In Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, we read that in the early days running up to the full outbreak of the Civil War, enthusiasm for the war ran high on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Both sides saw the cause as one of justice. Both sides fervently believed in their cause. And as Chernow makes clear, although Grant himself had darker intuitions as to how this might all go, there was high confidence on both sides that this war would be short and that either the Union or the Confederacy would very soon deliver one decisive knockout blow that would swiftly end the whole conflict. Few could have imagined the war would take up even a very big chunk of chronological time in 1861, much less make it clear to 1862.
Of course, Chernow writes all of that—and we all read these words—with a heavy heart and a sense of retrospective foreboding for all those well-intentioned but finally tragically naïve ways of thinking. The war would be a long four-year slog, a bloody horror, a reckoning in human treasure the likes of which the darkest pessimist could but dimly have speculated about in late 1860 after Lincoln was elected and the wheels of war began to turn.
Reading 1 Corinthians 7 is not as heavily foreboding as all that. Yet there is some parallel. Reading Paul’s words here, it is pretty clear he did not envision a long period of time for the church before Christ would return. He seemed to think he might not live to see the full in-breaking of the kingdom but you get the sense that neither could he have imagined history making it to the second century A.D. before the end came.
And so we get a chapter like 1 Corinthians 7 in which most of Paul’s words tend to make the best sense if Christ’s return was in fact fairly imminent. Some of us preachers—this author included—have shied away from preaching on this chapter for that very reason. Two millennia on the high side of Paul’s penning these words, one wonders how relevant they are, what the application might be. It has been a very long time since any father cautioned his daughter against marriage on account of it just producing difficulty for her, difficulties she could easily do without since the coming of Jesus might be, like, next week. Indeed, if even the most devout Christian father today urged a child not to marry, no one would believe the return of Jesus was the real reason. If someone invoked that as a reason, everyone would conclude it was just a dodge to cover up their not liking the fiancé in question or not wanting to lay out the $20,000 a big wedding might end up costing their pocketbook.
So what do we do with Paul’s thoughts, even the ones in the exceedingly small 3-verse snippet the Lectionary has chosen to pull out of this larger chapter? If we chalk this all up to eschatological misjudgment on Paul’s part, is the whole of it just an error? Is this just a footnote on some erstwhile way of thinking that has no traction for the church 2,000 years later?
Probably we need not go that far. Yes, as always we exegete and then we apply. And if we do that here, we will see that there is contextual/historical baggage associated with this that we need to leave to one side. But we will also recognize a core Christian conviction on display here: we live IN this world but strive not to be OF this world. “Weaned affections” is how the Puritans used to think about it. We have things as though having them not. We don’t pretend we can live without food or some measure of money, shelter, clothing. Scripture does not call every believer to be some ascetic pole-sitter in the middle of a desert somewhere.
But we see the world differently. A friend of mine recently noted how much she likes how her pastor closes every service at the end of his parting benediction: “Remember that you live in a world where a resurrection took place.” That’s right. We just recently finished the annual Advent Season which reminds us that actually the entirety of church history and of our lives right up to this present moment take place between two Advents: the one in Bethlehem’s stall and the one yet to come. And if that second Advent seems remote to us despite our belief it will one day happen, it is still on the far horizon of our lives. We live in a world where a resurrection took place and where that resurrected One will be back.
And that properly changes everything. What we possess in life, we receive with gratitude. But even a comfortable bank account and prudent retirement planning can never be the source of our ultimate comfort or hope. And we must be able to say that were we to lose all that in some fiscal catastrophe—and goodness knows THAT is not as farfetched as it may have seemed to some before 2008—we would not have lost a single ounce of our deepest, truest comfort in Christ and in his gospel. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, Paul wrote in Romans 8. So if we find ourselves thinking that the loss of a spouse or of our 401K or of our cherished house in the Hamptons would be the end of us or would effectively cause us to doubt God’s own love for us, well then Paul has some highly relevant words for us in 1 Corinthians 7 after all.
This is less an illustration than an attempt at an insight into human nature. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 7 that if we are sad, we should behave as though we are not really all that sad; and if we are happy, then we behave as though we don’t care about happiness. This is not easy. And let’s admit something else: we have all met people who, perhaps on the thought that this is what is being required of them in a passage like this one, seem fake and nearly plastic to us. They have so cut themselves off from the ability to cry as to lack depth and if they laugh, it also seems hollow, forced. Of course, there can be other reasons to be so plastic, reasons not very pious.
It reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett is a self-absorbed schemer whose every emotion—or lack thereof—seems to be some kind of game. No one understands Scarlett better than Rhett Butler, and at the end of the film as Rhett prepares to quit Scarlett once and for all, he utters a line that sums her character up perfectly (and it is more devastating than the more famous “Frankly, my dear . . .” line that comes moments later). As he offers her a handkerchief, Rhett says, “Here, take my handkerchief. Never in any crisis of your life have I known you to have a handkerchief.” What Rhett means is that she’s never really shed a true tear. It’s all stagecraft, niggling, maneuvering, manipulating. She’s never had a hankie because she never really needed one.
That is the kind of faux, plastic character we recoil from. If Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 is telling us to be disconnected from true emotion, then he would be calling us to a kind of pathology, to having a kind of character no true flesh-and-blood human being should want to have. It would even be at variance with the incarnate Jesus’ own personality that seemed genuinely to know both joy and sorrow.
If anything, Paul may be calling us to deeper grief than those who do not know Christ, to grander joy than can be available to those who do not know the power of the resurrection. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope and we do not have a light and momentary happiness that is forever dependent on the circumstances for its existence. We are deeper all the way around precisely because we understand the deepest truths of the creation. We cannot get knocked sideways by any light and momentary grief but grieve only over the deepest tragedies. And we do not spend our lives being distracted by what is ostensibly “happy” in cheap comedy or in mocking what is good but find a joy that cannot be undone by death.
Paul is calling us to be more real, not less so. A challenge for sure. But not an impossible one for those who know Christ and the power of his resurrection.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 21, 2018
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Commentary