Perfectly Poised Between Life and Life
Reflecting on the death of Mary Lawler, Phil’s mother, whose funeral was this morning, I was reminded of St. Paul’s commentary on life and death in 2 Corinthians 5: “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” (5:1).
For most of us, the choice between life and death is obvious; we’d rather not die. But for Paul, the choice was balanced on a razor point, because he saw the choice as not so much between life and death as between two different kinds of life:
Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would 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. (5:2-5)
Moreover, in both kinds of life, our purpose is the same. In Philippians, Paul considers the same question with respect to God's purpose, wondering whether he should desire to be with God or to remain here for the sake of those whom God has commissioned him to serve (Phil 1:23-24). In Romans, he considers the question with respect to God's power, for "whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Rom 14:8). But in 2 Corinthians, he uses these same considerations to elucidate our own purpose:
So we are always of good courage; 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. We are of good courage, 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. (5:6-9)
Paul likens the body to a dwelling for the person, a kind of clothing. According to his analogy, death appears to be an unclothing, a stripping, but if we love God it is not so: “Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” This condition of being "further clothed" is gained by making it our purpose to please God in all things, "for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body" (5:10).
It is the triumph and crown of Christian existence to look at life and death in this way, to keep our own preferences perfectly poised between two different ways of glorifying our Creator. Death is, after all, a change in mode rather than in essence. Our purpose, whether at home or away, is to please God.
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