Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hope, Peace, and Purpose Because of What is True (Paul)

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Pittsburgh, PA
6.16.12 (Father’s Day)

There is a point for all of us where all hope comes to an end.  I don’t know where that is for you.  It might be losing a job.  It might be the loss of a loved one.  It might be, simply, your own death.

A friend of mine—I’ll call him John—made an interesting point recently, he said that every person that you love will either bury you or you will bury them.

He later told me that when he was an agnostic he was absolutely terrified of death.  He said he would wake up in the middle of the night petrified having a panic attack on a regular basis.  He would think about not being.  And he would also think about not being able to do anything about that. 

He told me that he had in his head these urban legends of Walt Disney who supposedly had his head frozen in cryogenic storage so he could be preserved and he thought to himself, “Well, I wonder how much that costs?

But it felt incredibly hopeless for John.  He said that it felt so hopeless that he swore at one point that he never wanted to have children—never wanted to be a father—because he never wanted to put another human being through the existential fear that he felt.

I was reminded of this story this week after seeing the new Alien prequel, the movie Prometheus.  In this movie the characters share John’s fears.  They all want answers to the basic, quintessential questions, “What’s the purpose of life?” and “What happens when we die?” 
Our passage from Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians addresses these fundamental questions and fears.  Yet unlike the creators of Prometheus, and most every contemporary author that John read on these subjects, Paul does not leave us with a mere question mark.  This is what Paul writes, “For we know that if the earthly tent (the body) we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” 

Here we see that there is anything but ambiguity for Paul.  There is anything but a profound question mark.  In this passage and elsewhere, Paul addresses the basic and ubiquitous fear of death.  I’m sure that for many of you in this room, even those who have been Christians their whole lives, the thought of non-being, of death, creeps in on occasion.  Maybe you’ve worried about this for your own life, or maybe you’re simply terrified that you’ll never again see someone that you love—be that a spouse, a friend, a child, or your father.
If you’re afraid of what death means this morning know that St. Paul and the Scriptures are very clear.  There is no mystery here.  You need no longer fear that you’ll simply cease to exist.  You need no longer fear that the one’s you love who’ve died are gone forever.  For Paul makes it very clear to us that to be absent from the body is to be present with Christ…  To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ. 

Therefore, Paul can write, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… we have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”…

And that’s the Word of the Lord on that matter.


But maybe you’re in a different place this morning.  Maybe you really haven’t given death much thought at all.  Maybe you’re part of the second group Paul addresses in this text.  Those overwhelmed by the cares and fears, the suffering and insanity of this world.  Maybe you just can’t keep up with the pace of life.  Everything just feels so far outside of your control.  Or maybe you get no sense of purpose or satisfaction from your work that takes up far too much of your time.  Maybe you always wanted to be a father, but never could?  Or maybe you’re just incredibly lonely.
There are no simple answers to these very real predicaments, and thankfully St. Paul does not offer us trite solutions to life’s toughest questions.  Nonetheless, St. Paul has a word for us as well.  In fact, being a firm believer in the afterlife himself, Paul actually resonates a bit more with this group than the first.  We see this when he writes, “We groan under our burden”… “longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.”  He also writes, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
These are not the words of a man out of touch with the brutal aspects of reality.  As a man who experienced deeply the sufferings of this world, Paul knows that the Christian life is a cross-shaped life—one that necessarily involves suffering. 

Yet Paul does not despair.  And he tells us not to either.  For he says that we have been given the Holy Spirit as our guide, our companion, our comforter, and we have also been made into a new creation.  As we read last week, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor. 4:16)
Furthermore, we also know from the book of Revelation that on the last day, “Jesus will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

This is the Good News.  Not only to those who are petrified by the thought of death, but also for those of us who are barely making it. 

So what is the result of this good news?  What do we do now with all the time that we would normally spend worrying about death and nonbeing?  Or, what does this mean for those of us who are overwhelmed, disillusioned, or just simply bored?

St. Paul says that in response to this news we aim to please Christ.  And there are many ways to please Jesus, but I’m going to give you three. One: by telling others about this Good News of the Gospel—telling them that “Christ came to save us—the ungodly, the sick—from death.  That his death in our place has destroyed death for us once and for all.  We, like St. Paul, share this news that is too good to be true and yet it is with our neighbors and co-workers, our children and our fathers.  For there is a love that is as strong as death. 

We also do good works.  Not because we are saved by them, but we are saved for them.  I’m going to say that again, not because we are saved by our works, but we are saved for them.  We stand up for the dregs and outcasts, for those who can’t help themselves.  Just like St. Paul does later in this letter as he implores the Corinthians to give generously to the suffering Church of Jerusalem. 

And not only do we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but we simply live.  Here’s what I mean by that.  We simply utilize our God-given gifts whether they involve being an artist or an accountant, a salesperson or a banker, etc.  We give honor and, therefore, pleasure, to God by simply serving faithfully in our particular station of life.  Using the gifts He has given us.  For God calls us to live out our faith in the world, in the ordinary-seeming realms of the family, the workplace, and the culture.

We also live according to the commandments, not only in gratitude for being bought with the blood of the spotless Lamb, but also because the author of the Good Life has a blueprint for how to live it—and yes, it looks a bit different from that American one we’ve been pursuing for so long that left us hanging. 

In this morning’s passage we are given real hope and real purpose, and through the power of the Holy Spirit it can transform lives like my friend John’s.  Who no longer wakes up to panic attacks in the middle of the night, and is now the father of a beautiful two year-old daughter who is the light of her godfather’s life. 

May the same Holy Spirit who gave hope, peace, and purpose to my friend John, do the same for you.

Especially to you fathers that we honor today.


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