The Form of this World

The Form of this World

Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Austin Milner preaches on authentic Christian expectations.

‘The form of this world is passing away’ (1 Corinthians 7.31). At the time when St. Paul wrote these words he believed that the present form of this world would pass away in his own life-time. He was wrong in thinking this. It was to last for very many more lifetimes. But his statement is not wrong. It is a truth that has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ. Even after two thousand years we must still believe that the present form of this world is passing away.

Paul has been talking about marriage and addressing certain problems that had arisen in Corinth on this subject. We must not think that he is going back on what he said about marriage in at the beginning of this chapter: ‘The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.’ Thinking as he did about the nearness of the end of the age, Paul is saying that marriage and commerce, the things that tend to receive most importance in human life, can never have ultimate importance: they are only penultimate goals.

But let us turn our attention to what he might mean by the phrase, ‘the form of this world is passing away’. People have the strangest ideas about what is meant to happen when God finally establishes his kingdom. Influenced by the extravagant imagery of planetary cataclysm used in the Book of Revelation, they think the Bible is telling us that the material heavens and earth are going to be destroyed. Existence in the ‘kingdom of heaven’ (which, by the way, is just a reverential way of speaking of the kingdom of God), will be some sort of spiritual existence in an immaterial environment, to which one could hardy apply the term ‘human’.

This notion is entirely false and does not correspond at all with the faith of the Church.

The Church believes that at the ‘time of the end’ the universe itself will be renewed. The human beings who have received God’s saving grace will be glorified in body and soul. They remain truly human and that means, in some sense, truly material bodily beings.

As physical beings they will dwell in ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. There will be a human society in which ‘death shall be no more neither shall there be any mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’ Obviously a human society in which there is no longer any death will have no need of procreation.

All things, however, all the beautiful material things of God’s creation will be restored and united in Christ and the will of God will reign supreme. It will be ‘a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice love and peace’ as we sing on the feast of Christ the King. Love justice and peace can only exist where the intercourse of a truly human society exists. All this is set out clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which goes on to say: ‘For human beings the consummation will be the final realization of the unity of the human race which God willed from creation and of which the pilgrim Church has been “in the nature of sacrament”.’

When, then, St Paul says: ‘The present form of this world is passing away,’ he means that the social and economic form of the present society will be utterly changed, that our whole way of relating to one another, all the intercourse of our sad society will be transformed, not that the physical universe will be destroyed and cease to exist. We do not know, and are unable to imagine, what the new world order will be like, but we must not fashion for ourselves pictures of our future existence which are so insipid, so stupid, that they lead us to give up faith in God saving plan for his world.

In these times of great commercial crisis and social upheaval we must ‘wait in joyful hope for the coming of our saviour Jesus Christ,’ we must be careful not to become so immersed in ways of the present form of this world, that we fall into sin and the denial of our faith, like those who have no hope. ‘The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come”. And let him who hears say, “Come”. And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.’

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5,10|1 Corinthians 7:29-31|Mark 1:14-20

fr Austin Milner spent many years working in the English Province's mission in the Caribbean, and latterly taught Christian Worship, Sacramental Theology and Church History at Blackfriars, Oxford. He died on 29th November 2010. May he rest in peace.