The COVID-19 global pandemic has taken away more things than we can count. It has robbed countless people of their lives and livelihoods, as well as mental and physical health. But one loss that’s easy to overlook is our loss of funerals and memorial services that are attended by more than about 10-15 people.
That may sound like a strange loss on which to focus. But is it? During this pandemic, society has had much opportunity to focus on what Paul calls “wasting away” (4:16), “momentary troubles” (17) and the destruction of our “earthly tents” (5:1). However, by being largely unable to gather for Christian funerals, we haven’t come together to be reminded of our “renewal day by day” (16), the “eternal glory that far outweighs” our troubles (17) and the “eternal house in heaven” (5:1).
The first time a funeral pointed me to heavenly glory took place when I was about 10 years old. As a dear member of our church, Tony Brouwer, was dying of cancer, his family made a kind of documentary in which he helped plan his funeral. The film Tony’s family released after his death was a powerful testimony to his refusal to “lose heart” in the face of great suffering.
However, I’ve had mixed feelings about allowing people who are dying to have much input into their funeral services. While funerals are worship services that honor those who have died, they are, after all, for the living. Too much focus on the deceased can draw attention away from the God whom Christian mourners worship in Jesus Christ.
But as I prepare to gather with friends and family members for my recently deceased dad’s memorial service, I’ve begun to think a bit differently about the role those who are dying play in planning their funeral or memorial service. I’ve at least begun to recognize that dying Christians’ planning of their funeral is an act of deliberate anticipation and hopeful remembrance of the “eternal glory” that, by God’s grace, awaits us. As my dad made some suggestions about elements of his funeral, I can imagine his heart filled with joy as they reminded him of God’s eternal care for him.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Paul’s candor about his suffering helps his readers and hearers to be candid about our own struggles. He insists he doesn’t “lose heart.” Why? Verse 16’s “therefore” links his “heartiness” to what precedes his description of it. The heartbeat of Paul’s hopefulness lies in verse 14’s, “We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.”
So if Paul’s life were a book, it’s as if he’s jumped ahead to its final chapter, even though our text’s apostle is still living the midst of the book. He knows not just how the book that is his life is unfolding, full of joy, mystery and heartache, but also how and where it ends, in God’s eternal presence, by God’s amazing grace.
I sometimes wonder if some 21st century churches and pastors have responded to earlier obsessions with the new creation by imposing radio silence about it in most of our church life. We may have become so afraid of “pie in the sky” theology that seems to have little to say about life on this side of heaven that we no longer talk much about “the sky” that is the new earth and heaven.
But I’d suggest that inadvertently serves to effectively cut off the second part of the long string of contrasts that Paul draws in 2 Corinthians 4 and 5. When we refuse to talk about the new earth and heaven, we speak of, for example, of “the light and momentary troubles” without talking about “the eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (17).
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson have the opportunity to display and examine “both sides of the coin.” We have the chance to publicly recognize and unpack both the temporary misery we see and the eternal glory we don’t yet see (18).
Our text’s proclaimers might adopt one of several strategies in our proclamation of it. Those, for example, whom Paul Scott Wilson’s “Four Pages of the Sermon” approach to preaching has influenced might begin with the first half of the several contrasts’ “trouble in the text” and world. We might then move from there to the second half of the contrasts’ “grace in the text” and world.
The inspired Paul was certainly a master wordsmith with an artistic bent. So he once again packs especially verses 16-5:1 with vivid images of both pain and glory. The apostle’s image of “wasting away” (16) brings to mind children’s distended bellies that signal their starvation. Perhaps even more vivid is the image of an “earthly tent” being “destroyed” (5:1). Campers whose tents have been caught in destructive storms don’t have to work hard to imagine what destructive winds can do to human lives.
In fact, in an earlier Sermon Commentary on this text Scott Hoezee vividly paraphrases the apostle as writing, “My outward tent is wasting away. The fabric is torn, rain gets in, the more vibrant color of the original tent fabric long ago faded away to now some dull gray, pale looking thing. I’ve lost half my tent pegs and two of the supporting cord ropes have frayed to almost nothing. One strong gust of wind could knock this old tent down to a flattened mess.”
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson won’t have to work very hard to identify examples of crumbling “tents.” But as usual, we’ll want to be local and global, individual and communal in our examples of such trouble in our world.
Yet since Paul doesn’t get stuck in that personal and societal, physical and emotional morass, neither should those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 4 and 5. Those who proclaim the gospel want to join my colleague Stan Mast in looking not just at but also past our misery. In an earlier Sermon Commentary he quotes a Christian who suffered much as saying, “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 suffering Christian echoes the apostle’s vivid imagery that describes the hope God gives to all Christian sufferers. Our daily “renewal” (16) is reminiscent of skilled craftsmen remodeling a run-down home. “Eternal glory” (17) reminds Christians of the glory of God that was so radiant that mere mortals trembled to see it. And, of course, perhaps most vividly of all, “the eternal house in heaven not built by human hands” (5:1) brings to mind the most splendid mansions that, on earth, remain the purview of the very wealthy.
2 Corinthians’ proclaimers will need to use some imagination to help our hearers think about contemporary imagery of the new earth and heaven. Yet few gospel proclaimers did that better than the 20th century’s C.S. Lewis.
At the end of his The Last Battle, Narnia’s children learn that they were actually killed in a train wreck. But while the lion Aslan admits they’re dead, he describes their fate as, “The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended; this is the morning.”
Lewis then writes about Narnia’s children: “For them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in his 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 had ever read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before (italics mine).”
“The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven actually never went.” Thus begins businessinsider.com’s Shane Ferro’s poignant January 16, 2015 piece. In it he reflects on how Alex Malarkey, a young boy who co-authored a book with his father about going to heaven and returning to earth, wrote an open letter to Christian publishers retracting his story.
In 2004, Malarkey and his father, a Christian therapist, were in a terrible car accident that left the six-year-old boy paralyzed and in a coma. According to the book’s Amazon page, “When Alex awoke from a coma two months later, he had an incredible story to share. Of events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was unconscious. Of the angels who took him through the gates of Heaven itself. And, most amazing of all … of meeting and talking with Jesus.”
The letter that Alex, who was 16 when Ferro wrote his article, wrote to publishers says he made the whole thing up: “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough.”
Alex’s mother, Beth Malarkey, also later admitted that the book was untrue. She implied as well that Alex had not received the proceeds from the book sales: “It is both puzzling and painful to watch the book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven not only continue to sell, but also continue, for the most part, not be questioned … The ones making money from the book are NOT the ones staying up through the night, struggling for their breath, nor were they the ones at six years old, waking up unable to move or breathe and in a strange place after last remember seeing a car coming right at the car he was riding in.”
Some who proclaim the gospel do not join the apostle Paul in talking about the eternal glory that outweighs our temporary troubles. Yet when we do so, we allow those who peddle extra-biblical accounts of the new creation not only to exist, but also, in some cases to flourish.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 6, 2021
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 Commentary