Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In both the Epistle and the Gospel appointed for this morning we encounter a rather upsetting theme. St. Paul instructs the Christians in Corinth “from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.” Then in the Gospel we heard that John and James left their father Zebedee in the boat (in the middle of a work day!) to follow Jesus. Are we then to understand that family obligations get in the way of following God’s call, and they are to be abandoned?

Well, it should be no surprise, that it’s rather more complicated than that. Let’s begin with the Epistle. The three short verses we heard were lifted from a whole chapter devoted to the discussion of marriage. Looking at the context, St. Paul’s admonition takes on some nuance.

Paul was ambivalent about marriage. He recognized the need for the institution and affirmed it’s life-long, indissoluble nature. Even so, Paul strongly recommends that those who can manage it should never marry and instead opt for a life of single celibacy. This is because he believed that singleness was a happier estate and freed one to focus on spiritual matters. He saw that marriage could lead to a great deal of stress and anxiety which could ultimately distract the believer from his or her own spiritual life and commitment to the church.

As a side note, I think we tend to reject Paul’s advice here a little too quickly. While there is certainly a generational shift happening now, it is still popular in many parts of our society to see singleness at a certain age as an aberration. Too often is the single man or woman seen as being odd or assumed to be hiding something, because marriage (some subconsciously believe or even explicitly say) “is just something normal people do.” What if we assumed, instead, that God might be calling that person to a life of single celibacy because He meant for them to lead that kind of life. Assuming that somebody who’s single must be lonely, is pitiable, and should really get out there and find somebody doesn’t recognize that God can call His children to different estates than we, due to some cultural influence, perceive as “normal”.

Anyway, Paul’s view of marriage is complicated, and his command to “let those who have wives live as though they had none” should be seen in the context of his broader view. His primary concern is the anxiety created by marriage, and it seems to me that in his command to act as though one had no spouse, he does does not mean abandonment of the spouse but abandonment of anxiety. He means that we ought not let the difficulty of being married distract us from giving our best for God. Indeed, a marriage defined by peace in the home can be of great benefit to one’s spiritual life. It’s when the relationship is defined by the stress and anxiety it creates that there is a problem.

But then what about the Gospel? Here we see the brothers John and James literally leaving their old man to follow Jesus. One wonders how Zebedee felt about this turn of events. In this instance, I think the truth is harder than the one we’re given in the epistle, but it’s no less true. These young men and so many of us must at some point cut ties and move on in order to follow our Lord’s call.

Perhaps this is less shocking today as we live in a more migratory society than we ever have, but it’s still a challenge for many. There is sometimes thrust upon our children inappropriate expectations of how their lives will develop which have more to do with parents’ desires for stability than God’s call to an individual. It is hard for me to talk about this, because it’s not my experience. I think my parents would have been disappointed if I chose to stay close to home when there was another course I felt obliged to take. But for so many, there is a desire (I’d go so far as to say a “God-given” desire) to take on some new adventure, to let one’s life follow a sense of call, a vocation, wherever it takes that person, which meets with less than rousing support at home.

But what if when the boys left the boat, their father Zebedee didn’t feel betrayed or abandoned? Perhaps he looked on their departure with pride and hope. They had found their Lord, and though it would take them far away from the fish in Galilee, far away from their home, I bet Zebedee knew in his heart that they had bigger fish to fry, as it were, and that they’d find and found a new home, the Church, which would have room for billions of children in the years to come.

I think that this is an important thing for all of us to realize. We cannot stand in the way of God’s call (if it truly is God’s call) to any other, no matter how dear they are to us. We cannot burden another with an obligation to ourselves which they never chose for themselves. This is not to say that children have no obligations to parents; they most certainly do. It is, however, to say that we are all obliged to wait upon God’s call, to follow His Will and to allow it to be followed, even if that becomes uncomfortable. We can do this when we are able to truly believe that God will see us through the pain of loss and that He can and will do more marvelous things in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love than we could imagine, if we only let Him.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.