Signs of mortality: I’ve noticed that with each increasing year, there are more of them for me. Feet, teeth, eyes, ears: a host of niggling issues for one who generally has little to complain about. Not that I’m complaining, mind you: just taking note (as St. Paul does in our reading today) of the common human condition. Elsewhere in his letter, St. Paul talks about “the thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7); and though he’s not specific about what this “thorn” might be for him, we can all recognize the phenomenon.
St. Paul makes his point about “our outer nature” that “is wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16) in the context of ministry. The Apostle here is not making an abstract point about mortality, but about the challenges of his call. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9), he writes, reminding his listeners of the difficult and perplexing business he’s engaged in, in which he also generously includes them.
Paul believes that it is in these challenges that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, is most clearly present. “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11). It seems counter-intuitive, on one level, that Jesus would manifest his life among us precisely when we are driven to the outer limits, but on another level, we know it to be deeply true. St. Paul says later in the letter, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). He has confidence in spite of his weakness. “For whenever I am weak,” Paul writes, “then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
These are the deep truths of discipleship, and of pastoral ministry, that we are engaged in as Christians. God reveals his power in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), not in strength. Jesus stands in our midst when we are most in need. What St. Paul describes as “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Cor. 12:10) are the common ground of parish and diocesan life. Here is where we glimpse the risen Lord most clearly.
Paul has a further word of encouragement for us, as we engage in the life of disciples. “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Cor. 4:17). As we practice this way of life, we’re being shaped and formed into the persons God created us to be in Christ. The “momentary affliction” is precisely what prepares us for the kingdom. In other words, the promise outweighs the cost: “an eternal weight of glory,” as he says, that tips the scales.
“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). If the kingdom is our goal, renewal here and now is the means by which we make the journey. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). To be “in Christ” is to be identified with him, to be found in him, to be like him as a beloved child of God, through adoption and grace.
The renewal of our inner nature takes place in the life of the church. As we gather, we stand on the ground that Christ has won for us. When we pray, “Our Father,” we are claiming our identity in him. God sees us in him, and him in us; the life of Jesus is made visible in our mortal flesh, as St. Paul says in our reading today, thorns and all. As we share the Holy Eucharist, Jesus gives us himself, so that we can be living members of his Body the church. By eating and drinking the signs of his life, we become one with him, and our life is renewed.
The outer nature may be wasting away, but the inner nature is being renewed. We experience a momentary affliction, the results of our mortality and sin, but God has prepared for us something more. Can we believe that there is something more for us? Can we believe in the possibility of our own transformation and renewal? St. Paul encourages us to believe that, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is new life for us. The key for us is to place our faith in him.