The God of Transformation, Not Revolution

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/11/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I didn’t sleep very well last night. I stayed up a little too late watching The Hunt for Red October (it’s still good!), and then just lay in bed for a while, unable to fall asleep. I was restless.

I’m a restless person. I’m always thinking a few steps ahead. Always pushing. Always seeking something more.

In our reading this morning, Paul offers me – and, I believe, all of us – a path to a more restful life. A life of settledness, one that is rooted in Christ and unshaken by the ups and downs of fears and ambitions, imagination and worries.

Two weeks ago, we looked at Paul’s words from earlier in this same chapter seven of 1 Corinthians. There, Paul speaks to the kind of sexual discipline – through celibacy or marriage – that will allow the Christian community to grow up into maturity in Christ. This morning, we pick up with Paul where we left off.

As Paul continues his letter, he seems to make a bit of a detour. He starts talking about circumcision, social standing, and slavery. And he concludes, “in whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.”

Just before this, Paul was talking about sexuality, but in the passage we heard this morning, he’s talking about personal identity and social status. And there’s not really a transition between these thoughts; they seem to be part of a single thrust or argument in the letter. So what’s the connection between this passage and the one that preceded it? 

The way I see it, the connective tissue between these two thoughts is Paul’s exhortation to grounded settledness in Christ. In both sexual relationships and social standing, Paul exhorts the church at Corinth to be faithful to the relationships and calling where God has called them. Despite the trials, Paul says, we are to stay true to the commitment we have made. We are to stay true to God in the circumstances wherever we find ourselves.

Whether in marriage or celibacy, work or social status or religious custom, Paul proposes a life for the church that is less one of revolution and more one of transformation. Revolution is about upending existing social structures and forging new ones from whole cloth. But the transformation that Paul advocates for in his letter to the Corinthians is one in which the relationships are preserved, but their meaning changes.

Paul’s vision for marriage transforms the institution, rather than abolishing it. Traditionally a means of protecting wealth, inheritance, and family alliances, Christian marriage becomes an opportunity to demonstrate God’s steadfast love that goes beyond circumstances. In the same way, religious observances – festivals, feasts, circumcisions, baptisms, and all the other things we do to mark ourselves religiously – these become opportunities to bend over backwards to accommodate our “weaker” brothers and sisters – to show God’s love for them by placing their needs above our own.

In all spheres of life, the gospel offers us an opportunity to transform the circumstances of daily living. Letting marriage, family, religious community, working life, and everything else, become venues in which we can demonstrate God’s love and power. For Paul, we are to follow Jesus’ example of self-emptying on the cross, allowing all of our life together to become an expression of God’s mercy and reconciliation.

When we walk in this way of transformation that Paul lays out for us in this passage, we invite God to make us more like Jesus, who became the prism through which the light of God refracted out into the whole world, even as he hung from the cross. When he was at his lowest, that was precisely when God raised him up to the heights. When Jesus was tortured, abandoned, despised – it was then that God used him to heal the world, fundamentally changing the nature of our reality. Ultimate transformation comes from ultimate surrender.

In our reading this morning, Paul applies this principle to some very concrete areas of our lives. He might say to us:

Is your marriage struggling? Don’t run from the challenge. Look at how God might want to transform you, and your relationship, to become an image of God’s character. 

Are you in a job you hate? (Or, do you not have a job and want one?) Don’t let that define you. Look and see if there are ways that you can bring Christ’s love into the dysfunction. What’s the most loving way you can be present to that situation?

Do you feel like the odd one out in church? Do you fail to speak in soft Quaker tones? Do you fidget in the silence? Don’t worry. God has placed you here for a reason. Maybe you need to change, or the community does, or – mostly likely – both you and the community need to change. But whatever the change that is to come, God is at work in you to participate in the transformation of our community.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause to remake on the fact that our reading this morning is a troubling passage for modern readers, because Paul explicitly talks about slavery and doesn’t condemn the institution. Paul doesn’t say, “Are you a slave? Slavery is wrong, and all Christians should work to end slavery.” Instead, Paul says, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it.”

How on earth can Paul say this? What does he mean, “do not be concerned about it”!? This is slavery we’re talking about! (And lest we imagine that Roman slavery was somehow a kinder and gentler version of the slavery that we had in this country, slavery in Rome was chattel slavery. It could be extremely brutal, and was often imposed intergenerationally, on the children of slaves.)

So slavery in ancient Rome was very bad. And many of the early Christians were slaves. Yet even here, Paul saw opportunity for transformation. It’s clear that Paul saw all circumstances – even slavery – as an opportunity to become an image-bearer for Jesus, who, in the words of Philippians, “emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave.”

Now, of course, this can be taken the wrong way. We all know the Bible has been abused to justify slavery, despite the fact that Christ came to set all people free. (It’s literally in the Messiah’s job description – see Luke 4 and Isaiah 61 for the fine print.) So there’s no way that Paul was saying slavery was OK, even if wicked people throughout history have tried to twist his words in that direction. Still, this is a dangerous passage to read without good interpretation.

And yet, despite all the danger, Paul’s point still stands: God can bring transformation in any situation where we find ourselves. We see this in practice, in another letter from Paul, to Philemon, when a master and slave are transformed into brothers by Christ’s power. Paul’s message is consistent across his letters: the time to start following Jesus is now, not at some imaginary point in the future when the social order has been completely overturned, or when we are finally “good enough” to deserve it. No matter what our situation, God offers us a path of transformation – to remain with God in the condition in which we were called.

What does it look like for you to remain with God in the condition in which you were called? What are the circumstances of your life that God wants to transform in place, with you as a catalyst for change? What are the ways that your present circumstances, even the parts about your life that you wish were different, could be used by God to bless the people around you?

As I said before, I’m a restless person. Perhaps more restless than most. And yet, I suspect that most of us are restless in our own way. It’s funny: Life is so short, and we flee from the reality of death; yet, so often, we also flee from a full consciousness of life. How often do we scroll on our phones, or watch television, or dream about the future, or do just about anything to escape from the moment that is right in front of us? Life is so short, yet we’re so ready to get it over with. You know, if we hurry up to get to the next big thing enough times, we find that we’ve skipped over our whole lives.

Paul’s message to us this morning is that we shouldn’t wait for tomorrow. We shouldn’t try to skip over the circumstances where we find ourselves. Right here, right now, is where God’s glory is pouring into our universe. This is the appointed time, this is the place where God has called us.

As I conclude this sermon, we prepare to enter into waiting worship. This form of worship, based in silence, is itself an invitation to present ourselves before God, radically present in the moment. It’s an opportunity to open ourselves for transformation in place, without any change in circumstances necessary. It is a time to say, “here I am, Lord. I choose to be present in this reality, in this moment, in this circumstance where you have placed me. How can I show your loving-kindness today?”