Please note: we had a guest preacher last Sunday looking at 1 Corinthians 4... So if you are following through this series online Sorry about the gap.
The Nugget Point lighthouse is an iconic place in New Zealand. It is perched high on the cliffs on the wild Catlin’s coastline. The track out to it goes along the top of this very sharp razor ridge. There are step drop offs and cliffs on either side. When you first see the lighthouse and the track you wonder at how they actually built it out there in the first place. When Kris and I lived in Dunedin we took the kids one day out to nugget point to see the lighthouse, the seal colony and the penguins.
At the entrance to the track is a warning, that this is dangerous, not only are their cliffs but wind gusts that howl along the coast and over the ridge. So there is a sign which basically says be careful with your children they could get blown off. The kids were a lot younger then, so we naturally just sent them running on ahead to see what would happen… just kidding… we held their hands all the way along the track.
Being the new people of God is kind of like walking that track to the lighthouse. Historically it has meant that we walk between the pit falls of tight hard legalism, wanting moral perfectionism at the cost of relationship and being libertine, misunderstanding our freedom in Christ as meaning anything goes, sacrificing morality for the sake of relationship . Being the church is walking together as the winds blow us towards either one of these drop offs from the path of grace. Joseph Aldrich puts it like this (and I’ve added the lighthouse analogy) we find ourselves seesawing between radical identification with our society where we lose our Christian distinctiveness, the light no longer burns, and radical separation, the light is burning bright, but its hidden under a bushel.
We are working our way through the book of 1 Corinthians looking at what it means to be the new people of God. How as a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, cultures, socioeconomic grouping, with different moral understandings and theologies, can we be one in Christ. We’ve been looking at Paul dealing with disunity and squabbling in the church and now in the reading we have this morning he turns to look at church discipline and the church needing to deal with a serious moral issue in their midst, and it’s helpful for us to see how Paul deals with it, how he helps them to walk in the way of Christ, holding together both a desire for moral purity and right relationships.
A serious moral issue had been reported to Paul. Paul didn’t say it was Chloe’s people, like with the division and squabbling. There is a sense here that the issue not being dealt with by the church at Corinth was common knowledge and a matter of concern from all those who heard it.
One of the major issues that faced the early church as it saw gentiles become followers of Jesus was that they had a totally different understanding of what was and wasn’t acceptable than Jewish believers. The first ever general assembly of the early church, the council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15 had to deal with the question of how Jewish did you have to become to be a follower of Jesus, did you have to be circumcised? The resulting decision from the council was that gentiles did not need to be circumcised but were asked to refrain from food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. The word used for immorality was a very general term and that is where some interpretive problems come up for us.
The issue in Corinthians was straight forward it was one of incest, a man, claiming to be a believer, living in an on-going sexual relationship with his father’s wife, his step-mother. Something Paul points out that both Jews and Pagans saw as wrong. The man was claiming to be a believer but continuing in that incestuous relationship, the fact that the women is not mentioned in any of the passage as being subject to church disciple shows that she was probably a non-believer.
Paul’s main concern was the churches attitude towards this issue and that the church at Corinth was not dealing with it. Three times Paul points to their arrogance, boastfulness and the puffed up nature of the church. Paul maybe simply saying that the church had no real reason to be proud of their ‘spirituality’ because not only was their division, but also this issue of immorality, or that the arrogance was that they believed that they were now beyond any moral constraint, that freedom in Christ meant they were free to do whatever. Either way Paul is concerned that they have not dealt with the situation, that the witness of the church in the city was compromised and also that by not dealing with the situation that the man’s relationship with Christ was in danger, he may claim to be a believer but was continual acting in a way that was opposite to that.
Paul tells the church in the power of Christ to remove the man from fellowship. Part of the arrogance of the church may have been that they refused to listen to Paul’s earlier advice on the matter, but Paul tells them that he is very much with them in the spirit, so they should listen to him.
We are probably not that happy with the idea of turning someone over to Satan, and scholars are torn over what that actually means. There is a sense that they treat him like a nonbeliever, which means removing him from events and activities, like fellowship meals and definitely Communion, but like with any non-believer being willing to share love and the good news of Jesus Christ with him so that he will respond with repentance and belief. The man was probably in the position of being ostracized by the pagan community as well so his continual acceptance by the church was enabling him to not change his ways. The purpose of this action is not punitive rather it is in the hope that the man might be restored to faith. Not that he die literally, but that the his worldly desires might die off and he might become alive to the spirit of God again.
Paul then gives the rationale to why the church needed to do this. He uses the analogy of leaven and the Passover. Paul says that just like a little yeast can infect a whole batch of dough this sin has a way of infecting the whole community of faith. It is like a cancer that will grow. Immorality, and latter in v.11 Paul will widen that from sexual immorality to include all sorts of behavior, can damage and destroy a faith community.
The Jews were to get rid of all the leaven out of their houses at Passover. It was to remember that they didn’t have time as they fled Egypt to make bread using leaven, but also it was a good health regulation, the Israelites would have use dough left over from previous bread making to leaven the next batch, start the fermentation process, after a period of time there was the possibility of the leaven going bad. But the Jews were forced to start fresh each year after Passover. Leaven was also understood metaphorically as sin, that could infect the people of God. Paul ties this into the fact that Christ was the Passover lamb, sacrificed once and for all for our sins, so in living and celebrating that in how we live we should start afresh and not bring over the standards and sins of our past into the new people of God. More than that Paul actually says that we should continue to celebrate the passover symbolically by keeping using unleavened bread. We should live out our faith in sincerity and truth, that our lives should reflect the truth of who Christ is and what he has done for us.
Finally in this section Paul corrects a misunderstanding the church at Corinth has from a previous letter he had written to them, which we do not have a copy of by the way. He had told them not to associate with immoral people. They had taken that to mean people outside the Church, that they should separate themselves from the world around them. But Paul says that’s not the case, in fact if they were to try and do that it would be impossible. You might as well move to another planet, or seal yourself off in some sort of plastic dome. Paul’s instructions concerned those within the church who continued to live an immoral lifestyle. He mentions people whose behaviour is destructive to the Church, swindlers and people filled with greed, slanderers; those who by what they say would bear false witness against their neighbours. Drunkards, Roman society was a wine culture, alcohol was a regular part of life, and the behaviour here is not simply the consumption of alcohol or alcoholism, but the violent and anti-social behaviour that went along with the over consumption of alcohol. Alcoholism however needs to be addressed in the church, and people helped to see that this addiction is indeed something that stops people growing in their relationship with Christ and can affect the community of faith.
How does this help us to deal with issues in our own time and place.
Firstly, Paul says that the way we deal with issues of immorality in the church is not with the holier than thou attitude, nor do we simply ignore them and hope they will go away. Neither are helpful or loving. Paul says our posture should be one of grieving and mourning over sin, aware of our own short comings and the destructive nature of such things. That our attitude and the purpose behind what we say and how we act should be the desire to see people reconciled to Christ and be restored to full fellowship. Warren Wiersbe puts it like this " Church discipline is not a group of pious policemen out to catch a criminal. Rather, it is a group of broken-hearted brothers and sisters seeking to restore an erring member of the family.”
Secondly, there is a process involved, in dealing with issues of immorality, sexual and otherwise. Matthew 18: 15-18 outlines a process of dealing with wrongs and problems, starting with a private conversation, conversation with a witness, involving the church leadership and congregation and finally some form of sanctions. It is only the serious issues that should get to the final stages. Jesus comments in Matthew 18 are in the context of forgiving a brother. We need to have robust and just and compassionate processes to deal with issues. Craig Bloomfeild says “the whole point is to shock the persons involved by the severity of the churches disapproval that they are stimulated to change their behavior, after less radical action has left them unaffected.” We never stop loving them but can no longer consider them as part of the fellowship. Of course it is hard to see such church discipline being effective in our society where church attendance is simply another consumer choice and we can find another one down the road. Also we live in an increasingly litigious society where people are willing to take you to court over such matters, and well look at that next week, because it was happening in the Church at Corinth as well.
Thirdly, when it comes to morals and ethics it is not a matter of how far can we go before we reach the limits of what is acceptable. How far can we go towards the cliff edge before we fall off, rather the focus for Christian community is on Christ crucified, in ever area of our lives we wrestle with how can we reflect the life of Christ…in our life… towards others, sexually, financially, in the way we speak and act. It means our standards are not to simply reflect the society round us. We are called to be sincere to live out the truth we believe.
Lastly, Paul says that we are not to judge those outside the church or to separate ourselves from them. Rather we are to show Christ’s love to them and show a valid and authentic kingdom of God alternative. We don’t judge the world, God does that and it resulted in him giving his son to redeem it. We do however have a right and a role of encouraging one another to grow in and live out Christ honouring lives and that means we wrestle with and help each other and when needed be that involves correcting and disciplining each other in love as a community.
The nature of the epistles is that they are occasional, they deal with specific situations and because they are God’s word they speak to us through all time. I haven’t tried to tie this scripture into any specific behavior in the Church. We’ve seen the recent and on-going struggle the churches have had with pedophilia, child and sexual abuse, (it's not just a catholic issue) we need to be strong in dealing with these. There is our continuing wrestling with how as a church are we to understand homosexuality, it’s an area we are going to have to pray and be broken over for a some time to come, I think it will be something that we find ourselves having to resist falling off either steep drop off and cliff, either anything goes or legalistic rejection. And at the moment there is a whole lot of wind pushing in one direction that is hard to withstand. I am aware that as the church in the west we may have a blind spot in what Paul is saying in the area of greed, we do tend to reflect the values of our society in terms of buildings and wealth and standards of living. It challenges us in how we speak towards the society round us, how do we speak prophetically without demanding adherence to a Christian understanding of morality or being seen as judgmental.
The encouragement and hope I see is that as we walk this dangerous and difficult path of grace together is that just like the Corinthians we have Paul with us by his words. But more importantly we have the Spirit and the presence of Christ with us as well, as together we wrestle with what it means to be the new people of God.