2 Corinthians 4:13-5:5 is the passage. And the question I have is this: “Can our own bodies ever feel like a prison?”
I spent some time in prison. Let me please clarify that: I spent some time in prison as an Army Chaplain. I was ministering to incarcerated military service-members. In fact, I served at the storied Leavenworth United States Military Disciplinary Barracks. If you are in one of the military services and you are convicted of a crime and sentenced to incarceration you will go to Leavenworth. I served as Chaplain at Leavenworth to fulfill my Chaplaincy Sustainment re requirements. Chaplaincy Sustainment is a fancy Army phrase for “residency” or “internship.” And the Disciplinary Barracks at beautiful Fort Leavenworth was my first assignment after seminary. I also served at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. I will never forget when I walked through the massive oversized steel doors at “Leavenworth.” After a thorough security check the doors were opened electronically. I walked through every so tenuously. As soon as I was passed through an imaginary line in the door, a break in an infrared light signaled the doors automatically. The massive moving walls swiftly shut behind me. This closure was announced with an extraordinary and ominous thunder. The dreadfully deep boom bounced onto the tiled receiving hall floor and ricocheted into my brain. “Wow. That is a convincing sound effect,” I thought. It was as if the endless echo of that slamming door signaled and sealed my fate. The truth is after a 12-hour shift I was “released” to return home to my wife. The people that I ministered to did not receive such clemency. So, if you ask me, “is life like a prison?” My answer would be “You have obviously never been imprisoned if you are asking that question.” However, if you suffer from certain diseases your very body can become like a prison. If you are in a wheelchair for the rest of your life; yes, maybe life is, in fact, like a prison.
All of us have felt badly at one time or another. Some of us have even had to live with some sort of chronic physical problem. In that sense, then, perhaps even you and I can answer that sometimes life—our bodies, to be exact—can, indeed, feel the like a prison.
Paul used that universal feeling as theological currency. He traded it for the Gospel story of what God is doing in us despite the ruinous effects of The Fall on our bodies. St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1-5, described the hope that we have as believers. He said that our physical body is “the tent that is our earthly home.” The manner in which St. Paul describes this “tent” might cause the reader to consider that the earthly dwelling was somewhat of a prison. He speaks about the tent being destroyed and we, that is our spirits are attached to these dwellings. More specifically our eternal spirits reside in a temporary holding place. That place is most certainly sacred. The human body carries the image of God. But because of The Fall in the garden of Eden, everything, including our bodies, is experiencing entropy. Leave something alone—a building, a city, a human body—and it will suffer from the elemental effects of the cosmic rebellion against God. Rust and decay are the ancient artifacts of The Fall. Though it can take up to 100 years or longer in a human being, The Fall will have its inevitably devastating dénouement. In a word, everything under the sun (and the sun) is wasting away or burning out.
This is a rather startling announcement to a secular age. It was the Canadian philosopher, Dr. Charles Taylor, who called the age in which we live “A Secular Age.” Taylor reasoned that a secular age is one in which the presuppositions are no longer deistic, but instead are (literately) godless. A godless presupposition about life certainly leads to agnosticism or outright atheism concerning an afterlife. If this is so, and I do believe that Charles Taylor is exactly right about the age in which we live, then speaking about death or the reality of The Fall (which, of course, the secularists would not call “The Fall;” but merely an observation of all things decaying) is taboo.
The Christian, according to St. Paul in this passage, is able to speak freely about the reality of our fallen world and its effect on our persons. Yet, against the black backdrop of death and decay in this world, God has shown every believer that we have a confession of hope. It is this subject that I want to address today from God’s word. Allow me to do so by identifying three major articles in the confession of hope that the Apostle Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1-5.
The first article is this:
The Apostle Paul speaks about “the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, I believed, and so I spoke, we also believe in so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” The great missionary to the Gentiles is quoting from a portion of Psalm 116:10. The context for Psalm 116 is this: the Psalmist’s lyrics are an expression of gratitude to God for having delivered him from what appeared to be certain death. Paul embraces this great song of faith as a fitting theological framework for the faith of believers in the trial of the physical trial. Like the Psalmist, we may rejoice in the midst of our sickness, in the presence of disease, and even at the thought of mortal death. I like the phrase, “doxology in the darkness” to describe what Paul is teaching. Paul is saying that we may have the same spirit of faith as the Psalmist. As the sacred songwriter was delivered from some unknown disease, so we are delivered from The Fallen condition of this world.
Specifically, the Apostle Paul links the faith of Psalm 116 in the faith that we have with the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only so, but the Psalm becomes an eschatological article of faith as Paul says that we will be raised and joined up with a heavenly host.
I have made no attempt to hide my deep admiration for the preacher – poet of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Dr. John Donne (1572-1631). In his holy sonnet 10, Donne speaks poetically to the specter of death, which had haunted him in an extreme season of illness:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow/Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
The great poet concludes the sonnet with a resolution of the problem of death:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,/And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
“Death, thou shalt die . . .” Remains one of the most powerful lines in poetry because it reflects the most powerful truth in life: that in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we have the hope of eternal life. And when we say we have “hope,” we are describing the certain anticipation of things to come; the reality of things that are.
“Death, thou shalt die . . .” Remains one of the most powerful lines in poetry because it reflects the most powerful truth in life.
The second article in this confession is this:
The Apostle Paul calls us to look into the world and see how God is accomplishing his mission. “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more people it may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God.”
There can be no more remarkable era in the history of mankind than in the early days of the Church. Despite persecution, despite being one of a veritable cafeteria of religions and cults to choose from, more and more people in the Roman Empire — and beyond — were receiving God’s grace through Jesus Christ. I’ve been amazed to study this week the work of Dr. Alan Kreider. A Harvard-trained Ph.D., Dr. Kreider has written a monumental history of the early Church that he entitled, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. In his book, Dr. Kreider “refocuses our attention on ‘patience,’ the cardinal virtue of the early church’s witness, with rich attention to how this was cultivated in worship and catechesis.”
The early church did not have a central strategic plan other than “faithful presence” and faithful witness. The preachers of the early church preached from the Old Testament and from the letters that were circulating that became the New Testament. Their messages were primarily aimed at believers. Unbelievers hearing the message of the gospel through the lives and testimonies of ordinary people like you and me is how the church grew.
We must return to an evangelism that is lived out through the centrifugal power of the church in Word, Sacrament, and Prayer. Through the reality of the Holy Spirit we who believe now bear the resurrected life of our Lord Jesus Christ within our own lives. While it is true that our testimonies are not the gospel, the gospel is most certainly present in our testimonies. We must be like the man, the Gadarene, who was healed and wanted to go follow Jesus. Jesus told him to go and tell your family in your community what wonderful things God has done for you. The witness of a faithful community, person to person, within families, and in relationships remains the most effective means of evangelism. “They went everywhere preaching,” said Dr. Luke (Acts 8:4). The public worship of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, which is the glorious week-to-week “carrier” of Christian doctrine, along with smaller fellowship groups, remains the way that Christians grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. When we plant churches, when we teach the Word of God, when we faithfully administer the Lord’s Supper, this is the way that people access the grace of God in Christ.
And they are. The mystery of suffering does not stop the Gospel. It produces the grace to look through the affliction at the glory beyond. This new way of seeing life is gaining. This is the Kingdom that is spreading. The very things that would seek to destroy the Gospel become in the hands of a loving God the very things that advance it.
The third article is this:
The Apostle Paul says that we do not lose hope. Why? How can this be given the state of all things
“For in this tent, we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. While we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal May be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
The Holy Spirit has, to quote the late Dr. Robert L Raymond, “inscripturated,” the promises of God in the Word of God, the Holy Bible. If Jesus Christ is raised from the dead (and He is) then God’s word is inerrant and infallible. For Jesus said all of the Scriptures are about Him. And if God’s word is inerrant and infallible then you have the guarantee through the resurrection through the witness of the Holy Spirit when you die spirit will go to heaven immediately to be with God. Your mortal remains will one day be translated, re-animated, in most clearly resurrected into a new and eternal body.
There was an old saying about this: if the farmer knows where the corn is in the barn, God knows where His seed is in the ground. The seed of which the dictum speaks is the remains of His saints. Those remains are not forgotten by the Creator who made them. The corruptible will be raised incorruptible.
Therefore my beloved whatever suffering or affliction you and I may go through in this life we must not lose hope. There is coming a day when Jesus Christ is coming again. On that day when the sky is split in twine and the King of King appears, there will be an unearthing of the “seed” of human bodies. The dead will rise to new bodies. They will go to meet the Lord in the air. Then, we who remain will join them. And there will be wheelchairs flying back to earth. There will be hearing aids, eyeglasses, crutches, and artificial limbs flying all over the place as men and women and boys and girls are caught up to be with the Lord. “He is coming again,” saith the Spirit and when He comes He will bring about a New Heaven and a New Earth. There will be the final healing of all things broken.
We do not lose heart. God has given us a confession of hope. That hope is grounded in faith, gaining in followers, and guaranteed by the Holy Spirit.
Let me take you back to Leavenworth, Kansas. One morning I was making my rounds when all of a sudden I was stopped in my tracks. I paused and was perfectly still as I sought to listen. I heard something out of place. I thought I heard someone whistling. We don’t hear too many people whistling anymore and especially you don’t hear people whistling in prison. My eyes begin to inspect every cell in the row of cells assigned to me that morning. Then I saw him. It was a young man I had talked to only a month prior. I had counseled him as he came in. He would be incarcerated for one year. He had stolen from a car. The owner of both the automobile and the wallet was a Navy commander — the sailor’s commander. The misguided lad had stolen the money because he was desperate. He and his wife were trying to adopt a baby. He didn’t have much money on an E-3 salary. He had hung his head in his interview with me. The young Sailor told me through tears, “Man was I stupid.” He was heartbroken. Through the tears he had told me, “I have now ruined the rest of my life and the life of my wife.” I shared the love and grace of Jesus Christ with this Sailor-boy. He told me that he had known the Lord as a little boy. But he moved far away from the teaching of his parents. Predictably, and happily, the criminal incident was enough to send him running like “a prodigal son” back to His loving Heavenly Father. I told the imprisoned Sailor that God would use this time to strengthen him to know the grace and love of God in Christ and to be able to trust Christ that he would provide. So, on that morning, that was the young man whistling. But what was most amazing — no, astonishing — was what he was whistling. “Whistle while you work, whistle while you work…” I approached him. “My goodness you are one happy fella today!” He paused from sweeping out the front of his cell (and his whistling) and looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face: “Chaplain, I just realized in the last week that I will have the opportunity to spend one year in an intense time with my Savior. I will likely never have such an intense time of prayer again. The Lord Jesus is already changing. He has given me hope in this prison.”
In only a few months the Navy let the boy out. His wife had waited on him. I don’t know what happened to him. But I would like to think he became a dad. He would sure be a good one. For God had set that thief free. He became a saint of God. The grace of God and the faith of that inmate transformed a prison cell into a sanctuary. The Lord is doing that sort of transformation all the time. He will do that for you as you come to Him by genuine repentance of your sins and by faith in Jesus Christ as the living and reigning Lord of all.
My beloved in Christ, Jesus Christ gives us hope in the fallen condition of this old world. We have a confession of hope that even though our outer bodies are experiencing the entropy of this present evil age, our inner spirits are being renewed, day by day; awaiting that Day when God will restore us to Eden, a New Heaven and a New Earth.
And I got to tell you: that is just about enough to make you whistle in church.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2007.