Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 24, 2021
1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Commentary
Like most of this Commentary’s readers, I’ve attended a number of weddings. I’ve even officiated at a few. But I can’t remember ever hearing or preaching a wedding message based on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson.
At one level that’s understandable. This short text, after all, doesn’t yield easy interpretations that would fit well into a wedding homily. In fact, if 1 Corinthians 7 were mishandled, it might send a bride, groom or both scurrying for the exits without a wedding ring on their finger.
But on the other hand, this text, if handled carefully with the Spirit’s aid, may help those who marry in the Lord understand what it means to stay married in the Lord. In fact, it might offer brides, grooms and “eavesdroppers” some of the best advice they’ll ever hear not just at the wedding, but also anytime.
That advice? Basically, “Live like your time is short.” Of course, that immediately raises the question of what “time” is so “short” that it affects the way Christians live. Here as well as throughout this Commentary, I am indebted to some of N.T. Wright’s insights in his book, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians.
He points out that most of the first Christians thought of the time until the second coming of Jesus Christ at the end of measured time as being “brief.” Many of Jesus’ earliest followers assumed that Paul meant that the present world would pass away soon. The apostle (as well as many of his Christian contemporaries), after all, seemed to assume that Jesus would come again within his lifetime. As Wright notes, it’s hard to imagine any 1st century A.D. Christian imagining anything like a 2nd century.
That makes it hard for some 21st century gospel proclaimers to imagine preaching or teaching 1 Corinthians 7’s truths. God didn’t, after all, fulfill Paul’s expectation of Christ’s universal return within his lifetime. It may be hard for this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers to, for example, tell people to refrain from marrying because Christ is going to return very soon.
But Wright says that Paul seems to have something even more urgent than Christ’s Parousia in mind when he speaks of the “shortness” of “the time.” Wright points to the crisis that was caused by a severe shortage of grain that plagued the Greek world of the apostle’s day. Food had largely run out. Famine was especially plaguing people who were materially poor. It was a time of what Wright calls “great distress.”
So Wright suggests that Paul is using the food crisis of his day to help people think about the crisis that Jesus’ return will precipitate for some people. Even if the more immediate crisis passed, the second would remain. Even if food flooded Corinth and others’ markets, Christ’s return remained on the horizon.
That dual crisis may help 1 Corinthians 7’s proclaimers speak its truths into the 21st century. Vaccines against and better treatments for COVID-19 give some of us hope that the crisis that is the current global pandemic will end. The affects of the pandemic are giving some people hope that the climate crisis is being at least postponed. Political and social developments are giving people hope that our crisis of racial injustice and inequality may be at least beginning to end.
Yet, in fact, even if all those crises were to somehow end and others weren’t to somehow arise, it’s as if the Spirit warns God’s people through the apostle Paul that one “crisis” will remain: that which Jesus Christ’s return will cause for those who haven’t received God’s grace with their faith. The current American political crisis, turmoil and even violence, for example, is child’s play compared to the crisis Jesus’ return may precipitate for those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith. So, the apostle continues, don’t let yourself get caught in some of the “weeds” that are today’s crises, as well as the relationships and other things that so easily claim our ultimate attention. Focus more on the coming crisis for some people that will be Jesus’ return.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will want to think carefully and prayerfully about just what that means for not just those who are married, but also for all whom God lovingly creates in God’s image. But perhaps it means at least this: God’s adopted children don’t invest ultimate loyalty in and commitment to those things that in their present form will pass away. Live, says the apostle, “as if” those things won’t last forever. Because they won’t.
How might that speak, by God’s Spirit, to those who, for example, are getting married? It certainly doesn’t preclude fully investing in marriages and friendships. But 1 Corinthians 6’s proclaimers and hearers also never to forget that none of them last forever.
So even as Jesus’ followers work to strengthen our relationships with people, we even more diligently strengthen our relationship with the Lord. Jesus’ followers spend even more time cultivating our relationship with God than we do with our spouse, as well as anyone or thing else. After all, one will, after all, eventually pass away (hopefully after a good and long life together). The other will, by God’s amazing grace, last forever.
The same goes for our emotional states, economic transactions and use of material goods. Each has their proper place and deserves a proper amount of our attention. Yet while some may feel as though they’ll last forever, they won’t. Only relationships with God are eternal.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers invite our hearers and our selves to hold on to the people, healthy emotions, and other arrangements we have and make. But we don’t cling too tightly to them. After all, some day we’ll have to let them go or they’ll be taken from us. But no thing or person will be able to take away our relationship with God.
Paul may be encouraging a relatively loose grasp on the people, emotions and economic and other arrangements because he understands that they have the potential to threaten Christians’ relationships with God, Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might consider that, as well as the tenacity of our own grip on them as we prepare to proclaim it.
Given the rest of not only 1 Corinthians’ 7th chapter, but also the entire letter, it’s unbiblical to assert that Paul commands Jesus’ followers to simply drop every person, emotion and arrangement through which God blesses God’s adopted children. But this text is an invitation to keep all of them in perspective. People and things can be extremely valuable. But they don’t hold ultimate value.
As my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in a fine Sermon Commentary on this text, “we live IN this world but strive not to be OF this world.” We don’t pretend as if God expects us to live without things like spouses, friends, emotions or material goods. We also express our deep gratitude to God for the people and things with which God graces us.
But we never forget that they’re not the source of our ultimate comfort in life and in death. Were we, God forbid, to lose all of them, we would lose not even one iota of our comfort in Christ and his saving work on our behalf.
Paul concludes our Epistolary Lesson by insisting, “The world in its present form is passing away.” That’s counter-cultural perhaps especially in a North America whose media sometimes treats those things that plague us as of ultimate importance – at least until the next crisis diverts attention away. It seems to specialize more in sowing panic than cultivating hope.
Paul, however, insists that all that panics this world and consumes its attention is passing away. Pandemics and political crises eventually pass away. Emotions as well as economic and other arrangements come and go. Even people, sadly, pass away. Only one thing endures: Jesus Christ. He who is the same yesterday, today and forever didn’t just come to Bethlehem. He doesn’t just constantly come to his people by his Spirit. He’s also coming again.
I concluded my recent Christmas Day message by saying, “There is only one Lord, and it’s not any virus or any other threat. There is only one Savior, and it’s not any vaccine, politician or anyone or thing else. It’s Jesus the Messiah who has been born in the town of David.” And who, we might add, is coming again sooner than we may think to graciously take us into God’s eternal presence in the new earth and heaven.
This knowledge doesn’t drive Jesus’ followers away from relationships, any more than it drives us away from emotions, material goods or economic arrangements. Knowing that Jesus is coming soon, instead, sends God’s adopted sons and daughters to people and things with a renewed purpose: to be agents of Christ’s renewal of all people and things that Christ will complete at his return.
Some American young adults (men and women) aren’t just living as if they have no spouse. They’re not even getting married as soon as Americans once did. One cause for that might surprise us.
In a January 31, 2020 USA Today article entitled, “In Sickness and in Health, But Not in Debt,” Jessica Menton writes about how student debt is “putting a damper on young Americans’ relationship decisions.” About a third of the respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 to a LendKey Technologies survey reported that they might postpone – or have already postponed – marriage until student debt is paid off.
That number, Menton adds, shrunk among older respondents. About 17% of those between 35 and 54 would postpone marriage and 10% of those 55 and older would delay it.
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