Sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be heard here.
A few weeks ago, George Clooney received the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Clooney is a film actor, director, and producer who is generally considered one of Hollywood’s elite. He was also regarded as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, that is until his marriage in September to Amal Alamuddin, a lawyer with an international reputation and an impressive resume. At the Globes, host Tina Fey introduced Mr. Clooney’s bride, saying “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three person U.N. Commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.” This joke is effective not only because it exposes the ludicrousness of awards ceremonies in which celebrities give golden statues to one another, but also because it puts the entire enterprise into perspective. Though George Clooney is among the most celebrated people in Hollywood, his accomplishments seem trivial when compared with those of his spouse. Tina Fey’s one liner highlights the importance of perspective, the necessity of making sure that our priorities are oriented correctly.
In our epistle reading this morning, we hear Saint Paul highlight the importance of perspective. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is among his more practical: he addresses specific issues pertaining to community discipline, attempts to mediate disputes among members of the community, and makes discrete suggestions about how to live faithfully. The portion of the letter we heard this morning comes from a much longer passage in which Paul takes up questions about marriage. From the misleading brevity of this passage, we might assume that Paul does not regard marriage as a worthwhile enterprise. In these three verses, Paul comes across as a Stoic philosopher, appearing to suggest that we ought to be completely unencumbered by worldly attachments. Indeed, this is how many of the Corinthians understood the path to holiness. Their sense was that the pleasures of the flesh, even within the bonds of matrimony, prevented one from being spiritual. As a result, certain members of the Corinthian community would abstain from marital relations, often without first consulting their chagrined spouses. This approach to spirituality was actually fairly common in the first century. In certain circles, ascetics were held up as spiritual athletes; those who abstained from worldly pleasures were celebrated and believed to have charismatic authority. For these groups, the more one abstained and the more temptations one resisted, the more spiritual power one acquired. Apparently there were some Corinthians who thought that this correlation of abstinence and spirituality was a characteristic of the Christian life. Moreover, they supposed that Paul, the confirmed crotchety old bachelor (probably never as eligible as George Clooney), would endorse this path to holiness and praise them for their temperance. The snippet of text that we heard this morning might lead us to assume that the Corinthians supposed correctly.
But in fact, Paul has very little patience for this Corinthian approach to holiness. While he concedes that some people are called to live single lives, Paul affirms that those who are married ought to behave as though they are married. His rationale for this is striking. Paul tells the Corinthians that spouses should give each other their conjugal rights because “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” A statement like that is precisely what we might expect from a man living in a patriarchal culture. But Paul immediately provides a corrective: “Likewise,” he writes, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Paul describes a mutuality of relationship that was unheard of in the first century. In describing how marriage ought to be, he implies that none of us is our own master, that we are all subject to the sovereignty of the God made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, this is why Paul refuses to endorse the ascetic path to holiness. While the Corinthians believed that they could abstain their way to spiritual power, Paul insists that true holiness comes only from what God has done through Jesus Christ. While the Corinthians believed that spiritual charisma was something to acquire, Paul affirms that it is a gift given by the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. For Paul, the resurrection is the standard by which we measure every aspect of our lives. For Paul, the resurrection reorients our priorities and changes the way we experience the world.
This brings us to the passage we heard this morning. Paul tells those who are married, those who mourn, those who rejoice, and those who have dealings with the world to live as though none of these things were true. Though it may seem like Paul is being dismissive, it’s pretty clear from his earlier meditations on marriage that he believes these states of being to be incredibly important, vital elements of the Christian community. Far from encouraging the Corinthians to ignore their marriages or their livelihoods or their emotions, Paul is exhorting the congregation to put these into the proper perspective. Now for George Clooney, proper perspective is viewing his achievement in light of his wife’s accomplishments. For Paul, however, the proper perspective is viewing everything in light of the resurrection. This is essentially Paul’s primary purpose in writing first Corinthians. The whole letter builds to a soaring, comprehensive meditation on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event Paul affirms is so significant that it dwarfs every other event in history and every other concern of humanity. For Paul, the resurrection exposes the triviality of the Corinthians’ petty squabbles, claims to spiritual authority, and economic differences. For Paul, the resurrection tempers earthly sorrows and joys, because it allows us to experience the fullness of God’s glory. For Paul, the resurrection empowers us to live our lives unchained from the uncertainties of this life and to put our trust in the God who has defeated the power of death.
There’s no question that we live in an uncertain world. From terrorism to economic malaise to questions about the fairness of our justice system, there is much to be anxious about. But I would also contend that we live in a world that lacks perspective. Our culture tends to respond to every event in a very predictable way: first we are shocked, then we are outraged, and then we forget. Far from encouraging understanding, this pattern leads us to privilege novelty and ignore issues that are actually important. Living in light the resurrection allows us to shift our perspective. It enables us to disregard the ephemeral and recognize that which is of lasting importance. It equips us to participate in God’s transforming work as we build for a future that has been and will be redeemed. It liberates us from worldly anxiety and encourages us to put our trust in the faithfulness of God. Above all, living in light of the resurrection empowers us to look at the world with a new perspective, one shaped by the knowledge that through Jesus Christ, God is making all things new.