Paul is looking to die

Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentacost
2 Corinthians 5:6-17

Most of us don’t think of death as being a particularly welcome thing, and most of us take if for granted that it is right for people to fight like hell against death. Someone is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and they begin to wage what is usually characterized as a “courageous battle.” And fair enough. In this tradition death is not downplayed, romanticized, or trivialized. In 1 Corinthians 15.26 Paul goes so far as to call death the “last enemy.” Death marks a massive separation—between people who love and care for one another, between the known and the unknown, and between body and spirit… which is, after all, our only experience of life. Whatever else death might be, it means that the union of body and spirit is severed, and that the physical body that is so recognizably me stops functioning and begins to decay. It is an almost appallingly jarring thing, to confront that truth. And so we fight, resist, and even deny death.

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Yet here in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, the very same Paul who called death an enemy seems to be longing to die. “[W]e would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord,” he writes in this letter to his young Corinthian church. Now sometimes you hear people say such things at the end of a very long life. You might know a song Steve Bell recorded on his Sons and Daughters album, “She’s Getting Ready for Glory.” Written by Carolyn Arends for her grandmother, the song paints a rather lovely picture of this elderly woman readying herself to die:

She knows all of the verses
To ‘How great thou art’
And the spirit doth magnify often
And she’s gonna keep learnin’
The scriptures by heart
’till the day that she’s laid in her coffin
She wants to be sure when the angels come take her
That she’s got some greetings for meeting her maker

But Paul isn’t an elderly man whose life has much run its course, and still he seems to be longing to die. And while he writes elsewhere about his struggles and about the sufferings he has endured, neither is he in a place where he’s sinking under the weight of pain or loss or depression. That’s a reality for some people of course; that life is lived under such a weight of pain or depression that death can seem desirable. But that isn’t where Paul’s longing comes from.

Simply stated, Paul longs to be held eternally in the presence of God. He writes of a day when he will need to stand “before the judgment seat of Christ,” but he is not afraid of that because he is persuaded that his life—and his death—is entirely safe in the death of Christ. And in what I take as being an almost comical perspective, he even suggests that his longing to die is a bit of madness: “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” (5:13)

It sounds as if he is ready to admit that the more conventionally sane perspective is the one that has him keep moving forward in his work and mission—in his passion “to persuade others” and to keep proclaiming this gospel that places a claim on the lives and deaths of any and all. Yet he’s also quite willing to admit that nutty as it sounds he’d actually trade away the rest of his life and just die in the peace of Christ.

Then it is fascinating to see where he goes next. Paul, of course, never intended to write polished theological treatises; even less did he set out to write what would come to be embraced as authoritative scripture. He’s writing a letter to a church community, and he’s letting things flow forward in an organic way. Having drawn these contrasts between “at home” and “away,” and between being “beside himself” and “in his right mind,” he begins to push against the contrasts and write about things being brought together. Death and life, in fact, are brought together, as he writes that because Christ “died for all… those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” This carries him on toward making one of the most stirring statements in the whole of the Christian scriptures: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation,” Paul proclaims, which really means that he doesn’t have to wait until his death to be re-created or to be at home in Christ. “[E]verything old has passed away,” he almost sings, “see, everything has become new!” It is almost as if the Holy Spirit was beginning to get a little impatient with Paul, and nudged him hard in the ribs with the truth that the reign of God is already on; that we are always and ever in the presence of Christ in “whom we live and move and have our being,” and that eternal life begins in the here and now. Have you ever really noticed the words I pronounce in the liturgy after our time of confession? “Almighty God have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in eternal life.” Not bring you to eternal life, or carry you off to eternal life after you die… but keep you in eternal life.

That’s what Paul is onto here when he dares to say that “everything has become new!” And while the lectionary had us end the reading there, it is not insignificant to get a sense of where Paul goes next with his proclamation. “All this is from God,” he writes, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (5:18-19) He’d been writing about contrasts and even tensions between life and death, yet now he discovers he has to write about reconciliation. Reconciliation between what? Frankly, between all things.

Foremost in his mind is the reconciliation of God and the world, but because Paul is writing this to a church community that has experienced some pretty severe divisions, he’s also got to be thinking about reconciliation within that community. And for all that he wrote about being “away from the body and at home with the Lord,” I think here he’s pointing to a reconciliation of body and soul. Paul is too deeply rooted in a Jewish view of human life to buy into a vision of eternity that has us float off to some ethereal heaven as pure spirit; Paul is frankly too earthy for that. Remember, in his earlier letter to that Corinthian church Paul had pushed hard for a theology of resurrection; not simply one that affirms the resurrection of Christ, but one that envisions our future as being a resurrection future. He affirms a belief not in an immortal soul that has shed a limiting body, but instead one that sees our being raised in a transformed and renewed body, free from of its mortality, yet somehow recognizably still me (1 Corinthians 15:35-57).

But you know, powerful as Paul’s proclamation is regarding the “new creation” and the passing away of “everything old,” he’s still aware that there’s still a ways to go to see the final redemption and reconciliation of all things. In the very next chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, he’s back writing about the reality of his own struggles and suffering, deeply aware that God is not finished with him yet… and of course, God is not yet finished with any of us. But the seedbed has been well worked, and the seed deeply planted.

What is it that we heard in tonight’s gospel reading? “Jesus said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’” (Mark 4:30-32) The Kingdom has in fact been planted, and our struggles, sufferings, and unmet longings aside, we must live that reality now. Because we are a “new creation,” although it can be hard to see, “everything has become new!” So live into that reality, and be that truth now; for each other, in the world, reconciled in the unity of Christ.

Amen.

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