Life in a world that is passing away…

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

In the next passage, Paul indicates that there were not any references to virgins in the earliest Jesus traditions.  Clearly, this issue had been on the Corinthians’ minds, and Paul says that though he does not have a “command from the Lord,” he is able to give his opinion as one who is trustworthy by the Lord’s mercy.  Paul then recapitulates the argument he had made in the preceding passages, indicating that it is well for virgins (and for others) to “remain as they are.”  If they are virgins, they should remain unmarried, but if they are married, they should not seek to separate from their spouses.  He makes this suggestion “in view of the impending crisis,” the coming of the day of the Lord, which Paul believed could be imminent.  Paul’s main reason for suggesting that the Corinthians remain as they are is that those who change their marital situation are likely to “experience distress in this life.”  Paul, in other words, does not want people to complicate their lives unnecessarily, in view of the imminence of the Lord’s return.  Paul carries this further when he says that those who are married, or are mourning, or are rejoicing should behave as though none of these things were true.  Those who are forced to have dealings with the world should behave as though they have no dealings with the world; those who buy should behave as though they have no possessions.  Why does Paul encourage this attitude?  Because “the present form of this world is passing away.”  Paul believed that the arrival of Jesus Christ has completely changed the world.  Indeed, the arrival of Jesus Christ has inaugurated an entirely new creation: the old world is passing away and a new world is being brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Thus, Paul believed that those who are in Christ should surrender all of the trappings of this world.  Paul believed that we should not be tied to this world that is passing away.  This is the primary reason that he suggests that people should “remain as they are.”  Our ties to this world are essentially null and void, because our citizenship is ultimately in the world that is being brought into being by God in Jesus Christ.

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting.  Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” — T.S. Eliot

If it seems as though Paul is belaboring the point he has made throughout this chapter, that is because he is.  One of Paul’s fundamental assumptions is that members of the Church must understand their life in terms of the return of Jesus Christ.  All of their relationships with other people and their interactions with the world must be framed within the context of the world that is being brought into being, rather than the world that is passing away.  Paul points out in 2 Corinthians that those who are in Christ are part of a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; cf. Galatians 6:15).  The challenging part of Paul’s instruction is that we do not know exactly what the new creation looks like.  We are called to live with the knowledge that this world’s days are numbered, but we have no idea what the coming world will look like.  We are called to imagine that we live in the world that God is bringing into being, even though we can only guess at what that world might look like.  T.S. Eliot describes this perplexing situation well: we are called to wait, allowing God to reveal his purposes to us.

When we hear that we are called to “wait” for God to reveal his purposes to us, it is easy to imagine that Christians are called to function within an insular community and forget about the world around them.  There are certainly some denominations of Christianity throught history who have interpreted Paul’s instructions in this way.  As T.S. Eliot might have observed, however, this represents “hope for the wrong thing” and “love for the wrong thing.”  Indeed, while we are waiting for the day of the Lord, we have been given a clue about God’s purpose.  In sending Jesus Christ, God has hinted that his purpose is to reconcile the world to himself.  Through Jesus Christ’s willingness to die for us while we were yet sinners, we can surmise that God’s will is for all people to be brought into unity with God.  As members of the Church, therefore, we are to live our lives as agents of God’s reconciling love.  We are called to proclaim the gospel to those who have not heard the good news of Jesus Christ.  We are called to reach out to the homeless and hungry, showing them that there are no outcasts in God’s kingdom.  We are called to heal relationships with our enemies and those we love, so that we can live as emblems of God’s reconciling love to the world.  As we wait for God to reveal himself to us once again, we must exercise our privilege to participate in God’s mission of reconciling the world to God.