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An Eternal Hope
Summer Quarter: Confident Hope
Unit 3: Faith Gives Us Hope
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 29, 2021
By Dr. Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:10
So We Do Not Lose Heart
We are coming to the end of the summer quarter with its emphasis on Confident Hope. It makes sense that this quarter would culminate with a focus on eternal hope. The focus of the third unit in this quarter has been how “faith gives us hope.” Not only does faith give us hope, but hope helps us sustain faith over the long haul. Our scripture lesson begins with these words: “So we do not lose heart.” When we understand that our hope bridges our life on earth into eternity, eternity has the power to become our magnetic north. Our eternal hope urges us onward in the living of our faith on earth. Everything we have been learning in this third unit encourages us not simply to coast toward the future, but to keep growing in our faith until we enter eternity.
Embracing an Eternal Hope in Our Temporal Existence
A good word to learn as we begin this lesson is the word “temporal.” The life of a Christian revolves around two poles: the temporal and the eternal. Temporal refers to our earth-bound, time-bound, mortal existence. Think for a moment how we begin the season of Lent. We begin with the observance of Ash Wednesday. When the ashes are placed on our forehead in the sign of the cross, the leader often says, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return, so live now and always under the cross of Jesus.” In this way, we are reminded of our mortality and our need for God. We’re also reminded of this in Psalm 90. In verse 12 of that psalm, we hear the words, “So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart full of wisdom.” When we remember that our time on earth is limited, it compels us to make the most of the time.
In this lesson, we return to the writings of Paul. This time it is his second letter to the Corinthians. Listen for the interplay between our temporal existence and a hope that is eternal.
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For 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.
Certainly, a feature of our temporal existence is that our outer nature is wasting away. If we are believers, however, we understand that we also have an inner nature that is being renewed day by day. This daily renewing of our inner nature helps us not to lose heart.
The wasting away of our outer nature, however, does cause us an affliction. This affliction is described both as momentary and slight. This affliction is momentary for believers because eternity awaits us. The wasting of our outer nature can often seem to go on for a long time, but compared to eternity, it is momentary. The wasting of our outer nature can often seem like anything but slight. We know of loved ones who struggled greatly in their last days. That said, Paul says our affliction is slight when compared to what awaits us on the other side of death: an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all measure.
How do you unpack a phrase like an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all measure
? We’re talking about a reality so full of wonder, deep, massive, expansive, boundless, and everlasting. To attempt to describe this reality too much risks reducing it. That’s why Christians are comfortable with mystery. God’s nature is mysterious in the same way that love is mysterious. Mystery should not bother us, but instead thrill us. Mystery should be comforting, because of all the good we know about God – boundless goodness and wonder.
So, the wasting away of our outer nature and the renewing of our inner nature are both in their own unique ways preparing us for what awaits us. Paul reminds us that this view of life depends on our ability to look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen. What is seen is temporary. What is unseen is eternal. Our temporal existence is temporary. Our temporal existence is what we see and experience through our five senses, but there is this completely other unseen realm that is eternal. This is why faith is absolutely necessary. Faith gives us hope.
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. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling – if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
What we have been referring to as our outer nature, our physical bodies, is also referred to by Paul as our earthly tent. My wife, daughter, and I decided to go up to Amicalola Falls State Park on a spur of the moment camping trip. We brought our old tent out of storage and packed it in the car. We had not really taken the time to look at the weather reports, but as we approached our destination, it looked like a lot of rain was coming. So, once we arrived, we set out hurriedly to put up the tent, thinking that if we set it up quickly, we could rest inside, sheltered from the rain. Our tent did not hold up its end of the bargain though. There were more leaks than I could count. Evidently, the tent was old enough that it had begun to deteriorate. So, we disassembled our soaking wet tent, realized it was going to stink up our car, and tried to stuff it in the camp waste receptacle. We ended up leaving it half in and half out of its mouth, because it wouldn’t all fit. We were delighted to find that Amicalola also had a lodge where we could rent a room. Bottom Line: tents don’t last forever.
The metaphor of an earthly tent is an apt image for our physical bodies also because tents are associated with journeys. As believers, we understand that life on this earth is a temporary state that we are passing through. It is not our ultimate destination. We understand that if our earthly tent, our body, is destroyed, then we have a building from God, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. In eternity, our temporary tent is replaced with a more permanent “building,” because heaven is our destination.
While we are in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. Notice that we are shifting to yet another metaphor: the metaphor of clothing. Your physical body is also like clothing you wear. This clothing will one day wear out. It will meet its expiration date. When this clothing is no longer fit to wear, will we be found naked or will we be further clothed? While we are still in this tent, we groan under the burden of our temporal existence, but we wish at our death not to be unclothed, but rather to be further clothed. Our longing is for our old clothing, our mortal life, to be swallowed up by life – eternal life, that is.
Our inner nature, which is being renewed daily, will have a new wardrobe in heaven, new clothing in heaven. In other words, a new body, a spiritual body, but a body nevertheless. This is significant. The belief in a bodily existence in eternity is important. When we die, we are not like a drop of water that returns to the ocean from where it originated, losing all definition. In the Christian view of the afterlife, we do not lose our own unique consciousness. Our own unique individuality, our inner nature, is preserved in heaven.
Think of the body we have now and its purpose. It is our interface with the beauty of nature and the joy of human companionship. The body we have is our earthen vessel. Earlier in the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul says, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God, not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) Our bodies are containers of divine treasure. The body we have is what allows us to be the hands and feet of Christ. The body we have is a temple of the Holy Spirit within us through which we worship God. (1 Corinthians 6:19)
In the Christian tradition, we do not despise the human body. We remember that God’s Son took on flesh in the incarnation. We seek to make our humanity an asset in ministry. We call this viewpoint “incarnational.” Whenever a church seeks to be the hands, feet, and voice of Christ in the world through its witness and service, we say that church’s ministry is an incarnational ministry. Our body, as a vessel for the Holy Spirit, is expressive of our individual uniqueness, but through our faces, voices, arms, hands, and feet we are interacting, communicating, serving, blessing, and sharing. We are made to have an individual identity, but we are also, most assuredly, made for community and for love. This is why we do not despise our mortal bodies, but since they will eventually wear out, we want to be in a position to receive a new spiritual body. In heaven, in our spiritual body, we will enjoy for eternity both the gift of our uniqueness and the gift of community.
This very thing is what God has prepared us for, and God has given us his Spirit as a guarantee. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our mortal bodies now is a sign and a guarantee of the Holy Spirit residing in the spiritual body that we will be given, which will be imperishable. (See also 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 for even more about this.)
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
We are at home in our body. When our body wears out, however, and we enter into eternity, we will be where God dwells all in all. While we are at home in our current body, there is not the direct communion with God that we will enjoy in heaven, which means we are “away from the Lord” in some sense. One day in the future, we will be away from this body and at home with the Lord. So, we are always confident either way.
So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please God. We want to be able to show that while we lived life in our bodies on earth, we lived in order to please God. We used our faces to show love and acceptance. We used our hands and feet to serve. We used our arms to embrace.
There is a gospel song that says, “The dressing room is down here.” We want to be clothed with Christ while we walk the earth. We want to be clothed with Christ-like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12) I think this is what the gospel song implies when it says that the dressing room is down here. You could also say that life on earth, while being a temporary assignment, is important in its own right because it is a dress rehearsal for heaven. We’re held accountable before Christ for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
I keep coming back to the words: an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all measure
. I keep thinking about the hymn by Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” because its focus seems to go back and forth between heaven and our earthly existence, until in the end we take our place in heaven when we will be lost in wonder, love, and praise. Think of it as a prayer.
Love Divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down;
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion;
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in Thee inherit,
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty, to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise!
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.