Intimations of Immortality1

Proclaim Sermons
June 9, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The apostle Paul is surprisingly candid about death, and the subject pops up frequently in his letters, including this passage to the church at Corinth. He explains his positive attitude toward death by offering a series of contrasts in which the unseen, eternal, incorporeal and immortal aspects of our future existence far outweigh the seen, momentary, corporeal and mortal nature of our brief existence on earth.

Filmmaker Woody Allen famously said, "I'm not afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." No doubt we agree. Not only don't we want "to be there," as ardent adherents of a death-denying culture, we also don't want to think about it. Sit still for a moment. Close your eyes and think ahead into your future to the moment when you draw your last breath. You're here one moment; gone the next. And the world will have to go on without you. Doesn't it give you the willies?

But, although we don't want to die - unless possibly if we've suffering with chronic and severe pain - we also may not want to live indefinitely as wretched, shriveled old crones or ancient crotchety old coots who can scarcely walk, think, eat or take care of ourselves. We probably don't want that.

Intellectually, we know that we have a date with destiny, and time is inexorably moving us closer to that moment. That said, although we tremble at the thought of dying, we might be okay with immortality. Isn't it true that, deep inside, we're fond of thinking that we will be remembered after we die - at least for a little while? Yet, the inconsolable - if not inconvenient - truth is that for most of us, the sands of time will blow across whatever traces we made while walking upon the earth, and in less than a century after our death, no one will be alive who remembers us at all.

This is dreary talk, to be sure, but it is suggestive of the text before us from St. Paul's second letter to the Christians at Corinth. The apostle wrote about death more than you might think. His letters to his protege Timothy are particularly poignant, because Paul knew he was living on borrowed time. He tells Timothy, "I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith."2

This dovetails with what we might say is the theme of today's reading: "So we do not lose heart." Read the apostle Paul - he's positively ebullient on the subject of death, and indeed, he was fearless when he faced the Grim Reaper mano-a-mano. It is as though he had what the poet Wordsworth called "intimations of immortality." If we have a shot at immortality, we'd be fools not to take it. Paul gets us thinking about the possibilities.

Because, let's get real, unless we've written the "great American novel," we're a famous movie star or a famous or infamous politician, immortality - in terms of its accepted secular meaning - is not going to happen for us. Some souls take a stab at limited immortality by keeping a diary or journal. Even famous people have done so, notably Anais Nin, Soren Kierkegaard, Sylvia Plath and others. There is value in this. The ancient psalmist advised us to "count our days."3 Taking daily stock of our lives allows us, as Oscar Wilde put it, to become "spectators" of our own lives.

If this is true, we could go further and say that journal writing permits the writer to become not only a spectator, but a student of one's own life - as the apostle Paul certainly was. He was a scholar of his life, always reflecting on its contribution to the commonweal, and even more importantly, on whether he was centered in the will of God. This is why he could philosophize about whether it might be better to die now or linger indefinitely for the sake of others: "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, yet I cannot say which I will choose. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you."4

So, we do not lose heart. This is his theme in this chapter, a theme he mentions twice - verses 1 and 16. If we can live as though it is important to do so, or die in the expectation of an eternal existence beyond the grave, then we have achieved emotional stasis. We're good, come what may. We have lost neither heart nor hope. There is a reason for this: "For we know that, if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."

Why does Paul have a positive outlook?

To explain why he is so cheerful when running against the wind, Paul offers several explanations. He rattles of a series of contrasts:

Augustine said "Dubito ergo sum" - I doubt, therefore I am. The Cartesian version, roughly a thousand years later, asserted Cogito ergo sum - I think, therefore I am. But for many of us, our being is more closely tied to the material, not the mind. "I shop, therefore I am." Or, more terrifying, "I teach, therefore I drink."

But the corporeal world has cracks in the clay of which it is made. Somehow we know intuitively that "life's too short to fold fitted sheets."5 It is often superficial, offering only a fraction of the complete reality. It can deceive, for appearances can be misleading. The seen can also be ephemeral, as it is subject to decay, change and impermanence. What we see today may not exist tomorrow.

The apostle Paul wouldn't say the seen world is unreal, but he certainly insisted that the unseen world was more important. "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." What is he talking about?

He's referring to the intangible, hidden aspects of our existence - the metaphysical, emotional and the spiritual dimensions that can't be seen by an electron microscope or discovered via mass spectrometry. Our emotions, thoughts, beliefs and values are real. Our faith, destiny and our afterlife in eternity are real - so much more real than the electric vehicle we have in the garage or the monthly car payments we make to keep it there.

Shades of immortality

Yet, Paul is not finished. Immortality is not just a pipe dream or a secret hope. Paul asks us to note the difference between the tent and the mansion. Paul explains why he doesn't lose heart by contrasting his "earthly tent" with a "building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."

The apostle compares our mortal existence to living in a tent. Those who have done any camping know that although camping can be fun - for two days, maybe - the pleasure diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of rain that leaks through the canopy during a storm. This is Paul's meaning when he writes, "For in this tent we groan, longing to be further clothed with our heavenly dwelling."6

This is why we "do not lose heart." This is why our hearts need not quiver at the thought of our own death. "The one who raised Jesus will also raise us with Jesus and will present us with you in his presence." The Bible gives us not just "intimations of immortality," but positive assertions of it.

Still, it might be appropriate to conclude with the poetry of William Wordsworth, the poet laureate of England and great Romantic poet of the early 19th century.

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,
...Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
...We will grieve not, rather find
...Strength in what remains behind;
...In the primal sympathy
...Which having been must ever be;
...In the soothing thoughts that spring
...Out of human suffering;
...In the faith that looks through death.