Monday, January 26, 2009

Epiphany 3 - Year B

NB: With help from Charles Talbert (Reading Corinthians) and the preaching notes from the latest Currents in Theology and Mission.

“Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short...” Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, “...For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7: 29 & 31b)

I don't know about you but when I hear talk like that I want to change the channel or flip the page. For me, it conjures up images of nuclear threats, wars on the other side of the world taking the lives of local men and women, financial meltdowns, continents being squeezed by poverty and drought, and ice caps melting into the Arctic Ocean. And TV preachers cheering from the sidelines as life on this planet grinds to an apocalyptic halt. It's not a pretty picture. It's not meant to be.

“But I want you to be free from anxiety,” Paul continues. Yeah, right! He talks about the imminent end of the world as we know it, and we're supposed to be OKAY with it? We're supposed to go on smiling as the planet self-destructs? We're supposed to greet death with open hearts and wider arms?

At first blush that seems to be what Paul is talking about. And it wouldn't be out of line with what others have said. In fact, that might have been what the Christians in Corinth were expecting to hear.

Paul was worried that these Corinthian Christians were being sucked into the religious practices and beliefs of their surrounding culture. Corinth was like Toronto. Or New York. Or London. There were as many religions as pizza places.

The Corinthians' biggest problem seemed to be a belief that they had already gained such great spiritual insight, they had ARRIVED! - and so this world really doesn't matter after that.

The world could go to Hell on a handrail and they wouldn't care. The earth could be swallowed up by a cosmic whale and they would cheer with joy. Aliens could destroy the planet with their lazar beams and these folks would welcome the little green men (and women) with flowers and candy. It was what they learned from their neighbour's religions.

“The Corinthians wanted to split the person [and the world] into two parts, a physical part that was perishable and a spiritual part that was eternal.” From this, they “believed that their redemption in Christ made them transcend creation.” It made them believe that this world didn't matter. All that mattered was going to heaven. The fancy word for this is “dualism.” In a peanut shell, Dualism means: Material world = bad. Spiritual world = good.

Unfortunately, we see this attitude all the time among Christians. It looks like this: Heaven = good. Earth = bad. We sometimes hear well- meaning Christians say “Earth is not my home, I'm just passing through.”

That saying doesn't come from the bible or some Christian preacher. That's actually a quote from Plato. That's how Plato saw the world. He thought the world was irredeemably evil and corrupt, and that our physical bodies trapped our higher, eternal selves in the Hell of earthly life. That's dualism in action. Christians simply baptized what Plato talked about.

And that dualism was precisely what Paul was trying to confront. He knew the bible well enough to know that God loved creation. God loved EVERYTHING that God had made. The creation story in Genesis says that when God created the world, God said it was “very good.”

“Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short...For the present form of this world is passing away.”

For those looking for religious justification for abandoning the world, they wouldn't get it from Paul. Those who hear “The world is passing away” miss the point. Paul says, “The PRESENT FORM of the world is passing away.” Paul is saying the world is changing, has changed, and will change. And we are part of that change.

Those of us who are followers of Jesus are on the front lines of that change. God is changing the world from one of hostility and conflict to compassion and reconciliation, sickness and grief to wholeness and joy, from hunger and poverty to fullness and abundance, from sin and death to forgiveness and new life.

Despite Plato's best intentions, and the stories the Corinthian Christians might have heard, or even some TV preachers, God is not destroying the world. God is giving birth to a new one. In fact, if you look closely to today's gospel reading, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). The Greek word for “fulfilled”is peplerotai meaning “pregnant.”

Furthermore, in verse 29 of today's second reading, Paul says the time is “contracting” (synestalmenos, 1 Cor 7:29). “The time is pregnant! A new day is being born! The world is changing! Give up what you think you know about the world and what your life is about. Come be part of what God is doing!”

That was Jesus' call to James and John that day on the boats, and it's the call for us as we gather as God's family.

It's the call to see the world through God's eyes and not our own. It's the call to live a different life than the one we've been given. It's the call to be different from the world.

It's a call, not to escape or abandon the world for some heavenly paradise, but a call to live more deeply in the world, but as strangers following a differing path, a path that leads away from the troubles and tyrannies of this present world, to the new world of salvation.

“Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short...For the present form of this world is passing away.”

So, Paul was saying that the problems and pains of this world are to be neither cheered nor condemned, but seen as contractions -birth pangs - of a new world. A world that is being born around us and within us.

And today, Sophia and Chloe, through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, God is calling YOU into that new world. A world of faithfulness and joy, of justice and compassion, of comfort and wholeness. A world where sin is overcome by forgiveness. A world where death is swallowed by resurrection.

It's not an easy life. But it is God's life That is the life you're being called to live. That's the story you're going to tell with your lives.

And it's our job to help them grow into that life, as we help each other grow as sisters and brothers in Christ, following the one who calls us by name, out of the boats of the old world, and on to the path of the new world, a world that will never pass away.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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