Holy Communion 6th June 2021
Seen and Unseen
2 Cor 4. 14 – 5. 1
There is an almighty scramble today to get flights back from Portugal. People who, with great relief and joy, headed off last week to a country which is warm, sunny, and, vitally, green, found that the Government changed the traffic lights last week. It’s really difficult and inconvenient, of course, but the way it is being reported makes it sound more disastrous than the pandemic itself, which remains devastating internationally.
Media reporting of tourism seems to be treating it as the essence of life, as if without it we cannot be fully human. It certainly says something about being rounded and whole, but I can’t see that being denied a sun holiday is on the same level as the risk of serious illness and the spreading of the virus across the world. The travel and tourism industry is one among many which has been battered over the last sixteen months, but the changing of the light from green to amber is not quite an apocalypse.
Our experiences over several lockdowns have been very revealing of the foundations of our security, identity and hope, and what we have realised we really need, what makes us. I am as keen as anyone to warm my bones under a sunshade, but I have to ask if that is the most important, most vital thing right now.
Paul writes to the Corinthians that
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.
2 Cor 4. 17 - 18
Paul has outlined earlier in the chapter what he means by his “affliction”: it is about being crushed, persecuted, stuck down, and carrying in his body the “death of Christ”. The word for “affliction” here means “squeezed” and applies to the mind, emotions and spirit as well as to the body. In earthly terms he is having the life throttled out of him. It is in no way “slight”, and he uses that word ironically in verse 17. This is real suffering. To say it is “slight” is not to downplay the reality of the suffering, but to share another perspective.
Real as these afflictions are, they are outweighed, literally, by the glory which is to come. If he bears in his body “the death of Christ”, then after such a death comes resurrection. If there is groaning and suffering now, it will be enfolded into and overwhelmed by the glory which comes through the healing, forgiveness, hope, wholeness and life of the risen Christ. Paul’s crushing will not be solved by sunshine, but by the light of Christ.
Paul‘s language is very strong about the reality of his afflictions. But this serves to reinforce, to highlight, the power and weight of the hope which he offers the Corinthians in the Gospel, the life of God in them. In the same way we should not downplay the nature of the affliction we have all been through in such as way as to say that a decent holiday might sort it all out. It is far deeper than that. The nation, and our world, has faced serious illness and mental and spiritual affliction, which will take weeks and years to recognise and work with.
So it should not be a light and easy thing to say that as long as we fix our gaze on what we cannot see, on the eternal, all will be well, as if it were some kind of magic wand. As a church we must recognise where people have had their life and spirit and soul squeezed beyond measure. We should take seriously the effect on our children, not simply in the nature of their learning (though we should shout loud about how much that might be worth), but in their growth emotionally and spiritually and physically too.
We should recognise the way people have lost their hope and identity as jobs have vanished while others seem to have prospered. The rich have got immeasurably richer over the last year. Gaps have widened. People are suffering physically and grieving deeply. A compassionate church will move alongside, take the time to listen, bring food and love and volunteer time, be patient, be generous, help children read, welcome the refugee, open the building for longer, hold out a sanitised hand in welcome. Affliction needs help.
That compassion is best expressed in the light of hope, in the context of glory. Compassion is driven by a vision of the kingdom of heaven. We can stand with people in their suffering, but we can’t always make it better here and now. We stand with them now, and they stand with us, because we believe that the death of Christ opens the way to salvation, to eternal glory, to life in a its fullness. Taking affliction seriously makes the glory real, right here, right now. This hope has nail printed hands, a thorn scarred head, a spear pierced side.
What can be seen is temporary, says Paul. But we see it with our own eyes and our hands must reach out to help. What cannot be seen is eternal. May our wounded hands hold up the stumbling. And may our hope be in what is to come, glimpsed even now in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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