2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10
I wonder if Paul ever had those moments when he wondered what on earth he was doing?
I mean, we all have them, right? Times when, no matter how clearly we once saw, no matter how absolute and incontrovertible the matter once seemed, we admit to that suspicion lurking in the back of our minds that maybe, just maybe, we’ve backed the wrong horse, followed the wrong path, supported the wrong side in the argument.
Surely, Paul knew that feeling. After all, he was a man who had it all – he was a rising star within his culture: the right birth, the best education, the sharpness of mind; even as a young man he was mixing it with the people at the very top, on first name terms with the High Priest, even though he himself was a Pharisee. In his passionate defence of the purity of the faith, he had found a cause to live for, supressing this small upstart movement of followers of a man executed for blasphemy.
And then, in response to one incredible moment of revelation, he chucked it all away to join that upstart movement.
For years, he was nobody; not, at first, trusted by the early Church (hardly surprising), no longer accepted by the Temple, he had to start again. And when he did take on a prominent role amongst the people of Jesus his reward was a lifetime of hardship, of beatings, of imprisonment, of danger. And on top of that – opposition from others within the faith, perhaps jealous of his influence, perhaps unforgiving of his past.
So I’m pretty sure that for all his faith, Paul must have had his moments when he wondered what it was all for. Whether this was really what he thought he had signed up for.
In the writing of 2 Corinthians we get some hints at just how much Paul’s life of faith had cost him; and how he chose to respond. “Our outer nature,” he writes, is wasting away. But at the same time, the inner nature is being renewed, day by day.
And seems natural, almost inevitable, to take this as the language of dualism, of a body/soul divide. And to declare that Paul is declaring that he cares not what happens to his body, whether it wastes away or what, because it isn’t what matters. And there is clearly some sense of that in what Paul is writing – hardly surprising for a man suffering physically for his faith – that he would rather be “away from the body and at home with the Lord”.
But that sort of clean body-soul divide really wasn’t a Hebrew way of thinking. By the time of Paul, and certainly within a generation or two after, this Greek idea of an eternal soul that was totally other from the body had found its way into the Christian faith as an explanation of the great mystery of our ongoing life beyond death, and Paul was clearly aware of it, but it wasn’t at the heart of his thinking.
He uses, instead, the analogy of the tent.
Now of course, we know from elsewhere that Paul was himself a tentmaker. So I think it’s fair to assume that when Paul uses the description of the present life as ‘in a tent’, he isn’t being derogatory. As a Facebook friend of mine, discussing this passage wrote, “as Paul would have known, just because it’s a tent, it doesn’t have to be a rubbish tent” (actually, she didn’t use the word “rubbish” – but it captures the meaning).
The point, of course, of a tent, is not that it is rubbish, but that it fulfils a particular purpose. It’s temporary, yes, but it is temporary because it is mobile, to be used when you are mobile; not settled in the place you are, not at home.
A tent was what you used when your work, your responsibilities, or your danger, meant that you could not put down roots, not declare “here I am, and here I’ll stay”.
Most famous, of course, within the Hebrew tradition, was the tent of the Tabernacle; the tent built to act as a home for the ark of the covenant, the stones of the ten commandments as the people of Israel travelled for forty years between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance to the promised land. A tent was the home, as they understood it, in that time, of the very presence of God. And indeed, the memory of that time was enshrined in “sukkos”, the festival of tabernacles, one of the great celebrations of the Jewish year, in which for a week Jews will eat, and sometimes sleep, in tents, remembering that time.
The point of a tent isn’t that it’s somehow inferior. It is simply a tool for a purpose. A home for when you cannot be in your true home. A shelter in times of travel.
This is Paul’s description of the mortal body. Not something rubbish, to be disposed of at the earliest possible opportunity, but something to be valued and appreciated for what it is: temporary, yes, but fit for purpose. Designed for the job at hand.
It’s from this perspective that his rather obscure comment comes: we wish not to be unclothed but further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up in life. We do not long to leave, but at the same time, we do not cling to the tent as if it were our final home.
Our mortal life is a precious thing, a tool, an opportunity. We do not long to place it aside, we look forward, instead, to the day when it is swallowed up into the reality of life.
This, of course, is the answer to the wag’s question: “if heaven is so good, why aren’t Christians in more of a hurry to get there?”
So did Paul wonder if he had made the wrong call, walked down the wrong road, in the light of all the hardship and suffering that he underwent? Perhaps. But if he did, he had also found an answer. That whatever occurred to him in his mortal life was not irrelevant, not meaningless, but not ultimately what mattered.
This, I believe, is what is meant by his declaration: we walk by faith, not by sight.
Not, as it is sometimes used, to say that we are to ignore the evidence of our eyes when it seems to contradict our understanding of the Bible – I’ve seen this quote used to justify the rejection of all sorts of research evidence, scientific or otherwise, which challenged the religious views of the listener – but to declare that the things that we see, the things we experience, are not the matters of final importance.
And these two truths – that we are on a journey, and that the things that we see now are not the final reality – are as true for us as a Church, as an institution and as a community, as they are for us an individuals.
The final paragraph of Uniting Church basis of union begins with these words: “The Uniting Church affirms that it belongs to the people of God on the way to the promised end.” It’s a description often referred to as “Pilgrim People” – that we, the people of God, are not at our final destination; we have not arrived.
As we approach, in this coming week, the 39th anniversary of the Uniting Church, we might do well to reflect on these two strands in Paul’s letter.
What we have here – this building, this congregational structure, this institution of which we are a part – is our tent. It’s the tabernacle of the people of God in the desert, not the Temple that they built in the promised land. It is made for the journey, not as the destination.
And in the end, it is not what happens to the tent that matters.
Because – and here’s where the second part kicks in – we walk by faith, not sight. So when we see census results showing Church attendance dropping, we don’t ignore them, or cherry pick results we like better – but nor do we despair. Because our faith is not in this institution that we can see – much though we might love and value it – but is in the “One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, the Church, as C.S. Lewis described it, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners”.
It’s a nice tent. We enjoy the shelter it gives us, and the way it equips us for our journey. We look after it, so that it can serve it’s purpose.
But in the end, it’s just a tent.