Living Well in a World that is Passing

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short…the present form of this world is passing away.” I Corinthians 7:29; 31.

Most of us mainline protestants tend to dismiss verses like these that warn us about the imminence of the “appointed time.” The conventional exegetical wisdom is that Paul was under the impression Jesus’ return and the close of the age were near at hand and likely to occur during or shorty after his lifetime. That being the case, one ought not to invest an inordinate amount of time and energy on one’s marriage, career or property. Who needs a 401K if the world is ending tomorrow? Now, of course, we know that Paul’s assumptions were incorrect. Now we understand that the church is on a long pilgrimage through history, the end of which we cannot predict. Knowing all of this, we can safely disregard Paul’s admonition as misguided, get back to the work of practical day to day living and put the passing of this world out of our minds.

Or can we? I believe Paul’s observation that “the present form of this world is passing away” is quite descriptive of our present reality. Just one year ago we were gathering in our sanctuaries for worship, dinning out at our favorite restaurants, walking crowded streets without a care, exchanging hugs and kisses without reservation and travelling as often and as far as our time and money would allow. Now that world is just a memory. Last year no one doubted that we, as the world’s oldest democracy, would see yet another presidential election ending either with four more years of an existing administration or a peaceful transfer of power to the next. But on January 6th of this year, the Feast of the Epiphany, we witnessed a violent and nearly successful coup d’etat incited by a president unwilling to accept the election results. Now the transition of power is taking place in a capital on lock down and under armed guard.

The world we know is fast passing away, says Paul. But that should not be heard as tidings of gloom and doom. The form of this world must pass away in order for the reign of God to establish itself. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that the reign of God has drawn near; hence, the passing away of this world’s forms and structures. One thing the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests should have made clear to us is that much of the “form of this world” is not worth preserving. We have been made painfully aware of systemic racism, sexism and economic inequality deeply entrenched in government, education and the work place. We are feeling, I believe, the pressure of God’s reign of justice, mercy and peace breaking in upon us. That pressure is painful, especially for those of us who are a little too comfortable with the present form of this world. We fear change and tend to think of God as a bulwark against it. But according to what the New Testament witnesses tell us and as poet Wendy Videlock observes, God is change. Thus, the passing of this world’s form should be received with joy and expectation.

This isn’t to say with blithe optimism that “things are looking up.” I am not so sure they are. Though I am thankful that we have removed from power a sociopathic autocrat with dangerous delusions, one of our two major political parties continues to be dominated by a fascist faction that, sadly, represents the sentiments of a huge section of our population. There are an alarming number of people in our country for whom the passing away of this world’s form is a terrifying prospect. They have demonstrated that they are willing to kill in order to preserve that from. So while the new heaven and earth may be drawing near, the old one isn’t going down without a fight. The call issued to the four fishermen-and to all of us-is a call to engage in the struggle for God’s reign in a world bound and determined to reject it. Like our Lord, we might well be required to lay down our lives for the sake of a kingdom we will not live to see, trusting in God to complete what we can only begin and raise us up to participate in its consummation.

We need to understand that loyalty to God’s reign may require severance from all lesser loyalties, even family ties. Think of poor Zebedee left alone with his hired hands as his two sons depart with Jesus. Think of Jesus’ response when informed that his mother and brothers had come to take him home: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:33-34. Or consider Jesus’ admonition to his disciples: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26. I have listened to more than a few preachers try to dance around these hard words, using all manner of exegetical and hermeneutical acrobatics in vain efforts to get out from under them. But they are what they are and they say what they say.

I believe Saint Augustine can help us here. Augustine teaches us that what we call “sin” is not a matter of breaking rules. It is basically a matter of disordered desires. That is to say, we love things, people and God in the wrong order. There is nothing wrong with loving one’s spouse and children-unless that love becomes possessive, controlling and smothering, which is likely to happen when one looks to one’s family for what only God can provide. There is nothing wrong with loving one’s country. But when loyalty to one’s country is elevated over faithfulness to God and love for our neighbor-wherever in the world that neighbor might be, patriotism degenerates into idolatrous nationalism. If we would love our family, our nation and our world rightly, we need to renounce the distorted and dysfunctional affection that enslaves us to them. That is, we need to “hate” the disordered relationships that destroy the objects of our love so that we can learn to love them in a life-giving way through the prism of our communion with Jesus.

In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus invites us to life under God’s gentle reign, a life of rightly ordered desires. Following Jesus will challenge us to loosen our grip on the “form of this world” so that our hands will be free to take hold of the inbreaking reign of God.

Here is a poem by Wendy Videlock referenced above.

Change

Change is the new,

improved

word for god,

lovely enough

to raise a song

or implicate

a sea of wrongs,
mighty enough,

like other gods,

to shelter,
bring together,

and estrange us.

Please, god,
we seem to say,

change us.

Source: Poetry (January 2009) Wendy Videlock (b. 1961) lives with her husband and children in Palisade, Colorado, a town on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. She is the author of three full length books of poetry and teaches in a freelance capacity. You can find out more about Wendy Videlock and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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