Both Now and Forever
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
My daughter and I went camping last weekend. It was beautiful and at night it was cold. I had not slept in a tent in a long time. It kept out the wind, and the spiders that crawled over the outside of it but could not get in. It kept out the moisture and the dew. It did a little bit to block the cold, but not much. It did not keep out sound. I could hear the train across the lake when it passed by, and the slow crunch of the Park Ranger’s truck tires as she rolled by in the darkness every hour to check that all was well. All through the night giant splashes erupted in the lake next to us that jolted me awake, and I had a front row seat for the cacophony of morning birds that started their music at 4 am. And while the tent kept me from seeing the sunrise, it did not keep out the light. So I was up stumbling into the chilly morning fog not long after those birds. A tent is not a home. It’s a temporary place to lie our head, not meant to keep us from the grace and beauty around us, or the gratitude within, but meant to make it so we can be more fully available to these things.Paul’s letters can get so wordy, theoretical and philosophical, so it’s easy to forget that they are written to real communities in real situations, and that Paul is also in his own drama most of the time. In this case, the small Corinthian congregation exists in a fast-paced, extremely stratified society, an environment filled with commerce and prosperity, homelessness and poverty, and clear demarcations between the haves and have-nots. And the congregation itself includes people from the whole range of society, who know that these divisions have no place in the church – we are all one in the Body of Christ. But when some get off work early and show up to dinner and end up eating all the best food before those who have to work later can get there, the broken, sinful system creeps into the church. When those with more means, (aka, nicer earthly tents), are given the better seat, or the louder voice, because they are used to it out there, we’re not functioning like the Body of Jesus Christ - those who lay down our lives for one another.
We are so accustomed to maintaining, guarding and building up our earthly tents that we have trouble leaving them behind when we’re invited into the presence of God in the presence of one another. And the Corinthians are learning that it takes a lot of faithful and consistent work to uncover their hidden biases, continue confessing their complicity in the brokenness, and practice living in freedom and mutual submission to one another as siblings in Christ.
Add to that, at this point, there has been a rift between Paul and the Corinthian congregation, and Paul is trying to mend a divide. So in this part of his letter he is building up to say we need to be reconciled because we are in Christ, we have died with him and been raised to a new life of complete belonging to God and each other, we already are reconciled, for eternity, so let’s live that reconciliation now.
But first he has to remind them of what’s true.
A tent is not our true home. It is a cover, a place to rest and keep out of the rain. It can offer some protection, some structure. But it is not permanent. A good storm can rip the stakes out of the ground in minutes. A curious bear can tear through the wall or a determined raccoon gingerly unzip it with its outrageous opposable thumbs. A tent in the elements day after day would wear out and become useless. It’s not made to last forever, and it doesn’t actually protect us all that well from danger.
The problem is, we act like our earthly tents, our temporary shelters, are meant to last. We forget that our outer natures are wasting away, as Paul says. Or maybe we don’t want to acknowledge it. We direct our effort into building up the things that can be seen. And there is nothing wrong with pouring energy into our jobs, making our houses comfortable, or cultivating our hobbies and our education. It’s not bad to invest our money to prepare for the future or take good care of our health. All these things are good things; they make life more enjoyable and more stable. But, the mystics remind us, we can get overly attached to even good things. And, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, “100% of people die and that number cannot be increased.” So these things don’t actually save us from death either.
But that’s only half of Paul’s sentence. Our outer nature is wasting away, yes, but our inner nature is being renewed day by day. He redirects our gaze from the temporary to the eternal, from what can be seen to what cannot be seen, and then he puts it all in context, “this slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory without measure.”
Glory is the energy of God’s nearness, the smudge of proximity to divinity, the residue of the mystery of transcendence that leaks into everything otherwise ordinary in this life.
There is a quote that I have heard attributed to Amy Tan that says, “a soul can only hold as much joy as sorrow carves room for.” When we let life in, we can let more life in. Because we have a savior who redeems our very humanity, we can let weakness make us stronger and vulnerability make us braver and loss make love more deeply. Our tents are meant to be permeable. They are meant to keep us accessible to the glory of God whose fingerprints are all over creation and whose presence dwells within our neighbor.
A life of faith, a life shaped by grace, is a life that points us not into ourselves, to build up and guard and protect, but out toward one another. Always. In our Apostles Creed catechesis this week we talked about how ours is a faith that follows a God who came into weakness as a human being and laid down his life for others, and this rocked the very foundations of all thinking from Jesus onward; for the first time in human history humility became a virtue instead of a shame. Instead of guarding honor, building up dignity, upholding strength and might, taking care of one’s own, here was a humiliated and killed savior, who surrendered to weakness and bore the suffering of others.
And in exchange for our suffering, Jesus gives us his glory, right here in our humiliating humanity, he draws us into the deep and unbreakable connection with God that Jesus himself has, and makes our very humanity, our weakness, the place where God is revealed. The faith of Jesus becomes our faith. The life of Jesus becomes our life.
God’s grace spills over on us and feels inside like gratitude, increasing and spreading, spilling more grace and bubbling up more gratitude, life after life. The grace of God turns people away from our project of self-protective tent-building out toward this wonder-filled world and the magnificence of other humans, to see the glory of God in the very face of one another.
In a wonderful essay called, The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis brings this home:
It is…with awe and circumspection … that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.…Next to the Blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
Our true home is in the presence of God in the presence of each other – a deep dwelling of belonging in this momentary life and forever. So we do not lose heart. For this reason, we do not lose heart! Things fall apart. Yes. Civilizations crumble, institutions end, we must come to terms with the fact that our very own bodies gradually disintegrate around us. But we are not afraid to acknowledge this—in fact, we cannot be free until we do so! Because our earthly tents provide a temporary place to lie our heads, and weather storms, and take in the world’s beauty, music and light.
But the Holy Spirit makes a spacious and welcoming dwelling within us and between us that cannot be seen, but will last forever. It is secure, indestructible and unending. Right here – faintly all around us and blazing within and between us, shines the glory of God. On this side of eternity we can only bear but a faint brush against, handle the tiniest glimpse, or tolerate the smallest teaspoonful of God’s glory before it overwhelms our senses, but we are even now, being prepared to one day hold the full weight of it. And we experience it paradoxically through weakness and suffering shared, through confession and forgiveness, through mutual submission and lifting each other up. In our true home of God’s grace we are seen and we see each other as none other than bearers of the very glory of God in Christ, guests together at the table of this glorious feast of a life, sharing glimpses of what is to come.