Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Preaching Scripture and Irony

A passage like 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 forces me to freshly confront again just how odd a thing it is I do every Sunday; this thing called preaching.

In these verses Paul is continuing to respond to the questions the Corinthians have asked him and now turns his attention to those who are engaged to be married. Paul says he has no command from the Lord on this matter but offers his own advice as one who is trustworthy in the Lord.  That advice is "remain as you are".  If married, stay married.  If not married, then don't get married.  But if you do marry, then you haven't sinned.

When you read a passage like this one, you can't help but recognize you are reading someone else's mail.  In other passages of Scripture, even other parts of Paul's letters, its a little easier to forget this fact so we quickly elevate Paul's contextual advice to the level of universal maxim.  The whole "God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it." sort of idea.  But in this passage it is pretty obvious even to the casual reader that Paul is not making a statement that is meant for all people of all places at all times.  He is giving pastoral advice to the Christians of 1st century Corinth based on how he understands their current situation.  We are essentially reading over Paul's shoulder as he writers a letter that is not addressed to us; listening into a pastoral counseling session where we are not the ones being counseled.

And yet we are...

At least that is what the Church confesses when we call this letter Scripture.  Even though Paul was not writing to us, this was written for us.  Even though we are not the ones being counseled, this letter is for our counsel.

Not only is Paul not writing to us 21st century American Christians.  One of the biggest assumptions that seems to inform Paul's advice to these 1st century Corinthians was .... well....just plain wrong.  We can gather from Paul's letters that he expected Jesus to return and establish his kingdom very soon, probably within Paul's own lifetime.  What is more, this assumption directly impacts the advice Paul is giving the Corinthians in this passage.  It is, in fact, the very reason for it.  He advises them to "remain as they are" precisely because he believes it would be foolish to enter into a new relationship when the whole world as we know it is going to be changing so soon.  That seems like reasonable advice to me given the assumption of Christ's imminent return... but here I sit typing this blog post 2000 years later.

So here we have a text not addressed to us, answering a question we're not asking, and giving that answer based on an assumption that turned out to be wrong.  In spite of all this, the Church confesses that God has something to say through these words to a congregation of people who will gather in central Illinois on a cold Sunday in January 2012.  Surely, I'm not the only one who sees the irony here.

Despite the irony, on the aforementioned Sunday I will stand before the people with whom I share life and say of this text "Hear the Word of the Lord."  I will do this not simply out of obligation or for the sake of doctrinal commitments but with a steady love and passion for Scripture to which only a handful of other passions in my life can be compared.  I will do this not simply because I am their pastor but because over the course of my life I have experienced the reality of the Church's confession.  I have found to be true what those early Christians who first called this letter Scripture also found to be true as they read what was not addressed to them: that this ink on paper, with all its humanity and imperfection, is one of the places where the Spirit of God speaks.

There are many, many passages of Scripture like this one where I wonder how God can be speaking through these words; Paul's words about slaves and women, the God-commanded genocide in the book of Joshua, or Psalm 137 just to name a few.  It's tempting to simply ignore these parts, skip over them, or cut them out all together.  But for some reason those early Christians didn't do that.  For some reason, centuries after Paul wrote to the Corinthians when it was obvious that Paul had been quite wrong about the Lord's return, the Christians who were were deciding what should be included as "Scripture" didn't say "You know, we should really cut out that business about the time being short since Paul was obviously wrong about that."  Instead, they let Paul's words stand and affirmed that God's grace could still be found in them.

Maybe this says something significant about the very nature of Scripture.  Its just like us human beings (at least in the way Scripture talks about us) to think that in order for God to make use of something it has to be perfect, infallible.  But think about all the other means of God's grace in our lives; the broken body of our Lord in communion, our death in baptism, our prayers, our preaching, the Church.  Which of those aren't the very essence of brokenness?  Which are infallible?  Which aren't perfect and beautiful precisely because of their brokenness and fallibility?  We have these treasures in jars of clay.

This was supposed to be a post about first 1 Corinthians 7 and I am now no closer to knowing how I will preach from this vexing passage than when I began.  Nevertheless, I will sit before this text in all its vexation and I am confident that God's grace will meet me there once again.  Speak Lord, for your servant is listening....

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