Tile: This world is passing away
Text: 1 Cor 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20
Date: Jan 22, 2012
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
Let’s start with talking about what Paul doesn’t mean, what 1 Corinthians doesn’t mean when we hear a line like, “from now on, let those who have wives be as though they had none” (7:29). It’s not as if Paul is trying to justify the actions of, let’s say, one of the current U.S. presidential hopefuls, who may or may not have asked his second wife for an open marriage. “Let those who have wives be as though they had none,” doesn’t mean you get to be married and pretend that you’re not by cheating on your spouse. That’s not at all what this passage from 1 Corinthians is about.
The time, the critical time (v. 29), is short, Paul says, the present form of the world, the schaema of the cosmos as it says in the original Greek, the structures of existence, the organizing principles of human life, the social categories, the social and political and economic institutions; the present world order is passing away, it’s disappearing, crumbling, the structures of society are in collapse, they are slipping out of existence (v. 31).
Is Paul making a prediction about the end of the world, setting a precedent for people like Harold Camping, the radio preacher from Southern California who predicted that the rapture would happen on May 21st, 2011? The Christians would be taken up into heaven, he said, and the rest of creation would go up in flames — destruction, plagues, millions of people left for dead, the annihilation of the earth. All of this would culminate in the end of the world, which was supposed to happen last year, on October 21st. That’s not at all what this passage from 1 Corinthians is about.
The followers of Harold Camping quit their jobs, dropped out of high school, and maxed out their credit cards as they tried to spread the news about the end of the world. His followers spent their life savings in order to get as many conversions as possible before the present form of the world would pass away in 2011. There was no reason to go on with their ordinary lives because the world was supposed to end.
The apostle Paul goes to church with these kinds of people. Paul writes to congregations in which some people believe that they don’t have to go on with their ordinary lives because Jesus is coming back any day, perhaps even tomorrow. So they don’t need to go back to work or pay their bills or keep their promises to spouses and families. As a warning to this group of people, Paul says, “Let each of you remain in the conditions in which you were called” (v. 20). In other words: Stay put, your earthly life matters to God, don’t ignore where God has placed you in life, in your work, in your relationships. This same teaching from Paul shows up again in 2 Thessalonians, chapter 3, where Paul tells the people to stop waiting around for God to show up and get back to work: “We hear,” he writes, “that some of you are living in idleness, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn a living” (vv. 11-12). The gospel, Paul reminds his fellow believers, is not about an escape route from the conditions of this world.
There are others in the Corinthian congregation who take the gospel to mean freedom, freedom in the Spirit, freedom of desire, liberation from the old laws. They are the enlightened ones. This group is quite happy with the way things are going on earth, with the new era inaugurated by Jesus. Rapture would be an unfortunate development, irresponsible, really. Why would God want to ruin a good thing with a day of judgment? The people in this group are invested in the present; they’ve got their money stored away as they live off the capital gains, taxed only at 15 percent, maybe. For them, Christ has come to liberate their desires from all constraints, as they enjoy the goodness of creation, the gifts of life: wealth, fine dinning, parties and orgies, all is permissible, even open marriages, for those who have reached a certain level of maturity, of spiritual enlightenment, where what is done in the flesh doesn’t matter for the spirit, for our essence, for our soul. What we do in the flesh is transient, here today, gone tomorrow; but the spirit lasts forever—that’s the good news that Jesus came to reveal, the mysteries of the spirit.
These are the people at Paul’s church. These are his sisters and brothers, people he cares enough about to admonish and argue with. On the one hand, Paul preaches about how the resurrection of Jesus changes everything in this world to people who are like the followers of Harold Camping, people who have abandoned their work and families in order to wait for the rapture that is supposed to happen any day now. On the other hand, Paul is preaching to people who think Jesus came to liberate their desires from all rules so that they can enjoy all the worldly pleasures city-life in Corinth has to offer.
Welcome to the New Testament church. I always smile when people — like Mennonites, or other groups that want to be radically Christian — I can’t help but smile when we talk about how we need to get back to the early church, that our problems today would be solved if we could just do things like they did back then. Those people were just as messed up as we are; confused, but trying to work through how Jesus announced the beginning of a new era, how he inaugurated a new creation in the midst of the old; how his life, death, and resurrection changed everything.
So, what does Paul say? It’s not exactly the clearest advice, at least for us as we overhear his conversation with the Christians in Corinth. “Let those who have wives be as though they had none… and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Cor 7:30-31).
I think Paul is offering a vision of the gospel that takes seriously our lives here on earth, more seriously than the people who think eternal life has everything to do with the rapture, and more seriously than the people who think that life in the flesh has nothing to do with our spiritual wellbeing, our spiritual lives. The gospel, Paul says, is all about bearing witness to God’s new life as the present form of this world is passing away, as the systems of power collapse all around us, as the institutions that maintain order crumble under our feet.
The good news is that our lives are not dependent on the ways that society evaluates success. Our lives are not dependent on the status claims imposed by the world around us. Our lives of obedience are not dependent on the laws of the governments that are here today and gone tomorrow.
So, people who are married are not better Christians than those who are not. Paul’s words have everything to do with ideas about status, in the church and society. Forget about marriage, he says, forget about marriage as a status marker, as a way of evaluating whether or not someone is doing their part in society and in the church. In fact, Paul says before and after the passage — and this is where I get the sense that Paul likes to shakes things up — in fact, he says, if you aren’t already married, you should probably stay unmarried. It’s better that way. But if you are already married, stay put: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called” (v. 20). Don’t use the gospel as an excuse to escape from your commitments. Be faithful to whatever relationship God has drawn you into, as long as it is possible.
The same goes for our commercial lives: “buy as though you have no possessions” (v. 30). Or, as one commentator translates it, “engage in commercial transactions as though you did not hold possessions.” The point is, don’t let your commercial life, your business life, your financial life — don’t let that stuff consume you. Don’t let your possessions end up possessing you. Because all of those values, all of the economic markets are passing away. Because all those ways of evaluating people, all those way of figuring out who is important are in collapse.
So, Paul says, continue your dealings with the world, but do not fall victim to letting the ways of the world determine how you act. Resist the politics of the state that trains you to think that what they are doing, what happens in the high places of government, is what really matters for your life. Do not let the logic of capital, of accumulation, guide how you use your money. Do not let the logic of freedom, of liberated desire, corrupt your commitments and your relationships.
Why? Because, Paul says, the present form of this world is passing away. The structures of existence, the organizing principles of human life, the social categories, the social and political and economic institutions; the present world order is passing away, it’s disappearing, crumbling, the structures of society are in collapse, they are slipping out of existence (v. 31). Don’t depend on them.
In this world where nothing is certain, where the old ways of ordering our lives, the old ways of thinking about what we should be doing, where all those systems are passing away — in this world, how are we supposed to go on? How are we supposed to live as people of the new creation? There’s only one way, a way that doesn’t give us all the answers ahead of time, a path we can start following even though we don’t have a map or know the destination. All we have is Jesus who comes to us here and now just as he came to those first disciples, drawing us out of the old ways and into the new, saying, “Follow me.”
And when we respond, when start walking down that wandering trail, when we dare to follow Jesus into the unknown, we will find fellow pilgrims, friends for the journey, the church, people who we learn to trust with our lives, to depend on for guidance. As the maps of the old world become irrelevant, we find ourselves drawn together by the call of Jesus, drawn together into communion with the body of Christ, the new creation.