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This is another one of those sermons for those who say “We don’t talk enough about sin in church!” It’s also for those who might wonder what exactly someone means when they’re sporting a tattoo that says “Only God Can Judge Me.” It’s also I think for those of us who say we don’t like confrontation, or conversely for those of us who may like confrontation just a little too much.
We’ve talked about not getting complacent for those who are being saved. Paul has already talked about two kinds of people, those who are being saved and those who are perishing. It’s the age-old choice that is always before us – blessings or curses, death or life.
Paul is deep into the hard part of the letter now, because admonishing is never an easy thing. He cares about his brothers and sisters in Corinth and he cares that they, as a community, are being formed in the very image of Christ. He cares that they are being formed as those who have the very mind of Christ because that is what we have. He cares that they are the body of Christ, for that is what they are.
And of course by extension that is what we are. In a body, if one member suffers, all suffer. If one is joyful, we share that joy together. If one member has gone wrong, then the whole body is affected. Here we have a case where one member has gone very very wrong in an extremely public way. The church talks about sin. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at this passage from Paul to the church at Corinth.
We’ve said from the beginning that the Christ following life is meant to look like something. According to the reports that have come to Paul. A man is living in a sexual relationship with his father’s wife – a stepmother in this case. Sexual misconduct of a sort that is not even found among pagans. This was publicly known. Not only is it publicly known, but the church in Corinth is arrogant about it – literally puffed up. Perhaps it’s a case of “Look how accepting we are!” or a case of “Should sin not increase so that grace might abound?” It’s hard to say.
But it’s a problem. It’s a problem not only for the believer here but for the whole assembly. Aside – when we think of church discipline, we often think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 about going to speak to the person who has offended you, if nothing is resolved bringing another person along if nothing is resolved then treating the person like a tax collector or sinner. In this case, it wasn’t a private matter. It was a public matter that needed to be dealt with publicly. In both cases, the idea is not to be punitive but rather to be restorative and reconciliatory, but we’ll come back to that in a little while.
For now, though I want to sit for a little while with the idea that Paul is putting forward here, of corporate responsibility. Note that it is not only the person engaging in a sexual relationship with his step-mother who is in the wrong here, but the whole community is at fault for doing nothing (quite the opposite, actually boasting about it). Rather than boasting, Paul writes, you should be mourning. I heard someone say once that if we are going to admonish someone, we should be doing so with tears in our eyes.
Are we called to hold one another accountable? Absolutely we are. Are we called to lovingly correct one another when we are in need of loving correction? Absolutely we are. Are we called to be sharing in and participating in one another’s lives to the point where we may be able to do this for one another? Absolutely we are. This is part of what it means to live life together.
Now you may be saying what about Matthew 7:1 – Judge not that you may not be judged. As someone has said – “Our beloved canon within the canon has become Matthew 7:1: ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,’ which we misinterpret to mean ‘I won’t judge you if you don’t judge me.’ (This saying of Jesus actually means of course, ‘Do not harbor private judgement against your neighbor so that you may not be judged ultimately by God.’) This… text is an important warning against hypocritical self-righteousness, but it does not in any way preclude the church’s corporate responsibility, as sketched here in 1 Corinthians 5, for disciplining members who flagrantly violate the will of the God for the community.”
To explain the theological reasoning behind what he is saying, Paul makes an appeal to the history of Israel. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast, so that you maybe be a new batch. Before their deliverance from Egypt, the people of Israel were instructed to remove all leaven from their homes. To prepare bread without leaven (leaven is the thing that makes bread rise). This talk brings to mind Passover when the homes of the Israelites were marked, where the people of Israel were set apart, were marked for life rather than death. You’ll remember when Paul in chapter 1 made a distinction between those who are perishing and those who are being saved.
Paul is making an analogy here to the people of Israel. Just as the Passover lamb was sacrificed in order to mark those who are chosen, to mark those who are called, so “our paschal lamb Christ has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
This Christ following life is meant to look like something.
Living in the New Covenant sealed by the blood of Christ, marked as we are, by the blood of Christ is supposed to look like something, Paul describes such a life as lived in sincerity and truth here, and we are called to be loving enough to not turn a blind eye when we are coming up short. In this case, it meant expulsion from the community of faith. A handing over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. This sounds harsh and I don’t think we’re to look on this as some sort of curse that is pronounced on the offender by the church – a kind of “We hereby hand you over to Satan for your destruction!” It is rather, I believe, a recognition on Paul’s part that within the community of faith there is life, and that outside of this we are exposed to the destructive powers of the world which is ruled by the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4). This is not done so that harm may come to the person who is cast out, but rather that, as someone has put it – “Paul hopes that the community’s censure and expulsion of the incestuous man will lead to this result: his fleshly passions and desires will be put to death.”
The desired goal of any such action is always repentance and reconciliation. William Barkley in his commentary on Corinthians puts it this way – “It was discipline, not exercised solely to punish, but exercised rather to awaken. It was a verdict which was to be carried out, not with cold, sadistic cruelty, but rather in sorrow as for one who had died. Always at the back of punishment and discipline in the early Church, there is the conviction that this must be done with a view, not to breaking, but to making the man (sic) who has sinned.” Paul himself will pick this up in the 2nd letter to the Corinthians. We don’t know if he’s talking about the same case here but the words would apply to any case – “This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (2 Cor 7:10). Paul goes on to talk about a godly grief which produces repentance – a turning – that leads to salvation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the ultimate goals, but as someone has said, “forgiveness does not take the place of discipline, rather, it follows clear community discipline and authentic repentance.”
To close, Paul talks about a letter he had written previously to this one about not associating with sexually immoral persons. He’s talking about associations within the family of God here – this is not a call for us to recuse ourselves from the world since we would then need to be out of the world. It’s a call for not blurring what it looks like to be called by God – holy, set apart. This set-apartness should look like something and it should look like something different than what is seen in the world. Sexual sin is listed first here, presumably, it’s most relevant to the case Paul is addressing, but it’s not set above here, but rather alongside other sins like greed, idolatry, reviling – speaking with contempt or abuse – drunkenness, stealing. Would God that the church took all of these sins seriously.
The church has gotten these things wrong in the past. One writer speaks of the sexual abuse scandals that the church has been part of, the conspiracies of silence rather than swift and severe discipline on the offenders – mourning and removal, repentance, and reconciliation. This is the model that Paul lays out for the church here. Drive out the wicked person from among you, is how Paul finishes this section before he goes on to speak pointedly of greed – wronging bad being wronged, defrauding, and being defrauded.
Paul does not make a direct link between the Passover and Christ as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world here, but it’s not hard to make the connection – particularly when we’re coming around the Lord’s Table. Paul will later instruct the people of Corinth to examine themselves when they come to the table and we do well to follow his words. What is the leaven in our lives that we want the Spirit to drive out of us? As we take up the invitation to come sit at Christ’s table and invite him into every corner of our hearts, what are the places in our hearts that need the purifying attention of the Holy Spirit? We do so knowing that this table is a place of grace and reconciliation. May this be the desire of our hearts as we continue to worship and prepare to meet Jesus at his table.