Focusing on Things Eternal – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2B (2 Corinthians 4-5)

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
New Revised Standard Version

13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture— “I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. 

5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

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                Paul was an apocalyptic theologian, whether we like it or not. Everything he wrote was couched in an apocalyptic worldview centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is in his writings a strong dualism, which places great emphasis on the spiritual and the eternal. Though, as we see in his responses to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians, he has to qualify things lest they become so focused on the spiritual that they deny the material/physical and the ethical in pursuit of spiritual experiences (1 Cor. 12-14). Here in 2 Corinthians Paul spends a lot of his words defending his ministry, and he does so in dualistic/apocalyptic terms. So, what should we make of this message as presented in our reading?

                We should begin by recognizing that this letter we know as 2 Corinthians might not be his second letter. In fact, it could be his fourth letter to the church. We also know that he spends considerable time in the letter defending his ministry. As many a pastor can attest, not everyone will embrace your leadership. Apparently, that was true for Paul. As Michael Knowles notes, “in a society for which religious affiliation serves as a means of social advancement, Paul insists on humility, self-abasement, and a form of spiritual transformation that remains largely invisible to outsiders (4:16-18). In short, he presents a vision of discipleship and ministry that is diametrically opposed to the self-promotion and prosperity theology of ancient Corinth” [“2 Corinthians,” Preachers Bible Handbook, p. 272]. In other words, Paul was fitting their vision of a true religious leader. To put it in modern parlance, he didn’t have a private jet to use as he traveled around the world.

                The reading begins with a statement concerning the foundation for his preaching. In accord with Scripture, he believed and then spoke (Ps. 115:1 LXX). I hear in this a bit of the formula that emerged in the early church of faith seeking understanding. What Paul seems to be doing here is rooting his message not in his own authority or charisma, but in the power of God. It is this hope, rooted in the promises of God, that gives hope that sustains. While we may not share Paul’s apocalyptic worldview that didn’t bear the fruit he expected (we’re still here two thousand years later), it’s important to understand Paul’s urgency and his sense of hope that despite everything they were experiencing God was faithful and would bring things to a proper conclusion so that as Paul will reveal in 2 Corinthians 5, the old will give way to the new. So, as Eugene Boring notes, “Paul, like New Testament authors in general, has a firm eschatological hope of the ultimate victory of God, already begun, prefigured, and guaranteed in the resurrection of Jesus. God’s eschatological act in raising up Jesus is the basis of the confident Christian hope of eternal life” [Hearing Paul’s Voice, p. 65]. We see that hope present here in 2 Corinthians. Our eternal hope of experiencing resurrection is rooted in God’s resurrection of Jesus. With a focus on what is eternal, Paul seems not to be too concerned about his body. His body, as with all bodies, is experiencing decay. We may experience suffering, but it too is temporary. Hope lies elsewhere. So, Paul embraces the call to proclaim the good news of the resurrection. He’s willing to endure suffering if that means enabling the Corinthians to experience the glory of God.

                The danger posed by apocalyptic theology is that it can undermine our concern for the good of the creation. It can be weaponized to encourage the despoiling of the earth. Why protect forests and species when the world is coming to an end soon. Who cares about what the world will look like a century in the future since Jesus will be coming back in the next few years? Paul can be read this way. After all, he suggests that “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1).  There is another way of reading this, however, that doesn’t give in to such pessimism while also recognizing that our bodies are temporary. We may experience suffering, including suffering as a result of our faith (though that’s not really a problem for Christians in the United States despite what we hear in certain circles—not having the opportunity to force children to offer Christian prayers in school or not being able to discriminate against LGBTQ folks is not persecution), but we do have the hope of eternal life to comfort us. As I say that I recognize the problem of religion being an opiate, and that’s not what I have in mind and isn’t, I don’t think, what Paul has in mind. Paul’s concern is with how we live in the interim before eternity begins for us.

                Perhaps we would be wise to read this passage as a reminder that there is an eternal witness written inside us. Consider this word from Paul, “even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). It is this inner message that inspires and empowers us to persist, to endure, to continue the journey even when it gets difficult. It’s like a homing beacon, calling us home. Home is rooted in the promise of resurrection. It’s not an opiate, it’s an empowerment to continue with our calling to live the new creation within the old creation. We live knowing that God will be victorious. We don’t know when and how that will fully come to pass, but we can find hope in the promise that we will share in the glory of God. Returning to Eugene Boring’s point, for Paul, hope is to be found in the promise of God’s ultimate victory that is guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus. That hope is implanted in us through the Spirit’s indwelling.

   

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