What Is Paul Talking About? Part 2

During the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood. For this second sermon based on 1 Corinthians 7:29-35, I am also deeply indebted to Rev. Dr. David Schmitt and his “Homiletical Help” in the Concordia Journal, Fall 2014.

Words of Focus: This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:29-35)

This is part 2 in a 4-part series on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Perhaps you, like me, have read or listened to 1 Corinthians and afterwards asked yourself, “What is Paul talking about?” Maybe you thought that about the reading for today. But we will get to that in a minute.

First, I want to review a little bit out the purpose of 1 Corinthians. As with all the books of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians was written to a specific group of people about a specific issue that they were dealing with. Paul is writing first and foremost as a pastor. He started the church in Corinth, and you can tell that he loves the people there, whether he is admonishing them or encouraging them.

1 cor christ crucifiedMartin Luther sums up the purpose of this letter in his commentary: “In this epistle St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to be one in faith and love, and to see to it that they learn well the chief thing, namely, that Christ is our salvation, the thing over which all reason and wisdom stumbles.” Paul was promoting unity in the church, and that unity was to be centered on the message of Christ crucified.

The city of Corinth was known for its philosophers who would spout their wisdom in the marketplace and try to win people over to their ideas with their polished rhetoric and charm. Paul would have none of it. He resolved to know nothing and preach nothing except Christ crucified, even if it was seen as foolishness by the rest of the world. Therefore, I believe the theme verse of 1 Corinthians is in chapter 1, verse 18: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” For Paul, it was all about the cross and being united to God and to each other through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Paul uses the central message of the cross to navigate and deal with the many issues that the Christians in Corinth were struggling with as they worked out their faith with fear and trembling. Chief among those issues was how to live in the world and not of the world. This is the same issue that we Christians have in our context and culture today, and so I believe that 1 Corinthians has a lot to say to the Church today once we figure out what in the world Paul is talking about.

cup skomskiAnd to help us out with that task today, we are going to turn to the world of contemporary art. At the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at St. Louis University, there is an installation called Cup by Thomas Skomski. It’s basically a shelf extending out of the wall with a cup at the very end. The shelf is about the height of a countertop, making the cup perfectly within reach. Suspended there, this cup promises water for the weary. There is a problem however. The shelf is actually a wire cage, surrounding the cup. So, you have a cup perfectly positioned…but ultimately inaccessible.  Now before you start muttering about what passes for art these days, just take a moment to consider what the artist is trying to do.

What kind of conversations do you think take place in front of this exhibit? Perhaps some people just walk by thinking “What a waste of a good cup!” How many do you think try to even just get their fingers into the cage just to touch the cup. Maybe others try to search for some hidden escape hatch as if it is puzzle to solve. What does it mean to you? The search for the artist’s meaning and purpose in his art can often be like the question we ask about 1 Corinthians “What is Paul talking about?”

Consider again our text for today. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

What do Paul’ words mean to you? What kind of conversations do you think have taken place about this text? Is Paul giving permission for husbands to cheat on their wives here? If you have a wife, live as if you don’t have one. Sorry, honey, I’m off to the bar to hit on other women. It’s in the Bible! Does this mean that Christians shouldn’t be sad, or if they are they should at least try to cover it up with a smile and fake a positive attitude? Those who mourn should live as though they were not mourning. But wait, then Paul doesn’t seem to like rejoicing either. Or buying stuff. Or dealing with the world at all. Perhaps we are all supposed to live like monks or nuns in the wilderness, completely cut off from the rest of the world.

On top of that, this passage comes in the middle of a whole chapter on both the married life and the single life, all of which can be rather confusing. Paul advises those who are married to stay married and those who are single to stay single. Then in verses 32-35, Paul seems to have a rather negative view of marriage, but in other places, Paul speaks of marriage as a blessed estate, resembling the relationship between Christ and the Church. It’s enough to make your head spin. What in the world is Paul talking about?

cup skomskiLet’s turn back to the cup. In the artist’s own reflection on his work of art, he reveals what he is playing with. Desire and denial- you desire to take the cup and drink. Yet you are denied. But the author then pushes this experience deeper and reflects on how this applies to the Christian life.

All who would follow Jesus and drink from his cup are caught in the difficulties of discipleship. To follow Christ involves both denial and discovery. When you enter the discipleship and drink from the cup, you suddenly discover life in denial. Cup and cage are joined together. To be joined to Christ is to be brought into a different relationship with the things of this world. The joy of hanging out with friends is rich and rewarding but pales in comparison to the joy of an answered prayer. The sorrow of losing your job is painful and distressing but pales in comparison to the sorrow of your child walking away from the faith. To be a disciple is difficult because you are always living at the intersection of this world and the kingdom of God. Baptized into Christ Jesus, you experience life differently.

The apostle Paul knew the difficulties of discipleship. Blinded on the Damascus road, he was baptized and, when he opened his eyes, he suddenly saw things differently. He discovered grace and nothing was ever the same. The wisdom of the world was foolishness to him. The strength of the world was weakness. God, the Father, took that which was low and despised, the crucified Christ, and raised him to rule over all. That one act changed how Paul saw the world. The foolishness of a crucified God was Paul’s wisdom. The weakness of a dying Savior was Paul’s strength. Paul lived at the intersection of this world and God’s kingdom, and that is a difficult place to be.

This difficult discipleship is what lies at the heart of Paul’s words in our epistle today. Paul is writing to the Corinthians about marital relations. His words offer guidance to those who are married and to those who are single. You need to be careful, however, for Paul is not really writing about marriage or the single life. He is writing about your relationship with Christ.

Paul affirms the married life and Paul affirms the single life. Being married or single is not the issue. The question is “how is your relationship with the Lord?” You see, there are married couples who served the Lord, like Priscilla and Aquilla. And there are married couples who fell away from the Lord, like Ananias and Sapphira. There are single individuals who served the Lord, like Paul, and there are single individuals who fell away from the Lord. It is not a matter of being married or being single. Paul is not writing a law to “lay any restraint upon you” but rather seeking “to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

If you read this text to establish a law about being single or being married, you miss the larger picture. Paul wants to foster your relationship with Christ- whether you are single or married. Paul wants to know, “How does your life support your relationship with the Lord?”

Paul is echoing the words of Jesus. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Paul is talking about counting the cost as Jesus does in Luke 14. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’”

When the Spanish explorer Cortez disembarked his 500 men on the east coast of Mexico, he set fire to the ships that had brought them. His warriors, watching their means of return going up in flames, knew that they were committing everything, even their lives, to the cause of conquering a new world for Spain. So also with you and me. When Christ says, “Follow me”- when the call of the Spirit comes to set foot on the shores of discipleship- we are also called to burn our ships in the harbor, to set ourselves free from all worldly loves and loyalties that might come between us and our Christ.

in the world not of itDiscipleship is difficult. Our relationship with Christ changes our relations with this world. That is what Paul is saying when he advises that those who have wives live as though they had none and so on. We are to experience the things of this world but not in an all consuming way. This does not mean that we have to be detached from this world or remove ourselves from everyday life. But we should not let our lives become too preoccupied, too absorbed, or too engrossed in this world which is passing away. As Christians, the challenge is to not let good things- such as your marriage, your family, your job, your physical and emotional well-being- don’t let these good things turn into ultimate things and turn your attention away from what really matters- eternal things. Matthew 6:19-21 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Whether we are married or single, mourning or rejoicing, buying or selling…the most important thing is that we are in Christ. Since Christ is our life and Christ has given us life, we seek to live all of life in him.

What is Paul talking about? What Paul wants to foster among us today is a conversation about life in Christ and how our joys and sorrows, our buying and our selling, yes even our marriages and our singleness lead us closer to him. For Paul, again, it is all about Christ crucified. “When I came to you brothers,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

In the end, nothing else truly matters but faith in the one who denied himself for your sake and was crucified on the cross for your salvation. Nothing matters but Jesus- the one who counted the cost for your salvation, realized that it would require his life, and still picked up his cross to die for you. The Good News of the Gospel is that it does not cost you anything. Jesus already paid the price.

And yet living in this world and living in Christ crucified is a difficult challenge. Paul is assuring the Corinthian church and you that life in Christ is worth it. The troubles in this world are nothing compared to the glory that is to be revealed when Christ comes again. Life in Christ crucified for you transcends all other relationships. Life in Christ crucified for you provides hope and joy that surpasses any mourning or rejoicing experienced in this life. Life in Christ crucified for you lasts longer than the present form of this world which is passing away. It lasts forever. No matter your experiences in this life- joy, sorrow, buying, selling, marriage, the single life, etc- may you be found in Christ crucified for you- the very power of God for your salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, so often we become anxious about this life and distracted from our life in you. Help us to keep the message of Christ crucified central in our lives that no matter what we do, we would be secure in you and your love. Amen.