Third Sunday of Epiphany – Sunday, January 21, 2018

January 21, 2018  

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

The Apostle Paul was an interesting man. He was not a country boy, he was raised in the city of Tarsus. Paul was probably born about the same time as Jesus—a fact I hadn’t taken into consideration prior to preparing for this sermon series. Like Jesus, Paul was raised in a Jewish home. He studied in the synagogue. More than likely, at some point he traveled by sea with his family to Jerusalem to keep the Passover (The Book of Life, vol. 7 “Paul, Life Letters” introduction). Paul trained to be a tentmaker, mostly because it was tradition for Jewish boys to learn trade. Then he traveled to Jerusalem to study with other young men, intending to become a Rabbi. (The Book of Life, vol. 7 introduction).

Why do I mention this? Because it is important for us to know that Paul was comfortable in urban settings. Paul was comfortable traveling the region, first as a young man, then as a Jew in search of Christians, wanting to arrest them, then as a Christian leader spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.

I don’t want to take today’s verses out of their context. It would be easy to read these verses and think Paul wanted early Christians to live like monks, turning away from every worldly thing to focus on the return of Jesus to the world, which even Paul thought would happen soon. Paul didn’t want Christians to be ascetics… he simply wanted them to think about how they were living.

Our reading today is another lesson in morality.

A scholar from the mid-twentieth century wrote

The supreme expression of Paul’s ministry through the Epistles is found in the letters to the Corinthians… the Epistles to the Corinthians are the majestic mountains of faith, their summits seen afar, now clear in the light of dawn, now misty and cloud-capped, now glorious in the sunset. Like all the epistles, they [the letters to the Corinthians] are the children of controversy. In the providence of God these old conflicts and unseemly disputes in the early church became the starting-point for this glorious setting forth of eternal and imperishable truths. (The Book of Life, vol. 7 p. 180).

Hyperbole aside, the scholar makes an important point. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians grow out of controversy. People in Corinth are disagreeing with each other. Paul is trying to help them figure out how to live, both as individuals and as a community of faith.

Today’s reading is a perfect example. Paul wants the people of the church in Corinth to live in the world, and yet to remain detached from the world’s “values and entanglements” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, “1 Corinthians” p. 887).

This is why I tried to describe Paul to you, Paul the boy, the young man, the student, the Rabbi, the zealot. Paul knew the world’s values, he lived and breathed them. He wasn’t opposed to owning things or experiencing joy or grief. What he wanted was for the Corinthians to understand that, having God as their Lord, they ought not let their joys or their griefs or their possessions distract them.

This is a lesson we can all take to heart.

Consider the things that distract us from our faith.

I’m not going to name your distractions… it isn’t my place. But, I do think it is important we each ask ourselves what distracts us from living, from sharing, from celebrating the love of Jesus Christ.

Our reading ends with verse 31 from chapter 7 of Paul’s letter. I want to add verse 35, where Paul wrote:

I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”

It might be a quirk of my Calling, but living with “unhindered devotion” to God—to me—sounds divine.

But, even as I wrote those words the dogs started barking and I had to get up and let them outside and I noticed the carpet was wet from snow getting tracked in and the chair I was sitting in needed the bolts tightened because it was getting wobbly and the table needed the same thing and I noticed the windows needed to be washed and that our Naughty Cat was sitting by a window that I had covered with plastic and I thought “better not tear the plastic…”

My devotion hindered, I got back to writing.

Which is exactly how Paul knew it would be for every member of his congregation. Life IS. Life is a series of distractions… many of them blessings. Paul doesn’t want to take those blessings from us. He wants us to live out those blessings with the understanding that it all points to the God who loves us. Even the struggles we would rather not be engaged in—point to the God who walks with us through our struggles, because God so loves us.

The scholar I began this sermon quoting wrote about the apostle Paul:

He was inspired. His writing was inspired. As the channel of a great river is used to pour its flood from the mountain to the sea, so the Holy Spirit used the channel of this great soul to pour the divine message from the mountains of God to the sea of life and human need. (The Book of Life, vol. 7, introduction).

May Paul’s words point us toward God, and God’s love.