Monday, August 17, 2009

Carrying around death

There's a particular phrase that, for some reason, refuses to be dislodged from the crevice of my mind today. It comes from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, as found in the Bible. "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus..." (4:10).

Mind-blowing, isn't it? I just can't get over it. We always carry around / in our body / the death of Jesus.

The spectre of death is present right from the beginning. This is an impassioned and deeply personal letter, and it throbs with emotional intensity. Imagine a dearly cherished friend, away in a foreign land, possibly a dangerous one. You're ripping the envelope apart the moment you spot that he's arrived in epistolary form in today's post. Bite your lip, as you read of some hardship so severe, that he "despaired even of life" (1:8) and felt the "sentence of death" (1:9). Try to ignore, unsuccessfully, the pangs of regret, about the previous "painful visit", where one of your own had spoken out against him. Hurts more than a hundred opponents. And that earlier letter of heartfelt admonishment - oh that letter! At least it's gone now - one filled with "great distress", "anguish of heart" and "many tears" (2:4). The sorrow from having to discipline someone on the same side is felt on both sides of this correspondence.

But our friend, Paul, knows who his God is. He is the "Father of mercies and God of all comfort" (1:3). Comfort, comfort, says Isaiah the prophet centuries ago. Comfort, comfort, Paul repeats, ten times in 5 verses (1:3-7). He is weak, but God's power works amidst such weakness, the most famous soundbite in this letter (12:9). All he needs is God's provision, for "our sufficiency is from God" (3:5 ESV). Not rhetoric, or charisma, or "success" shown in the absence of suffering, thus "proving" divine favour. The God who creates simply by speaking, and who removes veils from eyes, is at work; we only serve him (4:1ff). 'Paul therefore allows his humanness, his vulnerability, his seeming inadequacies to remain visible, so that when people look at him they will not see another paradigm of the myth of self-justification, but rather the fire of God's favour and power glowing through the translucent walls of an ordinary clay vessel.' [1]

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. Four verse ten.

As I think about this, I find myself trying to escape the implications of what Paul is saying. To carry around the death of Jesus is basically saying, to die to myself every day. It's saying, persevere even though it's hard. And to persevere, you need to keep coming to Jesus, and not to yourself because that's the only way it's gonna happen. Gospel ministry can work no other way. But who wants to die? That difficult relationship with that person, when it's much easier, much less tiring to keep a distance? We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus. Tempted to subtly promote yourself, or put others down? We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus. Don't want to be awkward at the expense of truth and integrity? We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.

Yes, I know, this Christianity thing, it's no mere psychological crutch, is it? But the promise is that true comfort, not a shallow one, is found from leaning on Jesus, who died and rose again for us. "So we do not lose heart" (4:16)


[1] An introduction to the New Testament: contexts, methods and ministry formation, David DeSilva, p.587


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