Sermon notes 06-06-21 When Life Only Goes So Far
[2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1] Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and 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.  For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,  as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
[5:1] For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (ESV)
The Scripture Sandy just read for us compels us to consider something many of us would prefer not to think about, and that is, dying. This passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is about dying … or more specifically about what happens to Christians when we die. I realize the subject of death and dying may be the last thing you want to hear me talk about this morning, but I hope that will not cause you to tune out or maybe even walk out before I get to the good part, because the good news I will get to, if you hang with me, is that as Christians, we of all people have reason for hope and even joyful anticipation in the face of death.
I want to begin to address this subject by sharing a statistic with you that is both sobering and astounding: the death rate for humans is 100%. Yet, in spite of that statistic, many of us, when personally faced with death, are often quite unprepared for it, and even seem to think somehow it should not be happening to us or to our loved ones. If you have ever taken a psychology course you may remember learning that in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s list of five stages that people go through when faced with dying, the first stage is denial. People often respond to the prospect of death by denying it can happen to them, and they try everything they can to avoid it, fight it, and postpone it. When dying is not of an immediate or imminent concern, most people choose to not even think about it. We prefer to think about life, and I certainly get that. In fact, I much prefer to preach about the great fulfillment and joy and peace that are ours in this lifethrough being followers of Jesus Christ.
Yet I know that any message emphasizing this life can only go so far, because this life only goes so far. And when we acknowledge the limitations of this life, we begin to think about what happens when we die. Often what forces us to think about the limitations of this life is when one of our loved ones is facing death, or perhaps is taken from us in death. Then we tend to think about death a lot, and because death is so mysterious, we have lots of question about it.
Of all the questions we have, I think the most common and the most poignant is, will I be with my departed loved one again; will we be able to share our love for one another again? It is the question asked by Eric Clapton in the song Tears in Heaven. He wrote the song after the death of his 4-year old son Conor, who died after falling out of the window of a high-rise New York City apartment building. Clapton asked the question with the lyrics, “Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven? Would you feel the same, if I saw you in heaven?”
It is the same question that is asked in the old gospel song, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Will the circle of our loved ones, broken by death, ever be completed again? Will we ever be back together with our loved ones from whom we have been separated by death? We have all asked similar questions, or, if we have not yet asked them, we will, because given that the death rate for humans is 100%, the sad reality is, we will eventually be separated by death from everyone we have ever loved.
So we are left with many questions about death. Questions such as:
- What is the point of my loved one’s suffering and death?
- Is my departed loved one with Jesus?
- Will I ever see or be with my loved one again?
- In what form or in what kind of body is my departed loved one?
These are questions that Paul goes a long way toward answering in this passage from his letter to the Corinthians. So let’s take the first one and the most difficult one to answer.
What is the point of my loved one’s suffering and death? This is an extremely difficult question, and a satisfying answer is not easily found. But I think it begins with acknowledging and accepting the fact that, just as death is a reality, suffering in this life is also a reality.
Just prior to the beginning of the passage Sandy read, Paul describes his own trials and tribulations. Paul writes of being afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, but the more important point is Paul’s response to these trials and tribulations: he says he is not crushed, not driven to despair, not destroyed.
Our passage this morning begins with Paul saying, in response to his sufferings, “we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak.” When Paul says “what has been written,” it is a reference to Ps:116:10. That full verse reads: I believed, even when I spoke, “I am greatly afflicted.” Another way of saying this is, ‘Even when I announced that I was in the midst of suffering, I continued to have faith.’ So again, the emphasis is not on the affliction or the suffering, but on the response to it. Just as David, the psalmist, responded to his affliction by maintaining his faith, Paul says that we have the same spirit of faith.
Paul seems to be teaching that affliction is a part of life, and that we should not be surprised about it when it comes, or lose our faith in response to it. But that still does not answer the question, why? Why is there suffering; what is the point of it?
I want to be very careful here unless I appear to be saying that suffering is good, or that we are to seek it out, or to like it. Suffering is not good, just as death is not good. Neither suffering nor death were God’s original intentions for humanity, but they are realities in this fallen world. We are not to seek to suffer, we are certainly not to like suffering (in fact, if we liked it, we could not rightly call it suffering!), and we should work to eliminate the causes of suffering in others.
But Paul says something very mysterious about the point of suffering or affliction. He says in v. 17, “this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
There are two inferences we might draw from that statement, the first of which is fairly obvious: that the Christian’s difficulties in life, whatever they may be, diminish in importance when viewed from the perspective of eternity. Paul says virtually the same thing elsewhere, in Romans 8:18 – For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. The eternal glory that the Christian will receive is far greater than all the suffering one may face in this life.
But Paul goes quite a bit farther in this letter to the Corinthians in making a second inference. He says our affliction, our suffering, is preparing us for glory. In other words, suffering is not just an incidental part of life, that we could just as well do without on our way to glory, in much the same way a person on a sea cruise could arrive at their destination without getting seasick just as well as someone who does get seasick. No, Paul seems to be saying that the sickness, the suffering, is necessary, is a prerequisite to glory. Somehow our affliction is preparing us to receive eternal reward. Friends, I admit I don’t understand this fully, and I don’t know if we humans are capable of understanding it, but that’s what it says.
I am reminded of hearing an old radio preacher named J. Vernon McGee say, “When we get to heaven, we may very well wish that we had experienced more suffering in this life.” He implied that somehow the more suffering we experience in this life, the greater our glory will be in the next life. Perhaps this is getting at what Jesus meant when he said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
With that admittedly mysterious and unsatisfactory answer to the question of what is the point of my loved one’s suffering and death, let’s move on to the next two questions we often ask in the face of death:
- Is my loved one with Jesus?
- Will I ever see or be with my loved one again?
Paul answers both of these questions in just one verse, verse 17. This is one of my favorite promises in all of Scripture. Paul is still speaking here about all those who have continued to believe in the face of affliction. He says, we know “that he who raised the Lord Jesus (God the Father) will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” The term “us with you” means we will be raised together, and “into his presence” means will all be together in the presence of Jesus. So there it is, my friends. For those who believe, the circle will be unbroken! We will be together with our loved ones for all eternity in the presence of the Lord. Praise God!
The last question that I believe Paul answers is: In what form or in what kind of body is my loved one? In the last verse from our passage, 2 Cor. 5:1, Paul says that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. When Paul speaks about the tent that is our earthly home, he is referring to our bodies of flesh. They are like tents. And what do we know about tents? They are temporary dwellings, something we set up for perhaps a night or two of camping, or for short-term shelter. They are not made of rigid, solid materials; they are made to be easily removed.
Paul’s point is this: Just as a tent is a relatively flimsy and temporary shelter, so our earthly bodies are frail, vulnerable and wasting away. But our eternal house in heaven will be an invulnerable structure, not built by human hands but the work of God, perfect and permanent. God will give to us and our loved ones who are with him a new, glorified, resurrection body to live in for all of eternity.
So, let me bring this to a close by summarizing what Paul is teaching in this passage. The reality is that there is affliction and suffering in this life, but even if we manage to have minimal suffering, and life for us is for the most part really good, it is transient; it is temporary; it will not last.
Life only goes so far; it will come to an end for 100% of us, and we will eventually be separated by death from everyone we have ever loved. But the good news is, death is not the end for those who believe in Christ for salvation. Paul calls us to continue to have faith in the midst of suffering and look to those things that are eternal. We are to cling to the promise that our current affliction is only light and momentary in comparison to the glory for which we are being prepared. And this is the really good news: God will raise us with Jesus, and with our loved ones, and we will all be together in our glorified, permanent, resurrection bodies in the presence of the Lord forever. That is the hope and promise that Christians claim and joyfully anticipate because of our belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! Thanks be to God! Amen.