I Cor. 5:1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. 4When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. 6Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. 9I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”
Focus verse: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”
- The Christian life is meant to be a Festival, not a carnival, nor an Inquisition
- Whether a carnival or an Inquisition, the same sin is behind all other sins at work: “proud” defiance, resistance against repentance and grace & dependence upon God
- Our Passover festival is celebrated with bread of sincerity & truth, i.e. openness to correction and repentance, honesty, transparency and mutual accountability (not sinlessness and perfection)
When we looked at this passage over breakfast last Tuesday morning, two questions immediately popped up: 1) What does this passage have to do with today’s baptism and new membership, when its about kicking someone out of church membership?; and 2) How good do we have to be lest we too get dis-fellowshipped or expelled? Since none of us is perfect, wouldn’t this passage set us on some sort of feeding frenzy, at the end of which, no one would be left on our rolls, or in our pews, or…. in the pulpit?
Well, to answer the second question first, today I have commissioned several big, strong bouncers standing in the back who are going to go through the sanctuary this morning taking every known and suspected sinner out of the pews and escorting them out of the sanctuary, and….
Now, why do they seem to be heading for the pulpit first?
But some of us here have had experiences with just that kind of judgmental feeding frenzy, and sometimes over the oddest of things, like the length of your hair or the color and style of your clothing. All the while that they were fixating on those things, they were overlooking the real sins of fear and hostility that fueled such a feeding frenzy. When I pastored in Kansas, I got to know many who were kicked out of the Holderman Mennonite churches for such alleged sins as having pictures of their family members up in their house or at their work sites. It showed pride, they were told. Some of them joined our Western District Conference Mennonite churches, while others were so badly hurt that they left church all together.
That kind of feeding frenzy is not what Paul is encouraging in us today. He’s encouraging us to think of the Christian life, and the Christian community, as a festival. In particular, the Jewish Passover Festival. The Passover is a festival celebrating God and his work of freedom, redemption, liberation, and the restoration of human dignity from Egyptian slavery. Its celebrated in family, with friends, with the sharing of food, love and faith. An even greater freedom, redemption, liberation and restoration of human dignity is now possible for all of us because of the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the final, perfect Passover Lamb of God. We, his disciples, get to celebrate such a festival of freedom, dignity and liberation not just once a year but every day of our lives through eternity.
But somebody in Corinth had turned the new Christian passover festival into a carnival, worse than the most lewd and crude Carnival/Mardi Gras images you might ever have seen in the evening news from New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. It was so bad that people outside of the church would blush and barf at the mention of it.
But it would be no better if we turned the new Christian Passover Festival into a Mennonite version of the Spanish Inquisition. That was five hundred years ago, when Catholic church officials were prying into everyone’s homes and lives and burning people at the stake who wouldn’t repent of being Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Anabaptist, atheist, agnostic, pagan or whatever. They don’t do this today; the Pope even apologized for it, so we shouldn’t hang it about the necks of our Catholic friends anymore, except to recognize that, in this day and age when anything goes, we are likewise tempted to circle the wagons in a fearful, defensive stance against the world, and to seek security by controlling all sorts of external things about each other.
I suppose that’s why I occasionally get phone calls from people who are interested in checking us out, as long as our church imposes some sort of dress code, especially upon women, and that we don’t do any contemporary, upbeat music. I understand their fears and can sympathize with them. But I don’t think that controlling dress or styles of music will get at the things they really fear most. “Come see the beautiful African clothing, especially around Easter,” I say. “And we have a pretty good worship band, plus a full string orchestra.” But they don’t come. I figure its better to tell the truth and disappoint them over the phone than to have them go through all the trouble to come and get disappointed.
As grievous as was the particular sin mentioned in Corinth, the there is a more grievous sin behind that sin. Paul tells us what it is in verse 2 when he says, “And you are [even] proud!” He means “you” plural. So it wasn’t just a person at fault; there was an entire church faction in his corner. With those words we look beyond the unmentionable sin to the sin behind all sins, the proud, willful, stubborn, defiant resistance to God and his gifts of counsel, repentance, forgiveness and restoration, manifested by pride in the sin and its acceptance. It was the sin of believing himself, against all evidence to the contrary, to be not a sinner.
That sin is uniquely dangerous and destructive because, unlike other sins, it amounts to slamming the door on community, counsel, forgiveness and reconciliation. It amounts to painting ourselves into a corner where the gifts of counsel, of repentance, forgiveness and a change of life cannot reach us, where we would remain alone, thumbing our noses at God and others. Because of his pride in the sin, and not just the sin itself, Paul calls for the de-membership of the Corinthian offender until the fruits of his conduct affect him and confront him with the need to repent and reform. After all, the person in question, by his unwillingness to receive counsel, by his certainty that he had nothing to confess or be forgiven, was already distancing himself from God, the community and its mission.
And, like yeast in bread dough, this defiance of God’s grace was contagious and had begun infecting others with this same spirit of defiance and divisiveness. Others in Corinth were boasting about their acceptance of his conduct. That boasting indicates something else more destructive than the sexual misconduct, as bad as it was: it means that they were turning their inner orientation away from God and toward the world, making themselves actors for hire on the world’s stage, seeking to please society, more so than God. Since no one can act toward all sides of a stage, some will then play to different sides of society’s audience, such as for the right or the left, for the revolutionaries or the reactionaries. When that happens, a bridge club can’t stay together, let alone a church. So, defiance of God’s grace leads inexorably to divisiveness in the church.
And this is just as true if we should also turn the Christian life into an Inquisition. Its just as divisive and destructive whether we’re drinking ourselves silly, or snooping in each other’s refrigerators. Whether we’re committing theft, or auditing each other’s check books. Whether we’re dressing immodestly, or whether we’re enforcing a dress code. In either case, its the same temptation and the same sin: to abandon our trust in God in favor of self-reliance and self-justification, whether through a carnival, or an inquisition.
So, to the second question, How good do I have to be to not get kicked out of the community of faith? Well, that would happen only if we weren’t sinners. Actually, when it comes to God’s household of faith, people really, finally don’t get kicked out. Or they shouldn’t. But people may eventually remove themselves, through this willful defiance I have described, to the point where the community must finally acknowledge their leaving, and grieve it. And the surest way for anyone to remove themselves from the community of faith would be if we stopped being sinners in need of God and each other. Or at least, if we were sure we were not sinners, like the Corinthians and their poster child. In the spirit of I Corinthians 5, church membership is only for sinners.
That’s even what our church’s Mission Statement says. It begins by defining us as, “a community of sinners redeemed from the guilt and bondage of sin by the grace of God and the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ.” No sinless people need apply.
But the other side of the coin is expressed in our annual membership covenant, where we promise each other “...the compassionate giving and receiving of counsel among all members and attendees…” So don’t anyone join this church, or attend it, if you don’t want to start growing from sinners toward sainthood. Don’t join if you don’t want to give and receive help along the way. The old saying, “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future” is the plot line of our worship, our songs and our hymns. Its our life stories. And that of the man who wrote today’s Bible passage. He called himself, “the chief of sinners.”
And that leads us back to the first question: What does this passage, about church discipline and expulsion, have to do with today’s celebration of baptism and a new church membership? Well, look again at the focus verses, 7 and 8: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”
At Emmanuel Mennonite Church, our baptismal vows and our membership covenants commit us to those two things: sincerity and truth. Not to sinlessness and perfection, because we’ve probably all missed our chance at those, but to sincerity and truth. The truth I take to be God’s Word. Sincerity I take to mean honesty, transparency and openness with each other in a spirit of care and compassion for each other. In our life-long Passover celebration together, our “bread of sincerity and truth” is made of our willingness to review our lives, honestly and compassionately, by the standard of God’s truth, to repent and make amends however often they’re necessary, to give ourselves and each other as many chances as we need to get up from our falls and failures and start over, and to accept the gracious, compassionate help of our brothers and sisters to do just that. It may not always be wise to spill everything about our lives before everyone all the time. But hopefully, to some trusted people in God’s household of faith, all of our lives are an open book to someone. Without this regular diet of truth and sincerity, our spirits starve and die.
I hope that every time someone is baptized and embarks on a new Christian life, all of us reflect anew upon our relationship with God and each other. Today, Rediet is joining the new Passover festival in Christ, to purge any of the old leaven of hostility and wickedness, and to share with us the new bread of sincerity and truth. She is committing herself to Christ and to us, to join us on the life-long journey of growth in godliness. Let Rediet’s decision today remind us to keep sharing and feeding on the bread of sincerity and truth, of honest counsel, repentance, forgiveness and newness of life. Its a matter of life and death. Especially for those who need it.