II Corinthians 5:6-17
June 14, 2009 - Second Sunday after Pentecost
“It’s not like it is at home,” said my wife Beth the other day. The funny thing was that we were not in a motel or a restaurant or traveling at all. We were standing in our very own kitchen! What she meant was that something about the house we live in now is not like the house we moved out of last June. In spite of living on Timberline Drive for nearly a year, we still occasionally think of 4467 Ivy Street in Springfield as “home.”
In our text for today, Paul feels a similar displacement spiritually as he talks about being “at home” with the Lord. Verse 8 is often misquoted in King James language as a principle about what happens to us when we die: “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” That’s almost what Paul said, but not quite. Even in the King James Version, what Paul really wrote was, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” The TNIV reads, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
In other words, Paul’s not so much telling us about life after death as he is expressing his own preference for being closer to God. The contrast is with verse 6 where he states that right now “as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” At home in the body versus at home with the Lord.
As I’ve shared several times recently, the point here, and the point of Christian belief about the body and the afterlife, is not that we need to get out of our lousy, defective, physical bodies in order to enjoy a better kind of life. Being out of the body when we die is a totally temporary situation until the great resurrection happens when Jesus comes again. Our bodies are wonderful gifts from God and He intends to raise them up and have us wear them for eternity.
It’s not Christian at all to think that the point of spiritual life is to escape the confines of our physical bodies. It’s an ancient heresy called Gnosticism or Manichaeism. As a first century Jewish Christian, Paul would never have imagined being without a body as desirable in itself. In the verses just before this, verses 2 to 4, he calls that situation being “naked,” unclothed, and something that God will prevent.
No, the only reason Paul would prefer to leave the home of his body is that, for right now, until the resurrection, it’s the way to be at home with the Lord. The real point of all this is hidden in little verse 7, “We live by faith, not by sight.”
Paul was answering his critics in Corinth. There were Christians there who did exactly what he’s talking about in verse 12 of our text. They’re focused on what is seen, rather than on what is in the heart. In a way that is surprisingly contemporary, the Corinthians were all about appearance, about looking good, rather than about deeper, more hidden spiritual reality.
Turn over to chapter 10 of II Corinthians and you’ll find that some of them were complaining that Paul was not eloquent. His speech was weak. He was stronger in his letters than in person. In the flesh, he was weak and ineffective. The Corinthians wanted a leader that would demonstrate visible strength. They wanted tangible results. If you read through I Corinthians you find a church very much into the more visible, dramatic spiritual gifts. They liked speaking in tongues. They liked words of prophecy. They liked miracles of healing. They wanted a religion they could see the results of, right now.
Yet Paul says, “We live by faith, not by sight.” In the previous chapter, 4, verse 18, he said, “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” That’s why Paul is willing to be to leave the home of his body. It’s not that he hates his flesh or just wants to die. No, he’s believing in faith that he has an unseen home with his Lord. And that faith gave him a confidence, a confidence that he would be at home, no matter what.
Verse 9 says, “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” That’s the point. It doesn’t make all that much difference if we are still living in our present bodies or if we are in heaven with the Lord. Our aim is to please Him, to trust Him, to live for God. Don’t just count off the days until you get to heaven. Live for your Lord now, whether living or dying.
So in verse 10 Paul talks about a day of judgment. What we do in and with our bodies really matters. We will all appear before Christ and each of us, “receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” And that, says Paul in verse 11, gives us a healthy fear of the Lord. In respect of the coming judgment, he says, “we try to persuade people.” Faith in what is unseen causes us to want to make a difference, not in flashy, visible, dramatic miracles and events, but in the hearts and minds of people. We want to persuade others to put their faith in the unseen reality of Christ.
It’s the same point in our Old Testament lesson and Gospel texts today. God starts His work in small, invisible ways. He plants a tiny twig as in Ezekiel 17:22. He plants seeds, even a miniscule mustard seed, as in Mark 4:31. And His little sprouts grow almost invisibly at the beginning, in the middle of the night when no one’s looking, says Jesus. Yet in the end God grows a huge tree that stretches its branches all over the world. He grows His kingdom.
Look at Paul and on the outside he’s not very impressive. As Mike Fargo will share with you from chapter 6 next week, he’s a man that’s been beaten, stoned, left to rot in a jail cell. He’s gone without food and without sleep. If you met him, he might look to you like a homeless person from downtown. Ragged. Old before his time. A weakling. Even, he says wryly in verse 13, “out of his mind.” That’s the appearance. That’s what Paul in his body looks like. But the reality is completely different.
Paul has confidence and faith that moved by something that you can’t just see in a physical body, or just hear in an audible voice. Verse 14 says, “For Christ’s love compels us…” Christian life is not centered on producing visible success in the eyes of those who are looking for beautiful bodies and strong voices and tangible results. Our faith is centered on the love of Christ, “because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” That’s the little seed of the Gospel, of God’s kingdom. Christ died and rose for us and so we die to ourselves and live for Him.
It’s nearly invisible. We miss seeing it more often than not. So I get surprised. I hear a student’s Confirmation paper and am amazed. A person I never expected volunteers to lead a youth group or clean the church or minister to the homeless. Someone I thought was falling away from the Lord suddenly turns around. And for just a moment I glimpse the tiny seed of faith in Christ growing into the glorious, stately tree that it is.
We live by faith, not by sight. That’s why Paul says in verse 16, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” Faith doesn’t look for a good appearance. Faith doesn’t look for success. Paul himself knows he once looked at Jesus and saw only a pretend messiah, a failed false prophet who got himself crucified. Now he knows better. Now by faith he sees Jesus for who He really is, the true Messiah who died and rose again.
We live by faith, not by sight. “Therefore,” we read in verse 17, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here!” We don’t look at each other with the eyes of this world, looking at appearances. Instead, we see the new creation that our Lord is making within us. We see despair turning into hope. We see addiction transformed into freedom. We see heartache become joy. We look at each other with the eyes of faith and see Jesus at work. And with Paul we long for the day when His work will be complete, both in ourselves, and in others.
We live by faith, not by sight. That means we realize that we are both at home, but not yet at home. We won’t live forever in the houses and apartments we build and buy and rent. We won’t always feed and exercise and get medical care for these bodies. They are home for now, but we know that a better home is coming. It’s with the Lord. There may be houses there. There will certainly be bodies when He raises us up. But most of all, there will be the Lord.
Charlie Daniels sang a song with the line, “Alabama could be heaven, if the Lord was there.” He’s right. Heaven is not a place in the sky filled with clouds. Heaven is wherever God is, wherever people are completely in His glorious presence. It could even be Alabama… or North Dakota or Oregon. It could be Sudan or Afghanistan or Cuba. For a Christian, being at home is not a matter of geography. It’s being with the Lord.
That’s why we have such confidence, says Paul. God is working in us now, making us new, making us ready to be at home with Him. So we will be ready for the move, from this home to home with God. It takes time for God to get us ready, to build that kind of confidence in us.
When we moved last year from Springfield to Eugene, it took a long time to get ready. Even when we found a house near the church here, even when we had our belongings all boxed up, even when we laid down to sleep for the first night in the new place, we weren’t at home yet. And that was a move made with sight. We had seen our new house, walked all around it, measured it, thought about how the furniture would fit, whether we could sit and eat and work and play comfortably there. We saw it all before the move. And it still took time to be at home.
We live by faith, not by sight. To be ready to be at home with God takes time. In Jesus Christ we want to live in a way which creates confidence in our new home with God, even though we have not yet seen it. We let God make us into new people so ready to be with Him that we actually prefer to leave these bodies and come into His presence.
In A.D. 125, a Greek by the name of Aristides wrote an apology for Christianity directed toward the Roman emperor. At the end of the letter, he told how Christians loved and cared for each other, how they supported widows, and gave shelter to strangers and fasted so they could share their food even if they had only a little. When a slave became a Christian they treated him like an equal. If one of them was imprisoned, they visited him and provided for his needs. In other words, they lived by faith, not by sight. And then Aristides says, “If any righteous man among these Christians passes from this world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort the body with songs of thanksgiving, as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby.”
That’s the confidence of our faith. We want to live in a way that will make us people ready to be at home with God. We want to be even more ready to move into God’s new home, which we haven’t seen, than we are to move across town or across the country into some house or apartment we have seen.
We seek that kind of confidence together. We trust in Jesus and follow Him like Paul, like the Christians Aristides knew, like Christians in Africa and South America and Asia. We worship Christ and care for each other and meet those around us in faith and love. We live by faith and not by sight. We’re on our way home.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj