Date: June 10, 2018, Proper 5
Text: 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Locale: Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Lemay, Missouri
Introit: Psalm 116:1-2, 3a, 4, 9-10, 13, 15
P: I love the LORD, because He has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.
C: Because He inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call on Him as long as I live.
P: The snares of death encompassed me;
C: Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
P: I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.
C: I believed, even when I spoke: “I am greatly afflicted”;
P: I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD,
C: Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints.
A: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
P: I love the LORD, because He has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.
C: Because He inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call on Him as long as I live.
Sermon Hymn: #496 “Holy Spirit, Light Divine”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Wasting away. All things are wasting away. Nothing lasts forever. Not our money, not our jobs, not even our families, and not even our bodies. By “wasting away,” Paul is talking of a twofold reality: both death and weakness, or infirmities. This is a morbid thing to talk about. We don’t like to talk about death. We especially don’t like to talk about how weak we are, whether it’s physical weakness or weakness of character.
But the reality is: death and our weaknesses are very real. Every single one of us here has experienced some sort of weakness, both physical weakness and weakness of character, and weakness manifests itself in various ways. We may break a bone or sprain an ankle and experience weakness not only in that moment, but also continue to experience weakness as our body begins to heal. Or even more simply, we experience weakness in the form of fatigue after a long day of hard work. And we each experience weakness of character when we, say, lose our temper and say something we don’t really mean. And every single one of us here will experience death at some point. Not only will we experience death in ourselves, but we also experience the death of our loved ones, and even the deaths of people we don’t know, like the mass shootings that are so ubiquitous in our society.
Again, this is a morbid topic. But not talking about it won’t make these issues go away. As Christians, death should be our main topic of discussion because of the eternal hope we have in Jesus Christ.
Trouble in the Text
Consider our epistle reading. I will reread the portion of this text that is my focus for this morning, beginning at verse 16, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Then 5:1, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Let’s back up a bit.
Just prior to our selected epistle reading for this morning, Paul lists a series of paradoxes at verse 8, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Whom was Paul speaking to here? Yes, the Corinthians, as the title of the epistle suggests. But who were they? What was it like to live in this congregation and the time period they lived in? Understanding this context will help us better understand why Paul wrote these paradoxes to the Corinthian church at this particular time.
Considering the historical context, it’s possible that Paul was referring to some sort of famine. Historians tell us that famines were common in those years. If that’s the case, such a problem calls for understandable worry and anxiety. A famine is no “light momentary affliction.” It is quite heavy and terrifying! And so are the other many other afflictions they may have faced.
As temporary as these afflictions are, Paul does not ignore these afflictions. Instead, he speaks directly about them. Yes, they are afflicted, but they are not crushed. Yes, they are perplexed, but not driven to despair. Yes, they are persecuted, but not forsaken. Yes, they are struck down, but not destroyed. So, assuming there is a famine going on, Paul was writing to a Christian church who are likely suffering from starvation and malnutrition, their bodies weak and infirm. They had plenty of cause for worry, not just for their individual bodies, but also for the well-being of their children, spouses, parents, and grandparents.
Trouble in the World
As privileged first world citizens of the blessed United States of America, we cannot imagine such worries. We are blessed that we don’t have to worry about national famines. This isn’t to say we have nothing to worry about, and this isn’t to say that compared to the worries of these first century Christians, that our worries are silly and meaningless. Certainly, we have our own worries and legitimate reasons for them.
Like the Corinthians, perhaps many of us here today worry about the infirmities of our body. Some of us here are growing old. We are faced with the challenges of old age. We are no longer able to do the things we used to do once upon a time. Our memories are no longer as sharp as they once were. Some of us who are still blessed to have our spouse with us in old age, we at the same time witness the infirmities of our spouse who suffers with dementia or some other ailment as a result of old age. Some of us are even on disability, both young and old. I’m only 28-years-old, but I can relate to these infirmities.
Once upon a time, whilst I was in the Army, I was able to run 2 miles at 13 minutes and 10 seconds on average. Once upon a time, I was able to go on 12-kilometre hikes with only two or three 10-minute rest periods. Once upon a time, I could do nearly 100 sit-ups in 2 minutes, and nearly 77 push-ups in 2 minutes. Then I got injured.
Without diving into details, I suffer from a lower back injury called degenerative disc disease and lumbar spinal stenosis that disables me from heavy lifting and being on my feet for long periods of time. I am no longer able to run those 13-minute 2 miles; I can no longer run without eventually experiencing severe pain. I can no longer do sit-ups and push-ups without eventually experiencing severe pain. Here I am, 28-years-old, humiliated before the youth of my age, and I am unable to do what they do. I often worry about my health, “Will I be able to go on runs again? Will I be able to go backpacking with my father again? Will I die young because of this? Will this affect my future ministry?” I often find myself overburdened with my infirmities.
Many of us here today might have similar worries, both young and old. So, we’ll ask ourselves a similar series of questions: “When is my time up? How much longer do I have to live? How much longer does my spouse have to live? Will my loved one’s illness or injury be healed? Will I get my project for work done in time? Will I finish my school assignments? Will I pass my final exams? When will the stress go away? When will the pain go away?”
In the midst of these questions and infirmities, God’s Word tells us we’re not crushed, but we still feel afflicted. We’re told not to be driven to despair, but we are perplexed. We’re told that God does not forsake us, but we feel persecuted and forgotten. We’re told nothing can destroy us in Christ, but we feel struck down and weak. In the midst of these paradoxes, all these worries and more flood our minds on a daily basis.
Grace in the Text
But in the midst of all these troubling paradoxes, Paul tells the Corinthians they have an even greater paradox: in verse 10 Paul says he and the Corinthians carry in them the death of Jesus Christ in order that His life may be manifested in their bodies. How can this be? How can they carry in them both the death and life of Jesus Christ? What does this mean?
First, Paul encourages them with a Davidic Psalm in verse 13, which we read in today’s introit, making the point to the Corinthians that they have the same faith as the great King David. This is the David who committed adultery with Bathsheba and orchestrated her husband’s death so that he might have her. This is the same David whom God told the kings after him to be like His servant David, who kept His commandments. But did David really keep God’s commandments? No, he committed adultery and murder! So, how can God say David kept His commandments?
Because of what we read in the introit from Psalm 116 and our epistle reading, “I believed, even when I spoke: ‘I am greatly afflicted.'” In other words, as far as God is concerned, He can say David kept His commandments because he believed God—he was justified by faith. So, like David and many other believers before them, the Corinthians have the same faith rested in the resurrection of their Messiah—the Lord Jesus Christ. The evidence, Paul continues, is found in the extension of grace going out to more and more believers among them, increasing thanksgiving to the glory of God.
So, they might be suffering a famine and are constantly worried about feeding themselves, their children, and their family; their bodies are wasting away—their congregation is literally dying—but more and more people are coming into the faith. Their congregation might be dying, but more and more people worldwide are believing in Christ. Therefore, Paul tells them, do not lose heart. As God is bringing more and more people into His Church, so God is continuing to renew them day by day even though their bodies are wasting away. That’s why their affliction is so light, because compared to the weight of the bodily resurrection to come, these afflictions are small matters.
Grace in the World
This is good news for the Corinthians, but what about us? What about Gethsemane Lutheran Church? We also make the same confession as these Corinthians, the apostles, and King David and the prophets before them. Like all the Christians who have gone before us, we too are justified by faith and we also carry in us the death and life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Still, though, what does this paradox mean?
To understand what Paul means, it is helpful to go to his letter to the Romans, in which he says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? …For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” [Romans 6:3, 5]. When we were baptised, we died with Christ. Therefore, Paul says, as we have shared in the death of Christ, so we shall share in the life of Christ by sharing in His resurrection! It is because of this Baptism in which Paul can point the Corinthians to Christ’s resurrection and then write, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”
Though some in our congregation are dying, more people are still being brought into Christ’s global Church day by day. Though we are dying to sin every day, God is renewing us day by day. Though we are suffering infirmities in our bodies, God is renewing us day by day towards the bodily resurrection to come.
This is good news! This is the Gospel! In spite of the infirmities of our congregation, the Church everywhere is growing more and more! But what about you and me individually? The body of Christ isn’t dying, but what about my body? I’m growing weak and infirm. Even us young folks are becoming weak and infirm. If we don’t experience it at a young age like I currently am, we nevertheless experience the infirmities of others—our loved ones and brothers and sisters in Christ who become weak before us and die. Even so, Paul says, our bodies—these “tents” of ours—are temporary. So, how do we live in the midst of these infirmities? Our bodies are wasting away; they will not last forever; this much is true. How do we live with this reality?
In his section on Baptism in the Large Catechism, Luther writes that Baptism “is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long. Thus, a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after” [LC, Fourth Part, 65]. Luther is speaking on the work the Holy Spirit does in us through our Baptisms, and he viewed Baptism in two ways: as a one-time event and as a daily renewal.
As a one-time event, when you and I were baptised, we were cleansed from our sins right then and there and received God’s promise to give us His Holy Spirit and to raise us from the dead. In our wasting away, the bodily resurrection is the sure promise of God through Jesus Christ that we have to look forward to. But, in everyday life, Luther also viewed Baptism as the daily drowning of our sins and the daily rising as new creatures of God. What does this look like in our lives?
Consider a runner who is training for a 5k marathon. She wakes up at the same time every day, drinks her protein shake, goes on her run, comes home, showers, and goes about her day eating the right foods and drinking plenty of water to ensure she may endure the race. The next day, she goes about her morning as usual, but this time during lunch, she sees a freshly baked cherry pie. As she continues to smell and look at its sweetness, she rationalises, “I’ve worked really hard for this marathon. I’ve been eating well, so I deserve a reward. One piece of pie won’t hurt me.” So, she gives in to the temptation and she buys and eats the pie. But as she continues going throughout the rest of her day, she begins to feel the guilt and shame of giving in to temptation. So, to make up for it, she goes on another run to work off the extra calories before she goes to bed.
The next day, she does her morning routine, and this time she sees a freshly baked apple pie—her favourite. But remembering the guilt and shame she felt yesterday, and why she needs to resist sweets, she resists the temptation. She does this week in and week out in preparation for the race to come, that she may endure it to the end.
In Hebrew 12, the author writes, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” That is how I like to think of our daily baptism. Every day, you and I get up as baptised children of God, and we do the things necessary for good Christian living. We go to work, we do our chores, we do our homework assignments, we spend time with our friends and family, we do good works out of love for our neighbour, we spend time in the Word during our devotions, and we come to church.
Also, like the runner, we may give in to temptation every day. And other times, we may resist temptation. And we come before our Lord in prayer repenting of our sins, and He forgives us our sins because of who we are in our Baptisms—beloved children of God.
Yet here is where my analogy begins to break down, as all analogies do. Unlike the runner, it is not we ourselves who do this good living, who do good works for our neighbour, who repent after giving in to temptation, and who resist temptation. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. The Holy Spirit is the one who moves us to continue living our daily duties as Christians, who gives us the desire to do good works for our neighbour, who brings us to repentance to rely on God’s promise of forgiveness, and who gives us the ability to resist temptation.
All this the Holy Spirit works in us as we endure the race of our bodies wasting away until we receive the promise of the bodily resurrection and enter the place Christ is preparing for us. When we live our lives as Christians, when we do good works for our neighbour, when we repent, and when we resist temptation, this is the Holy Spirit working in us to daily drown our sins away and work in us as new creatures of God.
Some of us may be weak and infirm, but we are still running the race with strength provided by the Holy Spirit. Every day the Holy Spirit provides us the strength to continue living, to do good works for our neighbour, to repent, and to resist temptation—all until the day our wasting away ends and Christ resurrects us with new bodies into the place He is preparing for us.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.