What a friend we have in Paul!
Whose mighty voice has rolled down through the ages bringing us the good news in all its stark simplicity: Christ the Lord is Risen!
Raised in Tarsus, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, of the Tribe of Benjamin, as to the law a Pharisee, a defender of the traditions of the elders—and so a persecutor of the church.
Who rode to Damascus and on the way was blinded and there heard a voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
Who in that blinding encounter with the Risen Lord, gave himself up, pronounced a sort of death sentence over himself, and so died with Christ and walked henceforth in newness of life.
Who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and so lived moment by moment thinking, “Who knows what will happen next?”
Who cared for those first few Christians, and worried about them, and grew angry with them, for they so easily lost this vision: that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, who knew what would happen next?
Paul’s Apocalyptic World View
Who challenged the Thessalonians: “This is the will of God, your sanctification”.
Who challenged the Galatians: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.”
Who challenged the Philippians: “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel”.
Who challenged the Romans: “Be ye not conformed but be ye transformed by the renewal of your minds.
Who challenged the Corinthians: “Be reconciled”
Whose mighty voice speaks to us today, ever answering the question of what we should do by saying something, first, about what God has done. Our faith springs not from ourselves but from God, the Giver of both life and faith. “All religions are attempts to know God; none is the event of being known by God…God’s graceful election of us by his rectifying and non-religious invasion of the cosmos in Christ is the subject of the whole letter.” (Martyn, Galatians, 4:9)
Paul reminds us that “the form of this world is passing away”. What else can we expect from a God who raises crucified Messiahs? Who knows what will happen next?
The future is as open as we, in faith, will allow it to be.
The voice of the Marsh Chapel pulpit, a national voice for a once vibrant, now wounded, nonetheless crucial form of faith, call it a responsible Christian liberalism, has not feared the future. We seek the truth, and so have nothing to defend and everything to share. So we may recognize in this passage from 1 Corinthians 7, a form of thought that differs utterly from our own. If Paul did retain some of his formative Jewish worldview, the part he closely retained here was his inherited apocalyptic eschatology. The resurrection must be, he reasoned, the beginning of the end. Hence, preaches Paul, the form of this world is passing away.
Paul’s worldview, his apocalyptic eschatology, is not our worldview. Paul’s world, though, is very much ours too. So we shall need to imagine, to dream, and to interpret these verses in a new way, for a new time.
Paul for a New Day
New occasions teach new duties. What a friend we have in the one non-gentile NT author who nonetheless was the ‘apostle to the gentiles’! Paul was a shirt tail cousin of George Bernard Shaw, whose ringing question, ‘why not?’ haunts us. Paul was related, though not by marriage, to Robert Kennedy, who lived, in extremis, Shaw’s question. Dr. James Walters of Boston University is a third cousin, twice removed in this blood lineage, for he did say this week, in good Pauline fashion, “epiphanies are the vehicles through which God creates dreamers”.
No, we may not share Paul’s worldview, but we share his world. So we may benefit from his friendship, and practice his faith.
We may rely not on ourselves alone, but upon God who raises the dead.
We may face the world, free from the world.
We may lean into the future, free of the burden of past worry.
We can live on tip toe.
We can compose every day with brilliance as if it were our last, which, in a way, each one is.
The person of faith, who overhears the distress down deep in this world, so deep that others don’t hear it, does not rely on himself to sooth it. He knows there is one Savior and he isn’t Him.
What a friend we have in Paul, who preaches Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
The Corinthians want to know about marriage.
Odd, strange, foreign, and alien as the teaching is to our ears, we must Paul aright. Says he, “Don’t worry, marriage isn’t sinful”.
An irrelevant answer to an unasked question, say we.
We never thought it was!
We forget Paul’s apocalyptic worldview. We also forget that for Paul and for many in earliest Christianity, marriage—as the epitome of dealings with “the world”—was decidedly inferior to celibacy. This text recommends a sort of brothersister alliance. The early church so understood it. The desert father Amoun of Nitria (love that name) spent his honeymoon expounding 1 Cor 7 to his (surely puzzled) bride.
Why does Paul teach this way?
Because Paul expects that “the form of this world is passing away”. God has raised Jesus from the dead. Who knows what will happen next?
For Paul, this meant a daily, excited, imminent expectation of the turn of the ages, a new heaven and earth, the end of time and the beginning of a new era. For our sake, it is a blessing that Paul’s own timeline was a little fuzzy. Otherwise we would not be here. But the spiritual truth which lives in this passage, its existential reality, is the same. Every day is our last. Paul so reminds us, and so shakes us out of our stupor. THIS is the day the Lord has made. We shall rejoice and be glad in it!
What if we are free?
What if Christ is Risen?
What if the form of this world is passing away?
What if …
Our interest is so great in the form of this world that we don’t notice the world that is to come. We forget. We rely upon ourselves when really, by faith, we mean to rely on God who raises the dead. God who
Has shown great strength with his arm
Has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts
Has put down the mighty from their thrones
Has exalted those of low degree
In all of life, in the fullness of faith there lies this strange, new potential. Potential. Potential for something new.
We face the world, free from the world.
We meet each day with courage.
We touch and are touched in the presence of Divine Potential, the raw possibility of a new day.
We live on tip toe
We live each day as if it were our last, which it is
We greet the hour and its struggle, from a certain distance, and over every loud booming statement there is a misty question mark.
This year at Marsh we have asserted that on a reliable hope hangs our future. A hope that life has meaning and that this world, not some Gnostic nether world but this world, can work. Weekly you have pressed: what are the features of this hope? We reply: one ingredient in hope is imagination, a willingness to live ‘as if not…’.
As If Not…1
“As if not..”
The form of this world is passing away.
So let those who have wives live as if they had none. Let them be married, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come, “as if not…”
Once there lived a model couple. Pillars of church and community, they arrived at their mid-fifties in joyful wedlock. They were models of self-giving love. He would arise every morning thinking, “What can I do to make her life brighter today?” She would end every evening with some bright thought for the morning. The minister would pass by that house and smile.
Then one night the preacher had a phone call from the couple, and a distressed question: “Can you come right over?” After some awkwardness and foot shuffling they asked, “Would you marry us?” Well it was a long story. They had begun many years earlier working together, running the town store. Times were tough, so, to save money, they moved in, together to share space. Then they fell in love. People in the town assumed they were married, and, well, what could they say? So, year followed year and decade followed decade. They felt, though, that is time to make if official. A simple, elegant ceremony ensued. The minister would pass by that house, again, with a smile.
About a month after the wedding, the minister received another late night call. Down he went again to visit this model couple, who, for the first time were on the verge of separation. They were at wits end. The wife spoke up: “Nothing has been right since the wedding. It used to be, you know, every day was a new happiness. But since the ceremony and the ring and the certificate, I guess we have started to take each other for granted. There was something about being free to leave, that kept both of us on our toes. We used to really watch out for each other, even serve each other. But now that the knot is tied, we are chaffing at one another.”
A long night of conversation followed. Tears and apologies, advice and consolation. There was a return of the old feeling for the old couple. In the wee hours the minister put on his coat to leave. But before he left he forced the couple to make a solemn vow. He made them promise to live together, from that day forward, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, as if they were not married. As if not…
Let those who have wives live as if they had none. Let us be married, not in the form of this world, but in that of the world to come. Not in complacency and disregard and a taking for granted—this world. But in surprise and kindness and joy and love—the world to come.
As If Not…2
Let those who mourn do so as though they were not mourning. May they mourn, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come.
A long time ago, up north, I called on woman in a nursing home, in the autumn of the year, in the autumn of her life. She was alone and that day mourning the loss of her last living relative. Over tea, she made a familiar confession. “At 18 I knew everything there was to know. I had a tall pile of answers and hardly any questions. But somewhere between ages 25 and 75 that pile began to shrink and another started to grow. Question jumped on top of question. Finally about age 85 I came to a point where I could honestly say I did not know anything, really, at all. With my sister gone, I know nothing and no one.” Nothing? No one? She thought, a little longer, and then added, a gleam of contentedness shining through her deep hurt: “I guess I do know something and Someone. I know Whom I can trust.”
There is something in that trust, that kind of proto-faith, which breathes with imagination. May our graduating seniors take heart! All the songs have not been sung yet. All the poems have not been written yet. The storehouse of good deeds yet undone has not closed for the evening.
My friend Jon Clinch, best man in our wedding and I in theirs, has a great new novel coming out this month. Titled, FINN, the book imagines the life of Huckleberry Finn’s father, Pap. Pap’s life is something to be mourned, though his death is not. In the course of writing this dark tale, the author has given us an insight, a novel reading of the greatest American novel, which no one, no one, for 120 years, had earlier seen! You read this book and sense that the author has found the key to pick the lock of Twain’s mind! Do you know what a huckleberry is? What color it is? What hue? Twain hid his secret right in plain view, in the name, Huckleberry, whose mother, according to this newest fiction, was black.
Let us imagine in the form of the world to come.
Let those who mourn do so as if they were not mourning, for the form of this world is passing away. When things go south, let us live not in the form of this world (in despair and doubt and dread), but in the form of the coming world (hope and freedom and a sense of God’s awesome potential).
Paul has been read for 2,000 years, yet only in the last generation was his apocalyptic eschatology fully appreciated. Paul awaited a new creation! How new? Look again, with JL Martyn, at the Greek text of Galatians 3:28, where Martyn finds an expectation of a new creation, so new that all the old categories, including those most debated today, are set aside:
“The variation in the wording of the last clause suggests that the author of the formula drew on Gen 1:27, thereby saying that in baptism, the structure of the original creation had been set aside…it is a radical vision of loving mutuality enacted in the community of that new creation”. (Galatians, Anchor Bible, 3:28 loc cit).
Today we mourn the loss of young life in Iraq. We read of the best and brightest, lost and lamented. Our hearts break. They break. Shall that mourning be our only mourning? Or shall we mourn the loss of the best and brightest in the form of the world to come? That is, with active imagination about what might honor their loss by preventing further loss?
As if not…
As If Not…3
Let those who rejoice do so as if they were not rejoicing. Let them rejoice not in the form of this world but in the form of the world to come.
You know, it is not always clear what is bad news, or good. What can seem cause for the greatest rejoicing also can carry hurt, and vice-versa. God’s time is not our time. God’s purpose is not equivalent to any one of ours. God’s justice is not the same as our own. God’s freedom far surpasses yours and mine. A crushing defeat can, in God’s time, and with patience, become the source, the medium of great victory. I think of Franklin Roosevelt. Where would our country be today, without his life’s strange mixture of rejoicing and suffering and struggle and perseverance? Is it not odd that the one President, who appeared to be the least vigorous, was in fact the most? ‘To lead you have to love, to save you have to serve’
As If Not…4
As if not…
Let those who buy and sell, do so as if they had no goods. Not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come. Augustine said it so well: we use what we should love and we love what we should use. We use people and love things, when we are meant to love people and use things.
Let us allow Paul to befriend us. He may help us observe the reversals announced in Jesus’ beatitudes. He may help us leave aside our negativity for the psalmist’s ‘delight’ in the Lord.
So James Finley, ‘Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, ‘How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.’ A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.’
Jesus told of a man who grew more and more crops and built bigger and bigger barns. At last the man could say: “soul, take thine ease, eat and drink and be merry". But that very night his soul was asked of him. “Whose then shall all these things be?”
Yes, use the things of this world and buy and sell. Let us do so, though, not in the form of this world, but in the form of the world to come. Not in grasping selfishness, not in anxious pursuit, not in such strangely intense attention. Rather: with aplomb, with a certain disregard, with an inner freedom.
About your car, your house, your wardrobe, your bank account, your things—ask this: Do you own it or does it own you? Do you own it or does it own you?
What a friend we have in Paul:
Let those who have wives live as if they had none
Those who mourn as if not mourning
Those who rejoice as if not rejoicing
Those who buy as if not buying
Those who use this world as if not using it
FOR THE FORM OF THIS WORLD IS PASSING AWAY.