I Cor. 7: 17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them…. 29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
Focus verse: “For this world in its present form is passing away (31b).”
For my research into this sermon this week, I watched some TV. And I browsed the magazines in the checkout stand of the grocery store. And by this morning, I’ve just about recovered. I did that because I had a hunch that Paul was addressing something in First Century Roman imperial society that is just as current in the emerging 21st Century.
Now, a warning: I don’t want anything I say this morning to be construed to sound like I’m saying that we should not work to put roofs over our heads, food on our children’s plates, retire in responsible financial shape, make the planet healthier for at least seven generations, and educate our hearts and heads, just because Jesus is coming back soon.
I still confess the words of the creed, “And he shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” I wouldn’t complain if that happened before the end of this sermon. So we can trust that all our efforts for the well-being of the world and each other are not in vain, that they are on the winning side of history and will be vindicated by Christ’s return. I think that’s why, when someone came up to St. Francis of Assissi while he was tending his garden, and asked him, “What would you be doing now if you knew that the Lord was returning this very day?” St. Francis replied, “I would finish tending my garden.” So, making life better for ourselves and each other is a valid pursuit in light of God’s coming kingdom. The question is always, What constitutes “better?” And How much of “better” is enough?
Today’s passage challenges rather what I saw again and again on TV and in the fashion, lifestyle, entertainment and celebrity magazines: two common preoccupations, one with stuff (always more and more stuff), and another with status, especially with higher and higher class and status, and a constant, frenzied striving to move up and join them, or at least to look like we have joined them. That’s the common theme of the Shopping Channel or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” on TV, or People, or Self magazines: to get and keep more stuff, especially the stuff that makes us look like we’ve moved up in class and status, even if we did not actually do so.
Even the shows about middle class working people, like the Simpsons, show them in homes and neighborhoods that are accessible to fewer and fewer people today. Rarely do any of these characters bust a sweat about whether their jobs or their retirement funds are secure, like many real people today. On the Spanish language stations, one of the most common plots of a telenovela—a soap opera of 6 months duration—is about a poor working class girl who has to compete with a richer, ruthless, higher class girl for the love of a man of her own class, or a man from a class above her. In the end, the poor girl wins and moves up the social pyramid. Its hard not to sympathize: the farther down you go down on the social and economic ladder, the more vulnerable, complicated, difficult and unpredictable life is. Even Christian TV shows are often careful to cultivate the image of an upscale office park or lifestyle, as though the gospel they preach is mostly about upward mobility in this life.
And I always thought the gospel was about God’s downward mobility into our lives.
All this dangling of the baubles and trinkets of stuff and status is alien to who most people are, most of the time. I think what gets most of us out of bed and off to work are our desires to serve God and others, represent Jesus well, to love our families, do our jobs well, pay the mortgage, the rent and the bills. So I know I’m probably already preaching to the choir this morning. I’m hoping instead that Paul’s words today will encourage us to claim and to retain our freedom from this enslavement, in all its forms, to stuff, to the social pyramid, and to “keeping up with the Joneses.” And I’m hoping that my words will also reinforce our solidarity of compassion with all people, whatever their class, race or ethnicity, including the people with less stuff, people with less status. I see that already, judging by some of the ministries in which we are engaged, like Paz Y Esperanza, Urban Ventures, the Twin Cities Relief Sale, and Ten Thousand Villages.
But dangling the baubles and trinkets of status and upward social striving has been a recipe for financial success back before the time of Caesar. For the marketers, I mean. Not so much for the consumers. It profits from, and reinforces, a society shaped like a pyramid, in which people at every level are encouraged to gaze upward in envy and admiration, to imitate and even worship social higher-ups. If we can’t be them, then at least we can buy the products they use and endorse. That focus renders us clueless and careless about the needs and the suffering of the people around us and below us on the social and economic pyramid. Or we may even fear and resent those poorer and needier than ourselves for wanting to get into our place, or for reminding us of where we might fall for reasons beyond our control.
So it was in Paul’s time, especially in Corinth. Corinth was a very prosperous Roman shipping and transportation hub in Greece. There you could see people of all classes, and could instantly tell which class they were by their clothing, their titles, their names, and by how many slaves and employees accompanied them and did their bidding. You could never get away from all the constant reminders of your place in society, high or low. And the system was strictly rigged, segregated, and tightly controlled. But there were ways to maybe move up a notch or two, if you were really lucky. Like surviving service in the army, or getting rich at something. And people who did that, and how to do that, were the favorite subjects of Roman stories, song and theater. It was a constant preoccupation then, for a lot of people, as it is for many today.
We know that status, social striving, keeping up appearances, and keeping up with the Joneses, were troubling the Corinthian churches, too. Paul had to reassure them, near the beginning of this letter, that though “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.. “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God has chosen the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.”
Not because God loves the poor more than the wealthy, nor the lowly more than the high, but because they are often more ready to recognize and rejoice in the new reality that has entered this class-divided world, a reality that renders all such divisions pointless and unreal. With Paul’s preaching of the gospel, and the founding of the Corinthian house churches, there came to Imperial Corinth the first fruits and the foretaste of a new world in which every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain made low, in which the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the wolf with the kid, even the human lambs and lions, even the social mountains and valleys. And so John the Baptist’s proverbial axe has been laid to the root of all status and class distinctions, and all constant, anxious, upward social striving.
In light of this new, class-free world looming over everything and everyone and steadily coming closer, Paul says “each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them.” Even, “each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” The point of that is not to make us sit on our hands and do nothing to improve ourselves, nor the world. Rather, Paul is pulling the plug on the constant preoccupation and reason for living for so many people, in First Century Corinth and Twenty-First Century Minneapolis. No need then for Jews to try and pass as non-Jews, nor vice versa. No need to fight and claw your way up. Even think carefully about marriage and family, Paul says, in light of the times. As good, important and sacred as marriage and family are, there looms over it all the new class-free family of love, compassion and solidarity for all, rich and poor, in Jesus Christ. Its called “the church.” As much as I believe the kingdom of God blesses and stabilizes marriage and family, family and marriage are now to be seen in subservience to Christ and his kingdom, our eternal, universal family.
As for slaves, yes, Paul says, if slaves can become free, they should, because all of us are called to be slaves of Jesus. That’s how the New Testament attacks slavery by the way, by making us all equally the slaves of God’s love. How then can one person enslave another, especially when he or she already has another, better, master? And when we are slaves ourselves? In this new kingdom, all of its subjects are also free. All of us are already beloved, celebrities, heroes and royalty, “more than conquerors” Paul says, by virtue of the courage of our faith. So there’s no need to keep clambering up the social pyramid over a growing pile of people and possessions.
Nor should we presume that we even have the time to do so. Paul writes, “the fashion of this present world is passing away,” and in verse 29: “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.” So all titles to rank and property, all distinctions between free and slave, rich or poor, citizen or stranger, are not only pointless in the light of God’s kingdom, they’re fleeting and temporary. More temporary than we may ever think.
Paul was thinking of Christ’s return when he said this. And though 20 centuries have passed, he was right in another way: within a few years of having written these words, Paul had died in the first major outbreak of Roman persecution against the church, under the Emperor Nero. There’s another reason why all things must be held very lightly, with some sense of detachment: the shortness of this life, however many years we have. So if the Lord tarries beyond our life times, when we are laid out in our caskets, we will not be thinking, “Gee, I wish this was an Armani suit I had on.” We’ll be rejoicing and celebrating with the people whom we helped to procure safe and clean water through the Relief Sale.
Not only is this freeing for ourselves, its also good for our relationships. This year’s theme is, I remind us, taken from this same letter, “Baptized by One Spirit into One Body (Ch. 12:13).” To be a community that is true to our baptism “by One Spirit into One Body,” we cannot let ourselves fall into the world’s anxious struggle and striving for prestige, power, and possessions over and against each other. That leads to divisions, hierarchy, scapegoating and fear within churches, especially of people farther down the social pyramid. We are called instead to the example of Jesus Christ, who, though equal to God the Father, “emptied himself and took on the form of a slave,” and stepped down into a solidarity of compassion with us and our needs.
Therefore a community made up of people from every culture, caste and class who have been “baptized by one Spirit into one body” can demonstrate this unifying reality by likewise turning their attention outward and downward, toward the neediest and most vulnerable among them, by standing in care and communion with them, like two of our young adults are doing, the sisters Kate and Hanna Nussbaum. They are currently both immersed now in the worlds of the poor of East Africa and Central America.
A community that has been “baptized by one Spirit into one body,” also demonstrates this by the way we handle worldly possessions, not as things to hoard and accumulate and trust in, but as things to share. The time to gather and enjoy any worldly prestige and possessions is short, “for the fashion of this present world is passing away.” But the time to enjoy each other is forever. So let us resist the common tendency to love things and use people, and instead invest ourselves in those things that will endure forever: God, people and relationships. What is most important and of lasting value after “this world in its present form passes away,” are not things that would help us be the last one on the island, on Survivor, nor things we might find as product placements on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, nothing that is advertised or glamorized in People magazine. Since time is short in this world, as we know it, let us do like someone suggested at our Tuesday morning sermon roundtable breakfast this week: 1)Travel lightly through life; and 2) hold things gently. To that I add: 3) and look downward and outward to each other in love, mercy and compassion, rather than upward in envy or adulation. “For this world in its present form is passing away.” And better titles and treasures await us all.