Archive

Monthly Archives: March 2012

We’re all familiar with the story of cute little Zacchaeus the tax-collector. This is often told to little children (and adults even) with a measure of sentimentality. We are also familiar with the stories of Jesus eating with tax-collectors etc. Well, apparently Zacchaeus and his tax-collecting friends weren’t so cute. In his book The Arrogance of Nations author Neil Elliott writes that the brutality of Roman tax-collectors was well known throughout the Roman Empire. The policies of violence and oppression were systemic, a fact cheerfully celebrated by those in charge. Nero is said to have told a newly appointed provincial governor (around the time Romans was written), “You know my needs. See to it no one is left with anything!”

The Romans would methodologically exploit the riches of a conquered people leaving them with almost nothing, often driving peasants to attempts of suicide. Elliott goes on to note that the Romans “had intentionally appointed as tax-gatherers the most ruthless of men, brimful of inhumanity, and put into their hands resources for overreaching.” Their own “natural inhumanity” was magnified by the immunity they received from their masters:

“The results were appalling. The tax agents sought to extract impossible burdens from the wretchedly poor through mass kidnappings, public torture and executions of family members, even holding for ransom the bodies of murdered relatives on threat of mutilating them savagely.”

Try explaining that to a bunch of Sunday school children.

Advertisements

“If it is really true that a man, however timidly and uncertainly, may be a Christian, and that even with the greatest qualifications he may be seriously addressed as such, this means that even as the man he was, is, and will be, he cannot be the same man but has become a very different man. He now lives with a new character in which he is strange to himself and his fellows. For all his identity with himself, he is also different from himself. He has become the bearer of a new name. The compass of what it means for a man to become faithful to the faithful God is not merely underestimated but completely missed if one does not ultimately stand before this fact with helpless astonishment.”

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4.1.

The following is a short five-minute homily I preached during morning prayer in the Wycliffe College chapel on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. The New Testament reading, from which I preached, was 1 Corinthians 7:32-40.

Funny side-note. Prior to preaching at 8:30am I had not eaten anything nor had I drank anything. Further, when I got up to preach in what was a very warm chapel I was wearing a heavy knit sweater. As I preached, I became very hot and began to feel light-headed, dizzy, and yes even nauseous. I figured I had three options: I could try to tough it out but then I would risk passing out in the middle of my short sermon. On the other hand, I could make a dash for the open door at the side of the chapel where I would no doubt vomit. Those two options would have proven rather embarrassing (and gross) so I opted for the third option and excused myself as I stopped preaching to take off my sweater. Crisis averted.

____________________

It makes all the difference in the world how one regards the end of the world. By “end” I do not mean a temporal point beyond which we cannot venture but rather the goal, the purpose, the telos of the world. Talking about the end of the world may seem like an odd way to begin a short homily on a portion of Scripture addressed to virgins. Yet this is precisely the context in which we are to hear Paul’s seemingly odd relational advice. If the Apostle had a “Dear Paul,” column in the local paper his advice to a young engaged couple may have gone something like this: “Dear Young-and-in-love: Marriage? The time is near, the world as we know it is passing away! Perhaps there are other things you may want to consider such as, I don’t know, concerning yourself with the affairs of the Lord in what little time you have left. Plus, marriage will bring you great distress so, you’re welcome.”

Of course, Paul isn’t writing a general treatise on marriage here and given his expectations his opinion on the matter makes more sense. Paul’s advice is conditioned by his belief that the day of the Lord is immanent. In the few verses prior to this mornings reading Paul says that “the appointed time has grown short,” (7:29a) and that “the present form of this world is passing away,” (7:31b). Later on Paul will refer to himself and the recipients of his letter as “us, on whom the ends of the ages have come,” (10:11). Indeed, nothing less than this has happened in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. In Jesus, the ends of the ages have come upon us. The old age, ruled as it was by sin and death has passed away and the new age, the fullness of God’s reign in Christ, has come. The tension, of course, is that while this new reality has indeed altered the present world it has not yet arrived in all of it’s glory and splendor. In the present we have a foretaste, a downpayment. But, when Christ returns (any moment now, for Paul) he will once and for all judge evil and wickedness and set the world aright.

Thus, Paul’s powerful apocalyptic expectation shaped his advice to the young virgins, that they remain single. Because, for Paul, the time is short ordinary temporal matters dwindle in significance or rather they “assume the significance that is properly theirs in the light of God’s eschatological judgment”[1]. Whether married, single, or engaged Christians ought to live as people who know that all these things are made sense of and find their fulfillment in Christ. Since the future is impinging upon the present Paul simply thought it illogical to undertake such long-term commitments as marriage.

However, Paul was also concerned that marriage presents many distractions that hinder service to the Lord. At best, marriage will produce divided interests as the husband considers how to please his wife (and rightly so!). For Paul, the potential danger of marriage is that it will hinder the Christian’s singleminded devotion to the mission of the church. Paul thinks it urgent that we be about the affairs of the Lord, proclaiming the gospel in the short time that remains, and singleness simply frees up time, attention, and energy to do this crucial work.

Alright, so Paul’s eschatological expectations were off a bit (two millennia or so and counting). What now? We along with Paul are indeed those upon whom the ends of the ages have come. In Christ, we are re-socialized into a pattern shaped by the gospel and illuminated by our eschatological setting between the cross and the final day of the Lord. As Christians our stories are caught up into the story God is telling and has told, the story which culminates in Christ Jesus who is coming again soon to judge the world and subject all things to the Father, “so that God may be all in all,” (15:28). Whether married or single, this story makes sense of our lives and reveals that we are a people on a journey.

Our society has lost good reasons for getting married and having children. We appear even more-so to have lost good reasons for staying single. “Ultimately,” says Stanley Hauerwas, “for the believer there is only one good reason to get married or to stay single, namely, that this has something to do with our discipleship”[2]. In light of Christ’s return marriage and singleness help to cultivate those virtues needed to keep us on the journey. So then, let us not be anxious but instead pursue wholehearted service of the Lord who has authority over our lives be we married or single. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Richard Hayes, Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 127.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 66.

“Believing in Christ means the acknowledgment that one belongs not to one’s self but to him, and belonging to him means belonging to the body of Christ, the community of brethren who have been redeemed and claimed by the one Lord. This belonging to Christ and hence to one another is the presupposition and crucial preorientation of all the believer’s choosing and doing. The believer is not on his own in matters of conduct, nor is he, on the other hand, in possession of prescribed requirements for life in Christ. What is to be done must be discerned and decided in the individual case but always with reference to God’s gift of love as it has been met in Christ and God’s demand of love as it is repeatedly met in the neighbor.”

Victor Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (237).

I was recently talking to someone about church planting and I was struck by some things. Andrew Jones recently suggested that we fore-go planting churches for “kingdom activity”. The person I had been talking to proposed that in a church plant situation you may not actually have a public worship gathering for 3-5 years. Generally, I think, missional wisdom begins with inhabiting a neighbourhood incarnationally, discerning the needs of that neighbour and seeking to meet them, evangelism, discipleship, and then a public worship gathering.

My fear here is that we have separated missiology from ecclesiology. David Fitch expresses this same concern here. Mission is not something which can be lopped off from the life of the church and done “out there”. Missiology is ecclesiology. Evangelism and discipleship, good as they are, are nonsensical apart from the Christian community in which the claims of the gospel are made sense of. What good is an argument for the gospel apart from a community where that gospel is embodied and lived out, where that gospel is transforming lives.

So then, it would seem that the above church planting logic is theologically suspect for it assumes that the gospel can be rationally understood apart from a community which forms people who can understand the gospel. One cannot understand the gospel apart from Christ and Christ is present in the community of faith which is his Body, in Word and Sacrament. Thus, any sort of church planting expression must begin with a community that worships together publically. This is not the end and hopeful goal. This is the beginning from which a life of mission can be lived. For it is only in the church that folks learn what it means to be people on mission, for the good of the world. There is no mission without the church. There is no church that is not on mission. The church is, as someone somewhere has said, the hermeneutic of the gospel, that community which embodies and is embodied by the gospel, that community where people are formed who are capable of bearing in their life together the love of God for the world. Thus, any mission effort which attempts to exist apart from the life of a worshipping community is ultimately misguided.