temporary. I am an old Boy Scout and I have had a long association with tents. I also remember living in a small tent for a week every summer, for several summers, during house-building mission trips in Mexico. My little tent folded up into a bag not quite the size of a briefcase. Not much substance there! That is the earthly reality about us, Paul says. Not much substance. Houses on the other hand, built on substantial foundations, are much more permanent, substantial, like the eternal dwelling God has in mind for us. Paul chose the metaphor of dwelling places to describe the plan and purpose God has for us beyond the life we know.

And he made some stunning declarations in this short passage :

The one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus. This is such a broad and encouraging promise! It is entirely possible to have thought that while God might well have wanted to raise Jesus to new life – Jesus, the perfect healer, teacher, and servant – it does not necessarily follow that God would want to do the same for us – imperfect healers, flawed teachers, too self-absorbed ever to be mistaken for perfect servants. And yet God does desire to raise us in Christ.

Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed. This requires a leap of faith for any who have had to stand by on the long watch that precedes the death of loved ones. While evidence for the wasting is plentiful – loss of abilities, loss of weight, loss of strength, even loss of mental function – we pray for evidence of the renewal that Paul says is under way. Not seeing any physical sign of that, we are reminded by the apostle that “we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen.” We look to what is eternal rather than what is passing away. Paul suggests that this has more to do with what is true about us than all the physical evidence we can muster.

How do you suppose our inner nature is being renewed? By our efforts? Paul’s sentence doesn’t really read that way. It has a sort of present imperfect feeling, something is being done. By whom? The implication is that renewal is under way, and we are carried along by it as an act of the grace of God. This doesn’t preclude the contributions we make by our own efforts, but the good news is that it doesn’t seem to depend on what we do. Our inner renewal is more than a personal improvement project, it is part of the very plan and purpose of God. In the end, we can rest in that truth.

Remember when Yogi Berra – famous baseball player and manager who was almost as well know for such malapropisms as “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” as he was for his baseball skills – once said “You can observe a lot by watching”? I think of Yogi when I read Paul’s words about “looking at what you can’t see.” This apparent Yogi Berra-ism is a sort of oxymoron which Paul uses to explain that we hope in something beyond our limited perception, but not far beyond it. It is only just out of sight, just around the bend, near enough to be seen in the next instant for what it is. Someone once said that the distance traveled from the life we know to life eternal is not far, it is just around the corner, awaiting us just over there. All this contributes to our sense of peace that God will be as fully in control of our destiny there as he was when we were first brought into this miracle of physical existence. It is important that we not lose sight of this, that we continue to “look at what cannot be seen.”

I once read about a small village in northern Italy where the residents of the community built a series of chapels ascending up a hillside. With life-size terra-cotta figures, each chapel depicts one of the scenes of Jesus’ passion. If you have visited an abbey at places like Mount Angel and elsewhere, probably you will have noticed a similar series of tiny chapels ascending the hill along the path toward the abbey: Jesus before Pilate, Jesus shouldering the cross, and so on as you proceed up the hill. Near the top of the hill above that Italian village is a chapel depicting the crucifixion. To this point the path linking the chapels is well worn. Many pilgrims have come in pilgrimage during Lent to remember Jesus’ suffering and death.

An observant visitor to those chapels would notice, though, that the path does not end at the chapel of the crucifixion, it continues up the hillside toward the summit, though one cannot see the summit from there. Beyond the chapel of the crucifixion the path is almost overgrown with grass and weeds. There have not been many visitors to the top of that hill. The curious will discover, though, that at the summit there is another chapel, depicting the resurrection. Those who built the chapels did not forget that Jesus was raised from the tomb. But most of the pilgrims, like the authors of the 1970s musical Jesus Christ Superstar, come to pay homage to the Jesus of the crucifixion, heading back down the hill without looking further upward at what cannot be seen, the eternal weight of glory in the resurrection of Jesus. Like much of our culture, it is easier for them to accept death than to contemplate the day-by-day renewal of our “inner nature.”

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians wrote:

“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins....If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”[1]

Paul saw clearly what we all know to be true if we only stop to think about it. We are a fellowship of the resurrection. It is because of the resurrection that we gather on a Sunday sabbath – rather than observing the Saturday sabbath of our Jewish forebears. It is because of resurrection that 12 frightened apostles set out to win a world for Christ, until, by this day, one third of the people of the world claim the name of Christ. More than anything else that is true about us, we are a people, a fellowship, of the resurrection. It is the central promise around which we gather. For those who press on to the chapel at the top of the hill, through the wasting away of our outer nature, the destruction of the earthly tent, there is more than hope awaiting us. There is renewal of our inner nature. There is resurrection.

© copyright 2012, Robert J. Elder

[1] I Corinthians 15:17, 19.