Sermon preached at Ascot Vale Uniting Church, and Cross-Generation Uniting Church. 10th of June, 2018.
God, help me by your Spirit to believe and speak truth, and help those that listen to recognise what is not. Amen.
“[T]hanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession …” (2 Cor. 2.14)
Our call to worship today was drawn from 2 Corinthians chapter 2. There Paul begins the argument that flows through chapter 3, and into our main reading for today from 2 Corinthians 4.
This opening image of a triumphal procession is overtly political. The triumphal procession refers to the parade of the conquesting King returning home, declaring the “Gospel,” or “Good News,” of victory. (This image is where early Christians drew the familiar language of “Gospel.”)
Our reading from 1 Samuel also talks about a King. Or rather, Israel’s desire to have a King. The people of Israel, it seems, wanted to settle down like other peoples and rely on the security and stability a King could provide.
While God grants Israel’s request for a King, God also offers a warning: the price of a King is high. With a King comes the harsh realities of an economy that is geared towards maintaining the King’s visible status and power. The desire for a King, in the context of the ancient world, implied a desire to be like slaves in service to that King.
Framing our reading from 2 Corinthians 4 with reference to these overtly political images might seem, at first glance, surprising. After all, our reading seems to point towards an escape from the world, and not a complex political entanglement with the world.
2 Corinthians 4 talks quite hopefully about our being raised as Jesus was raised, into the presence of God (v14). Even though our outer nature is wasting away, this momentary afflicting is preparing us for an eternal glory (v16-17). What can be seen is temporary, but we hope for the eternal (v18). Unlike the people of Israel we should not seek an “earthly tent,” but a “building from God … eternal in the heavens” (v5.1).
At first glance it seems that Paul is pointing us away from the world, and toward the hope of some sort of afterlife, some sort of flight into heaven.
I want to suggest, however, that what Paul offers us is not a flight from this world, but a renewed movement towards the world. Paul offers us a renewed understanding of who we are, as individuals and as a community. This new understanding of who we are is built on the fact that we are caught up in the life of God, transformed, and called into service on behalf of the world.
In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul describes himself as “one untimely born” (1 Cor 15.8). There Paul is referring to the fact that he was not one of the original followers of Jesus, he was not one of the disciples that followed Jesus through his life and ministry. Rather, Paul’s conversion to following the way of Christ was precipitated by a religious experience. Paul was, as it were, drawn outside of himself in an ecstatic experience of the risen Jesus. In order to understand Paul we need to take seriously the fact that his own experience of radical transformation, and being drawn outside of himself sets the foundation for his understanding of faith. For Paul, to be drawn outside of himself means rethinking everything he understood himself to be: rethinking his Jewish heritage, and rethinking his place within society.
Understood in this way it is little wonder that Paul’s way of writing draws on references from the Jewish Scriptures, from the social and political practices of his day, and from contemporary philosophical and religious thought. As highlighted earlier Paul begins the argument that gets us to 2 Corinthians 4 by drawing on political imagery, Paul also draws on religious imagery - referencing the fragrance and aroma of sacrifices offered to the gods.
For Paul following the way of Christ draws everything in, it challenges us to rethink everything about ourselves, and leads us to a transformed understanding of who we are. Crucially, this transformation is built on the hope of resurrection. Not a hope, in the case of Paul, that was a long way off, that we will experience when we die. Hope for Paul is about being transformed now, because he experienced the resurrected Jesus now. The resurrection was not something he was moving towards after death, but was something that had already moved towards him. The resurrected Christ intervened in the life of Paul’s present reality. The resurrection had immediate consequence.
Paul only comes to faith because of this conviction: that the resurrection has happened, has interrupted and intervened in the present reality, and has immediate consequence.
When Paul is talking about the hope of resurrection in 2 Corinthians 4, then, he is not simply talking about a hope in the afterlife. Rather, it is the hope of resurrection that leads him to speak now. “We believe, and so we speak” (v13). We believe now, and so we speak now.
Being drawn into the presence of Jesus is not straightforwardly about what happens to us when we die, but about how we live now. Immediately before today’s reading Paul lists the sufferings that he has undergone in his ministry, Paul understands these experiences as making Jesus visible in his flesh. In other words, Paul finds himself in the presence of Jesus when he finds himself living out his faith. As Paul works for the sake of his communities he sees himself extending grace more and more and more and more. Paul sees himself, in this work, making Christ present more and more and more and more.
Even as Paul struggles to live out the way of Christ, he finds in his service to others the very presence of Christ. Even as Paul struggles to follow the way of love, he experiences ongoing transformation. As Paul struggles for the sake of the communities he serves, he does so that they may be uplifted, experience grace, and have life.
Paul uses these experiences to continue reinterpreting his understanding of who Christ is. And he turns these experiences into a form of encouragement for his communities.
“Do not lose heart!”
Even though the way of the Prince of Peace is sullied by political leaders waging war. Even though the way of New Creation is setback by environmental degradation. Even though the way of welcome to the stranger is stalled by offshore detention. Even though the way of justice for the poor is stolen through exploitation. Even though the way of reconciliation for first peoples is stymied by the ongoing systems of colonisation.
We hold onto the hope of resurrection, intervening in our reality. We hold onto our own pursuit of transformation, our own pursuit of being shaped to serve the world. We hold onto the eternal hope of heaven -- that even if this earthly tent burns to the ground, we can form a community that believes and so speaks:
“peace over war - care for creation over degradation - welcome and embrace over exclusion - justice over exploitation - reconciliation over systems of oppression.”
We hold onto the hope that the life offered by resurrection will intervene in this reality. At the very least because it has intervened in our own lives, and so transforms us to live in service to the world. The resurrection is an experience that calls us beyond ourselves, to rethink everything we have understood ourselves to be. The resurrection comes towards us, it catches us up in the life of God, and leads us beyond ourselves so that grace might extend more and more and more and more, to the glory of God.
As Paul goes on to say just after our reading, we groan in this world, we groan for a better world to be made real in this one. This groaning yearns for the life of resurrection, the life that vindicates the life of service to the vulnerable Jesus modelled. This groaning is a sign of our inner transformation, so that we might commit ourselves to an outward manifestation of the solidarity with suffering that Jesus live, and the critique of injustice that Jesus proclaimed.
Paul does not call us to think fondly of fleeing this world. But Paul calls us to experience, and to live the resurrection. To be drawn outside of ourselves, in service to the world -- we are called to follow the way of Christ. Amen.