In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion recounts what she thought about during the year following her husband’s sudden death. Near the end of December 2003, Didion and her husband were sitting down for dinner, having just come back from visiting their gravely ill daughter in the hospital. Her husband John was in mid-sentence when suddenly he stopped talking, his hand still raised in the air from the point he had just been making. For a fleeting second Didion thought he was trying to be funny. But then he fell to the floor, never to rise again.
In its own way, The Year of Magical Thinking is a kind of secular version of C.S. Lewis’s, A Grief Observed. But in Didion’s case, most of her wrestling with grief and loss takes place outside of the context of faith. The “magical thinking” mentioned in the book’s title refers to the strange thoughts that Didion entertained in secret in those months following John’s death. Unable to accept the utter finality of death, Didion quietly believed that maybe somehow John would come back to her.
That’s why when it came time to clean out the closet and start getting rid of her husband’s clothes, she could not bear to give away his shoes. When he came back, he’d be angry if he found his shoes gone. At one point, Didion relayed her and her husband’s take on the Apostles’ Creed. For the most part they were able to go along with the Creed but they both had agreed years ago that they could not accept the line about “the resurrection of the body.” But in a striking line, Didion at one point writes, “I did not believe in the resurrection of the body but I still believed that given the right circumstances John would come back.”
As Didion’s memoir shows, death is at once an inescapable phenomenon while at the same time representing something we cannot accept. We keep ourselves from thinking about death whenever we can and we rage against it when forced to confront it after all. We become so disoriented when in death’s grip that, like Joan Didion, we find our minds playing tricks on us, believing the outrageous in a vain attempt to find a way to let life continue on the way it once did before death robbed us of one we loved.
In 2 Corinthians 4, the apostle Paul makes it clear that whatever else the gospel of Jesus Christ is, it exists in the midst of death and of a dying world. In fact, a close look at Paul’s language here may reveal that in truth, the gospel requires an acknowledgment of death. Yes, as Paul writes in verse 6, the Gospel is indeed about a light shining in the darkness. The universe did turn the corner from darkness to light in Christ Jesus. But then comes verse 7 with its opening conjunction, “But . . .” Paul knew what we know: you can talk about the gospel all you want, you can climb up to the highest mountain and shout the gospel at the top of your lungs. But . . . but when it’s all said and done, there is no denying that we are surrounded still by darkness. Ours remains a world of depression, of dark nights of the soul, of the valley of the shadow of death.
And so Paul pivots from talking about hearts that are filled with a gloriously illuminating knowledge to saying that even so, this message is one we carry around in clay pots, in earthen vessels, in notoriously weak and crumbly containers. He then goes on to point out that being a bearer of the gospel in this world is a difficult prospect. Paul admits to being perplexed, hard pressed, persecuted, and often struck down. The world is not nearly as eager to accept Christ’s light as you might guess. For some bizarre reason, people prefer the dark and are forever ready to take some swipes at those who proffer illumination. So then comes verse 10, which is as odd and as arresting as anything Paul ever wrote. “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul claims.
We carry around Jesus’ death. What could that mean? Following on verse 9’s litany of woes, it would seem that it is the presence of Jesus’ death that prevents Paul from being done in. Yes, they are hard pressed on every side but they are not crushed. Yes, they are often perplexed, but they avoid despair. Yes, they get knocked around and even laid out flat at times but they never feel abandoned. And what prevents all that bad stuff from happening? The death of Jesus that they carry with them. Here is another place in Scripture where Jesus’ death has the paradoxical effect of fending off death.
It’s as though Paul is saying, “Because I carry Jesus’ death around with me, you cannot kill me. Not ultimately anyway. Because I carry Jesus’ death around with me, you can knock me down but not out; you can throw me into the deepest pit but I will even so not be abandoned; you can do your level worst to me but I have a security that makes me rise above it all. I carry around with me the worst thing that ever happened to anyone anywhere: the death of God’s own Son. So the worst you can do to me is still not as bad as what happened to Jesus. So long as I am identified with Jesus’ death, I will live; yes, even if you kill me.”
Paul doesn’t say it here, but ultimately this ties in with baptism. In baptism we get identified with Jesus’ death. We are buried with Christ in baptism. The waters of baptism represent not just some tidy washing up of dirty souls—these are also deadly waters in which our sinful selves get drowned.
But as with Christ, so with us: carrying death around is prelude to carrying resurrection life around. Paul says in verse 10 that you can’t get the life without passing through the death. The truth, of course, is that in this world there is no escaping death in any event. The death rate remains stubbornly fixed at 100%. It’s been that way for a while now and indications are it won’t change anytime soon. Still, people deny it. They cover it over. As Thomas Lynch has written, people have found ways to turn even funerals into something resembling a theme party in a mad attempt to affirm life precisely by refusing to acknowledge death.
But Paul says that it’s exactly when Jesus’ death is seen on display in us that we realize all over again that the gospel of Christ Jesus the Lord fits our world precisely because it comes in the midst of death. The gospel fits this world. The life of Jesus is what a dying world needs in the same way a starving person needs food: it’s the solution for what ails us! In the grand paradox of the gospel, by carrying around Jesus’ death, we find reason to rejoice. Seeing Jesus’ death in this world of death lends hope.
Joan Didion found the resurrection of the body a strange idea. But still she thought her dead husband might need his shoes again one day soon. When you think about it, though, both prospects are fairly outrageous. I do believe in the resurrection of the body but I do so recognizing full well what a strange, awesome, finally almost spooky idea it is. If Joan Didion’s husband were to stroll through the front door of their apartment some afternoon and asked for his black wingtips, that would in one sense be no less stunning than if some day in our Father’s kingdom I encounter my Grandpa Hoezee and again hear him ask, “How’s it going, Snoop,” the way he used to when I was a boy.
But to carry Jesus’ death around with us means to believe in just such a miracle. It means that our mortal bodies will be made like Jesus’ glorious body. It means that the death we experience in this world, as well as all that we encounter that is sad and diminishing and hurtful to us, do not have the last word. For God has epiphanied the light of Christ into our hearts.
At one point in her memoir, Joan Didion said that in the months following her husband’s death, she was desperate to avoid going anywhere near places she and John had visited together. Each day she plotted her walks or her travels in the car with great precision so as to steer well clear of all memory-laden locales. But it was all for naught. She found herself blinded by tears even when traveling roads she had never traveled before. Like C.S. Lewis, she discovered that grief is like the sky—it’s over everything.
The darkness of this world is like that. There are no places we can go that will not remind us of life’s fragility and of the losses we have suffered, not in this new year, not ever. But into all those places we carry Jesus’ death with us. We carry that spot of cosmic darkness into which we were baptized. Yet in so doing, the light starts to shine through, too.
In one of his many fine sermons the Rev. Dr. John Timmer once gave a vivid baptismal image involving fisherman along the Irish coast. Once upon a time each fisherman wore a very distinctive wool sweater. Such sweaters kept them warm during cold months at sea but these sweaters had another use, too: identifying the dead. When a fisherman drowned at sea, it didn’t take long for the rough, cold, brackish waters to disfigure the body beyond recognition. So when a body washed ashore, it was as often as not identified by way of the design on the sweater. Charley McSween might be unrecognizable by the time his body bobbed ashore but one look at that red sweater with the blue diamonds on it, and everyone knew who he was.
As Timmer pointed out, this meant that every day those fishermen wore on their bodies a reminder of death. And that’s what baptism does, too. We are marked with Jesus’ death. In some traditions infants and adults alike receive also a chrismation in which the sign of the cross is made on the forehead with some oil. It’s a reminder that baptism places us under the cross, under that signal sign of death.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 3, 2018
2 Corinthians 4:5-12 Commentary