Editor‘s Note: Here is the manuscript for the sermon I preached 1/25/15 at The Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Pelham, AL. SUGGESTED FURTHER READING:
William Webb. Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. Exploring the Hermenuetics of Cultural Analysis.
N.T. Wright. How God Became King. The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.
You gotta love Paul, don’t you? I mean Paul is not one for mincing words. You could never excuse Paul of being some wishy-washy, mealy-mouth. He just comes out with it. Straight-up. Keeping it real. Whatever you want to say. That’s Paul. He’s hardcore. No wiggle room. I am always amazed as I pick up his writing and get cut to the quick. And let me say I love that the liturgy doesn’t pick and choose with Paul, giving us a soft Paul. It gives us the good stuff, the high heat, the high cheddar, the string music as we like to say in baseball parlance. Staring down a passage from Paul is like standing it the batter’s box and seeing Randy Clemens glaring in your direction, and knowing that that baseball is about to come at your head at 90+ miles an hour.
In a sense Paul is standing in the way of Jesus, who if we are honest, can be quite confounding. Here is an excerpt from N.T. Wright:
“The stories about Jesus constantly portray him as saying things that even his family and friends didn’t understand…. In other words, when Jesus himself was telling the good news as he saw it, there were plenty of people who found it so different from what they expected that they just couldn’t see it. [In fact, Wright observes…] The good news is always different from what people think it will be (60).”
And so Paul carries on in this tradition of confounding us with what is so good about the good news. I mean listen to what he says today:
“This is what I mean, my brothers and sisters. The present situation won’t last long; for the moment, let those who have wives live as though they weren’t married, those who weep as though they were not weeping, those who celebrate as though they were not celebrating, those who buy as though they had nothing, those who use the world as though they were not making use of it. The pattern of this world, you see, is passing away.”
This is strong stuff. Are you married, act like you ain’t. Are you happy, stop grinning so much. Are you sad, stop crying your eyes out. To have half a conscious mind as you read this, is to say “what in the world?”
If there is anything in this passage that makes an ounce of sense, it’s the part in the beginning and end about the world being in danger of passing away. Because to have a quarter of a conscious mind, is to see the reality of this statement. Now every generation of Christians who has ever lived has said, “That’s it. The world is done for. We are the last generation. The world cannot last much longer.” And in all fairness to them, the generations past have seen some nasty, hairy stuff. Try standing on the hills of Jerusalem watching the temple smoke as the Roman Centurions tore each block apart, melted the gold off of it, and threw it down the hill; and then turn to them and say “Guess what. This world lasts another 2000 years at least.” Or try talking to the Christians being martyred by Nero or Diocletian. Or try talking to those stuck in the 1000 year war. Or those enduring the Inquisition or the Christians of Constantinople watching as other Christians looted and destroyed their city during the 4th Crusade. Or try telling a soldier storming the beaches of Normandy. Or John McCain stranded in a POW camp. Yet for each of these the world has gone on.
It has come to now. To 2015. And as we stand and look back at 2014 how can we not add our voices to the mob of angels and saints standing before the throne room of God and crying out: “Surely you are coming soon. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” We look at the events in Nigeria and we cry out. We look at the events in Paris and we cry out. We look at the events in New York and we cry out. Recently I was sitting in an interview room at an insurance company and the person in front of me was talking about their life saying, “I knew there had to be more to life than I was experiencing.” So he got a job at this company and was making $100,000s of dollars, had 5 cars, and two houses. He said this with an evangelical fervor and I screamed out (in my mind), “Come quickly Lord Jesus, Save us from this.” We look at all this and we see it and we feel it and we put posts about it on social media and we look for answers. And if we listen to the world, we hear it saying: “Make more money. Buy more things. Eat fancy dinners. Drink expensive wines. Date beautiful women. Have sex. Much sex. Fun sex. Kinky sex. Whatever sex you want. Sex. Food. Money. Clothing. Wine. Sex. Money.” It’s an endless loop playing in front of us, blasting us with its motto: more, more, more, more….
And so we come on this morning to the enigmatic words of Paul. And we understand that yes this world and our time in it seems quite precarious and short. Let’s be honest. If you are to believe the media, any day now another terrorist attack could come and only God knows what they would strike. It seems like fear-mongering but in this world, we just don’t know. If you believe the media any day now freak storms could storm down from the heavens and lay waste to our land. It seems like more fear-mongering but as Alabamians we know and have seen the devastation that a tornado can bring. And to listen to the news is to hear a liturgy of fear. Drink Coke and the sugar will kill you. Drink Diet Coke and the aspartame will get you. Or the lead in your child’s toy that was made in China. Or you could lose your job tomorrow if the bankers bet on the wrong stock instrument. Or. Or. Or.
We know this and we beg Paul. Help us. Give us the Word of the Lord for our imperiled existence. Give us meaning. Give us purpose. And his answer we find is suitably Jesus-like. Are we to stop being married? Some have actually done this. Are we to deny ourselves our feelings in this life living with stoic reserve? Some have sought to go this way. Are we to sell all that we have, give it to the poor, and live a life of poverty? A few have. And so you and I must ask ourselves what does this mean? What does it mean for a 21st Century American in general, an Alabama resident in 2015 in particular?
In order to do so, I would like to step back a moment and let’s talk about how to interpret scripture. With a little forbearance I hope that you might not only learn what this passage means; but have a device at hand with which to go forth. So let me ask you: who here likes math? Well I hate math and I am fairly convinced that math hates me; yet I have to add that regardless of my mutual dislike with math I did always enjoy Geometry. I loved the logic of it. The Puzzle of it. Remember having to do the proofs. You get asked a question and then you set out your logic. 1) A = C; 2) C = E; therefore A = E. If so forth and so on. But what I loved most was the graphs. You plotted points and made decisions about the relations involved. Sorry my nerd is showing; but I still love a good graph and the way it can tell you a story.
And this is what I really loved (as a lover of English and History ). What has this to do with scripture, you ask? An excellent question. To answer I want you to think back to the preaching you have received. To have been here long is to hear myself or Barry talk about the coming Kingdom of God. Both of us are talking about the faith we have not as a set of principles; but as a story, as a progression of stories moving towards something: namely the Kingdom of God in its fullness. The main plot points are well known: the have the Garden of Eden in its perfections, Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulting in their expulsion, and then the rest of scripture is then the story of coming back to the Garden reformed and renewed in our midst. You might even think about this as say: plot points on a graph. And here’s the geometry of it.
There has been much debate about how to handle scripture, what it means, what it requires; but if we are using this motif of plot points then perhaps a way of reading scripture is to examine where these lines are taking us. This is not the Matt Rickman theory, if you are interested in this way of thinking I would recommend William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals as an excellent elaboration of what I hope to say in 5 minutes. He argues that God is going somewhere; that God has a trajectory and that scripture is a progressive understanding of this journey. So for us to understand Scripture we must plot our points like a geometric exercise. So let’s understand our graph.
ON the vertical axis, we have the movement from less freedom to more freedom. And ON the horizontal axis, we have the movement from less responsibility to more responsibility. Got it. Less freedom and less responsibility in the corner with movement to more of each on the axis. To understand our question then is to plot several points and see the direction. Some areas, many areas of life we will find move to greater freedom and some will move to more responsibility. In fact we may see that more freedom and more responsibility actually go hand in hand.
For example take the idea of slavery. One that I have studied. The passages about slavery (like the verses just before our text for today) have mystified readers for 2000 years. There has been much misunderstanding and misapplication of scripture associated with these passages. Why? Because we have chosen to look at these passages individually. Yet what happens if one decides to plot the passages in question on our graph and then add in some markers: say the position of the societies in which these passages were written. So one could plot the position of slaves in Greco-Roman society, then add the points for Jesus’ teachings, then add Paul, then add say the teachings of the early church. When one does this one finds an amazing progression for slaves. One that is moving towards more and greater freedom.
One to also take a hot button issue from our current day and do the same. Take heterosexuality. Plot the position of the Greco-Roman. Plot Jesus. Plot Paul. Plot the Early Church. And what do you see? Here on sees a progression from more freedom to more responsibility. You have heard it said, “Do not commit adultery; but I tell you that the one who looks at a woman with lust has committed adultery with her in his heart.” That is not to say that God wants to free us as sexual beings; but what it means is that based on the world, we as Christians are moving toward more responsibility in our lives as sexual beings.
So how does this apply to our scripture today, you might be asking? And I say good question sir or madam. Take a look behind the hood with me for a moment. This passage was most likely written in CE 51 or 52. And that context is important if we would try to see this scripture’s place within the wider story that is going on. Now if you were to read several commentaries on this passage, they would talk about Paul’s ‘mistaken’ notion that Christ was going to return within his lifetime. And truth be told there is some evidence for that in Paul’s early writings. Yet as we pull back and look at the context of this letter, understanding that it was written to a particular people in a particular place at a particular; and though this overriding concern with the grand picture should not be lost; yet we find in those people a particular context. The people of Corinth in this time were experiencing a quite dramatic and nerve-wrecking period of time. I’ll let my favorite NT scholar NT Wright explain:
“Paul left Corinth, most likely, in AD 51. Right around that time, and for a few years afterwards—exactly the period between his leaving and his writing this letter—there was a severe shortage of grain, the most basic foodstuff, around the Greek world. Other people writing at the same time mention it. Many Roman citizens and colonists—and many in Corinth were both—had taken it for granted that the great Roman empire would keep them safe, sound and well fed. Suddenly the food had run out. A great question mark hung over the whole imperial world. Was everything going horribly wrong? The poor in particular—and most of the Christians in Corinth were poor (1:26)—would be feeling the pinch. It was a time of great distress, as much because people were anxious that it would get worse as because of the immediate effects of the crisis.”
If you think about it, Corinth at this time is perhaps a lot like Birmingham in our time. We are a part of the greatest nation, dare I say the 21st century’s Rome, in the world; yet our nation is in the midst of a severe economic crisis. There are many, myself included, in our land who have taken for granted that the great American empire would always keep them safe, sound, and well fed. But this has not been happening as of late. Terrorists abound. Jobs are scarce. We do not feel safe, sound, or fed. There is a great anxiety in the air. Fear abounds. As does suspicion. Hatred. And a host of things that come with this type of social and economic distortion.
And so in this atmosphere we come to the words of Paul who says, “The present situation won’t last long.” And let me tell you as an unemployed man, this is good news, the best news if you will. The wording here is reminiscent of sail being drawn into the mast. One commentator has said: “The word which is used here is commonly applied to the act of ‘furling’ a sail, that is, reducing it into a narrow compass; and is then applied to anything that is reduced within narrow limits. Perhaps there was a reference here to the fact that the time was “contracted,” or made short, by their impending persecutions and trials. But it is always equally true that time is short. It will soon glide away, and come to a close.”  Paul’s first words on the topic are like so many of the angels in scripture: do not worry for God is drawing this time to a close. One might be reminded to read these words in light of Peter’s letters. In one place he writes: “So, beloved, do not forget this one thing that a single day with the Lord is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day. The Lord is not delaying His promise, in the way some reckon delay, but He is very patient toward you. He does not want anyone to be destroyed. Rather, He wants everyone to arrive at repentance.” This is good news.
With this promise and background in mind, how then do we understand the rest of this passage? One might be advised to bring the words of Peter back to bear here, in speaking similarly, Peter advises his listeners “The end of all things is upon us. You must keep sober, then, self-disciplined in your prayers.”
In this manner of speaking Paul is not saying “Don’t get married.” Or “Don’t get a job.” Or “Don’t buy things.” Or even “Don’t be emotional or feel the emotions of your moment.” He is saying, God is working and active, bringing this situation to a shortened end. Going back to Peter, I am reminded of his comment to Peter before the crucifixion that Satan had asked to bring Peter to a time of crisis; but that he had commanded it be brief and that Peter would make it out the other side. Paul is saying that with this understanding of God, we must not act like the world who does not know this of God. We must act like Christians. We must be sober and make good decisions weighing the costs and benefits of our actions, and seeking above all a serious-minded prayerful life that will reveal the goodness of God to our dying world. If that means holding off on marriage, sobeit. If that means getting married, sobeit. But whatever you do, do it diligently and with honor fully understanding the commitments. The pros and cons. In a phrase, make better decisions.
He is saying, above all, to be mindful of the attachments of our world. The pastor Chuck Smith tells a great story in relation to this passage:
Marriage does present a whole different situation. Before I was married, I could travel freely across the United States. All I needed was a sack of apricots and I could go. I only stopped at service stations for gasoline. I never stopped at restaurants. When I was going I like just to get there. After I got married it became different.
We were coming home from Phoenix and my wife said, ‘Honey, I would like to have a cup of coffee.’ And I kept going past the coffee shops. She said, ‘Honey, I would like to have a cup of coffee!’ ‘Sure, who wouldn”t?’ And I went by another coffee shop, and boy, I felt her foot go on the floor that had she had a brake there I would have been thrown through the windshield. I got the message, and we stopped at a coffee shop.”
What Chuck saw as a waste of time, his wife did not. And as a sober Christian mindful of his wedding vows, he honored his wife’s wishes above his own. This is what scripture means when it bids us to count the cost. In America we have a problem with rushing around doing, doing, doing and never taking time to reflect. We never stop to ask what our effectiveness is? If perhaps allowing our kid to plat just one sport rather than six might be better? Asking just what that movie we just watched means and just what kind of character it is creating in us.
There are things that are not necessarily better or worse than others. Yet we as Christians must be people prepared to honor our vows; even at times when they seem to go against our wishes and thoughts. Sometimes we find ourselves driving down the road returning from Phoenix, and God is sitting in the passenger seat saying, “You know what, I would like a cup of coffee.” And we can be tempted to be like Chuck or anyone of other Christians, and turn to Jesus saying “Who wouldn’t want a cup of coffee? I mean coffee… coffee is the greatest of all your creations. But Jesus, we have to get back home. Stopping for coffee is an absolute waste of time.” And Jesus more firmly, says “I would like some coffee.” And so we have to ask ourselves when Jesus wants coffee are we going to stop the car.
We need to learn and relearn just how different Jesus’ view of good news is different from our view of good news. Listen again as we redefine the good news:
“The reason Jesus went on talking about kingdom, despite the obvious risks of misunderstanding in his own day, was because he wanted to replace the ordinary sort of kingdom with a quite different sort (63)….
He was insisting that this kingdom of God, this new reality, the heart of his good news, was a different sort of rule based on a different sort of power. And that it was designed to challenge the present powers of the world with a new kingship that would trump theirs altogether (63)….
When I say the popular view, I mean the view of most people inside the church as well as outside. Most people in the Western world think of Christianity as a system: a religious system, a system of salvation, or a system of morality. Most people do not think of it as news—a message about something that happened, as a result of which everything is now different (64-65)….
His death is a vital and central part of how that is done. We cannot bypass it. We cannot downplay it. We cannot underemphasize it. But it makes the sense it makes within this picture: of the love of God, the covenant of God, the plan of God for the fulfillment of the whole of creation, not its abolition, and above all, the coronation of Jesus as the world’s rightful king and lord. Many times, when people preach the gospel and talk of Jesus dying in our place, you would never guess at any of these things (73-74).”
The good news is God, and not Obama or Boehner, not Beyonce or Clint Eastwood, and definitely not al-Zawhari or Putin, God in Christ is the King and his Kingdom is advancing through His beloved community and not by the empires of this world be they political, religious, or cultural in nature. So in order to advance with him, we must first reconsider our loyalties to this world and to its empires and to its heroes and to its ways. We must find our loyalty moved from our nationality and culture and instead find our satisfaction not in what the Roman or Muslim or American Empire gives us or can provide for us; but in the joy and hope of the coming Kingdom of God. He is moving us down the road. And as we go forth we will find, at times, that we are moving towards greater responsibility and, at other times, greater freedom. Sometimes we might even find both of these at once: that has been my experience as I move towards being a Chaplain. Yet where God is moving you, you can go there holding onto the words spoken at the beginning and end of our passage:
“The present situation won’t last long…. The pattern of this world, you see, is passing away.”
This moment. This time of fear and anxiety we as Americans as facing is only temporary. It is like a sail folding back into itself. We are not to think of the terrorist, or the accountant. We are to pay no mind to the perils of Paris, or Nigeria, or New York. Yes, we mourn. Yes, we rejoice. We marry. We buy land and build houses. We see them crumple. We see them fall. We see others eating at our tables with food we planted. And yet, we know what the world does not. That despite all that we see and experience. We are going someplace. And we must take the reality of that place into account as we deal with the realities at hand. We must be true to it; because we have God’s promise that if we are true to it; He will be true to us. And that, my friends, is all we need to know about that. This is the good news. And we need all of it we can get.
 As quoted by Scot McKnight at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/01/22/nt-wrights-impatience/
 Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (p. 89). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Wright, T. (2004). Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians(pp. 90–93). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Albert Barnes. Notes on the Whole Bible. http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/view.cgi?bk=1co&ch=7&vs=28#28
 N.T. Wright. The Kingdom New Testament. 2 Peter 3:8-9. (Pg. 418). Harper One.
 Ibid. 1 Peter 4:7 (Pg 413).
 As quoted by Scot McKnight at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/01/22/nt-wrights-impatience/