Third Sunday after Epiphany

God’s transformative work is on the horizon

Coventry Cathedral - Fish
Spence, Basil. "Coventry Cathedral - Fish," from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

January 21, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

The first thing that stands out here is that Paul seems to think that the world as he and the Corinthians know it is about to come to an end. All that is familiar about the world is about to change, or to be transformed. The familiar of the everyday, the regular day-to-day concerns, will become inconsequential.

Paul references what he calls the “appointed time.” In the Greek text this is communicated through the use of a singular word, kairos. So, what’s the difference between the appointed kairos time and what we might call “ordinary” time? Ordinary time is time as it passes each day, tick-tock, tick-tock. We glance at a clock and read ordinary time. We look at a timetable for a sporting event or airline, or an invitation to a party, and we are looking at ordinary time. 

However, kairos time is what we refer to when an event is about to begin, the time has come —this is kairos time. Kairos time might be described as the climactic moment following a period of waiting and expectation. 

Paul says, “The appointed time has grown short.” Another way of communicating what Paul means here is to say that time has become concertina-ed. Time has contracted into itself. We know, of course, that time ordinarily passes second by second and minute by minute, in an ordered, precise, and measurably predictable way. But here Paul is suggesting that the hours and days have shortened and what we expected to be far off, some way in the future, an event that perhaps we might dream about happening one day, some day, at an undefined point in the future, has now come extremely close. 

Although here in this passage Paul does not make clear the nature of the event that he is anticipating, on two previous occasions in this letter Paul has hinted at a transformative event.

First, in 1:7 Paul speaks of waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And then second, in 4:5, Paul warns the Corinthians about their attitude and response to one another: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes.” Apart from these two references there is no clarification—up to this point anyhow—about what this event might entail, other than the coming or appearing of the Lord. 

However, once we read chapter 15—Paul’s great exposition of the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—we are alerted to the possible content of this kairos event.

In 15:20 Paul affirms that Christ is “the first fruits of those who have died.” He then suggests that there will be a radically new status applied to at least all those who are “in Christ … for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (15:22). And then Paul confirms that all this will take place at the coming of Christ (15:23). It is this event—the appearing, or coming of Christ—that seems to be in Paul’s mind as he encourages, or challenges, or warns the Corinthians, “The appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.”

We might suggest therefore that in Paul’s mind, and therefore this powerful encouragement to the Corinthians, is that the coming of the Lord, this “appointed time” when the “present form of this world” passes away, will be significant as there will be a coming alive, a resurrection even, of those who are in Christ.

Now imagine, if we knew that next Thursday, or in a few days, everything was going to change, a resurrection to the fullness of the life of Christ would take place, and the immanence of the presence of the kingdom of God would be palpable, then I guess our perspective on today, and the ordinary and familiar of today would look very different!

It is for this reason that Paul is able to say, “From now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”

Now, we might say: “But Christ hasn’t come; the world hasn’t changed; the resurrection hasn’t taken place.” And yes, that is correct. So how do we apply these truths for our congregations? 

We should encourage us all to live with the perspective that Paul encourages here. To see our present concerns, and the familiar habits of our everyday life, in the light of the coming of the values, ethics, politics, relationships, and justice of the Kingdom of God.

Our other readings for today, from Jonah 3 and Mark 1, align with this sense of anticipation. Jonah warns the Ninevites, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Jesus announces, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” In other words, God’s transformative work is on the horizon. Psalm 62 offers the reminder that in among the changes of life, the uncertainty, confusion, and challenges, ”the Lord alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.”

We are called to take an attitude of expectation. To hold lightly to today, and to live in the light of what is to come. To take on the values of the coming King, of love, mercy, justice, and compassion, and to live generously in the power of his Spirit.