Second Corinthians 5:1-17
A man I know has had a hard life. After he and his wife were given two children healthy in every way, they had a third child. There were problems from the beginning and it soon was determined that their son was both mentally and physically handicapped. Shortly thereafter, they learned that the man’s wife had a disease that would first, cause her great suffering and then, take her life.
These would be crushing blows for most people. Yet this entire family bore their challenges with faith and life-affirming cheerfulness. The man is a pastor. He’s also someone of deep humility, generous judgment, and simple kindness. When you speak with him, you notice how infrequently he uses the word, “I”; his focus seems to be on letting God love you through him.
Knowing all of this about him, you can understand how angry I was when I got wind of the ill-treatment to which he was subjected some so-called Christians and in some anonymous letters he received. “If you were a good Christian,” these people said, “these terrible things wouldn’t be happening to you.”
For some people in the Church, a person like this man is a threat. They’ve decided not to live in the Kingdom of God, but in a sort of spiritual la-la-land. He threatens their false view of life with God.
True Christians like I believe my friend to be, know that life in this world isn’t perfect. When we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, the bad things in life don’t go away. Jesus promises us many things--forgiveness of sin, everlasting life, an eternity of perfect peace and goodness beyond the grave, the tools to cope with tough situations and to make good choices, and the presence of the Holy Spirit through this life, among other things. But Jesus never promises that life before the grave, life here on earth, will be trouble-free. Nor does He promise what the world counts as success.
Scholars tell us that the New Testament book of Second Corinthians was sent by the first-century preacher Paul to the church in the Greek city of Corinth in order to correct people like those who penned those anonymous notes to my friend. In the decades since he had come to faith in Jesus Christ, Paul had traveled thousands of miles to tell others about Christ and to start new churches in different parts of the Mediterranean basin. He also endured all sorts of hardships: shipwrecks, beatings, lashings, imprisonment, evil gossip. In the eyes of the world--and maybe, of some in the church at Corinth, Paul wasn’t what you’d call a success. If Paul were living today, you can bet that if he announced his retirement as Bill Gates did this past week, it wouldn’t have been a Page One-story. In fact, it wouldn’t even make the paper.
But apparently, back in first-century Corinth, there were preachers who had all sorts of success--money, fame, entree with the movers and shakers in that important city. They condemned Paul because his life wasn’t filled with success, because he admitted his imperfections and weakness, because he experienced pains and diffculties.
It's a sad story that continues to this day: There are preachers--one of whose name I won’t mention, but whose initials are Joel Osteen--who forego references to unpleasant things like repentance for sin, death of the old sinful self, and the reality of hardships in this life, painting a triumphalistic picture of Christianity.
Such preachers, of course, can draw big crowds and fat wallets. They interpret their "success" as a sign of God's favor. Meanwhile, down the street is the preacher whose life isn't perfect and who expresses no confidence about her or his own merits, and is portrayed by the successful preacher as a failure.
And it isn’t just preachers with imperfect lives whose faith gets maligned like this. A man watched his wife die from cancer. When that happened, he became an even more devoted follower of Christ than he had been before. A friend of his, a skeptic, asked, “How can you possibly believe in God after what’s happened to you?” The man explained that the perfect life doesn’t come until we’re in eternity with Christ. Then he said, “We’re not there yet.”
That man knew the truth of something Paul wrote in this book just before the section that makes up our Bible lesson for today: “...what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” He trusted that the risen Jesus Who came back from death could be counted on to keep all who believe in Him in His heart and line of vision now and in His kingdom in eternity!
In today’s lesson, Paul says that we live by faith, not by sight. The things that we can see all will die. We live instead by faith in the eternal God we can’t see.
This isn’t as irrational as some might think. We often trust in the reality of things we've never seen. Since I was a boy, I’ve wanted to visit Sagamore Hill, the Oyster Bay home of Theodore Roosevelt. This past Thursday, my wife, son, and I boarded a plane that took us to JFK Airport in New York City. Then, we rented a car and traveled across Long Island. We went down some winding roads. It wasn’t until we took a turn away from a blind curve and ascended a hill that we looked to our right and saw the very home I’d seen in pictures ever since I was a little boy! For almost 53 years of living and for 99% of our trip there, I hadn't seen Sagamore Hill. But I and my family believed it was there. Not until the very end of our trip was our belief rewarded by actually seeing and walking through the place.
No matter what happens to us in this life--no matter if the world dismisses us as failures, Paul says that our Spirit-given capacity to believe in the Savior we cannot see right now is God’s guarantee--God's earnest payment--that the heavenly home we long for is real and that if we stick with Him, we will one day see God and His eternal kingdom.
That’s what Paul is getting at in the ringing opening verses of our lesson: “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.”
The question before each of us, Paul says, isn’t if we’ve enjoyed success and ease in this life. The object of life isn’t to be comfortable. The object of our life is to be faithful to the One Who died and rose for us. “So whether we are at home [with God] or away [from God],” Paul writes, “we make it our aim to please him.”
Pastor Ray Ortlund says that the life that pleases God really boils down to three simple priorities:
- Loving Christ
- Loving Christ’s people in the church
- Loving the world.
- Loving Christ
- Loving Christ’s people in the Church
- Loving the world.
But those three things--loving Christ, loving Christ’s people in the Church, and loving the world--do compose a formula for faithfulness. And the full beauty and value of faithfulness will only seen by those who follow Jesus when we reach eternity.
Until then, our call is to walk, with confidence and joy and hopefulness, not by sight, but by faith.