2014 Lent 16

I Corinthians 7:10-24

On marriage, St. Paul seems to be all over the place.  “It’s good if you’re not married,” he says; “stay that way if you can.  But if your desire for sex is too strong, then get married.”  That was yesterday’s reading.  Today he seems to be saying that if you Corinthians were married before you believed in Christ, stay that way now that you do believe.  In other words, a couple shouldn’t divorce over religious leanings.  But if the non-believer leaves a believer over religious differences, well, then that’s a different matter: let her go.

And so I am transported back to my adolescence, to when the Bible first started to make a lot of sense to me, to when I first saw some relevance in it.  In particular I remember a youth group gathering where we discussed this passage.  Actually, we were discussing the topics of marriage, dating, and sexuality—subjects always of interest to youth groups, at least to youth groups in the mid-1980s—and the youth group leader pointed to these verses as a proof-text to an argument she had been making.  “It reminds me of a bumper sticker,” she said; “have you seen it?  ‘If you love something, let it go.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours; but if it does not, then it never was.’  That’s exactly what Paul’s getting at here.”

Really?  Even then, as a tender, confused adolescent, something at the core of this message smelled of manipulation.  I’m not so sure that’s what Paul is getting at here.

Youth group theologizing aside, there is a church dogma that has come from these verses.  But did I say dogma?  We Episcopalians generally run away when we sense that word drawing near.  Yet, in fact, yes, I did say dogma.  And I also said church, meaning not just the Episcopal Church, or even the larger and longer Anglican tradition; but the entire church throughout her history.

The dogma of which I speak comes from v. 14 (and elsewhere in the Bible, as discussed below), which states, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.  Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”

Paul was a devout Jew.  As such, he knew from childhood that a sign set him apart from the non-Jewish part of the world, that a sign demonstrated that he was one of God’s people.  This sign, of course, was circumcision.

He was given this sign as a baby.  That means he had no say in the matter, no personal decision.  It was his parents’ decision; and above this a people’s decision.  He wasn’t alive when God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh’s wrath through Moses; yet he was nevertheless personally saved from Pharaoh’s wrath, for he too was one of the Israelites, the chosen people through whom Father Abraham’s Messiah would come.  Paul was holy (or saved) as a newborn baby, in other words, because his parents (and their parents, and so on, back to Abraham) were holy.

This teaching rings true in other parts of the Old Testament too.  Such as when God told Noah to include his sons and their wives on the ark, one whom we know from a later episode to be anything but holy.  And such as when Lot—the only one of the, eh hem, lot who was ever declared righteous—was told to flee from Sodom and Gomorrah with his wife, his daughters, and his future sons-in-law.  We all know what happened to Lot’s salty wife.  But what about these future sons-in-law?  Were they a part of the group that tried to abuse the angels under Lot’s roof?  The Bible says all of the men of Sodom came out to abuse them—all, “to the last man” (Gen. 19:4).  Yet even these mob-rule abusers were allowed to escape God’s wrath vicariously through righteous Lot.

Anyway, now Paul brings this amazing truth—this dogma—into the church.  It seems, like with Lot, that the holiness of one family member suffices for the others.  When God saves one, God saves all—with respect to households anyway.  (But it begs a question. . . .)

Some years after the youth group gathering I described above, I revisited this passage with this newer understanding.  And it painted baptism in a new light for me—baptism, the sign (and seal) of the new covenant.  It didn’t really matter to me so much anymore whether my kids were capable mentally of grasping baptism’s significance, salvation’s intricacies, and the church’s importance.  Because I was a person of the new covenant, they too were God’s people of the new covenant.  That was enough.

So, at the next opportunity, on the Day of Pentecost in 2003 in fact, my four kids were baptized together.

Paul’s kind of all over the place on marriage.  But this much is certain: there’s something holy in it.

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