Sermon for the Third Sunday After Pentecos
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
June 10, 2018 Proper 5B 8:30 AM
Οἴδαμεν γὰρ ὅτι ἐὰν ἡ ἐπίγειος ἡμῶν οἰκία τοῦ σκήνους καταλυθῇ, οἰκοδομὴν ἐκ θεοῦ ἔχομεν, οἰκίαν ἀχειροποίητον αἰώνιον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.
For we know that if our earthly tent-dwelling be destroyed, we have a dwelling from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. (2 Corinthians 5:1)
Paul wasted a lot of time on the Corinthians. What in the world had led him to believe they could follow Christ in the first place? Oh, they were a sophisticated lot and an enthusiastic audience at times. But the Corinthians for all their sophistication and enthusiasm couldn’t seem to get anything right. Maybe it was the corruption of money that had made them so perverse since Corinth was one of those places in the ancient world where you could get rich pretty quick. Every kind of economic temptation got dragged through the city—quite literally—for Corinth prospered by having slaves literally drag great ships over the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, some three kilometers between the Saronic Gulf and the Gulf of Corinth. And what do sailors do in port for the day or two it takes to get their ships refloated? Well, whatever they do takes money; and Corinth was awash in money. It was the land of the nouveau riche and the old rich too. Banks and insurance companies, large warehouses and markets made the city a thriving economic engine.
The philosophers did well in Corinth, finding a surfeit of paying students, and the priests of the mystery cults had no trouble finding spiritually minded Corinthians willing to pay large initiation fees to join their cults of immortality. From ancient times, the name of the city, “Corinth,” had been made into naughty Greek verb meaning “to fornicate”  because there was plenty of temptation to sin in this sailors’ city and plenty of money to spend on it.
The Corinthians had been nothing but trouble for Paul because they got carried away with everything. They were glad to believe that Jesus the great Palestinian messiah had died and had risen again, but they didn’t want to rise again themselves. Bodies rising up out of the earth? How disgusting! They believed their souls were immortal and that their bodies counted for nothing. Some of them proved that proposition by continuing to visit the high-class prostitutes in the city, and one really religious fellow among them started an affair with his step-mother! After all, if you’re on your way to heaven with Jesus, what difference does it make what you do with that old lump of clay we call the body that belongs to the material world? Some of the Christians really had the spirit and were speaking in unknown tongues as part of their hyper-ventilated worship services. Nobody understood a word they were saying, but it must just be wonderful. The tongue-speakers weren’t the only ones to liven up the show. There were prophets too, people who, under the influence of the Spirit, preached and predicted in the name of Jesus. You couldn’t get bored in church; but if you did, you could at least enjoy the heavenly meals the slaves served for the Eucharistic celebrations; and if you drank enough of the fine wines available, you might be speaking in tongues yourself!
Paul heard of the new Christianity in Corinth while in residence in Ephesus and had taken the overnight ferry to the city to see whether he could bring some order out of the Corinthian chaos. He couldn’t. In fact, the Corinthians let him know right from the start that they had grown up and left him behind. Perhaps some were grateful that he had first told them the story of Jesus, but now they found his preaching weak and ineffective, and after a futile visit, Paul skulked back to Ephesus the way he came. The words we read today Paul wrote only after he had returned to Ephesus and only after he had written his former friends in Corinth an angry letter that he later regretted, calling it a “letter of tears.” So now he was working to tell them the good news again in very different words from those he first preached to them. He hadn’t give up on them. He still loved them. He belonged to them as they belonged to Christ. But how could he talk to them about their faith without making things worse? What had gone so wrong? What did he need to write to cut through the anger and suspicion that now separated them?
Paul writes about bricks and mortar. He doesn’t write to the Corinthians about what they have done wrong or what they need to fix but about a building, a structure: “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Neither Paul nor the Corinthians have to wait for builders to construct this edifice. It exists already. The Corinthians don’t have to construct it with their faith or with their tongues or with their sophistry. God built it for them long ago. You would feel safe in a building like this with its well laid blocks and mortar lines. Compare it, if you will, to living in a tent where every gust of wind and every drop of raid seems like a threat.
We lived in old Israeli army tents on the fields of Tell el-Hesi when I excavated there. And we had gotten those tents cheap because the army didn’t want sun-blanched, rain-soaked old tents any longer. Living in a tent involves constant activity, sewing up rips in the fabric, tightening ropes, driving new tent pegs to replace ones the latest hamsin winds had uprooted. Living in a tent amounts to constant maintenance, and unpleasant surprises. I’ve never understood how my wife, an otherwise sensible person, can enjoy camping as recreation; but that’s another discussion. For me, tent living is a pain. Evidently, Paul thought the Corinthians would agree and compared their lives in Corinth to tent dwelling, a mode of existence that was constantly under threat of destruction. His words remind me of long nights under mosquito netting, wishing for a night in the air-conditioned comfort of the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem: “We know that if our earthly tent-dwelling be destroyed.” And isn’t it always about to be destroyed? “While we are in [this] tent we are groaning,” he reminds us, which was certainly my experience. Perhaps the pampered Corinthians would feel the same. But the idea has to do with the longing the Corinthians feel for something more substantial than their daily lives offer them. They feel unstable, under attack, unrested; and Paul doesn’t say those feelings are wrong or out of place, for he’s not writing about tent life in the desert but about human existence in Corinth or in Ephesus or in Mt. Airy. Being a grown-up human being is a scary business, and Paul doesn’t blame his readers for being weighed down by the burdens of life, but he wants to tell them that this unease, life in this tent, life in this city, life in this time doesn’t amount to God’s final word for Corinthians or for residents of Surry County.
So, what about all the Corinthian super-sophistry, the overindulgence in drink and sex, the wild parties they were calling worship? Why had they divided themselves into those who had the Spirit, the spirit of unintelligible speech, of unrestrained prophecy, of overindulgent sacramentalism? Despite what was claimed for them, sex and booze and religious pomposity were the groans of frustration and fear, not the sighs of true satisfaction. And God had something much better than hangovers and STD’s in mind for those precious souls who knew the Lord Jesus, and the difference between what they were experiencing in their feasting halls and what God had already prepared for them was the difference between swatting mosquitoes in a tent at Tell el-Hesi and getting a good night’s rest behind the solid masonry of the American Colony in Jerusalem. Furthermore, there wasn’t a single thing they had to do to enjoy the benefits of God’s loving provision for them.
To be sure, Paul was writing about the hope the Corinthians and we have in the heavenly kingdom, but he wasn’t writing to the Corinthians in the future tense. What God had in store for them—and for us—already exists, and we long to put it on like a garment of life. If the Corinthians thought their theological cleverness or their religious debauchery offered them life, then they only had to consult their own dissatisfaction, their own restive willingness to add insult to injury in the quest for true spirituality; but Paul insisted they didn’t need their frenzied religiosity. Their longing pointed them to the truth of God’s good and loving plan for them, and they could work through their lives in Corinth toward the life God had already constructed for them in God’s heavenly kingdom.
And it is our particular task here in this place to do the same thing, to let God use our longings and frustrations, our challenges and our heartaches to show us the place of brick and mortar God has already prepared for us. All our hope, all our service, all our worship points us to the place God has already built for us where we sit down at table in God’s kingdom and enjoy the feast God has made ready. Our life together with all of its danger and disappointments, its wonders and joys, its incompleteness and its sorrows is, Paul would tell us, what Fanny Crosby called our “foretaste of glory divine.”
 Κορινθιάζομαι. See LSJ (digital) ad loc.
 οἱ ὄντες ἐν τῷ σκήνει τούτῳ στενάζομεν. The best texts omit τούτῳ.
 Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915). See https://hymnary.org/media/fetch/97642.