The time is limited. It is later than you think.
If the passing stream of time exerts this kind of pressure on the individual, it exerts it also on the Church. How long will our opportunities last? How long, for example, shall we enjoy the favored position we have in British society? You cannot take it for granted; and if the Church is not prepared and equipped spiritually, mentally, materially to act now, tomorrow if may be too late. But I must hurry back to the main thread of what I am saying. Time is pressing and that of course is just the point. It is precisely because time presses that Paul urges us to do all the things we do—buying, selling, marrying, weeping, rejoicing—as if we did them not. What is the meaning of this—
AS IF NOT?
Let me remind you that Paul is not saying ‘do not’— do not marry, buy, sell, weep, rejoice. He is saying do, but as if you were not doing. I will give you two clues as to what he means. Elsewhere in this letter Paul says ‘all things are lawful for me; but I shall not let myself fall into the power of any of them.’ Here is the first clue. God has given us—most of us—a rich wealth of possibilities. There is human love to enjoy, loving and being loved. There is the realm of things, things that can be bought and sold in the process of which we increase our wealth and multiply our resources. There is the world—so full (if I may quote another source) ‘of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings’: the exercise of the body, the exercise of the mind. God put human beings into the world and said ‘subdue and rule it, make it yours, enjoy your gifts.’ But the trouble comes when a human being becomes so devoted to the exercise of his gifts that he becomes their slave. He no longer rules his environment, his environment rules him. This is the real fault of a permissive society. How many a young man and a young woman thought that sex would be fun, and went on and on until they found themselves the slaves of it, always having to seek for some new twist, some new position to stimulate and titillate? How many a person thought a bit of drugs would be fun, and found himself the slave of a habit he could not control. How many a person, how many a church member, set out to get himself a comfortable life by buying and selling so as to make money, and in the end found himself the slave of the money he had made? The horror of permissiveness is that it ends in bondage.
The second clue takes us further because it is positive. ‘Where your treasure is,’ says Jesus, ‘there will your heart be also.’ Watch therefore where you lay up your treasure. You wouldn’t trust a bank which you knew was going out of business in a few years’ time. Well: marriage is ended by death, and the profits you make by buying and selling is even less secure. Marry, yes, and enjoy the love of a good man or a good woman. Buy and sell like a wise man, not a fool. Laugh when you can, and enjoy a good cry when you must. But do all these things as if you did them not.
I am not demeaning this sermon or the office of preaching by turning it into an appeal for cash. I am saying that if you get the pattern of Christian living and the pattern of Christian responsibility right, there will be no serious problem about cash. See all your activities, all your resources in the light of God who is the only safeguard of your treasures. They will not mean less to you, they will mean more. Marriage will mean more if you learn from the New Testament that it signifies a relationship that can never be perfectly realized between you and your wife but only between Christ and the Church. Laughter will be brighter and cleaner, and tears will be wholesome and less bitter when you laugh and cry not only with your neighbors but with God. And the world is far richer when you know that it is God’s world from beginning to end. All this is reason enough for Paul’s as if not’. Can we go further by asking specifically—
Why should we live like this? Here I have to come back to what I said at the beginning and have repeated from time to time—the fashion of this world is passing away. The time is limited. It doesn’t really matter when the world ends. As far as I am concerned it will end one day, sooner maybe, or later. I don’t know. But it will end. There is another world, beyond the bounds of time and space, and it presses upon this world, and I must learn to love and use my resources, of money, of talent, of human affection, in the light of that world. For here is the vital thing. Paul is not merely looking at the busy world of people and things and pronouncing a mournful ‘sic transit gloria mundi’. He might have done. It would be true enough.
Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! (R. Kipling)
Paul’s world—the glittering formidable, eternal, Roman world, has gone and left but a shambles of broken masonry. But this is not what he is saying. There is no scornful cynicism here. Paul knows that the fashion of this world is passing away because a new world has already dawned. The hour has struck on the clock of world history. For Christ has come and made all things new. This world is giving place not to nothing, not to anarchy, but to Christ. This is what determines our attitude to the world. The ultimate test of the lives we live as Christians is this—when people look at us, what do they think of? What do we suggest? A sex symbol? The world of social relationships? Business, the making of money? Intellectual abstraction? Or do they look at us and think of Christ?