Grace Presbyterian Church
January 21, 2018, Epiphany 3B
What Not to Worry About
What is remarkable about this passage from 1 Corinthians is how a piece of wise council emerges as it does, albeit after some fits and starts, from an underlying presumption on Paul’s part that Paul, in fact, gets completely wrong.
That underlying presumption, or “belief” if you prefer, is expressed twice in this short excerpt from the letter. First, in verse 29, Paul states pretty emphatically that “the appointed time has grown short”, which he then follows in verse 31 with the equally straightforward declaration “For the present form of this world is passing away.”
Now that latter statement could be fudged somewhat, to argue that Paul was pointing towards some sort of imminent social or geopolitical catastrophe that would indeed overcome and destroy “the present form of this world” as Paul’s readers knew and experienced it. One could argue for perhaps the end of the Roman Empire as such a cataclysm, and indeed it would qualify, but it was at this point another three hundred to four hundred years in the future, and Paul’s language here and elsewhere makes clear that this cataclysm was to be expected soon, probably even in the lifetimes of some of Paul’s hearers (if not Paul himself). So unless there were some very old Corinthians around when the barbarians crashed into Rome, that didn’t turn out the way Paul expected.
Even more likely as Paul’s intent, and less successful, was Paul’s apparent belief that the return of the crucified and resurrected Christ Himself was imminent. In 1 Thessalonians in fact we find Paul having to deal with that congregation’s shock that some of their members were dying, and Christ hadn’t come back yet. That wasn’t supposed to happen, you can practically hear them crying from Paul’s attempt to respond.
Interestingly, the response Paul does some up with has endured as one of the most comforting and inspiring passage of Paul’s letters. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul provides the nervous Thessalonians this comfort:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Out of that place of fear and confusion comes a word of surpassing hope.
Something similar happens here in Corinthians, although the end result is less about restoring hope than reorganizing priorities. Following up on that scalding little chapter we heard last week, and in response apparently to a letter the church had sent him, Paul seeks to counsel the Corinthians about marriage and singleness. What is particularly interesting is that in stretches of this chapter Paul makes it explicitly clear that he is “speaking for himself” rather than giving a command from the Lord. Therefore, all the instruction about marrying or remaining single does not carry the force of divine imperative.
You’re married? Good, remain married. You’re single? Even better, remain single (Paul’s bias shows up pretty strongly there). You’re single but you can’t stand it? Then get married (with that memorable line from verse 9, “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”)
These and other matters and conditions of which Paul speaks seem pretty “ultimate” to us. Getting a good marriage is often treated as the only thing that matters for a young person of marrying age, if not by the person her- or himself, than almost certainly by parents or family member. Maybe some of you remember that pressure?
But what Paul points out to us is that even these things – perfectly good things, to be sure – are not the ultimate measure of a life. If you are married, how you conduct yourself towards your spouse certainly matters; if you are single, how you conduct yourself as single certainly matters. But being married or remaining single is not the ultimate aim of the life.
What does matter is something that Paul addresses in many of his other writings. You could take the entirety of Romans 12, for example, that teaching that warns us not to “be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” Or you could point to Philippians 4, where Paul teaches them “Do not worry about anything” (shades of that first phrase of verse 32 here in Corinthians), “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Later in the same chapter (starting in verse 8) Paul offers a checklist of characteristics to which to aspire – “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…”.
These are the things that matter, whether Christ is returning tomorrow or in another thousand years. Whether we are married or single as we seek to follow is ultimately inessential, even if Paul thinks being married might make it all harder to do. That we take up Christ’s call with the urgency with which Jesus delivers it to the newly-called disciples in today’s Mark reading is what matters. The other things, in the great sweep of the kingdom of God, just aren’t that important. What matters is to live like “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is come near.” What matters is to “repent, and believe in the good news,” and even more to act on it. That’s what to worry about; all the other stuff the world urges upon us isn’t.
For knowing what matters and what doesn’t, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #734, Hope of the World, #790, In Silence My Soul Thirsts; #309, Come, Great God of All the Ages; #384, Soon and Very Soon
…but Paul would say that wasn’t important…(credit: AgnusDay.org)