Ah! The delights of Choral Evensong on a hot summer evening - all one could wish for might be the scent of mown grass and a slight breeze through the open doors - but the fragrance of coffee and snatches of music from the brasseries of the Octagon will do, and very well. Evensong sermons incline to brevity these days; the service tends to be for the aficionados and, to be realistic, folk usually come for the music rather than the sermon - a more direct path to God than any cerebrations over The Word.
Reflections on 1 Corinthians 7:17-24
In the second lesson this evening we catch a glimpse of Paul’s concerns for the first century church and the issues it faced. As the mentor of the church in Corinth Paul engaged with a huge range of practical issues and in this section he counsels the converts against undue anxiety about social status – since status is irrelevant when one is called by God. Instead he says ‘remain in the condition in which you were called;’ meaning, don’t try and change anything – work for God within the situation you find yourself.
‘Remain in the condition in which you were called.’
I suspect that we find that instruction sits rather uneasily with us. We are culturally predisposed to favour change and anything that we may think of as a reform. We want to see things improved; to see injustice corrected; to see the disempowered empowered. We cherish legends of great Christians as those who strove for the needy – to challenge Paul we’d probably look to William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King for examples of those who did the exact opposite and actively strove to release people from the condition they were in.
Paul is, of course, writing to the church in a culture where the social system included slavery and throughout the world of the Bible slavery is unquestioned. He is certainly speaking of the way Christian slaves and Christian slave-owners may relate to each other in the strange freedom of the gospel. Instead of toppling the social order Paul seems instead to set it to one side as something of a distraction. Rather than fret about social distinctions Paul counsels with what may be pastoral pragmatism to the effect that God is not limited by our circumstances; in effect he says, ‘Pay attention to what is in front of you?’
If we keep probing at Paul’s statement, mulling it over, turning it and thinking through the implications, it starts to feel a little strange and less limiting. In fact a world begins to open. We start to sense something deeper. If God is to be known in in the limitations and the constraints of one’s circumstances (whether fortunate or unfortunate) – which is to say in the contingent, in the present, in this moment, - then the need is to pay attention to this moment, this ‘now’; we are to really pay attention to what is in front of us and to really be present to what we begin to see.
The ordinary surfaces of the world about us are what we are required to see. It may be the texture and colour of a leaf against sunlight, or a couple chatting in the Nova, someone waiting at a bus stop in the Octagon. The given surface of the world about us is what we must attend to. It is infinitely mysterious; and it is wonderfully odd that we can even think its surface ordinary.
Some illustrations of those who have understood this might be helpful:
· the artist and poet William Blake when he wrote ‘If only the doors of perception could be cleansed, then we would see everything as it is – infinite.’
· The Jesuit theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin who noted: ‘Plunge into matter’ and again ‘Plunge into God’. He went on to say this fine thing: “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped within its burning layers.”
· The Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: from prison, a year before the Nazis hanged him for plotting to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter, ‘Only by living completely in the world can one learn to believe. One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself – even to make of oneself a righteous person.’
The Apostle Paul, the poet William Blake, the martyr Bonhoeffer, the Jesuit scientist and thinker de Chardin, each of them in different times and circumstances, draw our attention to the otherness and presence of the Holy, hidden but present in and through all the matter, substance and phenomena of this world.