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I've Got A Home In That Kingdom

Sermon
Sermons on the Second Readings
Series III, Cycle B
I've got a home in that kingdom -- ain't that good news.
I've got a home in that kingdom -- ain't that good news.
I'm gonna lay down this world, I'm gonna shoulder up my cross,
I'm gonna take it home to my Jesus, ain't that good news.
1

These words from an African-American spiritual remind us that there is something about us that longs for home, a longing to feel that we belong. Saint Augustine located this longing in our restless hearts: "Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you."2 Both of these images of seeking home draw upon Paul's words in today's lectionary reading. Paul begins with a theme that permeates this entire letter. The struggle is difficult, but Paul does not lose heart. He remains confident because he has located his home, located it in his earthly ministry, and located it when he passes through the valley of the shadow of death. He acknowledges the longing for home that Augustine will later lift up in his Confessions -- we want to be connected to the source of life. We want to be connected to one another.

Especially in today's world, where we feel so disconnected and so lost, we want to find our home. Our sense of being lost makes us easy prey for the idols of the world. In our anxiety we open our ears and our hearts to hear their whispers: "Come on over here to skin color, to gender, to economic status -- we'll make you feel better. We'll help you feel at home." Or, at other times, they roar at us: "You must kill someone in order to feel secure! War brings security and peace!"

In these verses, Paul suggests another answer, a different way home, an authentic way home. He suggests that our longing for home is truthfully answered in two ways: Our learning that we belong to God, and our learning that we belong to one another. On these answers, Paul seeks to build the foundation for his home on solid rock rather than on the shifting sands of temporal categories. On these answers, Paul can build and maintain his confidence even as the storms of life rage around him and through him. Paul affirms that his confidence is not made by human hands. His confidence, his ability to maintain hope and heart, comes from the grace of Jesus Christ in his life. He has confidence because he has finally heard in a profound way that he belongs to God. He has gained a glimpse of home.

In verses 6-9 of chapter 5, Paul speaks about this hope of home. We need to be careful how we use his words in verse 6: "While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord." There remains in many of us who are Christian a sense that we prefer heaven to life on earth, and that is natural because of the slings and arrows of our lives but also because we project so many of our longings (and our failures) onto life in heaven after death. We must take care here not to fall into the dualistic position that life here on earth is bad and insignificant compared to the wonderful and purposeful life after death. Yet, Paul's fierceness and gratitude for life are evident in this and other letters. In life and in death we belong to God, and Paul lives in that confidence.

Whatever emphasis one chooses here from Paul's writings, we should hear that the purpose of finding a glimpse of home is so that we can walk in this life with confidence and faith rather than being dominated by fear and anxiety. In reading these verses, I recalled Clarence Jordan's summation of the power of anxiety: "Fear is the polio of the soul that prevents us from walking by faith."3 A candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia recently used an ad talking about his having polio when he was eight, and how he had been helped by his family, his church, and the larger community. It reminded me of the great fear of polio and its dreaded iron lung that pervaded my life as a boy in the 1950s. I remember, also, when the polio vaccinations became available, and though I hated shots, I was willing to undergo the series of shots to prevent my getting polio. For a while, I wondered if it would really work, but as the weeks and months passed, and the number of polio cases dropped, my confidence grew. I was no longer dominated by the fear of polio.

We live in an age of fear again, a fear of a different kind, a fear of terrorism. We have seen its deadly hand, and though some of the fear is overblown and exploited, the terrorists have revealed a real vulnerability that is always present in our lives, a vulnerability that we spend much time and energy and money trying to deny. It is at this point that the struggles that Paul addresses in 2 Corinthians come home to us in our time. Will we be dominated by fear and death, or will we be dominated by love and faith? Fear is always with us, as is the grace of God. The choice we make concerning which will be the center of our lives -- fear or grace -- is crucial for how we live our lives. And, for most of us, that decision is always in process.

Whichever choice we make in describing the struggle between fear and grace, Paul emphasizes that our goal is to please the Lord. In stressing this goal, Paul reminds us and the Corinthians that our lives matter, and that someday we'll be held accountable for our choices. In describing this accountability, he uses the metaphor of the "judgment seat," an image that is well known to the Corinthians and to Paul himself. It is the judicial bench of an urban court in the Roman empire. Here the ruling official of the empire hears cases and makes his decisions. According to Acts 18, Paul himself came to this seat in Corinth to face judgment from the proconsul Gallio.

It is not clear in these verses whether the "judgment seat of Christ" will be the final judgment of Matthew 25 and Revelation 20, or whether it will be part of an ongoing cleansing process. Paul is never quite conclusive in his writings as to whether or not he believes in a final judgment that will seal our eternal fate. In these verses in 2 Corinthians, his point is to emphasize that our lives -- our motives and our actions -- are important in our lives and in the lives of others. Our lives matter, not just in eternal terms, but also in routine, everyday terms.

He lifts up the importance of our lives because he wants to turn to the second part of answering our longing for home in an authentic way. The first step is in learning that we belong to God, that Jesus Christ has lived and died has risen for us, for each of us, so that we may know who we are: a child of God. The second point is like unto it: Jesus Christ has lived and died and has risen for all of us. We belong to God, and in Jesus Christ, we belong to one another as sisters and brothers. Jesus summed up all the law and the prophets in wedding these two steps together: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind ... You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39).

Paul grounds this connection in a powerful, motivating force -- the power of love. Oughtness, duty, and fear only go so far in compelling behavior. They can command obedience, but they cannot command love. Indeed, love can't be commanded. It can only be freely given and freely chosen. This does not mean that love comes easily. It takes work and discipline. It took me a long time to understand my mother's sacrifices for me as a child. It was only after I had my own children that I began to understand the choices that she had made. My father had abandoned us when I was a baby, and my mother raised me as a single parent. She earned her money as a beautician, and after long hours of standing on her feet all day, fixing the hair of women, and listening to their troubles, she came home and listened to mine. I remember many times begging her to play ball with me after supper, and she almost always said, "Yes." It was only when I reached parenthood myself that I realized the choices that she had made for me and the depth of the love that she had given me.

This second part of finding home, in discovering that we belong to one another, is a reminder of our dependency. We are dependent upon God and upon one another. It is a truth from which our culture flees. We like to think that we are independent and that the goal of our lives is to become independent and self-sufficient, to get enough stuff so that we can convince ourselves that we don't need anyone. But, the truth of our lives is that we are needy and dependent. We wouldn't survive infancy and childhood if someone didn't love us enough to feed us, change our diapers, and house us. If we live long enough in our brave new world, it will happen again: We will outlive our adulthood fantasy that we can take care of ourselves.

Paul talked about this power of love, this mutuality, this connectedness in his first letter to the Corinthians, in his famous "love" chapter (1 Corinthians 13). I used to understand the love of this thirteenth chapter as sweet and sentimental and often unrealistic. I've come to learn, however, that this kind of loving is a harsh taskmaster that requires us, and indeed will motivate us, to go into places in ourselves and in the world where we never imagined that we could or would go. Paul emphasizes in both of his biblical letters to the Corinthians that the second part of finding our way home is to affirm our mutuality, that we belong to one another.

If loving is so important, if mutuality is so vital, why then is it so difficult? Why do we find ourselves in a world dominated by fear and death and violence? Paul answers in verse 16: "From now on, then, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way." We are dominated by fear because we see our lives from the human point of view. I grew up as a white boy in the South in the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up in Arkansas on the Mississippi River, part of the great river delta whose land is so rich in nutrients. My Scotch-Irish forebears were Presbyterians since at least the 1840s -- they were the dirt farmer and clerk types of Presbyterians, not the lawyer and doctor types. They had been part of the great migration west, pushing back trees and hills and people as they settled the frontier for the young country.

They learned -- and they taught others -- the human point of view that Paul mentions in verse 16. They learned -- and they taught -- that white people were superior, that men should dominate women, that the Native American Indians living on the land were not human beings like them, and that slavery and segregation were ordained and established by God. This is the human point of view in one form or another. It is as old as Adam and Eve and as young as today's sunrise.

In the 1950s and 1960s, I had been taught, and I had come to believe, that race was the central part of my identity, that it was more important than -- or at least equal to -- the gospel of Jesus Christ. My identity as a white male was the most important part of myself -- indeed, in my home church that had been so loving to me, black people could come in only to cook and clean. I didn't hold this belief over against the gospel. I didn't believe that I was rebelling against Jesus Christ in holding on to white supremacy. Rather I believed that the God I knew in Jesus Christ had established white supremacy. This is the human point of view.4

This is what Paul means in verse 16, in that hallmark phrase of the beginning of his powerful paragraph on reconciliation. Paul announces here that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a radical, reductionary approach -- the distinctions of the human point of view are no longer valid. Many white churches in the nation had to face this razor in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Will white folk continue to worship race, or will we see black folk and others (and ourselves) as new creatures in Jesus Christ? Paul notes here that we often answer our longing for home with the idols of the world. White folk often answer our longing for home by turning to racism. Paul reminds us in verse 17 that such an answer is not valid in Jesus Christ: "So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" He put it another way in his letter to the Galatians: "There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (3:28).

I've got a home in that kingdom -- ain't that good news! It is good news -- good news that will often require us to re-examine our lives and our categories to discern where we are captured by the human point of view. Our hearts are restless. The African theologian, Saint Augustine, was right. Our only rest will be found in our true home: our creator and redeemer and sustainer, the God we know in Jesus Christ. To God be the glory! Amen.


____________

1. Traditional African-American spiritual in the public domain.

2. Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 3.

3. Clarence Jordan cofounded the Koinonia Community in the 1940s in southern Georgia as a biracial community. He is perhaps best known for his Cotton Patch translations of the New Testament. See his book of sermons, The Substance of Faith, edited by Dallas Lee (New York: Association Press, 1972).

4. For more information on race and its intersection with southern white Christianity, see Nibs Stroupe and Inez Fleming, While We Run This Race (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995).
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