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Walking Without a Flashlight / Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

2 Corinthians 5:6–10

So, we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.

Faith invites us to trust God even if we can’t yet see the evidence or the outcome. Nowhere is this invitation more important than when we look ahead to our own deaths.

Here’s an experience that many of us have had. The night is dark and stormy, and the power goes out. The circuit box is downstairs in the back corner of the basement. You believe you know the way, but there may be obstacles in your path. As you go down the steps, you try to map it out in your mind. Where did I leave that box of dishes for the next yard sale? Is that old bicycle still sitting in the middle of the room? That old lawn furniture, where was it left after it was brought inside?

Taking one more careful step, you think how helpful it would be to have a flashlight. You could see where you’re going and make your way to reset the power, but it’s too dark even to find a flashlight. You make your way forward without seeing clearly.

Isn’t the life of faith like this? We’ve heard the promises of God, but we’re still walking in the dark. We know that faith, hope and love are real, yet they’re out of sight. I once heard them called “the great invisibles,” meaning they’re present but not always obvious. We declare that all sin is forgiven, yet people still sin. We claim to believe and live as we have been taught, but the way isn’t clear. We’re walking in the dark.

The most obvious “invisible” is death, specifically what happens after we die. Do we rest with our ancestors, like the prophet Samuel? Do we descend to the mythological world of the dead? Do we wish to move quickly to the paradise which Jesus promised to the repentant thief on a nearby cross? Or do we have to wait for the final day of resurrection when all the dead are raised and judged? All these scenarios are mentioned in the Bible. So, what’s going to happen when we die?

Paul takes up that question in the passage for today. He’s been defending his ministry while he was away from the Corinthian church and people are questioning him. They contested his authority. They criticized his sermons. They trashed his reputation. His response has and always has been to point to Jesus, crucified and risen. The Lord was condemned and killed by His enemies, an act that was met by the supreme act of forgiveness. Likewise, Paul never assumed that his preaching would automatically be received. It didn’t happen to Jesus, so there’s no reason Paul expected it either.

Just like Christ Jesus, Paul finds that he is supported by the same “invisible” power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. He keeps working, even though there’s resistance to the Gospel. This resistance goes with the territory. “For we who are living are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake,” he writes, “so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal flesh.” His imitation of Christ gives him confidence. He refuses to lose heart even if he should lose his life.

To help us understand this, he uses three metaphors. The first describes his physical body as a tent. God may live in a huge mansion in the heavens, but Paul’s tired, worn-out body is more like a tent. It’s temporary, not permanent. It’s subject to violent storms and torrential rains. It’s shaken by the winds, insecure yet still inhabited.

Picture somebody you know, at the end of life’s long journey. Somehow, she keeps going. A bright light still burns in her eyes. Yet she is tired and worn out. When her grown children have left the room, she says, I don’t know how much longer I can go on. But the Lord still gives me one more day. There’s no despair in her voice, only weariness. Her life resembles a tent. She wants to relocate to God’s mansion.

The second picture that Paul paints is that of clothing. Jesus may have taught that the body is more than clothing, but Paul considers the body as clothing for the soul. Our bodies are subject to wear and tear. As sleeves on a well-loved shirt become worn and frayed, so our skin and bones begin to grow fragile. Eyes grow dim. Knees wear out. Our joints can hurt, and no spring is left in our step.

Paul longs for a new body, a “new set of clothes,” so to speak. He already wrote about this in his first letter to the Corinthian church, so he doesn’t overstate the point here. In that previous letter, he compared our destiny to the Christ who has been raised from the dead, stating, Just as we wear the likeness of the man made of earth, so we will wear the likeness of the Man from heaven.

The third metaphor lies in the center of today’s text. After “tent” and “clothing,” Paul settles on “home.” Those who die in the Lord will be at home with the Lord. We gain a glimpse of a continuing relationship with the risen Lord. Those who trust Jesus are responding to the Good News announcing His resurrection. They can pray to Him and through Him. They can listen to His claim on their lives. They can hear Him speak through the faithful Word of the Church. They have a relationship with Him.

What happens when we die? We enter into a relationship with the Savior we have not yet seen. We have had that relationship with Him since faith was given to us. In death, however, the relationship is complete and accessible. The veil is lifted. Any misunderstanding is now clear. We will see Jesus as He is, as He always has been, and we will live in Him and with Him eternally. For Paul, this is the joy of the Gospel. It’s the hope that sustains him through all the troubles.

Does he see this clearly as he writes his letter? Only in his heart. He trusts everything that he has heard and experienced from the risen Christ. He remembers the voice and light on the road to Damascus many years ago. Living the gospel is hard. Spreading the word and showing Christ’s love is difficult. Those who do it well are frequently wounded. Yet they are thoroughly alive. This is what renews his hope in what he cannot yet see. He longs to make his final home with Jesus.

Pay attention to this longing, for it is a longing for home that all of us have. All of us have two homes: the home we remember and the home we hope for. We remember the home that was our place of origin. We hope for the home which will be our ultimate destination. The longing for home is so universal a form of longing that there is even a special word for it, which is of course homesickness. We wish for our true home, even if we can’t yet see it.

So, we return to where we began today. We walk, not by flashlight, but by faith. We trust in God’s great promises even as we wait for them to be fulfilled. We hope for what we have heard but cannot yet see. This is the true nature of faith.

There is a game of sorts that has made the rounds in church camps and youth groups. A tight circle forms around the one who stands in the middle. She or he is blindfolded, and then invited to fall backwards. It may take some convincing, but if he or she is willing to do it, the others in the group are asked to catch that person.

No doubt, some are afraid to do this. They don’t want to fall backwards out of control. Yet for the one who trusts, the one who let’s go of fear, there’s the exhilaration of being caught by unseen hands.

This is a parable of our future, secure in the love of Christ. All of us will fall someday and He will catch us. Can we see this in advance? No, but we can trust the love that we cannot see.