Saturday, November 28, 2009

Virgins (and Others) In A Passing World

This is sermon #19 from my First Corinthians series of two decades ago. I skipped over #18 because my understanding of the topic (divorce) has shifted substantially since I wrote it.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24;29-40


We sometimes use the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees" to describe a condition in which people get so bogged down with the details that they lose sight of the big picture or the overall purpose of all their concerns. Unfortunately, such a thing happens among Christians as much as anyone. That is one way to understand what Paul was dealing with in this seventh chapter, and it is also one way to understand things that happen in churches today.

With these verses we come to the undergirding thought behind everything else Paul is saying in this section. The issue is not really sex, marriage and singleness. Those just happened to be some of the particular things that were the focus of the Corinthian attention. To use the opening quotation, the issues of marriage and singleness were the "trees." Paul's concern was for the church to see "trees" in relation to "forest."

And what is the "forest" that is supposed to give us our context? What makes Christian thinking and understanding different from everything else? What is the crux of our faith? How does our faith in Christ affect life in the day to day world? What does it mean in our families, jobs and hobbies that we are Christians? How does being a Christian affect our buying, our involvement in our communities, and anything else one can think of?

One way to answer that is to think of what it does not mean. Christians are not people who approach life merely with a set of different rules. Having a distinctive approach to particular issues is not what sets us apart. Our faith is not based on what we are and what we do in this world.

For the Corinthians that meant it did not matter if they were married or not. They did not need to concern themselves with so-called rules of spirituality that morally or religiously elevated singleness above marriage or chastity above the marriage bed. Rather, if you are married, be the best married believer you can be. If you are single, take all the more delight in your relationship with Christ each day. If you are divorced, believe that Christ can heal the brokenness and still make your life beautiful.

But the application does not end there; it is much broader. The concern is not certain issues at all. Paul himself broadens it with his examples of circumcision and slavery (v18f). What does circumcision have to do with being a good Christian? Nothing. What if a person is a slave? Can he be a good Christian? By all means. Little issues of this world (the "trees") do not change the greater reality (the "forest").

Paul's examples here do not speak so powerfully to us today. Circumcision is not an everyday topic in the church now –– it has lost any religious significance it once may have had. Slavery is not a social reality for us any longer. What are the issues we get hung up on today (because the principle is still the same)?

The things that seem to occupy our concerns are jobs, education, family, housing, possessions and such things. We label people that way. "Well, he's a Ph.D. –– how can I relate to him?" "Oh, I'm just a clerk at work." "You know the people in her family never really measured up." "They live in a rented row house." "He buys all his clothes at Brooks Bros." Is that really what counts?

The world says those are, indeed, some of the things that count (one way or the other). The message is clearly there: People who own their homes are more successful that those who rent. A man with a graduate degree and a powerful position is more important than a delivery truck driver. The woman in a natural fiber business suit in her office is due more respect than a woman in polyester pants with a couple of kids hanging on her in K-Mart.

Could it be that we in the church believe such distinctions are connected in some explicit way with God's blessing? Or worse yet, do we buy into the world's value system? Do certain things or social conditions make us better or worse, fulfilled or empty in spirit? Is "upward mobility" part of the gospel? Does being a Christian automatically mean a good marriage, perfect children, a nice house and a growing appreciation for refined culture? If a person with a broken past comes into the church, is he or she sentenced to forever play "catch up" toward those whose lives have been spared some of the stigma? Is that what is important?

If we are honest, are those not the kinds of things that often fill our minds? How to look good to others. How to pay for the kids' college education. Whether or not the daughter's marriage will make it. And underneath it all is the idea that those are the things that make us better people.

In the context of this Corinthian letter, the assumption was that if they avoided the relationship of marriage they would be better people. According to their thought, virgins made better Christians. The issue has changed for us, but we have our own particularities by which we judge each other's status.

Think about this –– everyone on earth can be labeled. Each one of us can be categorized in some way. But what is behind the categories? What does our social distinctives accomplish? On what is social status based? What does it promise, and more importantly, what does such a thing actually deliver? What is it that actually deserves the focus of our time or energy or money or worry?

In the context of the Corinthians, is it good or bad to be a virgin? Is maintaining that particular identity going to make someone a better Christian? (I hope you understand I do not ask that in a moral sense; the issue here is sociological standing.) Or to shift again to our own day, is it good or bad to be a professional person compared to a blue-collar worker? Is one going to be a better Christian than the other? I hope you know the answer is "of course not."

But how can we say that? By the world's standards such things make all the difference in the world. One can afford to have more and better than the other. Does that not matter at all? If not, why do we try so hard to better ourselves? Why do we try to pave the way for our children to get a good education? Why do we buy things we enjoy? Is it good to do those things, or is it bad? How should we, as Christians, think about those questions? Or should we think very much about such at all?

Putting the "should" aside for a moment, let me just say it is certainly easy for us to think about things like that. Those are the issues which can consume us, even if we are Christians. We can spiritualize almost anything.

When I was a Christian teenager I spent time figuring that listening to the Lettermen would be more spiritual than listening to the Beatles –– even if the Lettermen did a Beatles' song! We can list the good things to spend money on and contrast that with a list of the not so good. Within the context of the church we can categorize people who have achieved certain accomplishments compared to those who have not (i.e., those who have stayed in their original marriage as opposed to those who have not).

It is about at that point that our rules and our categories begin to define what it means to be a Christian. And at that point we no longer see the forest for the trees. The issues of everyday life –– legitimate things, yes –– swallow up everything else. We end up destroying the very thing we are trying to protect –– a faith that frees us from such limiting, worldly thinking.

Paul tells the Corinthians why that is so. It is because of what is so important. It is because of the very nature of the forest itself, in contrast to the issue of each tree. And what is the "forest" in this context? Well, to try to extend this metaphor, it is to realize that the trees we see each day are not part of the forest we need to be most concerned with. If that helps you, fine. If not, let's drop the metaphor and get on with the actual truth that is here.

Actually it is not anything you probably do not already know. It is stated plainly in v31: For this world in its present form is passing away. But it is one thing to merely read this in the Bible and give a nod to it, and something else entirely to understand what it means and how it is true.

Again, to begin with the issues Paul is addressing, what is marriage and what is virginity? Both are things that are connected with our status in this world, and neither will one day mean anything. Just think how much time and energy we give to things that will not matter a hundred years from now.

That is not to say possessions and accomplishments and relationships in the here and now are wrong, or even not important. It is to say that Christians have the glorious opportunity to be free from the level of concern that consumes most people in the world. Pouring our energy into worrying about the things that label us on earth just isn't worth it! Let's see why.

Do you remember the point in chapters 1 and 2 of this letter? Christians are people who recognize a different wisdom. Losing can be winning. Death can mean life. We are not people who believe the world's billboard with the "good life." We look at another billboard that advertises weakness, defeat and death. We are people of the cross.

Now we are explicitly told why this is so. The billboard showing the world of the "good life" is not true. It is a mirage, and it is passing away. Everything that happens to us in this life must be tempered with that. In vs 29-31 there is a list of things that happen to us on earth. We marry. We are happy sometimes. We mourn sometimes. We purchase things. But none of those things are ultimate reality. We cannot totally possess the things we buy. The situation that makes us happy or sad will pass. Even marriage will not follow us into eternity. So why allow those things to be the reason for our existence?

It is not that the Bible is forbidding any association with those things. The first five verses of this chapter affirm the binding nature of marriage for those who do marry in this world. Neither is feeling sadness or happiness wrong. In another place Christians are exhorted, Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). It's just that Christians need to live in the consciousness of a greater reality. Things that are so big to non-believers are mere passing trifles to people who see who Jesus is and what he has done.

And what has Jesus done? We know he has died and has risen, but perhaps we do not fully understand how in doing so Jesus has passed judgment on the present form of the world. The resurrection promises a new existence, and it is the one that will abide. As Christians, we are called to live out of a new realization, a realization that things of this world do not determine our identity and destiny. Christ does.

Once we see the truth of that, we cannot look on this world and the things it offers and the things it promotes the same way. It is like someone who is terminally ill. Once a person knows the end is near, the amount of time left is lived with a new perspective. He sees, hears and values in a new way.

Another illustration of a totally different nature is a person who tells a joke. He alone knows the punch line, and because he knows it, it shapes the telling of the whole joke. Through the resurrection of Christ, Christians know the divine "punch line" (which in this case is no joke, but a vivid reality!); we see clearly how the story comes out, and so shape our lives accordingly.

This change of perspective isn't something that can be faked. One can try to mimmic the Christian life by following rules, but the essence of Christian faith is truly seeing the world as passing and a greater existence ordered by Christ following. Such an understanding cuts through the things that matter and the things that do not.

Yet that does not mean that a Christian does not live in the here and now. Christians eat, live in houses, marry, buy, go to school and get jobs just like everyone else. The one difference is that we know that those things do not determine who we are.

The great truth of 1 Corinthians 7 is that the gospel transcends the world's standards and issues. Another particular point here is the principle of "staying as you are" (v17, 20,24,26). This is not a command that you cannot change your situation after becoming a Christian. Instead, it is a freeing word, emphasizing that one does not have to do or not do anything in terms of social convention to be a good Christian.

Using these issues of chapter 7, if a person was married when she became a Christian, she can be a good married Christian; there is no need to feel as though the marriage must be dissolved. If a person was not married when he became a Christian, there is no need to feel compelled to marry; he can be a good single Christian. Those kinds of things do not affect spirituality. They won't change one's relationship with Christ; they are not the kinds of things that will be so terribly important in a hundred years as far as the person is concerned.

Can we dare go into this week with that kind of faith? The larger issue here is that we not be worriers (v32f). So much of what we fret about in this life, so much of what we think is important, so much of how we judge others in the church just isn't relevant to Christian identity.

Christians belong to Jesus Christ. Christians are travelers through a world that is passing away. Yes, we live like others. Some marry; some remain virgins. We sorrow, we rejoice, we buy, we use the world –– but those things do not make us who we are. We do not need to lose sight of the forest because of the trees.

Does Jesus care if you are a Ph.D. or a high-school dropout? Does it matter if you rent or own? Does it make any difference if you are single or married? Ultimately, the answer is no, God can transform your life apart from the world's categories. The issue of the gospel is just this: do you believe it?

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