Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 7, 2015
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 Commentary
This is the second Sunday of what the church has traditionally called Ordinary Time. The label is misleading. It doesn’t mean that the next 6 months of the liturgical are just ordinary days, devoid of anything special, dull time, boring time, time to be endured. This is called ordinary time because the church gives each Sunday a number, an ordinal. In this ordered time, we are neither feasting (as at Christmas or Easter) nor fasting (as at Advent or Lent). Rather we are waiting with watchful expectation for the Second Coming of Christ. Our reading for today reminds us that the daily suffering of the ordinary Christian life is actually achieving for us something so extraordinary that it literally cannot be described—“an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
That evocatively beautiful phrase arises in the context of Paul’s (continuous) defense of his ministry. Under attack by critics who claimed that he wasn’t really an apostle, that he used underhanded methods in his ministry, and that he was pocketing the offerings he received for the poor in Jerusalem, Paul fought back for the sake of the Gospel. If they could discredit him, they could undercut the Gospel. He has spent the first part of this chapter talking about the suffering he has endured as an apostle. Verse 15 is his conclusion. “All this (suffering) is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.”
Early in my ministry, as I struggled not only with my ministerial inadequacies, but even more with personal and family suffering, this verse was an epiphany for me. My suffering was going to be used by God to spread his grace to more and more people. I was, to paraphrase verse 7, a “cracked pot” through whose cracks the grace of God could flow. My brokenness would be used by God to show people his grace, so that more and more people would give thanks to God for his grace. And in the end, my suffering would bring glory to God. Knowing that even my suffering was being used by God to help my congregation enabled me endure, if not enjoy those early years.
But it’s not just that your suffering does something for other people, says Paul. It also does something for you, something unimaginable. It “achieves” glory. “Therefore, we do not lose heart.” The last time I preached on this text was at the funeral of a friend who had died after suffering long and hard. I knew I had to be careful in how I preached this rich text, so I said, “How can we not lose heart at a time like this? Your body and your mind gradually waste away through an unimaginable sequence of developments. First those little signs that irritate and worry. Then a host of tests and a diagnosis—it’s Parkinson’s. Then it’s cancer here and then there and then everywhere. Then it’s this treatment and that complication, back to the hospital and then home and, finally. hospice care at home. Then it’s almost total loss of life’s quality, and finally a deep sleep and death. How can you not lose heart? When your loved one slips away from you an inch at a time, so that he isn’t the same person you loved all those years, how can you not lose heart? When death finally separates you from a man who has been such a huge part of your lives for as long as you can remember, how can you not lose heart? It’s enough to break your heart.”
Paul’s cure for a broken heart is to look ahead to that “eternal weight of glory that is beyond all comparison.” A Christian who had suffered much in life put this thought in contemporary language. “In the light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life filled with the most atrocious torture, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
That kind of Christian talk infuriates critics of Christianity. Indeed, some Christians are embarrassed by what seems to them an overly simplistic Christian response to the terrible suffering of the human race. Some time ago I ran across a review of a book by David Blumenthal, entitled, Facing an Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. The reviewer praised Blumenthal for confronting “more honestly the profound evil we find in the everyday midst of human life,” and for refusing “to tie up his theology into systematically neat or comforting packages.” The best thing about the book, says this reviewer is that Blumenthal “gives no singular or final answers” to the problem of suffering.
I fully agree that we have to take suffering seriously as we preach the Good News. But the fact is that the Christian faith does have a final answer to the problem of suffering. It is summarized in these words of Paul. There will be an end to the suffering of the saints, says the Gospel, an end so glorious that it is beyond comparison with anything we have suffered in our earthly existence.
That surely is not all there is to say about suffering from a Gospel perspective. There is, as Mr. Blumenthal put it, “no singular answer to the problem of suffering.” Indeed, the complete Christian response must show how sin and Satan cause suffering, must wrestle with the sovereignty of God, must explain how suffering contributes to sanctification and benefits other saints (see above), must always maintain a clear focus on the suffering of our Savior, and must bow before the mystery of suffering in a world ruled by a good and all-powerful God. It is simply not true that all the Christian faith has to offer in the face of the world’s terrible suffering is “pie in the sky by and by.”
But it is also true that you have not given the whole Christian response to suffering until you have spoken about future glory. Or to put it differently, you have not really told the old, old story of Jesus and his love until you finish the final chapter. One of the great claims of the Christian faith is that human history and individual human life is a story with an end. The Good News for those who have “believed and spoken” (as Paul puts in verse 13) is that their story has a glorious ending. For those presently living in a chapter of the story that is filled with great suffering, such talk of future glory may seem a cheap comfort. As Dostoyevsky has one of his characters say in The Brothers Karamazov, “Making up for it in the end doesn’t make up for it.”
In our text Paul responds to that condemnation of future glory by saying, in effect, “You have no idea.” Literally, you have no idea. We think analogically, in metaphors, by comparison. “This is like that.” Our translation of verse 17 uses the word “outweighs,” which isn’t as good as another translation that says, “beyond compare.” The Greek there uses the word hyperbole, which means a comparison that goes overboard, an exaggeration, an overstatement. In fact, Paul uses the word twice, hyperbole into hyperbole, meaning that there is simply no way to exaggerate or overstate the glory. No matter what comparison you use, it won’t come close. When you compare the sufferings of this life with the coming glory, there is simply no comparison.
That’s why Paul dares to say that our sufferings are light and momentary. In using that word “momentary,” Paul is not denying that suffering drags on and wears us down. He is simply assuring us that in comparison to eternity, any suffering is but for a moment. Somewhere Dostoyevsky tells the story of an atheist who died and was dismayed to find that there is indeed life after death. Indignant, he shouted, “This is against my principles.” For which he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion miles in the dark, after which the gates of heaven would be opened to him and he would be forgiven. “I won’t go!” he said. “I refuse on principle.” He lay down, for a thousand years. Then he got up and went on. It took him more than a billion years to walk those quadrillion miles. But he made it. As he walked through the gates of pearl, after he had been there only two seconds, he cried that those two seconds were worth walking not a quadrillion miles but a quadrillion quadrillion. That’s why Paul uses the word momentary.
In comparison to the weight of glory, our troubles are also light. The word trouble there is a word that means pressure, that which weighs heavily on us and squeezes out of us all the joy and peace and hope and light. When you feel the weight of glory, says Paul, you will realize how light the weight of suffering was. Indeed, the weight of glory will fill you with joy and peace and hope and light. What a strange idea—a weight that fills. What can such glory be like? To what can we compare it?
I’ve always appreciated the way C.S. Lewis used his imagination to give us a vague sense of that glory. In his classic, The Great Divorce, he has a group of hell dwellers take a bus trip to heaven, where they are given one more chance to let go of the sin that landed them in hell. He describes those hellions as little more than indistinct smudges of carbon, grey shadows living in gloomy houses without roofs in a climate where it constantly drizzles. In a particularly memorable scene, one of the hellions suddenly cries out in pain. He has stubbed his toe on a daisy, which in heaven is not the frail flower we know on earth, but something so solid and strong, yet so beautiful that it is like a diamond. And then he meets an old friend from earthly days, but he doesn’t recognize his friend. The friend has been transformed into a creature so radiant, so beautiful, so solid, so filled with the weight of glory that the hellion can barely look upon him.
The Bible uses a number of images to help us picture the glory to come—a house with many rooms, a city with streets of gold and gates of pearl, a garden with a river running through it. Here in II Corinthians 5:1, Paul adds a personal image—a building, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. He compares our present bodies to an “earthly tent,” flimsy, vulnerable, and wasting away. Someday this earthly tent will be folded up and put away, but that won’t be the end of us. There is this future glory of another dwelling (oikos, oikodomen).
I am understating it when I say that this lovely verse is fraught with difficulty, a difficulty we began to encounter in verse 16, where Paul’s distinction between “outwardly” and “inwardly” makes some wonder if he is adopting the Greek distinction between body and soul. Those same folks worry that Paul is talking in 5:1 about the intermediate state, which, they say, is a Greek import into the essentially Jewish Gospel. We all know, they say, that the Christian hope is fixed on a physical resurrection and a new world, not on some intermediate state where we live in a disembodied condition in a far off ethereal heaven.
While acknowledging that the de-Hellenizing project has some real value, I would urge the preacher not to get lost in that debate. This text is designed to put the suffering of preachers and parishioners in a Gospel perspective, and that perspective focuses on glory. Whether we conceive of that glory as a resurrected body like the body of the Risen Christ or as a mysterious heavenly body we receive immediately after death, a new heaven and a new earth or an intermediate state with Jesus in heaven, the point is the glory to come.
I’ve skipped over some fascinatingly difficult issues. For example, how do our troubles “achieve for us” that glory? Catholics talk about the merit of our sufferings. Protestants hate that idea because it seems to undercut the Soli Gracia of salvation. Suffice it to say that Paul is assuring us that our suffering is not wasted, that it actually achieves something so good we cannot imagine it.
For another example, there is Paul’s wonderful definition of faith as “fixing our eyes” on the unseen and eternal. The word there is skopouvton, which might be translated “scope it out.” It means to concentrate intently, as through a microscope or telescope, gazing by faith on what others cannot see. Faith is not a glance or a casual look; it is concentrating very hard on the unseen God and his seen Son. In fact, that whole business of seen and unseen, temporary and eternal, could be homiletically fruitful. But I’d suggest that we focus on suffering and glory. In a world that groans with suffering, we should focus on the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison so that “we do not lose heart.”
Though many will already know the story, I would use it anyway because it is such a classic example of showing rather than telling. I’m referring the end of The Last Battle, the final book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The children whose adventures in Narnia are told throughout the Chronicles have been killed in a car/train crash. Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure in those stories, tells them that they are dead, but says it this way. “The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended; this is the morning.” Lewis concludes: “For them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page. Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has ever read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
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