Let’s talk about death: June 3, 2018

June 3, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 2                                                                
2 Corinthians 4:5-12                                                              


            When I was 12 or 13, I read that your body starts dying at the age of 25.  It had quite an effect on me.  My brothers are older and I considered their ages.  One was 25, but the other 2 still had some time left, which was a relief.  As you can imagine my 25th birthday was a bit of a downer.  Since then I have learned a little bit more about the body and how it ages.  It’s not quite as stark as it seemed at age 12 or 13, but I am aware that one way or another, time takes its toll on your body. We are all mortal which means we are all dying.

            I was in seminary on my 25th birthday, so while coming to terms with my own mortality, I was also reading about how to minister to people who are actually dying. I was practicing my first funeral sermon.  This meant that I thought more about death and dying than your average 25 year old. Since then I have had some time to put it in perspective.  I have also read a lot of the Apostle Paul and he can be reassuring at times.  Had the Apostle Paul been around for my 25thbirthday, he would have told me that I already carried death within me. Once baptized, you carry the death of Christ in you.  In his letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “(we are) always carrying in (our) body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”  I am not sure that would have made a great message on my 25th birthday card, but it works in this passage.

            That said, what does it really mean?  It’s definitely not straightforward. If we are going to carry Jesus within us, wouldn’t it make more sense to carry the living Jesus in us? For Paul, understanding and experiencing dying was integral to understanding living.  Think of it in your own life.  When do you really appreciate your own health—after you have recovered from an illness.  I have been fortunate in that I have only been really sick once in my life.  One of the side effects was problems breathing.  After I got better, I remember thinking, “I will never take breathing for granted again.”  That lasted about a day, but that experience did give me a renewed appreciation for living and breathing. 

            Paul talked a lot about physical suffering in his letters.  In doing so, he emphasized the vulnerability of the human body.  In this passage he said, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The clay jar is a metaphor for the human body.  In the time Paul was writing (almost 2000 years ago) clay jars were a common household item. They were easily made an also easily broken.  They weren’t put on display. The important thing about the clay jar was not the jar itself, but what the jar carried. As Christians, we carry the death and life of Jesus.  It’s a precious thing.  The jar is precious not because of what it looks like, or what it is worth.  It is precious because what it holds. 

            This metaphor of the jar is one of the ways that Paul displayed and taught humility. It is easy to become a little self-important.  We may even feel that we are in control. Then we get sick and we remember we are not in control at all. Paul was saying that the fragility of our bodies helps us to remember that it is not we who are powerful, it is God who is powerful.  The metaphor of the jar can seem a little insulting.  Clay jars had little worth. They were fragile and easy to replace. No one wants to think of themselves that way.     

            We don’t have to, because we carry a treasure of infinite value, which means that we, even in our fragile state are extraordinary.  It also takes a little pressure off us.  There is so much competition in this world.  It is easy to feel as though we are not good enough.  But what if we could just accept that we are not good enough?  What if we could just admit that we are fragile?  We aresomewhat ordinary. After all, there are 7.6 billion people in this world. We are one of 7.6 billion. But that doesn’t matter because we are the vessels of a treasure, a priceless treasure. What can make us unique and special is our ability to display that treasure that we all carry.

            One of the ways we can display that treasure is in how we approach suffering and adversity. Paul wrote, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;…struck down but not destroyed.”  Being a Christian does not mean that we do not suffer.  It means that we have a reason to move through the suffering. I don’t like to use the phrase overcome suffering, because some suffering cannot be overcome.  We don’t conquer suffering.  We wade through the suffering and eventually we make it to the other side.  One commentator wrote that “We are at our wit’s end but not our hope’s end.  As Christians, we may not know what to do, but we always know that something can be done.”[1]That is what it means to be perplexed but not be driven to despair. 

            Despite my advanced age (well past 25), I cannot be exactly sure what Paul meant when he said that “we carry the life and death of Jesus in our bodies.” However, I believe what Paul was really talking about is how we cope with suffering as Christian.  I n facing adversity and suffering, we are showing how we carry the dying Christ.  When we move through that suffering and adversity and refuse to give up hope, that is when we display the living Christ, the Christ who conquered death and rose again.  Unfortunately, there can be no living Christ without the dying Christ. There can be no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. The Good News is that with God in our life, there always is a resurrection.  There always is reason to hope. We may be dying, but death isn’t the end, it’s a chance for new beginning.

[1]Barclay 199