The chapter we received together is part of the first letter of Paul to the church in Corinth. Paul is offering guidance on a variety of topics – trying to lay out what holy living as followers of Jesus should look like. In chapter 6, for example, he says that Christians shouldn’t be taking each other to court; WORK IT OUT amongst yourselves. And in chapter 8, he talks about the pros and cons of eating meat from animals that were sacrificed in pagan temples.
The lectionary wants to give us just the little section about loosening our ties with the world as it is. And that certainly would have been less weird to read in church. But – we read a lot from the Pauline Epistles, the letters of the early church written by the apostle Paul. Paul was a tremendously important leader in the first decades of Christianity. He started many churches and nurtured others. His teaching and preaching, some of which is preserved in his letters, shaped Christianity in fundamental ways. So it’s a good idea to pause, now and then, and reflect on who Paul was, and his vision of church and Christian life.
Chapter 7 of First Corinthians is not the most obvious preaching text – especially in a church that generally leaves matters of partnership and intimacy to your own consciences. But there are some things I really love about it – awkward as it is.
First, I love how much we get to know Paul, here. He’s really TRYING to understand marriage and intimacy and give good counsel about it, even though it is very much not his jam. Paul seems to be someone who was called to celibacy himself – he just doesn’t feel a yearning for intimate companionship or life-partnership. But he understands that other people do, and he’s trying to make allowances and offer good guidance – even though he can’t help but notice that having a spouse and a family seems to make people kind of distracted and anxious! But, as he says, he knows not everyone can be like him, so – it’s definitely better to marry than to burn.
I enjoy how he talks about his own authority. Notice that he’s very conscientious, here and elsewhere, about specifying what comes directly from Jesus, and what is just him, Paul, trying to offer his best counsel. The advice against divorce – that’s something Jesus said. But other parts of this chapter are Paul – “I, Paul, and not the Lord”.
There’s integrity and humility in that – but Paul also doesn’t want to sell himself short; he wants people to take his teachings seriously. “And I think that I too have the spirit of God!” Notice, too, that Paul is already softening Jesus’ rather stark stance; Paul implies that divorce could be OK if a couple has irreconcilable differences on matters of faith.
I enjoy how Paul’s writing style combines very pragmatic, concrete advice with occasional bursts of poetic language – like this nice bit of parallelism:
“For the one called in the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freeman, just as the freeman called is a slave of Christ.”
And this text – with its echoes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
I mean, beloveds, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives 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.
So part of what I appreciate is that in this single chapter, we get such a good sense of Paul’s voice, and who Paul is. It feels like meeting someone who lived 2000 years ago. That in itself is cool, for me.
Paul’s sense of the provisionality of everything is the second thing I love about this chapter. When Paul writes this, it’s probably about twenty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The early Christians are holding onto a sense that Jesus may return very soon, but they’ve also already put two decades into developing ways of living as Christ’s followers in the world as it is. Paul is walking that tightwire – saying, The time has grown short; don’t get invested in things – but at the same time, we may still be here for a while, so, if you feel like you need to get married, go ahead.
That sense of holding things lightly isn’t just because Paul and others anticipated the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it. They were also living with profound uncertainty and risk. The worst persecutions of Christians started later, but it was already no picnic. Paul was repeatedly jailed and beaten. People lost family connections and livelihoods because they became Christian.
In our Gospel for today: did you notice the first phrase, “After John was arrested…”? Mark doesn’t actually tell us what happened to John the Baptist until several chapters later. But Jesus’ mission begins in the shadow of his arrest. Mark is incredibly deliberate in his language. He is telling us here that Jesus knows, from day one, that his preaching and movement-building will likely lead to his arrest and worse. Everything that happens in the Gospels – and Epistles! – happens under the persistent threat of repressive violence.
When Paul advises the people of the church in Corinth to live as if everything might change tomorrow – or tomorrow might not come at all – he’s speaking about the reality of their lives as well as the expectation of the Second Coming. And I feel some resonance with that, today. Beloved friends, the present form of this world is passing away. Day by day, week by week, we’re slowly getting accustomed to the idea that there isn’t a switch that will flip and reset things “back to normal” – with public health, democracy, church, or climate. Instead we’re going to have to discern and build the new normal. Lots of new normals. Somehow. Together.
The third thing I love about this chapter is how carefully egalitarian Paul is about gender. Now, there’s a great big asterisk there – for his time and place. We may rightly balk at some of his language – for example, we would say now that every person always has full authority over their own body. And of course, Paul has little notion of same-sex partnership or a diversity of genders. But note: in this whole chapter, Paul says almost nothing about women that he doesn’t also say about men, and vice versa. I think it’s fair to say that that’s both intentional and countercultural. The authentic letters of Paul name a number of women who were apparently leaders in the earliest churches. It only took a few decades for patriarchy to get a grip on the churches – for example, somewhere along the way, someone adds a couple of verses to this very letter, saying that women should not speak in church. But during Paul’s time, offering more respect, autonomy, and authority to women than some of the surrounding cultures and religions was part of what made Christianity appealing. And Paul is leaning into that, here. He’s actively constructing Christian marriage as equal and mutual. And – importantly – optional. More on that in a moment.
Paul’s vision of church and Christian life were tremendously influential in shaping Christianity. And even looking at a text this specific in its focus, we can see some big ways that the church – that OUR church – is Paul’s church.
First: Paul placed tremendous value on the shared life of church communities. He believed that a group of Christians practicing their faith together really MATTERS. Both as the workshop for faithful living, the place we question and struggle and learn and grow – and as the primary tool for inviting others into the way of Jesus. Notice, for example, that in all this advice about family life, Paul never says, Have a lot of babies so we can grow the church. He believes that Christianity is a way of living that – if done wholeheartedly by an imperfect but loving, hopeful, faithful community – will attract people. Over and over in his letters, Paul says: Focus on trying to follow Jesus; take good care of each other; and let God take care of the rest.
Second: For Paul, Christian living doesn’t look like just one thing. The Church doesn’t offer a diagram of the perfect Christian family. Instead, it invites you into being a certain kind of person, formed by faith and worship, and trusts you to order your life accordingly. Paul emphatically affirms that churches contain couples and families, people who want to be coupled, people who used to be coupled, and people called to singleness. That’s important. And it’s a recurring theme for Paul, across the Epistles: there isn’t one template for Christian life. People’s households and food practices and observances can look different; what matters is whether they’re striving to follow Christ.
This is a part of Paul’s vision of church that, at its best, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican way of faith honor well. I hear it from former evangelicals exploring the Episcopal Church: that it’s strange, but refreshing, that our church doesn’t tell you the right – the Christian – way to do every little thing. Instead, we offer some foundations for faithful living, in our worship and teaching, and then expect people to exercise their conscience and make their own decisions. There is something very Pauline about that.
Third: Paul anticipates that we’ll use our experience and reason and prayerful discernment to allow our understandings of God’s will and God’s purposes to evolve. Well: If I’m honest, Paul anticipates that PAUL will use his experience and reason to allow his understandings to evolve. Take the passage on enslaved people who become Christian, here. If you look this up in the New Revised Standard Version, you’ll find something QUITE different. The original Greek text is somewhat ambiguous – is it telling people that if they’re enslaved when they become Christian they should stay that way; or that they should seek freedom, so that they’re bound only to Christ? What we read together is David Bentley Hart’s translation – based in part on what Paul says about slavery elsewhere, in the letter to Philemon.
By Hart’s reading, Paul is almost working out what he thinks as he writes this passage. He says, a couple of times, Whatever you circumstances were when God called you to faith, stay that way. He feels very strongly about that on the issue of circumcision. But he does waffle about marriage – it’s better to stay the way you are, BUT if you can’t handle being single, it’s OK to marry; AND if your new faith really comprises your marriage, it’s OK to divorce. As Hart reads it, enslavement is another such example. There’s no shame in being enslaved, but if you have a chance to seek your freedom, take it, so that you may be free to be fully bound to Christ and Christ alone.
Paul makes space for a diversity of ways to live a faithful life – and for people to seek to change their circumstances – because Paul believes your desires matter. He knows that human desires can be disordered and lead us astray; he has plenty to say about that elsewhere. But I think he also has a pretty keen sense of the risks of trying to suppress or ignore our deep yearnings and needs. So, he advises, Seek a holy way to live out your desires – whether that’s taking steps to secure your freedom from bondage, or finding a partner for covenanted intimacy. Which is why, even though Paul had little notion of same-sex couples or diverse gender expressions, there’s a deep sense in which the Episcopal Church’s journey towards the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ folks is grounded in Paul’s thought, Paul’s vision.
Paul wrote the letters to the Romans, letters to the Corinthians and the Thessalonicans, the letters to the Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon, and maybe Colossians. His voice and story are preserved in the book of Acts. His importance to the early church was such that at least four other letters were written in his name. His is the single voice we get to know best in the New Testament, with the POSSIBLE exception of Jesus. And even though he sometimes confuses and dismays me, even though I sometimes argue with him, I am grateful for Paul.
I’m grateful for his hopeful vision for Christian community, and his open-ended vision of faithful living. I’m grateful that he modeled extending our understanding of the way of Jesus into new situations. I’m grateful for Paul’s voice, Paul’s mind, Paul’s heart. And I’m grateful to serve in Paul’s church.