Sermon by Rev. Sherry Cothran Jan 25, 2015
I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have spouses 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. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Paul, a good Torah scholar, is building a wonderful profile of what are considered basic assumptions for living as a Christian community. By chapter seven, he’s already checked quite a few things off the list. Quite a a few heavy hitters: salvation, divisions in the church, God’s infinite wisdom, more church divisions, the ministry of the church leaders, sexual immorality, lawsuits between members, marriage and fidelity, what to do about the unmarried, and on and on, and oh yes, the big one, the end of the world. By the time we get to his pinnacle statement, really the climax of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, the one that tells us in no uncertain terms Paul’s core theology – that love is the most powerful force in the universe, he will have also covered the topic of head coverings for women and mentioned, again, divisions in the church the authority of the church leaders.
You see, it became necessary for him to lay down some ground rules because there were problems, I mean, there’s no need for rules unless there are problems. And like a psychologist friend of mine likes to say, “wherever two or three or gathered, there will be cognitive dissonance.”
But this basic assumption on his list, this statement that the present form of this world is passing away, what’s up with that? And what’s the deal, really? He said this two millennia ago and we’re all still here, in the present world…. the world as we know it has not yet passed away. What’s he talking about anyway?
That question leads us to the basic assumptions of the Christian community Paul is addressing. Paul, a self proclaimed “Jew of Jews”, an avid Jewish scholar, versed in the Torah, and the community he was addressing, still basically functioning under the traditions of a Jewish community who had now embraced Christ as the embodiment of their prophetic oracles pointing to a messiah — Paul the converted one –would have known that there were a set of basic assumptions within the faith community he could speak to and build upon and otherwise use for his great mission.
We are no different, when we come together on Sunday morning we all assume that we have basic assumptions, we are all followers of Christ, dedicated to being disciples and using Scripture, Experience, Tradition and Reason as our guiding principles. We are not only Christians but we inhabit a denomination, Methodism, that has certain guidelines and framework within which we practice our faith, we may not agree with them all and by the way I just gave you the four pillars of the Wesleyan quadrilateral in case you missed that.
So, when we worship or interact with one another, we hold these basic assumptions up as a kind of framework for our interaction, we know who we are, how to be, what we are seeking from our experience. Of course, the problems come, and they always come, when these basic assumptions are transgressed or otherwise tossed out the window. Sometimes the basic assumptions are too narrow and call for a shift, these days we take Paul to task on some of his more limited statements on gender, our interpretation of his core message, love, as Paul would state, has room to evolve as we evolve. But generally, as we evolve, there are certainly problems when we fail to evolve in love.
Problems were occurring in the church at Corinth, there was some kind of upheaval, uproar, or otherwise nasty church conflict. The basic assumptions had been transgressed, love had not evolved in the people.
So Paul reminds them of who they are and whose they are – to be a follower of God in the Jewish tradition meant a couple of very unique things that we may take for granted today. In a world where there were many gods to choose from, gods that could promise all kinds of things like success, fertility, and much, much more, perfectly legitimate gods by the standards of the ancient near east, the one thing that made Israel unique was that they were not to chase after these gods, this always got them into big trouble. The second thing that made them completely unique and different from all the other religious zealots in the land was that their God commanded them to love the stranger. Love the stranger and do not chase after other gods — these two things would have been basic assumptions, as they are for us today in our Christian community.
So, into the litany of basic assumptions, Paul throws in these three verses :
7:29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none,
7:30 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,
7:31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
What is unique and different about being a Christian is that we believe we can trust in love, we believe that love really is the force that holds the world together, we believe that love is the only permanent thing, that anything that goes against love is impermanent. We believe that without Divine and unconditional love, the world is, as feared, passing away.
This is why we don’t chase after other gods, because their interest in us is not based in love. It is rather, based in manipulation, the pursuit leads us to wither and die.
Trust in love. If you lived your whole life by this one rule and followed no other rule, it would be enough. Trust in love. It’s difficult, it was very difficult for the Israelites, as Paul tells us earlier in his litany, they got it wrong very often but when they did get it right, it was spectacular. It is difficult to follow this cloud of love around, isn’t it? Love doesn’t make plans, it’s just love. Love grows and changes us and the world around us as it builds its foundation, this is what makes love frightening. And we have a hard time trusting in love as the world of permanence, the world that does not pass away, the form that holds us together, because we don’t often recognize what Divine love is. We have often grown up in systems where we had to manipulate, hurt, beg, cheat, lie, appease, or control the behavior of others to get what we needed, we fail to understand what unconditional love means and so we don’t trust it when it comes around. We get caught up in these ways of behaving to get our needs met and we end up never really finding the intimacy we crave, the embrace of God, because we find it hard to let go of these ways of being, we refuse to unlearn our behaviors that take us deeper and deeper into distrust.
Yet, in our Christian community, we say that we are a community of love and we are committed to this form of the world that will not pass away, while all else perishes.
You want to know God, know love, we claim. Seek to know love, seek to trust love where you find it in its purest form.
This is how we know love, by the way we are with one another. The thing about love is – a quote my mentor loves to say, “Our God may be one but it takes two to find Him.” It is in relationship that is committed to the kind of Divine love we talk about here that we find it and we begin to trust it and move towards it.
What does Paul, in his climax chapter, chapter 13, say about this love that holds all things together? Does he say that…..
Love is impatient? Love is unkind? That love bears false witness about another person? That love is jealous? That love is easily angered? Does he say that love keeps a record of wrong? Does he say love never protects, never trusts, never hopes, never perseveres? No, but this is what most of us have come to understand as love in this world that is passing away.
No, Paul tells us the truth, that love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love is patient, kind, love perseveres, love believes, love keeps no record of wrong, it is not jealous, it does not boast. This is why love builds a world that does not pass away, it keeps on giving of itself without reserve or conditions because it is a force between souls connected to God. In fact, Paul tells us, unabashedly and without quivering that love, in fact, never fails. This is why God made it a part of his deal with his people, to love the stranger would require a kind of risk, the kind of risk that asks one to trust in love.
We think so many other things in this life are permanent, we think so many other things in life make us special. But Paul says that all else belongs to a world that is passing away, a world of impermanence. A world undergirded by fear and anxiety and frenzy and distrust. A world of manipulation and back-stabbing. Paul says, yes, we live in this world but act as if you are not owned by it, don’t go chasing after those other gods, I’m telling you, they will only deliver you to the grave. But love, love will take you somewhere you never imagined.
Basic assumptions. Our basic assumption as a community of faith is that we invest ourselves fully in this kind of love. We don’t move forward, really, as a community of change and transformation, or as spiritual beings until we learn to trust love more than self-defeating beliefs, until we learn to trust love more than the bullies among us, until we learn to trust love more than the fear mongers in our world, until we learn to trust love more than the other gods that hold sway over our lives.
Friends, this is our starting and ending point for being the church in the world. The world doesn’t need another religion with an agenda to save the world, it just needs people who are committed to love. If we do this, if we are committed to this, we will thrive. If we work against love, we will fail. It is as simple as that.
As a pastor, as a leader, it is this basic assumption upon which I do all my work. If I cannot lead from this basic assumption, I am doomed to fail. But it is not only I but the very world that I inhabit, when we cease to tell the story of love, how love has saved us from ourselves, from situations in which there seemed to be no way out, if we cease to have a story of love in us then Paul’s prediction of the end of the world is now. When love’s story ceases, it will be the end.
But if we do learn to trust in love, it will strengthen us, it will create a way forward for us, it will help us to grow in our voice and our resolve, it will connect us with the very story that is written upon the walls of our very own souls.
As a church we are caught up in the greatest love story ever told: a love story for which Christ gave his life. It is sad that we usually only hear Paul’s core theology at funerals
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’(1 Cor. 15:58)
Friends, he’s talking about the triumph of love, it is the core being of the God of the Hebrews and the Christ of the world. To quote the woman from the Song of Songs: “love is strong as death.” (8:6)
As long as this love has a story to tell in us, it will be the world in us that will never pass away.