Incarnate Faith

For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

2 Corinthians 5:4-5

I’ve lived for 34 years in this meatsuit. I’ve made modifications and adjustments, given it fuel and coolant and moisturizer, taken it in to be serviced when something breaks. I haven’t had to replace any parts, yet, in which I consider myself fortunate since the thing didn’t come with a guarantee.

Some things about this body have changed dramatically, like height and weight and gross motor control. Other things, however, have not changed one bit. One unchanging truth about my particular meatsuit is that it was issued without sun resistance or the ability to develop resistance through repeated exposure.

I’m like a piece of unpainted exterior wood. Leave me in the sun for any length of time, and I invariably start to dry out and crack.

And yet, every single spring, I do this thing where I think that I’m not going to be out for very long, or it really isn’t summer yet so I don’t need to worry, or I just don’t have time to go pick up some sunscreen. Then the next thing I know, I’m approximately the color of rhubarb. Every. Single. Spring.

Having a meatsuit is inconvenient at times.

Let me give you a warning, here: one strand in my sermon this morning is how much I dislike the philosopher Plato. If you’re not interested in that, then you can probably head over to the Denver and get yourself a good seat for brunch. If you’ll hang with me, though, I hope to persuade you that hating on Plato can be an important aspect of the Christian experience.

OK, so my quick and dirty philosophical brush-up. Plato, like many others in his time and ours, believed that humans are composed of two essentially disparate pieces, a soul and a body.

Bodies are mortal, breakable, and all-around bad things to have. Souls get trapped in them, and that corrupts the soul, but they become free when the body dies. While in a body, it seems like the demands of the body for things like food and shelter and entertainment are paramount.

The goal of philosophy, according to Plato, is to help us remember that things that are perfect and invisible matter more than things that are visible and imperfect.

Thanks to Plato and his followers, this was a common idea in Paul’s time. Frankly, it continues to be a common idea in our own time. It gives us songs like I’ll Fly Away, which I find really fun to sing but refuse to use in worship because the message of hope that it presents is one of escaping the body.

Nietzsche referred to Christianity as Platonism for the masses, because of the way that we inaccurately sum up the Christian message of hope as a sweet little morality play: do what you’re told, pray for forgiveness, and when you die your soul will get to live forever in this magical perfect kingdom called heaven. You’ll fly away to glory land.

The message of hope that we find in the Bible, though, is much more muscular and ambitious. God offers us, not escape, but restoration. The closing image in Revelation is not disembodied souls running loose in the clouds, but heaven coming to earth to dwell forever.

Plato would have been scandalized by this whole idea of incarnation, of God becoming a human being. Within his philosophical system, he couldn’t have conceived of a good God which would have associated itself with the limitation and vulnerability of physical existence- a claim which lies at the heart of Christianity.

Plato believed that flesh was to be overcome. Paul, on the other hand, believed that flesh is to be redeemed. That’s an important difference.

Bodies matter, in the Christian tradition. We don’t get to fly away from them. Even God ends up with a body.

Alright, now let me make all of that relevant to this morning’s passage from Second Corinthians. Last week, we read the passage that comes right before this one, the one where Paul uses the image of a treasure contained in jars of clay to describe the power of God embedded in the human life of the believer.

We talked about how we carry this weakness within us, so that it’s evident to the world that anything miraculous that occurs comes not from us, but from the life of Christ within us.

Paul doubles down on that idea, this week, by talking about the vulnerability of physical existence. As with last week, he doesn’t attempt to provide comfort by evading the experience of pain, as though supposed ignorance is bliss. Rather, he meets the problem head-on.

Listen. Paul says that even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.

These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.

That’s taken from the Message version, and since I used this version a few weeks ago while complaining that it had Jesus referencing tomatoes, a plant which Jesus wouldn’t have known about since it only existed in South America at the time, I feel compelled to also note that Paul would not have used the phrase “small potatoes.” Potatoes are also a New World plant.

Setting botanical concerns aside, though, I want to pay attention to what Paul is saying here because he’s toeing a very careful line. On the one hand, he wants to provide some perspective- right now, things are bad, but what’s coming is off-the-charts good. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to dismiss the reality of pain in the here-and-now.

That’s the way resurrection works. You have to go through the cross to get there, but once you do, the new life flowing out of the tomb sweeps the cross away.

It’s easy to make this all about the physical resurrection of the body. I think Paul does mean that, but he’s also speaking more broadly.

When he says that the things he can’t see now will last forever, so they’re worth the pain of the present, I think we should include every visit to the church at Corinth, every anguished letter, every emissary sent, every sleepless night spent worrying about them.

Paul’s relationship with the church he founded in Corinth was famously rocky. They liked him fine while he was there the first time, but fell in with other teachers pretty much as soon as he left town, and the rest of their relationship was marked by sharp conflict and uneasy reconciliation.

Paul invested blood, sweat, and tears in this church. And, really speaking here of his own pain first and foremost, he says it’s “small potatoes” in light of the things that will last forever.

Not that it doesn’t hurt… but that it doesn’t compare to his joy in expecting to see the church in Corinth on solid ground.

That’s the human experience, in a nutshell. Think of the agony of childbirth, here, or the frustration of founding a non-profit, or the day-to-day challenge of forming minds in a classroom, or the sight of a new generation out in the field, working for justice or growing corn.

It’s hard, right now. Don’t deny it. But there’s far more here than meets the eye.

It’s not that it doesn’t hurt, but that the hurt doesn’t compare to the joy that comes after. The reward is worth it, is it not?

Here’s the thing, though: we’re trying to bear the weight of this eternal glory in eminently mortal bodies. I doubt that there’s anyone in this room who hasn’t had the experience of their eyelids drooping down when there are more papers to grade, more repairs to make, more presents to wrap, more funds to be raised, more cleaning to be done.

It’s exhausting. We want to be more than we are. We want to be capable of more than we can do, not out of pride, but out of a sincere desire to bring more light and love into the world.

In an age of superhero movies, it is perhaps instructive to remember that God grants his followers none. Gifts, yes. Blessings, yes. But no amount of praying the Sinner’s Prayer is going to change the fact that you’re a fragile clay jar, that you’re breakable, that all of us from 2 to 102 sometimes get hot and tired and cranky and stressed and need a timeout and a nap.

There’s no protective shell or shield to save us, no super-serum to empower us. We don’t mutate special powers, when we come to Christ. We just get what resurrection offers us in the here-and-now: the promise that this is not for naught, that the things we can’t see now will last forever.

And so we long for a home that we’ve never seen, a place where we live fully in this resurrection life. Paul makes an interesting argument, in this regard.

He says: Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Paul pictures the Spirit within us, which leads us to live resurrection in the midst of death and despair, as sort of a down payment. It’s what shows us that God is serious about following through on the rest of the agreement.

The fact that we are gifted for any of this work, the fact that we are incapable of not believing in a healed and grace-filled world, is God’s promise to us that a fuller resurrection is coming.

The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. [God] puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.

Once upon a time, as a story goes, the world was perfect. Then a woman chose to do what she’d been told not to do, and everything was destroyed. Her name was Pandora, and she was sent to earth by angry gods to punish the human race.

Pandora arrived with a box, but the key was given to her husband and she wasn’t allowed to know what was inside. She succumbed to curiosity, stole the key, and opened the box: and out of the box flew toil and sickness and disease and pain and death.

She shut the box again, as quickly as she could, leaving the last resident trapped inside: hope.

This is portrayed in the Greek story, perhaps, as a blessing. Hope would have been the worst thing to unleash! One can deal stoically with the sorrows of the world, provided that one does not dare to hope for something better.

Life with hope is more painful, in some ways, than life without it. Perhaps it would be better to wish for nothing beyond escape from this existence… but this is not the Christian call to discipleship.

We say that God Almighty has joined us in the muck of human living, through Jesus.

We say that we are mortal, and breakable, and beautiful despite our limitations.

We say that resurrection is as real for us as it was on the first Easter morning.

We say that it is good to hope for more.

Be encouraged, Friends. The Spirit of God is with us. Despite our human limitations, despite our weaknesses, may we never settle for less than the fullness of new life.