Sunday, June 24, 2018

A Clod Of Earth

We stood by her bedside...

Yesterday, Joe and I went to visit a friend of ours who is in the last days of her life.  She has lived well over 80 years courageously, plowing new ground, touching many lives, articulating her faith.  She cannot talk much now.  We stood by her bedside, one of us holding her hand, the other gently stroking her arm.  All the talk went in one direction, though clearly she knew us and, I believe, appreciated that we were there.  The short while we spent with our friend points up to me a question as I project myself into her situation sometime in the future.  Is it better to remain in the body, or is it better to depart the body?  It is a question that lies beneath much of what St. Paul says to the Corinthians.  You hear it today.

You may be one of the many people I’ve known who intensely dislike St. Paul. People frequently find Paul difficult to understand, his arguments hard to swallow, his vocabulary a far cry from what they perceive to be the simple gospel of Jesus.  Thomas Jefferson is perhaps one of the most famous examples of people raised in the Christian tradition who took a razor and glue and excised from the New Testament the passages that he couldn’t stand, saving those consonant with his own philosophy.  Not surprisingly, St. Paul was irrelevant to Jefferson’s project of compiling “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” 

Whether you turn off to Paul or whether you are one of his fans, I invite you to consider some of the ideas that are packed into a chapter or two of his Second Letter to the Corinthians.  This invitation I frankly issue knowing that in order to get at anything you might want to take home with you entails dodging, if not trashing, some of the ideas that over the centuries folks have imagined Christian faith to be about.  Let’s go straight to the heart of some basic issues.

Like what, for instance?  Like this:  how does one actually live a daily life in actual accord with authentic faith in Jesus?  Like this:  what is important about bodily life with all of its possibilities for joy, bliss, ecstasy even—as well as its possibilities and probabilities of pain, sickness, weakness, trouble, distress?  Like this:  how do we square a life “in Christ,” to use Paul’s term, with the anxieties, distractions, challenges that ordinary experience in the world of politics, employment, relationships, tosses our way—experiences that in one way or another keep us worked up, fretting and stewing about issues that seem to be—and often are—beyond what we can control or even attempt to handle?

Let’s start with a central term in Paul’s argument in the fifth chapter of Second Corinthians.  That term is “body.”  Borrowing from the current well-known philosophy of the Greek Stoics, Paul essentially counts as immaterial whether or not one is living the everyday life or has died and gotten beyond the cares of this world.  Why?  Because the reality that he and you and I are living into is a living Christ.  We have been delivered from what we might call the ordinary way of life in the world, and have begun to live life dancing to a completely new tune.  It is new, though ancient.  It is new to us, but only because we’ve inherited a pattern of living that is at odds with what we are designed for.  It is new because it involves a renewed consciousness, and awaking to a reality that can easily be missed if we are (and we certainly are) distracted from noticing it by whatever occupies us at the moment. 

"As many as have been baptized into Christ
have clothed themselves with Christ..."
Now lots of people read Paul, not here but elsewhere, notably Romans 7, and completely misunderstand another term he uses, which is “flesh.”  While “flesh” and “body” would seem to us to be the same thing, for Paul they are significantly different.  “Flesh” has to do with what we can think of as an ego-driven life.  Flesh is effectively soulless.  If you look at how flesh behaves, you may start listing such things as greediness, argumentativeness, divisiveness, one-up-man-ship, fearfulness, anxiety, refusal to forgive wrongs, and on and on.  “Body,” on the other hand is inescapably how we experience life in this world.  Indeed Paul begins this section of Second Corinthians marveling that we have the treasure of Christ’s life in what he calls “clay jars,” meaning the physical body.[1]  So Paul’s project, quite unlike that of other sects and belief systems popular at the time, was not to get out of the body and become pure spirit, but rather to experience the power of the indwelling Christ in this life here and now.  When we encounter Paul in other places using the metaphor of “walking by the Spirit,” that is what he is talking about.  For him, the death and resurrection of Christ has changed everything, including the entire thrust of history.  “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “there is a new creation.  Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[2] Christ has opened up a new age into which we are invited to enter through our baptism.  “As many as are baptized into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ,” he says to the Galatians.[3]  That makes sense when compared with what he says in Romans, “Clothe yourselves with Christ, and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh.”[4]  Now you see that “flesh” is not the body but actually the “normal” way of life in the world that is antagonistic to Christ, and indeed is a product of those powers that crucified Christ and continue to do so.

That brings us to a second phrase, key to understanding both what Paul meant and the implications for us.  The whole sentence runs thus:  “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”  Stop and think for a moment about Jesus.  How do you imagine Jesus?  Is he a dead historical figure, one who lived two millennia ago, remote from your personal experience but still a person whom you admire from a distance?  Is he a larger-than-life spiritual being that you imagine “up there” or “out there” in space?   Is he a buddy, a friend, a companion that walks beside you, to whom you chat intimately and in whom you confide?  Paul rarely talks about “Jesus” but frequently talks about “Christ.”  To borrow wording you may know from the Book of Common Prayer, “Christ dwells in us and we in him.”  Christ is a living reality, closer to us than the clothes we wear or the air we breathe.  We are, he says, “ambassadors for Christ,” possible precisely because who we are, how we live, and what we do manifest Christ—which is the primary way that others can come to know him as real.[5]

If you want to take something away today to chew on, try this, because there is nothing more important, relevant, or critical for Christians in this country today.  If you can’t imagine Christ doing something—let’s say for example, ripping families apart and taking screaming children from their sobbing parents—then it is totally inappropriate to be Christian and either do such things or sanction such things.  It doesn’t matter what your church credentials are or how many degrees in God you have or what your justification is.  And it serves to bring us to a third an challenging phrase in this epistle.  “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”  Now that notion will only serve to fuel the fires of those who treat the Christian life as a system of rewards and punishment, a matter of retributive justice where the goods (generally imagined to be the afterlife) are parceled out to those who deserve them and withheld as retribution for those who don’t.  But I invite you to consider laying this notion alongside what we’ve already said that Paul means about the indwelling Christ.  If Christ dwells in us, so does his judgment seat.  And while we might imagine that Judgment to be at the entrance of the next life, or at the hour of our death, or at the end of human history, the reality is that the judgment is as present this moment as it will be at some future time. That in turn means that we are held accountable for what we do with the inner life of Christ and its inevitable outward expression.  There is no reason to puzzle over what the life of Christ is like.  All we have to do is to read the gospels.  His was a life driven by a passion for justice to the point he was willing to take on both political policy and religious tradition, overturning the practices that oppressed the poor and subjugated the powerless.   His was a life on fire with zeal for breaking down barriers that people use to separate themselves from fellow human beings.  His was a life that saw the unity of all under the reign of God.  He got angry, hungry, lonely.  He became joyful, playful, serious, stern.  He practiced inclusiveness, acceptance, and forgiveness.  He never asked that anyone worship him, and never requested that churches be built in his honor or that he become remembered mainly for starring in stained glass.  Those who would be so bold as to say that they follow him, let alone love him, are like him. 

"We have this treasure in clay vessels..."
No one who even tries half-way to be like Jesus will find it easy and few will find it natural.  Generally it requires a radical shift in our way of thinking and our way of being, because we are formed by forces that teach us in many cases to be the opposite of what he was.  And that is why, being accountable, we need to make a daily trip deep inside ourselves to the judgment seat of Christ, where we can honestly say, “I have fallen far short of the Life, this treasure contained within this clay jar called me.”  Sometimes we can honestly go so far as to say, “I have wandered far in a land that is waste.”  That is where mercy and honesty kiss each other.  It is never about being perfect.  It is about owning the fact that we are just bodies, living in a world where the pressure to seem what we least are weighs heavily upon us.  It is knowing that you are and I am, as the great Carl Jung once said, “just a clod of earth.”  Yet it is also remembering that though we are clay—dust even—we live in Christ and Christ in us.  That is enough to take us through the darkest day that ever dawned.

A sermon preached on June 16, 2018, on 2 Corinthians 5:6-17.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

[1] 2 Corinthians 4:7.
[2] 2 Corinthians 5:17.
[3] Galatians 3:27.
[4] Romans 13:14.
[5] 2 Corinthians 5:20.

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