Download or listen to the Third Sunday after Epiphany: “Time and Eternity” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes there are Scripture readings where the meaning seems obvious. Readings where we know (or think we know) automatically what is being taught, or proclaimed, or encouraged. Scripture that doesn’t require a lot of explanation, because the meaning seems so clear. This short passage from Paul’s first letter to the congregations in Corinth is not one of those texts. It requires some explanation. At least, we have trouble taking Paul very seriously. What he says seems to go against everything we think about life in this world—especially the life of Christians in this world. Can he really mean that I should live as if I didn’t have a wife? When my loved ones die, I should not mourn? When God’s grace is apparent, I should not rejoice? The difficulty is not in Paul’s words; the words are clear. The difficulty is, as always, in the meaning. The meaning of every single sentence in the Scriptures (or any other collection of letters, words, and sentences, for that matter) depends on context—both the context of what is said, and the context of the person who hears or reads what is said. While we hear only verses 29-31, Paul is in the midst of a larger argument about the way the Corinthians live in their world. This part of his letter goes back to the first verse of chapter seven, when Paul turns to the matters about which the Corinthians had apparently written him. They needed some advice. They wanted to hear what Paul would tell them. We don’t know the questions; we can only guess from Paul’s answers, which is always a little dangerous and can never be perfectly certain. But the reason Paul gives the answers he does is clear: Verse 29: “The appointed time has grown very short.” Verse 31: “The outward, present form of this world is passing away.” The whole meaning of these three verses, the whole meaning of chapter 7, depends on how you view your life. That’s what Paul tells us in these verses. In other words, do you view your life, your relationships, everything, in light of eternity; or do you view eternity in light of your life, your relationships, and everything that belongs to the outward form of this world?
We could think about it this way: what would it look like if we lived in the light of this age? What if we lived as if the time was not short and the world was not passing away? We would tie up the meaning of life in our wives or husbands; we would be in a hurry to get into marriage and a hurry to get out of it. We would weep without hope and our rejoicing would be reduced to putting up a front of pretend happiness. We would treat things as if they were ends in themselves, things to be gathered, and hoarded, and protected, and coveted. And we would treat people as if they were means to our ends, valued for what they can give, or contribute, or do. We would live, in fact, as most of the people around us live—we would live the same way we often do live: as if this world and the things in it are not coming to an end. We talk about how short life is, but we consume things as if it will go on forever. We say we believe in the life everlasting, but we live as if it were coming in a thousand years, if it’s coming at all. And all of these things are just the threads of evidence that form a picture of a life lived in a world whose form is not passing away.
On the other hand, what if we lived as if this world does not matter? As if Paul meant that the things of this world are nothing, mean nothing, point to nothing. The life everlasting would become something disconnected, not just from the present form of this age, but from this age altogether. We would live as if serving our neighbor was just a way to please God, rather than because our neighbor simply needs it. We would not want to weep or laugh too much, nor enjoy the things of this world. They come close to being evil, because they are passing away. We would live as if our own spiritual development, our own attempts to get rid of sin in our lives, were more important than using things to serve people. We say we believe that God is the maker of heaven and earth, but we live as if it belongs to the devil. These are the threads of evidence that form a picture of a life lived in a world that is passing away, rather than its present, sinful form.
Both of these ways of living ignore St. Paul. The first does not take seriously that the time we have under the form of this present age is shortened. The second does not take seriously that it is only the form of this present world whose time is short. But Paul’s answers to the Corinthian Christians are not based on time without eternity, nor on eternity without time. Paul tells the Corinthians, and us, that eternity has entered time. The meaning of our lives and of this world cannot be understood or believed unless we hear this Word. Paul’s specific advice to the Corinthians is based on the general truth that the time until Christ returns has grown short, and that the way things are in this present, evil age is not the way things will be when Christ reveals the age to come. That’s it, right there: Christ has come, and Christ is coming back. The eternal God bound Himself by flesh and blood and time, and now time and blood and flesh—and what we do with them—are forever changed. The entire history of the world and everything and everyone in it have their meaning only in relationship to the God who was in time, reconciling the world to Himself. Giving up His flesh, pouring out His blood, His life coming to an end and the present form of this world with it. Because He began again, a new life, but still the very Body which was crucified—you belong to a different age, even as you live in this one.
“I tell you this, brothers,” Paul says. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality…. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:50-53, 58, ESV).
See, it is exactly because your flesh and blood will be changed as His was, exactly because your perishable flesh, along with the perishing form of this world, will put on the imperishable in a moment, the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet—for that reason, your labor in marriage, your weeping, your rejoicing, your use of the things of this world are not vain, not empty, not worthless. But they are worth something, they mean something, because you are in the Lord. The eternal Son came to His end within time so that He can make you eternal within time. It’s not only the current form of this world that is passing away, but your current form, cracked and crumbling under the pressure of sin and death. But let’s be clear: you will still be you, as Christ is still Christ. And this creation will still be His creation. What will be different is not the thing itself, but its form. You will see Christ the way He is, and you will see yourself and this creation the way He has made them. And that is why we live and work and serve even still under the forms of this age: because we know, above all else, that this will be all transformed, and that nothing in this age will be empty or meaningless or worthless, because you are in the Lord, now and forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/20/12