II Corinthians 5.6-10; 14-17
Why We Are Confident
June 17, 2012 The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Roy W. Howard
Death is not a subject anyone wants to talk about. Which reminds of Joan Rivers, who is in the news lately and that can be frightening! The only reason I evoke Joan Rivers is because of her famous line, “Can we talk?!” We all must face death, but to talk about it seems morbid. For most of us, it’s scary, too.
I once spent a summer doing construction work with a Presbyterian minister. He was as eager for me to learn the Bible, as he was for me to work on his house. While I was painting his eaves and plastering his walls, he would offer brief sermons. I’m not joking. I still hear him quoting scriptures while holding the ladder and expounding on them with fervor, between sandwiches and iced tea. There was one saying, not from the Bible, that was his favorite, although it made me feel a bit uneasy. As I recall, one day I was standing at the top of a twenty-foot ladder when an afternoon wind picked-up quickly. I don’t do well on ladders–period–and especially twenty-foot ladders shaking in the wind. Looking down, I say to the minister, “I’m a little afraid up here, how about we take a break? He looks up with a big smile, “Sudden death, sudden glory. What’s the worry?” He wasn’t joking, either.
At that point the thunderclouds formed and I crept sheepishly down the ladder, having failed my test of faith. I don’t think he understood my fear.
Knowing that he wanted me to be this fine example of Christian piety, I was reluctant to tell him that sudden death was not my idea of sudden glory. I preferred a long life, thank you. He had a curious habit of driving too fast as well. Flying around turns, passing within inches of cars, “Sudden death, sudden glory” was all he said. Whenever possible, I rode my bicycle to work and back. Is this what it means for Christians to be liberated from the sting of death? To live recklessly, testing the powers of fate and God?
Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians may be the reason behind this minister’s attitude. Sooner or later, we will all die, that’s an inescapable fact. For Saint Paul, that fact is as a vivid reminder that when all is said and done, we will each be accountable for how we live this earthly life. Our deeds, be they good or evil, will not be forgotten. The only thing that matters for each one of us is to aim at living in a way that is pleasing to God.
These are sobering words, but not morbid or dismal. They are words of liberation. Death is not something that holds power over Paul. He is confident Death is not the last word. Death is only the gateway to the mysterious presence of the Lord beyond this life. Even so, we need not yearn for it as though this life were something not worth living. Here and now, is the freedom and the challenge of living a fully human life, pleasing God with ordinary deeds.
Death will come to all us of course. Until that time, which no one can finally predict or control, it’s our joy and privilege to experience the fullness of life. Here and now, we have the opportunity to live in a way that honors God–not abstractly, not merely with words, but with real concrete deeds. Deeds that display the grace of Christ in our lives; deeds that may become the instruments of mercy and love, compassion and kindness; such deeds: says Paul, will not be forgotten.
Life, after all, is a gift from God, not our own, but given to us freely and graciously to enjoy. Albert Schweitzer once wrote: “We must all become familiar with the thought of death if we want to grow into really good people. When we are familiar with death, we accept each week, each day, as a gift. Only if we are able thus to accept life–bit by bit as it comes to us–does it become precious.”# And Chaplain Bob Ruff says,
“Don’t give in to the idea that to think about death will some how make it happen. Make a list of the things you want to do before dying and then check them off. Prepare an advance medical directive, designating whom you want to make decisions for you if you can’t make them for yourself and what your end-of-life preferences are. Use your prayer life to prepare for death. Finally, say the most important words to the most important people in your life:
Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.”
Yet, even as goodness flourishes day by day who is willing to stand at the end depending only upon his or her list of good deeds?
Our confidence is not in ourselves but in God and in what God has done for us. Saint Paul describes the basis of our hope this way: “Christ died for all, therefore all died. …We no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. … If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away; everything has become new!” We will stand at the end transformed, only because the one who judges is the one who in mercy died for all. What God will see then is what God sees now: not merely our outward selves, not merely the things that this world judges as successful or worthy. God looks upon us as new creatures made and remade in the very image of God.
Paul says a remarkable thing has happened and calls us to believe what we can barely glimpse. We who live in Christ have been given the gift of new eyes. We look at people differently now. How do we see with these new eyes? One writer put it like this: “The next time you walk down any road, travel any sidewalk, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say Christ died for you, there is a new creation. That girl, that slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That friend. That fool. Christ died for you and you and each and every one of us.”#
This is the remarkable thing that has happened: Christ has died and we have all died. Yet we live with the marvelous gift of new eyes. It’s all by faith, not by sight. We neither fear death nor deny our zest for living. Our life, in this world, is the grand adventure of seeing the new creation of God coming into being in each of us and all around us. The new is breaking in. It will change everything in your life.
Look around on every road, in every field, on every face, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new! All this is from God.