Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Engaged to God: a new reading of 2 Corinthians 5:1-9

Christianity has many basic doctrines, and each branch has its own doctrines of interpretation that stem form them. The most universal of Christian doctrines is resurrection after death, indeed one of the most important and significant ideas in all New Testament scripture. But the mechanism behind that age-old question "What happens when you die?" leads to some respectful dissension. The popular idea is that you die and immediately go to heaven or hell (or purgatory, for those Catholics who can't give up that idea). Others pull out scriptures to get a little more specific, saying you go to some "heavenly realm" or holding place or sheol or something where the righteous and unrighteous are still divided, but the final heaven and hell come after the last judgment. There are even those who subscribe to a doctrine commonly called "soul sleep" where you die and your soul is sort of "asleep" or unconscious or whatever until the final resurrection, and then all the souls reach their destinations at the same time. For those souls, it would feel instantaneous, but from the perspective of the living would not be. Like suspended animation of the dead.

Now, I'm not here to argue any one reading. When all is said and done, scripture definitely teaches a resurrection and a reward for the righteous in Christ and punishment for the unrighteous; scriptural evidence is too numerous to cite here. I'm more interested in the justification used to discount the "soul sleep" argument. Again, I'm not subscribing to the idea. I can understand why one might come to that conclusion after reading Paul's epistles. But there are verses that suggest maybe not. The two verses most prominently offered as evidence that there is no soul sleep are Jesus telling the thief on the cross "This day you will be with me in Paradise", and a passage that reads "absent from the body, present from the Lord."

Now, I've been in the church world a long time. And I have heard time and again the phrase "absent from the body, present with the Lord." It is always used in discussions of the hereafter. As in, "When you die, you go right to be with God. Absent from the body, present with the Lord." I knew I had read it in scripture, and it wasn't one of those things everyone thinks the Bible says but doesn't. Still, I wasn't sure the context, since it did seem to be so clear cut, when the rest of the aforementioned Pauline epistles aren't exactly. If the Bible was so clear on this point, why was it so easy to confuse?

In looking for something else today, I found the passage in question in 2 Corinthians 5. The verse in full (verse 8) reads as follows in the New King James version: "We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord." But I have to say, whenever I've seen it in context, keeping in mind the afterlife reading of it, it's always struck me as a sort of digression. In looking at it again, I offer now a radical rethinking of what this passage means. This is not an essay about the afterlife. That was just preamble. Instead, I'm challenging you to consider whether this passage is perhaps NOT one that should be used to support such a position, because it isn't talking about that at all. This piece is not meant to alter your views on what happens when you die; rather it is meant to perhaps alter your reading of this verse and those around it.

At first blush, it might seem very reasonable. Paul opens chapter 5 (I say this knowing full well Paul didn't put chapter breaks in) by discussing how we are trapped in our mortal bodies right now, yearning for the heaven that awaits us when the chains of flesh will be no more. He calls the body "our earthly house, tent". He then compares it to the "house" we have in heaven, not made with hands. This might seem to correlate to Jesus and the "many mansions" he left to prepare. It culminates in verse six: "always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord." Thus, it's easy to see a quick link there. If the "home" is our body, in which we are absent from the Lord, and then absence from the body is present with the Lord, then absent from the body means leaving the body behind, thus dying. There's a certain element of the resurrection tied into it all, yes, but I'm coming to believe that reading is not correct. After the famous passage, look to the very next verse.

Verse 9: "Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him." And in that verse contains the entire shift in meaning. It is loaded with conditionals that must be met if we are to understand the verse properly.
1) Paul uses "we" here, even though he is speaking of both present and absent. Are we to infer Paul is writing this epistle to dead Corinthians as well?
2) The verse suggests a conscious act of pleasing God
3) That conscious act is possible for all "wether present or absent"
4) Nowhere else can I think of where Paul writes of the dead in Christ having to choose to continue to be pleasing to Him.

Therefore, I conclude the "absence" mentioned is not death. It is "our aim", the aim of us, the living, to please God whether present or absent. ...Okay, what does that mean then? Now I'm confused, you say! A little help comes in the verse sandwhiched between 6 and 8. Six says when at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. Eight says "absent from the body and present with the Lord." Verse 7, the important link, reads "For we walk by faith, not by sight." One of many many times Paul says this.

I submit, therefore, the absence which Paul addresses in verse 8 is not the complete leaving behind of the mortal tent, but the act of being in the Spirit. I don't necessarily mean "in the Spirit" in the sense of living as a Christian and not of the world. Not in the same way that it means walking as Christ always. That reading would mean we are always absent from our body when we live as we should! I mean "in the Spirit" in the more prayerful intense sense. Like John's "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day..." (Revelation 1:10). Those times when it's just you and God, in church or in your daily prayer life. You see, in the earlier verses in chapter 5, Paul says that we in our earthly houses groan for what's coming. He uses another image of clothing. That we yearn to be clothed from heaven; not that we are naked now, being clothed with our earthly tent, but that we want to be "further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life" (verse 4). In this sense, Paul's not saying we take off our mortal life and put on the new Spiritual one. There are other passages which are clearly resurrection oriented and do have imagery of that type, but not here. He caps this point by saying that God who is preparing this new house, this new clothing, this new good thing for us "also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee." Now that word guarantee literally comes closer to "down payment." God has given the Spirit as a down payment; an expression in the now of what we will have later. So yes, when we die we will ultimately (whenever you believe) be present with the Lord, but right now we can also be because the Spirit is with us.

When you look at the whole of chapter 5 in the context of the chapters before it, this reading becomes clearer. Paul writes in chapter three of the Spirit of God pulling away the veil, revealing the glory of God which we will be made like. And even chapter 5 itself continues with more hints in this direction. Verse 10 speaks of the final judgment where we will receive the things done in the body according to what was done good or bad. Some would argue "you see! It's about when you die!" but remember the verse before? About how we "we whether present or absent make it our aim to be well pleasing"? The verse only says we are judged by what things are done in the body. But down in verse 12 Paul again juxtaposes the outward life with the inward life, mentioning those "who boast in appearance, but not in heart." That is, the part of them absent from the body, or at least not so much a part of it, is absent from the Lord.

Paul never says "to be absent from the body and therefore present with the Lord", though that's how it is usually read. The verse again reads "We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord." That "rather" in there goes back with walking by faith not by sight. We are well pleased in being absent from fleshly desires by faith, looking to our God.

Let me get to an analogy that I think will make my point clearer, and which lends this piece its title. Picture a man and a woman who are deeply in love, and now engaged to be married. The woman right now lives in her own house, with her own things. She spends a lot of time with her fiance and she loves being with him. But she knows that when their evenings are over, she will return to her own little home with those things that concern her home. And yet, even when not with her fiance, she doesn't live as a different person. She doesn't put all of her attention toward other things or to simply planning to be stuck in that house forever. She's eagerly anticipating the day of their marriage, and as much as she's not neglecting housecleaning or paying her utilities, she's also buying a dress and booking a church and squealing with all her girlfriends just how awesome it's going to be to be with her man all the time. They see each other at least once a week, and on those days it's easy for her to forget everything else. She's only concerned with him, and the problems of her own house or her solitary life don't seem so important. They call each other, text each other, and check each other's Facebook every day. Sometimes when it gets to the middle of the week, or she hasn't called in awhile, she starts to really miss him. She knows that marrying him is what she wants and it frustrates her to wait, or to feel like he's not quite involved in her life yet. But that's not all. The husband-to-be has put a down payment on a big beautiful 4 bedroom 2 1/2 bathroom house that they will move into once they marry. She is most excited because when that day comes, all of those things of hers that are stuck in her little house will be spread out in a new space, and her possessions will be shared with his. The hope for this new home now colors the way she lives in her own house. She's able to concentrate on throwing out the things she's not going to need again, or the things she never should have ended up with in the first place. The time she spends with him now fuels the hope she has for the later, when they have that whole house together.

Now in this little parable, God is the husband and we are the wife. [This is just a metaphor; contrary to popular belief, the church is NOT the Bride of Christ. Revelation (and the gospels) are quite clear that the New Jerusalem is the bride of Christ. But that's a topic for another time.] The wife lives in her own house with her own things, some good some bad, and her own issues, just as we lodge in this "earthly house" of the flesh. The Spirit is the down payment on the life with God that is to come, and it gives hope and helps to get those things in our bodily houses in order while we still have work to do before the wedding, the day we die or are resurrected and spend eternity with Christ. When we're in deep prayer, or at church, or some other very spiritual or Godly event (the dates, the phone calls, the texting), we feel very connected to God, and absent from all the rest of earthly life. But then there are times when we leave and have to think about paying bills or buying groceries. But even in those times, the promise of the Spirit, that notion of the home to come, hopefully keeps us with a different perspective. I like Paul's idea of the new life "swallowing up" the old. Just like the woman in the story would soon be able to move her stuff out of her house and into the new one where there would be more space, all the good that makes us who we are will be translated and transformed into a new place with so much more room to grow. Sometimes it means leaving aside other things you won't need, but it doesn't mean losing everything; who we are is a part of how we've lived. But God wants to help us pack, and then move into grander things with those pieces. If you have an old broken spatula that you barely use, it's time to trust that God has a spatula, and a better one. The sharing of married life is so much better.

That's what Paul's talking about here. It's easier to be "present with the Lord" in the Spirit, and thus in a way absent from the body. Note the wording Paul uses in verse 6: "while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord." That is, if we settle into that earthly tent, see it as our future, and don't budge, then we neglect the presence of God and the better home he has for us. And yes, even in those times when we are going about our earthly business and feel absent from the Lord, we should strive to live to please Him anyway. Isn't that what verse 9 is really saying? That to me is much more special than "I go right to be with Jesus when I die." That says "I can be as close to Jesus as possible now, and it's even BETTER when I die."

I hope I've been able to clearly illustrate something that really jumped out at me this morning, and maybe it will challenge you to reexamine scripture and some of your own beliefs. Start making plans, brothers and sisters, we're getting married soon!

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