Text: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (Mark 1:14-20) W 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
A New Perspective
In the name of him who calls us to follow him dear friends in Christ: Anyone who’s had the frequently terrifying joy of raising teenagers knows that they can sometimes be a little overly dramatic. Based on my own limited experience, I’m pretty sure that something very much like the following purely fictional conversation takes place in thousands of homes almost daily. A teenager comes home from school and slams the door shut. She’s obviously very upset about something and wants everyone to know it. “What’s wrong, Dear?“ the concerned parent (who in this case just happens to be her father) asks. “Oh, nothing” the girl responds, “It’s just that my entire life is ruined … forever!” The father puts his arm around his daughter. “Ah, come on now. Don’t you think you’re exaggerating just a bit? What could possibly be so bad?” After a lot of sniffling and face contorting the answer comes out: “I didn’t get the part I wanted in the school play!” (And I should interject here that it could be just about anything: failed to make the cheer leading squad, didn’t get a certain seat in the band or position on a sports team, didn’t get elected to the student council, didn’t get asked by a certain boy to the dance; whatever. It really doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is that it was important to the child – who is now overwhelmed by grief.) So the father tries to comfort and encourage his daughter. He says something like, “Aw, that’s too bad. I’m so sorry to hear it. But look on the bright side. There’ll be another play before long, and you’ll just have to work that much harder to ensure you get a part you want in that one.” This, the father foolishly believes, should end the crisis. But no; as if she were speaking to the village idiot the daughter goes on, “Oh Daddy, you just don’t understand! Don’t you see that because I didn’t get this part that I won’t be eligible for this special award, and without that award I won’t be able to get this scholarship I need, and without the scholarship I won’t be able to get into the school I want, and if I don’t go to that school I won’t get the job that I want nor will I meet and marry the right man? So now, instead of looking forward to a wonderful life with a great career and raising a family with the man I love, I’ll end up all alone: a destitute bag lady pushing a rusty grocery cart through filthy streets while mumbling gibberish to myself?”
“Wow”, the father thinks, “it’s impossible to argue against reasoning like that.” And if he’s wise he won’t try. Instead he’ll realize that what the child needs is loving support and reassurance. In time what appears now to be the worst disaster in the world will be seen for the minor disappointment that it was. The problem is that at the moment the child is incapable of seeing the situation clearly or rationally. She’s completely dominated by the emotions and frustrations of the present. When in time she gains a more mature perspective, she will have reordered her thinking and her priorities so this little setback won’t seem to be such a big deal.
And believe it or not, this is exactly what St. Paul is talking about in today’s Epistle reading. You see, the problem of irrational thinking and making mountains of mole hills that we can so easily identify in the teenager I just described is the same problem we all live with all the time. Sure, as we get older we change whatever it is that we’re all wrapped up about. It’s no longer that coveted part in the school play. Now it’s the family, the career, the home, the farm, the bank account, the investments, the attainment of the next whatever it is we think will lead to happiness. It’s always something or maybe a lot of somethings; but the point is that we’re still all wrapped up in them wrongly thinking that they are what life is all about, that they are the key to success, that they are the measure by which you determine whether you win or lose in life.
But they’re not. As important as they seem to us at the moment, they are all things that are destined to pass away. They belong to the present temporal order that is very soon to be replaced with the eternal. And when we get there to the heavenly glory that the Lord has prepared for us, we’ll look back on all these things we invested so much time and effort in, the honors we strove for, the goals we sought so hard to achieve, and we’ll think to ourselves, “Why in the world was I so worried about all that nonsense?” From that new perspective, we’ll look back on our lives and think, “If I knew then what I know now, I would have lived my life differently. I would have spent more time and effort on the things that really matter, and much less on all the things that are now gone forever.”
And here’s Paul’s point: since you know for certain that one day in the not too distant future that’s exactly what you will be thinking, start thinking that way now. See the world we’re in from that eternal perspective, and then you’ll see it for what it is: merely a passing shadow – and then you’ll be able to live your life properly, with a light touch, so to speak, on the things that will be gone, and a far greater focus and grip on the things that are eternal.
And to help us in this regard, to help us see from that new perspective, Paul engages in a little of what we call hyperbole, that is, making a point through exaggeration. He says, for example, “Let those who have wives live as though they had none”. Listen, he’s not telling people to leave their spouses or to stop fulfilling their marital obligations; what he’s saying is that you need to see that relationship for what it is. Yes, it’s a lifelong commitment. Like we say in the marriage ceremony, “love, honor, and cherish until death parts us”. But that’s the point. It ends at death. It isn’t permanent. And therefore you must not allow it to be the all consuming passion of your life. Or to say it another way, if your spouse is the world to you, if he or she is the whole reason for your existence, what will you be when they’re gone? And since Paul says this about marriage, the human relationship the Lord intends to be this life’s closest and most durable, it goes without saying that all other human relationships to children, to parents, to siblings, and to friends, these too must be seen as transitory and valued as such.
But maybe I should be a little more specific. Take the case of a young person who falls deeply in love with an unbeliever. He or she might think to themselves, “Having this person as my spouse is more important to me than is my discipleship to Christ”. And pursuing that goal they may indeed get the spouse they want, and they might enjoy a lifetime of happiness together; but what’s it worth if in the end through the inevitable neglect and compromise that such a situation causes that faith in Christ is allowed to diminish or die? Or again, take the case of faithful parents who lose a child. For reasons known only to him, the Lord in his wisdom takes the child to be with him at a young age; but one or both of the parents can’t get over it. “I refuse to believe in”, they might say, “or refuse to honor a God who would do such a thing!” And so bitterness and anger over things that are only temporal block out the gifts by which the Lord grants life eternal – only proving that the parent’s commitment of discipleship to Christ was not genuine. It was only fair weather faith – like the seed cast on rocky soil that sprang up quickly; but withered and died as soon as the sun got hot. Paul is telling us not to invest ourselves so deeply into any human relationship that it interferes with our relationship to Christ.
He says the same about everything that causes our emotional ups and downs. “Let those who mourn be as those who are not mourning, and those who rejoice as if they were not rejoicing”, he says. Now, he’s not saying that we shouldn’t be sad or happy according to what’s going on in our lives; what he’s saying is that if you look at this short life from the eternal point of view, both your triumphs and your griefs will be seen as they should. They aren’t the end all or be all of your life. Paul is encouraging you to see them that way now so that you are able to keep your main focus on the things that will matter in the long run. So likewise, see your business affairs, your property, your finances, and all your dealings in this world in the same light. Since they are all passing away, it only makes sense not to hold on to them too tightly.
And what’s interesting to me is that we normally associate this sort of Bible text that deals with how little time we have left before the end comes with the last few Sundays of the church year. That’s when we tend to emphasize topics related to end time themes. So at first glance, it may seem a little out of place to be discussing this now so soon after the beginning of the church year when we’re dealing with themes that treat the earliest days of Christ’s ministry. I mean, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is just starting to preach and he’s gathering his first disciples. But it’s not out of place. The important thing to see is that it’s part of the Gospel message very early on – right at the beginning of our discipleship, not just at the end. Christ calls us to follow him like he did those first disciples who were pursuing their day to day business. Receiving his call, they dropped what they were doing and went with him. They left behind their careers, their homes, their families, and whatever hopes and dreams they had for their futures in this world. The call of Christ trumped it all. And to truly follow him, they had to be willing to leave it all behind. Now, maybe we aren’t called to physically get up and follow him in the same way. Your calling may be to be his disciple exactly where you are in the vocation you already have; but your hold on and investment in the things that are destined to pass away ought to be the same as theirs – ready at a moments notice to let it go.
And you may be wondering how it’s possible to do that. Because we are so wrapped up in the things of the present, because this is all that we can now see, how can we change our thinking and see things from the eternal perspective? We are creatures bound to time. How can we think outside of it? Aren’t we, like that teenager I described at first, pretty much incapable of getting outside ourselves and our immediate circumstances to look objectively and rationally at the bigger picture?
The short answer to the question is yes, we’re exactly like that teenager. By ourselves and by our own abilities we cannot see things any other way. But who said that we need to be limited to our own abilities or worldly, short term point of view? You see, with the coming of Jesus Christ into our lives all kinds of possibilities open up. In him, because he is both true man and true God, the eternal and infinite enters into our time and space. In him the eternal kingdom of God intersects with the temporal existence of this world so that whatever he does or says or thinks in time also is an eternal happening. It has eternal significance. It cannot pass away. His passion and death for your sin, for example, is an eternal event. That’s how the Scripture can say that he is the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. Though it happened in time, it also happens in eternity. Everything Jesus does in time happens in eternity. And therefore whatever it is you do with him also has eternal significance.
Let me be more specific: your natural conception and birth, your relations to your parents, your marriage if you have one, your work, your home, the food you eat and the clothes you wear, your health and your natural death one day – all of it will pass away in time and be forgotten. But the things you did with Christ are eternal. Your Baptism, for example, when you were united to Christ happened both in time and in eternity. It was then that you were united with him in his eternally significant death on the cross and he raised you up to new and eternal life. Then he gave you the gift of faith in him, he forgave your sin, and he filled you with his Spirit. And so your Baptism will always be important. Likewise the time you spend with Christ in his Word and the fellowship of his Church and serving other people in his name. Because these things are eternal, the time you spend in them has eternal significance. When you kneel here at the altar to receive his eternal sacrifice, you are communing also with the all the saints who lived before and those who have yet to be born because it’s an event that happens with Jesus both in and beyond time.
So let me suggest that gaining the new and eternal perspective that Paul is talking about depends on our deepening relationship with Christ our Lord. The more we do with him, the more time we are already spending in eternity – and that, more than anything, will give us the ability to see the present and passing away from an eternal point of view.
And one last thought. Another major theme of the Epiphany season is spreading the news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I mentioned before that all of our worldly relationships must one day end; but what will not end is our relationship with God through Christ Jesus. In eternity, you won’t be a husband, wife, father, or mother – but you will be a child of God and the brother or sister of everyone who is there with you by faith in Christ Jesus. Since that is all that’s going to matter forever, let’s make it our goal to give spreading the good news of Jesus and his call to discipleship the priority it deserves now while we still have a little time. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!