1 Corinthians 7:25-35
This past week Lily and I had a debate, after having lunch together, about whether to go to a bakery and get a dessert. In our debate Lily learned more about my odd eating habits( I usually don’t like to eat sweet desserts right after a meal, unless its cheesecake, I will always eat cheesecake). Lily then told me about her Aunt Betsy. You see Aunt Betsy prefered to eat Dessert before eating a meal. It didn't matter what they were eating, when Lily and her family visited Aunt Betsy, dessert was always offered first. This practice of eating dessert first didn't always sit well with Lily’s parents, they were afraid Lily and her sister would be full of sweets before eating good food. Aunt Betsy, however, had an argument that was always hard to beat, “eat dessert first because you never know when the lord's coming back”. Aunt Betsy lived into her eschatological expectations, her expectation of the return of the lord, by doing her best to enjoy the sweet things of life before every family meal.
In our scripture for today we get a glimpse into the way that Paul lived into his eschatological expectations. Paul firmly believed that Jesus was to return soon and definitely during his lifetime. This is evident in his reference to an “Impending Crisis”,which may have had spiritual and natural implications as the Roman empire was facing a food shortage in the area where Corinth was located, and his confidence that the “present form of the world is passing away.” This expectation of the end of the world as they knew it and return of Jesus, shaped the way he advised the Corinthians to live...“from now on, let even those who have wives be 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 possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it..” Paul is living into his expectation of the Lord’s return by preaching and writing letters to the different churches, expressing his longing for the Corinthians and others to live a life focused solely on God(if possible) as the time of Jesus’s return is soon.
Now, for a period of time I struggled with this passage of scripture. In a class focused on Paul’s letters in my junior year at Mars Hill University, I was given the task of creating a research paper on Paul’s beliefs and teachings regarding marriage. In the process of reading, researching, and reflecting on Paul’s words here in 1 Cor. 7, I struggled with the feeling that Paul was telling the Corinthians to separate themselves from the world. To live as though not a part of the world, but, as individuals who are only looking towards the return of Jesus. This was troublesome for me, how could Paul be telling the Corinthians to drop everything about their lives, their marriages, their happiness or sadness and sit and wait for Jesus to return? That seems so counteractive to the Gospel, to the life and mission of Jesus. I went to my professor, Dr. Baldwin, and posed my questions. Dr. Baldwin helped me to see that it is not that Paul wants the Corinthians to sit and wait for Jesus, but, rather understand and respect the magnitude of the choices that they make and repurpose the stress they hold in their lives.
Paul wants the Corinthians, and us as readers of this letter, to know that the choice to marry or stay single has major implications on the life we will live. The way that we spend our time and our money has major implications on the life we will live. The relationships that we build in life, the relationships that bring us joy and grief, have major implications on the life we will live. Paul shows that all of the choices made, throughout our lives, can have a big impact on your life and the life of those around you. Paul is troubled by the weight of life within this world and sees great benefit in living lives focused solely on God. He understands the stress that daily life can bring and would rather those who read his letters place their anxieties on God instead of being anxious about life within our world. Paul knows this life is not permanent, a new form of this world could come to fruition at any moment, and in his push to focus on what is to come, Paul shows us the importance of choosing to live into the impermanence.
After that discussion with Dr. Baldwin, I was at first a little angry. I had already written several pages of my research paper and knew that I would have to do some major revisions. I then read more of 1 Corinthians and became amazed at how a mindset of choosing to live into impermanence brings new life into the pages. Take 1 Cor. 10:25-31 “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks?” You can almost hear Paul thinking out loud as he is writing these words. He feels the weight of even the choice of what to eat. He knows that the Corinthians have the freedom to eat whatever food is offered with no personal repercussions, but, there are times when they should be careful what they eat. In the same way, today we can eat just about anything, but, it would be problematic if we were to bring pork for a meal with a Jewish or Islamic family. Paul would rather us not have to be burdened with these and all the other choices throughout life. Knowing we will be, Paul then provides more advice. So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Whether you marry or stay single do everything for the glory of God.
When we do everything for the glory of God the impermanence of this world takes on a new, different effect. If I live knowing that every meal I have may be the last, I cherish every bite I take. Thanking God for the food provided and and all the relationships created around the table. If I live knowing that every day I spend married to Lily may be my last, every moment that I am able to spend watching her cook in the kitchen (and she is a better cook then she lets on) and then we pray together thanking God for the life we have, every time I'm able to hear her sing beautiful songs about God’s love, every time I get to listen to her passionately talk about her students in her classroom, everyday I'm with her becomes that much more precious.
NT Wright reflected on Paul's teachings in 1 Corinthians 7 in this way,“The value of this eschatological awareness is that it can give to our lives both a sense of freedom and a sense of urgency. Once we recognize, with Paul, that “the present form of this world is passing away” (V. 31), we can see that the structures of our lives-our human relationships, even the closest ones, the experiences that cause us grief and joy, our possessions, indeed all our dealings with the world-are among those things that are passing away. They are not ultimate or permanent… according to Paul, the recognition that the structures of this world are passing away changes our relationship to the things of this world, allowing us to live with them “as though not.” We can remain involved in all the elements of our daily lives, yet have an inner freedom in relation to these things, recognizing their impermanence. This inner freedom allows us to live more graciously with the vicissitudes of life, recognizing that our identity is not determined by them.”
We are freed by the impermanence of this world, and, every choice we make is urgently important. We have the freedom of being God’s children in anticipation of his kingdom coming, while, knowing that each choice we make wholly effects the world around us. I can see why Paul found this quandary difficult. If we separate ourselves from the world in effort to focus solely on God, we may escape any burden from this world. But. What kind of life is one separated from the world that God created. It's a life that doesn't mimic the Life Jesus modeled for us. Jesus faced the events in his life by living a life of love and hope of a better world to come. We can't escape the burdens of this life, just as Paul knew of the crisis’s the Corinthians were facing, there are events in our lives that we must face. There will be physical, spiritual, emotional obstacles in this life. There will be days we want to give up, walk away, and find a way to live alone far from the struggle. On those days we must remember the freedom that we have in Christ. The freedom to know that the pain will soon end. The freedom to know that the struggles of this world won't follow us into that great kingdom. We must know that through the struggle we have the ability to make an impact great than we may be able to comprehend.
In the spirit of Paul using his letter to the Corinthians to give advise on the many difficult questions of life, I will attempt to give some advice of my own. Examine your life, make well founded choices rooted in your self knowledge, and live. Live in a way that honors God through every choice that you make. Live in such a way that every choice you make illuminates the holiness of God upon the world.
Don’t choose to sit at home, doing nothing, until Jesus returns. Choose to live, lending a helping hand to those who may be stuck in poverty or suffering. Don't choose to spend your life judging others, waiting for Jesus to return and justify your judgments. Choose to live, joining hands with others and experiencing all that is beautiful and majestic about God’s creations. Don’t choose to stand on a street corner, warning others that Jesus is coming to wipe away this world. Choose to Live, live beside those that have been hurt and abused, illuminating the true nature of a loving God that has come to seek and to save. Choose to Live. Up until the very last moment, Choose to Live.
Wright, NT. “NT For Everyone Commentary.” 1st Corinthians 7:25-31. Westminister John Knox Press. Pg.4
NT Wright, “NT for Everyone,” Feasting on the word, 1 Cor. 7:29-31, pg.17-18