“Time is running out. For this world in its present form is passing away.” Do we hear the urgency in St. Paul’s words? He clearly makes it sound like we should drop whatever we’re doing right this minute and get on with whatever sounds so urgent. Unfortunately, we don’t read about the “what” in today’s passage, just that it urgently requires our undivided attention. So I looked at the context of the passage, the verses that come before what we just heard. And it is clear St. Paul was attempting to address issues of concern to members of the Christian community in Corinth, issues that don’t affect us as much 2000 years later, things that could easily be the province of Pauline and Jeanne Phillips, the mother-daughter team that brought us “Dear Abby,” or Ruth Crowley whose pen name was “Ann Landers,” or some relationship advice columnist. We really don’t want to hear St. Paul’s thoughts on what is and what is not appropriate for married couples, or why those who are not married are probably better off leaving everything well alone. He clearly says that’s what he would do. But it appears even he isn’t insisting his own advice should be mandatory either. So “if [you] cannot exercise self-control [you] should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire.” If that sounded snarky, we have to remember it was a different time and place.
Then he goes on to advice married couples with mixed religious backgrounds. Just keep on doing what you’re doing. No big deal. But if you decide otherwise, that’s okay too. What it comes down to is that you do exactly what God asks of you and that you find fulfillment right where you are. It really matters little what else you set about changing in your life because time is short. The world is passing away.
Now the urgency in the tone of the scripture passage likely stems from St. Paul’s fervent belief at the time that Christians should pay closer attention to more important things than the humdrum of their everyday existence, things that would have greater significance in light of the Lord’s imminent return. So if the Lord Jesus were to return in the next day or so, the next week or so tops, it shouldn’t really matter so much what happens next month or two, much less next year or beyond.
It might be safe to say it appears the Lord Jesus is not returning any time soon, at least not in the manner of widespread tragedy and universal cataclysm that Hollywood often imagines. The Lord himself said no one knows the day nor the hour of the Son of Man’s return. And I’m sorry I have no updates in that department. Yet I can speculate there’s a strong likelihood we will dedicate our new church long before the Lord Jesus returns in glory. I clearly have no evidence to back my speculation, so don’t quote me. In the meantime we probably will still need to guard against COVID exposure. We will need to get vaccinated when vaccines become available. We should attend to our own affairs and meet our obligations as much as we are able. And we will need to keep calm and sane and civil and orderly.
But we should examine St. Paul’s words in light of a more relevant perspective. Time is short not because the Lord comes to meet us, but because we go to meet him.
2000 years after St. Paul wrote those words, the church still believes they hold some truth for us to chew on. They are not meant to scare us into sobriety or submission although they just might rouse us from complacency and raise our level of awareness just a smidge. If we kept in mind that we would have to stand before the Eternal Judge to give an account of all our words, all our choices, all our actions, and our whole lives, we just might be less casual or dismissive of God’s hopes and expectations of those who want to spend eternity with him. Already we are aware of our own shortcomings, those things we know we are not proud of, those things we know would disappoint those we love, those things we don’t want to be remembered for. An admission of our selfishness goes a long way, sincere and humble with appropriate contrition because all sin is some form of selfishness. So we may as well own up to our selfish arrogance, our selfish envy, our selfish wrath, our selfish greed, our selfish lust, our selfish indolence, our selfish gluttony. It’s not easy picturing instances when any of those things would be done in selflessness and humility. Of course our sincere admission of selfishness should be directed toward those we have hurt, our merciful God who calls us to reconciliation and our equally selfish neighbor who probably gave us just cause to speak or behave in such a hurtful manner. But we can’t pin the blame on them. We ourselves chose our words and actions, and we bear ultimate responsibility for everything we say and do.
Then if we truly listen and take in Jesus’ message of radical mercy and truth and self-denial and forgiveness, of unconditional acceptance and generosity and sacrificial love and justice, of unwavering faithfulness and perseverance and selfless concern for the good of our neighbor, we might actually benefit from a major attitude adjustment. Are we confident that our own words and way of life reflect Jesus’ own words and way of life? Will our claim to a portion of Jesus’ inheritance measure up to how we live out our discipleship? Does our profession of faith call into question our earthly loyalties? People will sometimes question how we can claim to be Christian over and above any claim of patriotism or adherence to any particular political philosophy. St. Paul has an answer for us. “Time is running out. For this world in its present form is passing away.” If we have any reason to fear repercussions that earthly power might possess over us, Jesus reminds us rather to fear the One who possesses far greater power over us in this life and in the next. It’s the long game and a healthier perspective.
And when we have embraced the truth of our place in God’s eternal plan we might welcome Jesus’ invitation to lend a hand. The call of his first disciples offers us a pattern. Jesus finds us where we are, right in the humdrum of our everyday existence, among the trials and challenges that come with the people we live with, the people we work with, the people we do battle with dragons and the undead with. There’s no need to go looking for God on the mountaintop or at the feet of some world-renowned religious celebrity. God finds us where we are. Then we hear his offer. It can be concise, complex, generic, or specific. But in the end, it would probably have something to do with building the kingdom. If we can make an obvious connection, then good. If not, we might benefit from some discernment. Simon and Andrew abandoned their nets and followed him. James and John left their father in the boat along with the hired men and followed him. Following Jesus seems to include abandoning or leaving things and people behind. What does Jesus ask of us? Or will we just keep making excuses?
Rolo B Castillo © 2021