Summary: A sermon on the tension and paradox of "the now and the not yet," this world and the next.
Sermon for 3 Epiphany Yr B 26/01/2003
Based on I Cor. 7:29-31
Grace Lutheran, Medicine Hat, Alberta
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Most of us have heard the old saw: “He or she is so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” Others would turn the saw around and reply: “He or she is so earthly minded that they’re no heavenly good.” Ever since the beginning, the church has struggled with interpreting the signs of the times and responding by applying those interpretations to everyday living. It is rather apparent—is it not?—that the apostle Paul, in our second lesson today seems to be writing too far off the deep end of the spectrum concerning heavenly mindedness. His perspective here reflects the belief that the second coming of Jesus is VERY NEAR, when he states that: “the appointed time has grown short…” and he concludes his instructive words by saying: “For the present form of this world is passing away.” So, for Paul, at the time he wrote this section of first Corinthians, he believed that Jesus would come any day now—therefore, everyone and everything takes a back burner to preparing and living as if Jesus were coming today or tomorrow.
However, some 2000 years later, we know that Paul was wrong. Jesus DID NOT come in Paul’s lifetime. A careful study and reading of the Pauline letters also reveals that Paul changed his mind in his later writings—realising Jesus most likely WOULD NOT come in his own lifetime. For example, in this passage from I Corinthians today, Paul comes across as being rather anti-marriage, it seems second best here to the practice of celibacy. However, by the time Paul wrote Ephesians, he comes across as being pro-marriage and compares the marriage relationship with that of Christ and the church.
Before we go too far in Paul-bashing here though, I want to make it crystal clear that HE IS NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO FELL VICTIM TO ERROR AND A NARROW-MINDED, BIASED PERSPECTIVE ON LIFE. WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT, ALL OF US AT TIMES ERROR AND BECOME NARROW-MINDED, AND BIASED IN OUR PERPSECTIVE ON LIFE. That is why the church, throughout its very checkered history has sometimes madly gone off in all directions—often reacting to an extremity of one sort or other by going to the polar-opposite extremity.
For instance, take Paul’s instruction here: “from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none.”
The earliest Apostolic Constitution dates from the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century. This laid down the rule that married men, far from giving up their wives when they were ordained, had to keep them.
The two greatest medieval authors admitted this. Gratian, the canonist, said in 1150 that the Greeks were keeping the church’s ‘most ancient practice.’ Aquinas, the theologian, said that Jesus did not separate Peter from his wife because he did not wish to sever the bond of matrimony which was of God’s making.
An ascetic movement grew up in the church in opposition to heresies with an anti-sex bias. Orthodoxy itself started disparaging marriage. Purity became identified with sexual abstinence; chastity replaced charity as the central virtue of the Gospel.
Everywhere, the rule of celibacy triumphed at the expense of chastity.
Enforced celibacy has always led to hypocrisy in the ranks of the clergy. 1
In the life of the Roman Catholic church today, we now see, with all of the sexual abuse scandals, a swinging of the pendulum in the opposite direction away from enforced celibacy. There is in North America and parts of western Europe in particular, a strong and growing movement among Roman Catholics to change the rules; to allow their clergy to marry; and to allow for the ordination of women. This movement has, from time-to-time taken out large advertisements in leading newspapers across North America advocating such reforms.
Another illustration of the church, through history bouncing from one extreme to another is in relation to verses 30 and 31 of our second lesson today, where Paul instructs the Corinthians as follows: “let… those who buy (act) as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” Here we are given the impression that buying, and having possessions and dealing with the world is something bad and to be avoided. This has been an ever-present issue throughout the history of the church. There have been some Christians and churches that feel very comfortable with buying, having possessions and dealing with the world. In fact, the European Lutheran churches have, up until lately, been “state churches,” and pastors are regarded as government civil servants; and the Vatican is a state all of its own—possessing an abundant supply of “worldly treasures.”