Repitching the tent
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
‘… here in the body pent, absent from Him I roam, yet nightly pitch my moving tent a day’s march nearer home.’ (James Montgomery, 1835)
To be ‘at home in the body’ as St Paul expresses it can be far from easy. Attaining a healthy, functional perception of our earthen selves is often difficult and sometimes impossible without help and intervention. It is a wonderful moment indeed when babies first discover that their hands belong to them, or when they smile and gurgle at the reflection of their mirror-image. Such indicators signify age-appropriate development and the reaching of milestones. For the babies, though, who don’t do this but instead flap their hands in confusion, looking askance at their care-giver, this can be an indicator of the onset of autistic spectrum disorder or an ambivalent attachment to parent or carer. Inhabiting a body when you don’t perceive it as belonging to you can be a frustrating, even unbearable position. Much more is being published and discovered about the nature of conditions like gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia, too. Those diagnosed with these conditions feel similarly detached from their physical bodies. It’s not simply that they don’t like what they see in the mirror, but more precisely that they feel it to be wrong in respect of gender and physique. Who they are is not remotely recognisable to them. It’s not extending the metaphor too widely to say that our ‘earthly tents,’ to paraphrase Timothy Stanton CR, can be ‘a bit wobbly.’
I, like many of us here, know how ‘pent’ the body can feel and behave. Sometimes, it will just not do what is wanted of it, this vessel of clay, so that a proposition in the brain mistranslates into the praxis of the body. Hence why I happen to be ‘dyspraxic;’ the organisation of my movement is poor; language and thought can be badly planned by the brain and wrongly executed by the action of the physical body. This can, does and has improved with time, ageing and effort. But on a bad day, the length of the house refectory is a heck of a walk with a hot teapot to find that someone’s forgotten to proffer their mug!
The Graeco-Roman world must have been a confusing place to feel ‘at home’ in oneself as well, with its many philosophical schools tinkering with ideas about nature and matter, and displacing the needle of the moral compass at every turn by its dim attitudes to sexual behaviour and human flourishing. Corinth was rich, beautiful, and image-conscious – suffocating its young church by consequence. That Church needed to overlearn what the Kingdom of God is like and to what it is comparable.
Essentially, the Corinthians need to be ‘at home’ in themselves as the body of Christ. Paul, in this part of his epistle continues to clarify what it is to live ‘at home’ in the body of Christ, which is to say the church, transformed in the power of the resurrection. His is a worldview that serves to reorder the thinking of its hearers by vivifying the eyes of faith; eyes that do not see the tent of earthly existence as an encumbrance to be shed or escaped, but as a holding-place to await promised glory of the resurrection bodies which will be ours at the end of time.
‘What is the Kingdom of God like,’ asks Jesus of his disciples. ‘To what can we compare it? Surely, we must put it in antithesis to the values espoused by societies like Corinth in the early 50s AD, which promoted enduring prosperity and acquisition above personal worth, diminishing their people’s dignity in the process. Kingdom people, by contrast, are diminished from the start; we begin from littleness and emplacement as the lowliest. ‘The smallest of all the seeds on the land’ are we the mustard-seed. We don’t have any means of making the land fertile for harvest save for the power of the Spirit, who works in us to reap a fruitful crop. How does this happen? It’s not our business, says Jesus. The land of its own bears fruit; we enter by baptism into the mystery of it all. This is the work of a divine farmer who knows his creation fully and has under control the business of our growth up to the final harvest-hour.
Eyes that are vivified by the light of faith fail to grow dim, because they’re already seeking the things of eternity, and are confident of the hope of the risen life in whose midst they’re already set. Earthly tents living, moving and having their being through these eyes find that even in ‘the body pent,’ they can put on the garment of confidence which their hopefulness provides, as they ‘nightly pitch [all that they have and are] a day’s march nearer home’ in the faith and fear of being forever with their Lord.
Do we have that foreseeing eye of faith which knows where its perfect pitch is to be found? If we do, we may joyfully clothe ourselves even now in the mortal body, the earthly tent, dyspraxic, aged, maladroit though it may certainly be, with the man Christ in whom we are risen, re-created and restored: the Word who, as St. John reminds us, pitched his tent among us and in whom alone salvation is to be found.
May we who walk by faith and not sight always be confident in the promise of the new creation, that others may be clothed in its dignity and power. This is what Paul was ardent for with the young Corinthian church: that by their fruits they would come to be known, that all might see what this Kingdom of heaven is like. Every earthly tent should catch the Son, inherit his life of resurrection, nest as the birds of the air in its shade and be able with James Montgomery, to ‘oft’ repeat before the throne, “forever with the Lord.” Amen, so let it be’