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A Dwelling Place for God

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jun 07

Text-- 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1


This is the season for reunions.  On campuses all across the country you can see buildings and grounds crews manicuring lawns, doing last-minute plantings, and setting up huge white canopy tents.  Campuses never look so good as they do during reunion week! 


Each year in June, intrepid souls venture back to places where we spent significant years of our youth and early adulthood—high school and college campuses across the country.  It’s a time to relive memories and reconnect with friends. But for many, it’s an anxious time, too.  We wonder, “What have I to show for myself?”  What have I accomplished?  What titles, degrees or accolades have I accrued?  What outward signs of success can I display?


At reunions—we know—there will be lots of comparing and (what feels like) judging of outward appearances.  Who has gone gray?  Who still has hair (in the first place)?  Who has packed on a few extra pounds?  Who looks exactly the same as they did ten (or twenty or forty) years ago?  In preparation for their reunion, some will work hard to measure up to standards of outward appearance.  They’ll go on crash diets.  They’ll go shopping for Spanx.  Make an appointment with their colorist. And on and on.


But for some, those outward appearances are not what really matters.  Perhaps you have devoted your life to things invisible—forming friendships, nurturing children, working for a cause, being widely-read and well-informed, engaging in church or civic activities, cultivating kindness and generosity?  What if the things that matter most are invisible?  


The Apostle Paul writes a somewhat feisty letter to the young church at Corinth, a church that is experiencing tensions within itself as well as trying to establish its place in the world at large.  Paul speaks of the promise of being resurrected with Jesus—a promise that perhaps seems unreal amidst the challenges of that moment.  All of that is temporary, he argues.  So do not lose heart.  There is more to life than successes and failures that are outwardly visible.  These transient things—the visible stuff of this world of suffering—will pass away.  If we cannot see the invisible, we should not lose hope, because what is invisible is real and enduring and of great importance.  


Paul frames his argument through a series of distinctions between outer and inner, visible and invisible, temporary and eternal.  His words are full of the dualism we associate with the Hellenistic Greek culture of Corinth, but also found in classical Jewish eschatological thinking. 


Our present sufferings will pass, says Paul.  The body is temporary.  What matters is eternal and invisible.  This way of thinking is far too dualistic for me—and I wonder if it is for you, as well. 


Present suffering may pass, but it also matters.  I believe it mattered to Jesus.  That’s why he fed people—real food—not just symbolically.  It’s why he brought healing to people who were suffering the pain and alienation of physical ailments.  Because Jesus cared about what can be seen—right here and now in this beautiful and broken world. 


Present suffering matters.  The visible matters.  That’s why we care about gun violence and income inequality, affordable housing, immigration laws and environmental degradation. What is visible matters—because this world right here is the realm in which we care—visibly and outwardly—for our neighbor.  This realm right here is where meet God and see evidence of God’s presence with our very own eyes.


So we may not be cool with Paul’s dualism, his stark distinctions between inner and outer, temporal and eternal.  Still, there’s something in what he’s saying—an underlying truth that shines through.  “Paul suggests that amidst the travails of life...we can take comfort that a resurrected Christ lives inside of us.”


If you will bear with me, I invite you to close your eyes, just for a moment.  Now, I want to ask you, “Where is God?”  Admitting that this is a silly exercise, if you had to point somewhere, where would you point?  Where is God for you?   (You may open your eyes.)


There is an old debate among theologians about the point of contact between ourselves and God.  And of course, being a theological debate, there is a five-syllable German word for that point of contact. If I try to pronounce it I will make a fool of myself and a mockery of the German language.  Anknupfungspunkte. 


In the early twentieth century, two theological greats—friends and rivals—both from Switzerland—articulated differing points of view.  Emil Brunner argued that the point of contact is within us, while Karl Barth saw the point of contact as beyond us and God as distant and wholly other. 


The Apostle Paul might have sided with Brunner in this debate. At least in this letter to Corinth, Christ is for Paul a powerful, inward reality.  He writes, “even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (v. 16)


Where is God?  Where is the point of contact?  Where do you see God at work in your life and in the world? 


Bede Griffiths, the British-born Benedictine monk who lived much of his life in India, is said to have conducted a casual experiment with people he met. He asked them, “Where is God?”  he found that Buddhists and Hindus “would typically point to their heart while Jews, Christians, and Muslims would point outside themselves to the heavens.” 


Interesting, because our tradition also describes a God who is immanent and intimate—as close as our very breath.  A God who is at work in our hearts.  We find that right here in Paul’s words.  Our inner nature is being renewed.


Recently my daughter and her friends drove to a music festival in Georgia.  They took along our family tent—an old four-person tent purchased years ago when we did a lot of car-camping as a family.  There wasn’t great phone reception along their route, so I didn’t really know where they were most of the time.  But Molly called the first night out from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. 


“Do we have an REI membership,” she asked?  Because we need to buy another tent.  The tent, it seems, had a broken zipper.  Something I admit to vaguely remembering when we last used the tent and put it away some years ago. 


The problem was temporarily solved with a tarp covering the tent opening.  But they did go and buy a second tent. Not just because the old one was worn out, but because they needed more space for their group of seven. 


Paul knew about tents.  He himself was a tentmaker, according to the Book of Acts.  He didn’t know about music festivals or broken zippers, mosquito netting, or REI memberships (coded to your phone number, btw), but he knew about tents.  And so he uses the tent as his main metaphor in this passage. 


“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with human hands.”  (2 Corinthians 5:1)


When he speaks of “the earthly tent we live in,” Paul is using the image of a tent to convey the temporal nature of our human bodies.  In this same letter to the Corinthians he writes,  “We have this treasure in earthen jars.”


But is there another, possibly deeper meaning here?  Paul’s audience might also have thought of the “Tent of Meeting,” the temporary structure Moses built in the wilderness where the people—Israel—went to meet with God.  The Tent of meeting was erected at some distance from the encampment and Moses and other elders went there to meet with God.


A temporary structure, made with human hands.  Eventually, the Tent of Meeting was replaced by the Tabernacle of Moses—a more substantial structure—to house the Ark of the Covenant and other sacred items.  Now the word tabernacle is a translation of the Hebrew mishkin, which means “dwelling-place.” 


Are we a dwelling-place for God? 


This temporary structure—these bodies of ours—will perish.  But our bodies—these earthly tents—are also our meeting place with God.  Even for Paul!  A place for God to dwell.  And so, friends, God draws very close—and dwells within us.  Within and without, seen and unseen.  Imbuing all things.  The ground of our being.


Will you pitch your tent for God?



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