Preached with St. Michael’s for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
I’m curious about whether anyone in Corinth took Paul’s advice. In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7, verse 29, Paul admonishes his readers, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none.” I wonder how that went. I imagine some poor Corinthian fellow coming home after a long day at the forum, saying to his beloved, “I’m sorry my dear, but the appointed time has grown short, from now on I am to be as though we were unmarried, unbound by the lawful structures of this man-made world.” Perhaps his wife leaned over the table and asked in earnest, “Does this mean you’ll start cooking dinner now?” In all seriousness, what was Paul thinking? Only that the world was coming to an end. His life had been changed by an encounter with a man from beyond the grave, and it had convinced him that the world as he knew it was over. He was also a single man. I wonder if there had been a Mrs. Paul if he wouldn’t have been more inclined to spend his last earthly days with her, enjoying fine cuisine somewhere with a view of the Mediterranean. But no, he was sure that such pleasures of the flesh were part of an ephemeral world, one that was dissolving into the dawning reality of God. “Let those who mourn be 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.”
These three verses from the New Testament are almost Buddhist in the sentiment they express. They share Buddhism’s founding principal that suffering arises in our lives from clinging to that which is inevitably passing away. Clinging is an important theme for Paul as well. In his hymn to the Phillipians, Paul praises Jesus as one who though he was in the form of God did not treat equality with God as something to cling to. Buddhism trains it’s practitioners in renunciation, equanimous observation of the world as it is, seeking freedom from attachment. Paul advocates for renunciation as well, so much so that a kind of renunciation is still at the heart of our baptismal covenant. Both Christian and Buddhist renunciation concern training our desires away from a form of this world that is passing away and towards a deeper reality. The difference between the two is that for Buddhism, that reality is a kind of egoless emptiness, and for Christians that reality is a personal God.
I draw the parallel here because I think renunciation gets a bad rap. We Episcopalians can have a certain amount of respect and even awe for the sight of an impoverished monk or even a lulu lemon clad meditator in the park, but the thought of Christian renunciation is a little more daunting. This may be because the concept of Christian renunciation is so closely tied with Paul’s convictions about the end of the world, and most folks we know today who speak of end times are a little nutty, often accompanied by megaphones and placards of the word, “repent!” But what does that concept look like for us reclaimed? What does it look like to remember that teshuvah which means repent also means return, in the sense of coming home to a beginning one has since turned away from? What does it look like for us to believe that our end is in God? Not a frayed rope of endings, each frazzled out to indeterminant directions. Not the many ends of bodily sickness and disrepair, of sudden death, the ends of having a good salary to buy a good house to enjoy a nice vacation to make your family happy. Not to the ends of pride, accomplishment, and personal success. But one solitary end, clear as day, an end in God, the beginning and end of all life. What does it look like for us to turn away from all the many frenzied arenas of the world begging for our attention and turn instead towards the deeper reality nourishing us from the very center of our lives?
By most accounts it looks like a bit of a mess. How can it not be when a certain truth calls us away from other expectations? This is why Paul is writing to the Corinthians in the first place about such practical matters as whether or not to get married. Because as the Corinthians sought to repent and return their attention towards God, they found that a hundred other aspects of their daily lives rose to interrupt. Should I remain unmarried? What should I do if my partner doesn’t share my faith? What should I do about passions that seem to be out of my control? What should we have for dinner tonight? I am reminded of my own partner’s patience with me every time I come home saying that I’m going to try a new discipline, like giving up sugar, or needing to remain perfectly silent for the last hour of every day. I’ve grown accustomed to the somewhat tired but charitable look in his eyes when he replies with something along the lines of, “But you love dessert.” By all accounts, attempting to turn our attention away from business as usual towards a deeper reality is a shift that affects everyone around us. Just look at Zebedee, an old man left alone in his boat while his two strongest workers walk off the job to follow some hillbilly preacher from Nazareth. As they left, he might have said, “But you love fishing.”
The Sons of Zebedee, James and John, the fishers Andrew and Peter, each turned away from life as they knew it to follow a man who preached, “repent, and believe in the good news.” The good news is that the time is now. The good news is that the one we’re yearning for is here. Anything that distracts us from this truth is worthy of renouncing and anything that keeps us grounded in it is worthy of holding close. Any one particular relationship or obligation in our lives could serve either purpose, and discerning the difference between that which is really nourishing us and all the other things which we think ought to be can take a lifetime to sort out. The present form of this world is full of enough ambiguity to make the path of returning to God a convoluted one at times. But in God, the present form of this world is also passing away. Renounce, repent, return, therefore, and believe in the good news.