I Cor: 6: 9Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
She had just parked her car at the scenic overlook and gotten out, passed a parked tour bus and was walking toward the trail when a perfect stranger said to her, “I’m looking for a better view, Edith; I’ll be right back.” Then, while she was photographing some flowers alongside the trail, the same stranger tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Edith; please tell the bus driver not to leave without me—I’ll be right back,” and ran off down the trail before she could say, “I’m not Edith; I’m Sunny, and I’m not even on your tour bus.” To this day, Sunny wonders whether the bus left with that woman or not. And just who is Edith, that she should be such a dead ringer for her? Hopefully she’s not doing anything to make enemies.
Whatever troubles Edith may have had with a case of mistaken identity, they were small potatoes compared to those in the First Church of Corinth. The good doctor of the church, Paul, has diagnosed a case of mistaken identity as one source of their troubles and tensions. Some of them are mistaking themselves for wise, powerful, praiseworthy people deserving of higher status and power in the church than their brothers and sisters. Maybe because that is the position they held in society. And they are mistaking some of their brothers and sisters in the church for people worthy of neglect, abuse and contempt, perhaps because that is their identity in the wider society. So they’re treating them that way.
The remedy is to remind them of who they are really are by reminding them first of who they once were: sin addicts. In case they didn’t get that, he categorizes some of the sins to which they had bonded and were addicted: disordered sexual behaviors, idolatry, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander and swindling in their past and present. All of these were rampant in ancient Corinthian society. “Such were some of you,” Paul says. But anyone who says, “What a relief, I’m not among the ‘some‘ of them,” is likely deluding himself and missing the point. This is meant to be a very inclusive list.
Now, I can’t go any further with this sermon without acknowledging that this is a controversial passage, because some preachers zero in on the homosexuality part of this list and either preach against that alone, to bash people who experience same sex desires, or they charge that Paul is gay-bashing. If we should call what he’s doing, “bashing,” its equal-opportunity bashing, for the greedy, slanderous, and idolatrous as well. No one comes out of this passage squeaky clean and entitled to look down their noses at anyone else.
The other controversy is over whether or not the same sex activity that Paul addresses here is the same thing as when someone today says that their primary sexual attractions are to people of their own gender. Some say Yes, some No. If you’re wondering what I make of this, Well, this sermon is not about sexuality, straight or gay. Its about identity, but not specifically sexual identity. This passage doesn’t divide and categorize people that way, and neither do I. It lumps all people together under the category of people in need of God’s help and healing. So for anyone who comes to me and says that their primary sexual interest is in people of their own gender, there’s nothing shocking or shameful, nothing in that alone that would remove them from God’s love nor mine. I just don’t see that as anyone’s identity, certainly not one that isolates or distinguishes anyone from myself or anyone else. I simply see it as a pastoral issue, requiring the same pastoral responses of love, care, prayer and support as any other pastoral issue, one which should reminds us that we are all in the same boat, as people in need of God’s love, grace and help.
The real dividing point, and the most dangerous thing, is when and if we love and bond with any of these things so much that we make them the primary badges of our identity. If we cherish any of the things mentioned in this passage and so base our identities upon them, we will not, as Paul puts it, “inherit the kingdom of God.” Not because God doesn’t want to give us the kingdom of God—he does, and eagerly. We simply won’t inherit the kingdom of God if we don’t want it, or if we want something else more than the kingdom of God.
I saw a parable in action of this principle when I went fishing with my brother long ago one summer day. In addition to the gear and the bait, we brought along a bag of cookies. Fortunately, we did not confuse those last two things for each other. Once at the river, we baited up, cast in our lines and set the rods on forked sticks. Then my brother began eating a cookie. Right then, wouldn’t you know, his rod began twitching and bucking. Fish on! His gaze went back and forth, between the fishing rod and the cookie in his hand. It had to be one or the other, but he couldn’t hold onto both. So he made his choice and finished the cookie. And lost the fish. Nearly lost the rod and reel too.
That’s a picture of how and why anyone would not inherit the kingdom of God. As Jesus told his disciples, “Its God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” But there’s not room enough in the human heart or soul to inherit God’s kingdom and to hold and cherish anti-kingdom loves and desires, like greed, theft or immorality. Its one thing to be tempted by such things. We all are. Its one thing to fall to them from time to time. We all do. But its another thing to accept them, cultivate them, and cherish them so that they crowd out our love for God and his kingdom, as they always seem to do. “Such were you,” Paul says. And such are they in danger of doing and becoming again. But that’s not the main point of this message.
Rather: “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,” Paul says in verse 11. That’s what this message is really about. And what it means to our identity, now and forever. Together.
Paul did not say, “You were made perfect, you were rescued out of reach of all temptation, you no longer need strength from God and help from your brothers and sisters to fight such things,” or else there’d be no need for him to write this letter. These three changes in their identity—washed, sanctified and justified– are as much changes in God’s perspective of us, as in our selves. Whatever we might feel like at any given moment, God sees us as “washed….sanctified….and justified,” by virtue of our faith and baptism.
By “washed,” Paul probably means, in the waters of baptism. That’s one thing all the fractious Corinthian Christians have in common. But as Peter put it in his letter, its not just the outer washing of the body in the baptismal waters that gave us a new identity, but the inner washing of our lives, our loves and our loyalties that led us to baptism, and which baptism reflects and symbolizes. When we get to the point where we can say to Jesus, “Yes, I believe that you are the Christ, and I wish to follow you through life and death,” its a sign that a sort of washing has already begun on the inside of us, one that requires a public confession, a moment that distinguishes before and after, and a resounding No to all the options and alternatives. Like what a wedding ceremony does for a husband and wife. In our case, its baptism. This inner washing, Paul says, is accomplished by the Holy Spirit of God. But when we do our part on the outside, by baptism, then we are burning our bridges to our former identity, and going forward with a new identity, based on Christ and his work in us. This is a common identity that Paul wanted the Corinthians to remember. And this is an identity that unites us with each each other, and with believers around the world today.
That new identity comes with a new purpose in life. That’s what Paul means when he says, secondly, that we are “sanctified.” For some of us that’s a scary word, because some people take it to mean that something should have happened to us, emotionally and spiritually, that would suddenly transform us so completely and instantly, that we would henceforth and forever be perfect, mature and out of the reach of every temptation. If that never happened to you, well, it didn’t happen to me either.
No, I think the word “sanctified” has to be understood in its Old Testament sense of considering something as “set apart and consecrated” for one purpose alone—God’s purpose. Any of us who are following the Bible reading program will have recently read rules and regulations in the books of Leviticus and Exodus about all the plates, grills, dishes and utensils that were to be used for sacrifices and serving up sacrificial food in Israel’s ancient tabernacle. No need to get off on all the details and figure out what they symbolize. The main point is that they were set aside for God’s service alone. So no borrowing cups from the Tabernacle if more guests show up than you were expecting. No playing frisbee with the plates and saucers from around the altar; they’re “sanctified,” that is, “set apart,” for one use, one purpose alone.
Same with everyone who has been washed in Christian baptism: we’re all “sanctified,” to one God and to his honor and purposes alone in life and worship. That’s what we promised with our baptismal vows. We may not always feel particularly sanctified. But God takes our baptismal vows at face value, and sees us that way. We may forget them and come up short at times. But as long as we keep asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness and keep on keeping on with God and his will, then God counts us as righteous; we’re in a right relationship with God, based not on our goodness, but upon our trust in God’s goodness.
That’s what Paul means by the third term: “justified.” Like the penitent thief on the cross who simply prayed, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus did, because of his own goodness, and the man’s trust in him. Its also what Jesus meant when he spoke about the two men who went into the temple to pray. One thanked God for what a good and righteous man he was, while the other, a corrupt tax collector, simply bowed his head, beat his breast, and said, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Using the exact same word as Paul, the gospel says that “that man went home ‘justified,” even if the only good thing about him up to that moment was that he trusted in God’s goodness more than his own.
And with that we see just how much this man was also being washed from inside, by the Holy Spirit, and how he was becoming someone set apart—sanctified–for God’s honor and purposes in the world.
Washed, sanctified and justified: Those being our new and true identity, we are called and empowered to get on with it and live like it, so as to enjoy the full benefit of our salvation. And those things unite us with each other, and with all Christians around the world today. That’s what this message is really about: our identity in God’s eyes, and how that new, true identity also unites us with each other, and with all of God’s people in all times and places, on this World Communion Sunday. For we are not the only ones who were washed, sanctified and justified, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nor are we the only ones who need that, because, if left to ourselves, we would fall pray to all the kinds of enslavement and entrapment in today’s passage. We share both our weakness and our exalted state of washing, sanctification and justification with Christians all over the world gathering for worship this day, many of them for communion, like ourselves. With them we share a common bread and a common cup that symbolize what we need, together and in common, and what Jesus has done for all of us.
Or did we mistake ourselves, and each other, for someone else?