Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 25, 2015
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Commentary
Comments and Observations
In a text bristling with problems, Paul calls us to live “As If.” The entire chapter is about marriage, prompted by a question from the Corinthians as seen in the chapter’s first verse, which may be another quotation summarizing the aberrant view of some overly ascetic Corinthians. Some scholars see our text as an excursus in the middle of the marriage talk, but it looks to me like the crux of the matter. Paul’s overall advice regarding marriage is “remain in the situation God called [you] to.” Our text tells us why Paul advocated such an approach to marriage.
It all has to do with the time in which we live, so Paul brackets his little “as if” poem with these two powerful statements about time: “the time is short” and “this world in its present form is passing away.” These are not throwaway comments. In fact, Paul prefaces this little pericope with the Greek word phemi, which means something like “I solemnly declare.” I am about to say something that makes all the difference in the world for the way you live in the world. Because of what time it is, you should “as if….”
What does Paul mean by “the time is short?” Well, we must note first of all that he doesn’t use the word chronos here; he is not talking about calendar time or clock time, time the way humans calculate it. So, he is not saying that there are only a few minutes left, or that some great event is only a year away. His words should not lead to the making of charts and diagrams comparing biblical prophecy with today’s headlines. Paul uses the word kairos, which has the sense of significant time, critical time, the time appointed by God in God’s mysterious plan. Incidentally, it is apparently the use of that word that led the inventors of the Lectionary to choose this text as an Epiphany text. In the Gospel reading for this third Sunday after Epiphany, Mark 1:15 says that Jesus used that very word as he began his public ministry and called his first disciples. “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near….”
Many scholars think that Paul is using the word kairos here in the same way Jesus used it. Jesus used the word at his first coming; Paul uses it in reference to Christ’s second coming. So when Paul says, “the time is short,” he is referring to the imminence of the Parousia. That leads some scholars to talk about the delay of the Parousia. Paul was simply wrong, because it has been 2000 years. That is hardly a short time. So the text loses all of its punch for us. But that interpretation of this text forgets that Paul uses kairos, not chronos. We cannot calculate God’s actions by human measures of time. Paul was not saying that Christ would return in a day or a month or a year or a century. He was saying that we are living in a crucial time, a time of great opportunity, a time so significant that we should live “as if.”
Or perhaps Paul was not talking about the Parousia at all. In verse 26 he talks about “the present crisis.” Was he referring to some critical situation in the church (think of all the problems in this Corinthian church), or in the city of Corinth, or in the Empire? One scholar writes, “There was a general feeling then that some awful convulsion was close at hand. There was. Within half a generation the whole Roman world would be turned upside down by civil wars, three emperors in succession were slain, and Jerusalem was destroyed.” That made me think of the kind of doomsday talk I hear everywhere as the news media force feeds us a constant diet of catastrophe: Ebola, ISIS, global warming, looming financial crisis, governmental gridlock, the Chinese economic juggernaut, the rise of the Russia bear, etc. It sure feels as though “the time is short” for the world as we know it, even if we’re not expecting the imminent return of Jesus.
What is especially fascinating is the way Paul uses his solemn announcement about time. Usually when Paul talks about the Parousia, he issues a call to blameless living. Here the shortness of the time results in a call to disentangled living, to not getting all caught up in the normal affairs of human life, to “as if” living. This will take some unpacking to make any practical sense to our congregations.
Take the first couplet in Paul’s poem– “those who have wives should live as if they had none….” An English major helped me with this by pointing out that a simile is a figure of speech that says “x is like y in the sense that x is similar to y but not the same as y.” Live like you aren’t married, even though you obviously are married. This does not mean that husbands should abandon or neglect or even divorce their wives, in view of the shortness of the time. Paul isn’t saying, “Don’t waste your time on them!” In view of what Paul says about marriage in the rest of this chapter, that can’t be what he means. We get a hint about his intent in the words just after our passage. “I would like you to be free from concern, from anxiety.” You have to do your marital duties, including the duty of loving her as you love yourself. But as you do that, be sure that you love God above all. Don’t let your wife become your first priority. Don’t let your marriage become your ultimate allegiance. Devote yourself to the Lord (cf. verse 35).
Paul then says basically the same thing about other areas that compete for our allegiance and love. Those “who mourn [should live] as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not….” In referring to those emotions, Paul may be talking in Hebrew fashion about all the adversity and prosperity of life, but perhaps he is simply referring to emotions themselves. Don’t let your emotional state govern your life. It’s perfectly legitimate to have emotions; they are part of being human. And it is healthy to own your emotions and express them; to do otherwise would not be good for your emotional health. But, given the time in which we live, don’t let your emotional state become the focus of your life. Devote yourself to the Lord.
Further, says Paul, you don’t have to completely disengage from the economic sphere of life. Just don’t let it become the center of your allegiance. When “you buy something, [live] as if it were not yours to keep.” This one convicted me. I’m a car guy and I recently went on a car buying binge. I mean that I studied car reviews on line; I took them on extensive test drives; I haggled with dealers; I finally selected a car to buy; I actually prayed about my decision. I spent countless hours on buying that car because I was going to own it for the next decade. Then I backed out at the last minute. I wish I could say it was because of this text, but that wouldn’t be true. I mention that embarrassing episode because it illustrates exactly what Paul is talking about. It’s OK to buy, but don’t let it become the preoccupation of your life. It’s fine to be a good steward of the Lord’s resources. Just be sure that at the end of the day, you devote yourself to the Lord, not to what you buy with his resources.
Paul’s last couplet focuses on “the things of the world,” meaning just about anything God provides to enable us to live in his good world. We’re supposed to use (chromenoi in Greek) those things; that’s why God gave them. No call to asceticism here. But we must use them as if “not engrossed (katachromenoi, a play on words using an intensified form of the verb) in them.” That’s a good word, “engrossed.” Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the stuff in your life. Don’t let your use of stuff become the focus on your life. How countercultural is that? Our culture insists that life does consist in the abundance of our possessions, or in the abundance of our relationships (how many Facebook friends?), or in the quest to find our perfect soul mate, or to be happier, more successful, more fit. I belong to a gym where I try to stay in reasonable shape, but I see people there who are so engrossed in fitness that their musculature is nearly gross. Devote yourself to the Lord, not to all the wonderful things he showers upon us.
Martin Luther, the hearty Reformer who loved a great meal, a good beer, and a lively conversation, summed up this text in typically memorable fashion. “We must not sink too deeply into either love and desire, or suffering and boredom, but should rather behave like guests.” Because of him, we sing, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.”
Paul’s last words in our text point directly at those last words in Luther’s famous hymn. “His kingdom is forever, but “this world in its present form is passing away.” Actually, Paul says that the schema of this world is passing away. The world is not passing away, only its schema. That word was often used of the theatre to refer to the changing acts and characters of a play, to “an actor leaving the stage.” We can get all tied up with the surface affairs of life, with politics and finances and sports and relationships. Paul reminds us that these thoroughly engrossing things are passing away; the curtain is coming down. That doesn’t mean they are illusory and unimportant. They are very real, and they matter for a time. But the time is short and all of these things that call for our complete devotion are passing away. So, don’t worry about them. Devote yourselves to the Lord.
I keep repeating that phrase from verse 35 because that is Paul’s point in all of chapter 7 and in this little “as if” poem. Paul is not calling for detachment, though some scholars use that term to sum up Paul’s challenge here. Detachment is more of an eastern mystical word. Buddhism and Hinduism, among others, hold up detachment as the ideal virtue. We must strive for release from all desire, for that will ultimately free us from suffering. Attachment is the main obstacle to a serene and fulfilled life.
The Christian faith calls us to something very different. We are called precisely to attachment– not to the things of this world, but to the Lord who made them all. Paul calls us not to detachment, but to devotion. Note how Paul puts it in verse 35. “I am saying this for your good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the living Lord.” In our text today, Paul utters no condemnation of marriage or emotions or possessions or a full life in this world. Those are all good things. But we are called to the better, to the best, which is devotion to Jesus Christ. Today’s lectionary reading from the Psalms captures what Paul is saying here. “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.”
How are we to preach this today? It sounds like an otherworldly mysticism. How can we square Paul’s “as if” living with the real world? Specifically, how can we “remain in the situation God has called us to? ” That sounds like the kind of theology that undergirded the old feudal system where serfs remained serfs because they were called to that. The idea of God’s calling has, indeed, been used to stifle ambition, quell revolutions, and maintain the status quo. The Lord is coming, so stay where you are. How does that square with Jesus’ call to go into all the world to make disciples for the kingdom, with Paul’s intensity as a kingdom promoter, with our contemporary passion to see the justice and peace of the Kingdom spread all over the world? Aren’t we supposed to be world changers?
We can say two things about that. First, we must frankly admit that Paul didn’t seem to have much interest in changing society. His disturbing words to slaves in verses 21-24 (echoed and amplified in his letter to Philemon) are abundant evidence of that. In view of the shortness of the time and the passing schema of the world, Paul didn’t spend time trying to free the slaves, elevate the status of women, or overthrow the Empire. If he addressed such societal issues at all, it was usually in terms of showing mercy (the offering for the poor in Jerusalem), rather than pursuing justice. He was more concerned to bring the Gospel to all nations and see sinners changed into the image of Christ, though, of course, the success of his mission did result in the reformation of society in ways he could never have imagined.
But, second, we can say that it is precisely Paul’s call to live “as if” in “undivided devotion to the Lord” that can enable us to be world changers. Though we have a lessened sense of the imminence of Christ’s return, we are keenly aware that we are living in “the present crisis.” To be able to address all of the crises of our times, we’ll need the kind of allegiance to Christ that will free us to “act justly and love mercy.” Only if Jesus liberates us from the entanglements of relationships and finances and possessions and experiences will we be free to fully engage the evils that ruin life on planet earth. This will be tricky to preach, but this marvelous poetry gives us the perfect opportunity to explore what it means to live in “undivided devotion to the Lord” even as we live in his world. The key is “As If.”
The whole idea of living in shortened time is explored with devastating honesty in a couple of recent books. The young adult book, The Fault in Our Stars, focuses on two teenaged cancer patients, Augustus and Hazel Grace. Though Augustus has apparently conquered his cancer (at the cost of an amputated leg), Hazel Grace is terminal. Is there any point in falling in love when the time is short? Spoiler alert! Yes, gloriously and painfully, yes! The murder mystery, The Last Policeman, is set against the background of the end of the world. A giant asteroid is about to crash into the planet, resulting in the eventual death of every last human being. How does the human race deal with that? By going on flings, by getting married, by committing suicide, by travelling to far off places, by finding or losing religion, or by simply staying on the job, as the last policeman does. In spite of the fact that the murderer will soon die like everyone else, the policeman assigned to the murder mystery doggedly does his duty. How should we react in view of solemn announcement that “the time is short” and “the schema of this world is passing away?”
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