Readings for this week: 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 and Mark 3: 30-35
We do not lose heart.
After all the excitement and (let’s face it) sheer hard work of celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee here we are back to earth with a bump. Perhaps there isn’t a better time to hear Paul’s words ‘we do not lose heart’.
Some of you might know that I wrote to the Queen about the diamond jubilee back in January this year. In researching the background of ‘the day thou gavest, Lord is ended’, for a songs of praise service at Pampisford, I discovered that the hymn was chosen by our present queen’s great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, to be sung at every church service to mark her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. I asked our present queen whether any thought has been given to her providing a selected hymn for use during acts of worship to celebrate this Diamond Jubilee this year? Sadly, the answer was a very polite ‘no’.
But what an amazing hymn for Queen Victoria to choose. Victoria, whose titles included Empress of India, chose a hymn with the lines ‘So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never, like earth's proud empires, pass away’.
How refreshing that Victoria could choose a hymn which openly admitted that her empire and her reign would end. I’m sure people celebrated her 60 years as we did – but how wise of her to point to the fact that her reign was not forever – only God’s reign is eternal.
There is something about the sense of perspective in the whole hymn which makes it so loved, even if it is not a cheerful hymn.
We heard that same sense of perspective in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians
‘Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’
This is not Paul sounding like Fraser from Dad’s Army & saying “we’re all doomed”. He is pointing out the reality of life: we all know that our bodies age each day, and eventually they let us down. Physically or mentally or if we’re really unlucky, both ways we are not what we were. Paul knows what it is to suffer – physically, through illness and trial and imprisonment; mentally, through arguments with others and discouragement and even depression.
He also knows that church life isn’t a constant picnic – there are disputes about who belongs and who doesn’t, debates about how best to share the gospel with the world around, concerns about how to ensure fair shares of money and power, and worries about whether the next generation will continue to be part of the Christian church at all. If all that doesn’t sound familiar to us, it should. We are wasting away: personally, corporately, as a church.
So what is Paul’s solution to all this?
Remember that everything we face is a ‘slight momentary affliction’. Yes the night seems long, sometimes, but the daybreak will come, and when it does it comes with ‘glory beyond all measure’. Paul likens our earthly body to a tent, but states that what awaits us is a building from God, a house not made with human hands, an eternal home in heaven.
I don’t believe that Paul is saying that we should stop living our lives – that we should give up on trying to tell people the good news of God’s love, or that we should stop serving and loving other people. But everything that we do should be done from the perspective of knowing that this is not all there is – that life as we know it is only the start, and that death is the gateway to our eternal home with God.
But what makes Paul say this? Is it all just wishful thinking?
Just yesterday I heard terrible news of a young mum, only 43, who had died suddenly of a heart attack. All I could say to her distressed friends is that she is safe in heaven. That’s not just what I hope – it is not just what St Paul hoped – it is what Jesus promised when he said ‘in my father’s house are many dwelling places’ and its what Jesus proved when he rose from the dead.
We heard a rather baffling story from the start of Mark’s gospel. Jesus’ own family try to restrain him from doing his work, because they fear he is being labelled a trouble-maker, in league with the devil. Jesus does not submit to them, he says ‘whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’. Jesus is focussed on God’s will, on God’s kingdom, he will not simply allow others to steer him towards a quieter life.
And so St Paul, far from suggesting that we abdicate from our responsibilities in life, suggests that we live our lives in a full awareness of where our allegiance should really lie – with God, God’s rule & God’s will. This world is only the start of our lives with God.
This meal of bread & wine is only a foretaste of all that God promises.
This tent of our bodies will collapse – but our real lives are with God.
And so we do not lose heart.
Thanks be to God. Amen.