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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.

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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.

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More evidence that we need a community in which to learn to be Christian. From Hauerwas:

“What so often makes us liars is not what we do, but the justifications we offer for what we do. Our justifications become the way we try to defeat the contingencies of our lives by telling ourselves consoling stories that suggest we have done as well as possible…Being Christian means that I must try to make sense of my life in the light of the gospel, and so I do not get to determine the truthfulness of my story. Rather, those who live according to the gospel will be the ones to determine where I have been truthful and where I have deceived myself,” (Hannah’s Child, 159).

Am I a Christian? I don’t know. Ask those around me.

For Christmas my father gave me Hannah’s Child, the memoir of Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who has been influential in my own thinking about and (I hope) practice of the Christian faith. A while back Dan posted an interesting liturgy he wrote during Christmas on the theme of godforsakenness. While I disagree with Dan that we are indeed godforsaken I understand that, subjectively, it is not difficult to see how one could feel godforsaken. Indeed, I rarely (if ever) “feel” that God is present. As Hauerwas would say, God is just not “there” for me. Hauerwas opens the memoir with the following confession which I resonate deeply with myself.

I believe what I write, or rather, by writing I learn to believe. But then I do not put much stock in “believing in God.” The grammar of “belief” invites a far too rationalistic account of what it means to be a Christian. “Belief” implies propositions about which you get to make up your mind before you know the work they are meant to do. Does that mean I do not believe in God? Of course not, but I am far more interested in what a declaration of belief entails for how I live my life.

It may be that I am not that interested in “belief” because God is just not “there” for me. God is “there” for some. God is there for Paula, my wife; for Timothy Kimbrough, the rector of Holy Family Episcopal Church; for Sam Wells, my friend. But God is not there for me in the same way. Prayer never comes easy for me. I am not complaining. I assume this to be God’s gift to help me think hard about what it means to worship God in a world where God is no longer simply “there.”

Charles Taylor has characterized “our age” as one of “exclusive humanism.” God is a “hypothesis” most people no longer need – and “most people” includes those who say they believe in God. Indeed, when most people think it “important” that they believe in God, you have an indication that the God they believe in cannot be the God who raised Jesus from the dead or Israel from Egypt.

I do think that the first task of the church is to make the world the world. That means, of course, that I need all the help I can get to recognize that I am “world.” But I sometimes worry that my stress on the “Christian difference” may be my attempt to overcompensate for my lack of “faith.” That still does not seem to get the matter right. It is not that I lack faith, but that I always have the sense that I am such a beginner when it comes to knowing how to be a Christian.

“How” is the heart of the matter for me. When I first read Kierkegaard, I was quite taken with his suggestion that the “what” of Christianity is not the problem. It is the “how.” I have spent many years trying to say that we cannot understand the “what” of Christianity without knowing “how” to be Christian. Yet then I worry about the how of my own life.