“We wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed”

A sermon preached by Stacy at St. Paul and the Redeemer on June 18, 2006:

“we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed”

So, as is often the case with the epistle reading, we have entered 2 Corinthians in the middle of a conversation—and a pretty intense one at that. Just before this passage, Paul has been making his case against severe critics in Corinth.  In the previous chapter, he uses lots of language about proclaiming the gospel message openly and making reference to the physical frailty of the messengers. His physical body suffers and even carries, he says, “the death of Jesus.”  He leads into today’s reading with this:

7For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because 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.

Then we heard today:

2For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— 3if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Life in this body is hard, Paul says.  He was, like any educated person in the ancient world, influenced by Greek philosophy—which was very distrustful of the body and the material world—and used philosophical categories and vocabulary in make his arguments.  At first, I thought that he had fallen into the distrust of the body and the material world that infused Greek thought, but on reading the following I realized that he is critiquing that very system:

. . . Paul speaks in the language of popular philosophy, from which the following images are drawn: death as a stripping away of the body (5:2-4); the body as a temporary dwelling (5:1, 4); and the body as a burden (5:4). Seneca taps the same tradition that Paul has at his disposal when he describes the Stoic’s attitude toward death:

But this heart is never more divine than when it reflects upon its mortality, and understands that man was born for the purpose of fulfilling his life, and that the body is not a permanent dwelling, but a sort of inn (with a brief sojourn at that) which is to be left behind when one perceives that one is a burden to the host.10

Yet, in spite of the shared metaphors concerning the finitude and difficulty of bodily existence, Paul resists with all his might the notion that for the sake of the soul’s liberation the body is finally to be put away like clippings of hair and fingernails. Notice in 5:4 his abhorrence of the goal of Stoic eschatology, a soul stripped naked. Death, Paul argues, is not the separation of the soul from the body but the further “bodying” of the soul in an eternal house not made with hands. (David Fredrickson, “Pentecost: Paul the Pastor in 2 Corinthians,” Word & World 11/2 (1991), p. 212)

Let’s dig into these metaphors a bit more then.  Why do we wear clothes and live in houses?  Both serve as protection from the elements, yes, but there’s more. Even when the climate allows for it, human beings like to decorate and define their space with clothes and houses.  Our clothing and our houses define us—for better or worse—they tell the world who we are or who we think we are or who we want to be.  They define our space:  here I am and this is where I live.  Letting people into our dwellings (and into our clothes for that matter) is a way of expressing intimacy and trust.

Paul has been celebrating the frailty of his own earthly dwelling, saying that it draws people’s attention not to him but to Jesus, the real power that dwells in him.  But he longs for and trusts that this is just a temporary state.

So all of this talk about clothes and dwellings leads me to make a confession. I watch makeover shows.  First there was “What Not to Wear”.  Then there was “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”  You know, the shows where some slob’s closet is unceremoniously dumped and a whole new wardrobe (and makeup and hair and more) is offered. The process of watching some woman who’s hopelessly caught in the 80’s or a guy who lives in oversized t-shirts and baggy sweats be transformed into someone who looks classy and put together is somehow compelling to me. Now I’m hooked.

What is it about those shows?  These folks certainly are living in pretty shabby earthly tents.  The people around them give testimony to the dwelling (of their clothes) not expressing who they are or sending mixed messages about what they want.  One of the things that the “candidates” often worry about at the beginning is that somehow they will forfeit their identity, lose their uniqueness, get stuffed into someone else’s idea of style and beauty.  They want to be comfortable; they think they look just fine.  Most of the time, however—and I know that these things are heavily edited and if there are failures we probably won’t see them—but most of the time, the person made over will say at the end that he or she feels more comfortable, more beautiful, more fully themselves now that the clothes fit properly and are the right color and style.  The outside now reflects the inside.  The outside now proclaims grace and confidence and fun and maturity and whatever else we long for the world to know about us.

So will there be clothes in heaven?  Or houses?  I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s Paul’s point.  Whatever his physical ailment, he struggled with his body.  Yet he knew it to be an important, even essential part of his witness to Jesus Christ and his transforming power.  The weakness of his body was essential to that witness.  But when the witness was no longer necessary, once that body was left behind, he knew that he would be clothed in something else, something similar but transformed.  He didn’t hate the body; he longed for it to be more, for it to be transformed into its own perfection.  I love that line I read earlier: the soul would be even further “bodied.”

It seems to me that Jesus’ parables reflect the same sense that Paul is expressing, that the visible, the obvious, the physical, the world around us and our very bodies are a sign, but only a pale or ineffectual sign of what is to come. The seed is housed in the earth when it is planted.  The seed itself is a dwelling, an earthly dwelling for the plant that is to come.  And yet the final outcome of that seed is a plant with stalk and leaves that themselves clothe, even more extravagantly the same seed the dwelt in the ground.

The parable of the mustard seed goes even further.  One of the things we don’t often realize with this parable is that it’s a joke.  The mustard bush as we know it is not the “greatest of all shrubs.  Have you ever seen a picture of it?  Birds can’t make their nests in its branches, not the way we know it.  So this tiny mustard seed is dwells in the ground, grows and is reclothed as a bush , a powerful transformation in itself, but then Jesus says that in the Kingdom of God this pathetic little shrub is able to do things we’d never believe.

There’s a still further tie to Paul’s musing on being clothed and unclothed, on dwellings made with hands and not and to Jesus’ riddles about secrets hidden in simple packages.  Today is, for many, the feast of Corpus Christi, a day commemorating the institution of the Holy Eucharist.  The original idea was to be able to celebrate the Sacrament outside of the bittersweet, solemn tone of Holy Week.  It can call up visions of monstrances and way too much incense (is that possible?) and distance between the sacrament and the people, but I found even as we celebrate Eucharist every week, I like the idea of celebrating that gift.

What is that we believe about the Eucharist? (BCP 859)

Q.  What is the outward and visible sign in the Eucharist?

A.  The outward and visible sign in the Eucharist is bread and wine, give and received according to Christ’s command.

Q.  What is the inward and spiritual grace given in the Eucharist?

A.  The inward and spiritual grace in the Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Christ give to his people, and received by faith.

Q.  What are the benefits which we receive in the Lord’s Supper?

A.  The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our union with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.

I love the Eucharist, but really, the bread and the wine certainly don’t look or taste like a banquet.  We eat this bread and share the cup knowing that they are like the mustard seed, hiding a reality beyond what we can even imagine—just as we are to look at each other and within our lumpy bodies and cranky souls see Christ waiting to be revealed.

And so we return to Paul. In the Holy Eucharist, Christ is clothed in bread and wine, and, once eaten, takes up residence, makes a dwelling within his people, even as we long for a dwelling place freed from sin and pain and death.  We already are “a building from God, a house not made with hands.”  Here Christ dwells.  Just as he is clothed in simple bread and wine, so is he clothed in us.  Just as the seed holds possibilities unseen and unimagined, so, too, this community has within it possibilities for reconciliation and justice and love far beyond anything we could manage on our own.

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