Sunday, 8 May 2016

Sermon Notes on 1 Corinthians 5: Drive Out the Unrepentant Christian

To frame this sermon… Let me tell you a story from the beginning of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. Are you sitting comfortably….? Then I’ll begin.

Israel after 40 years of wandering is on the edge of the “Promised Land”

Jericho is the first city they are to take and it is to be given to the Lord – everyone killed, all the buildings razed to the ground and all the plunder brought into the Lord’s treasury.

After the battle everyone is bringing the Jericho booty to tabernacle – the place where the God of Israel was worshiped.

But a man called Achan holds some or all of it back for himself – a ceremonial robe, 200 silver coins and a bar of gold.

His family is (forced to be?) complicit with him this – they should dob him in, but they don’t. They honour their family and friendship ties above obedience to God’s command.

As a result of this disobedience, God refuses to go with Israel into the next battle and they become sitting ducks for the surrounding nations to come in and annihilate them, 36 men die, men who are sons, brothers, husbands and fathers to many. 36 men who had been obedient in the battle of Jericho, fell to their deaths in the battle of Ai because of Achan and his family’s disobedience.

Achan’s sin weakened the whole nation of Israel so that together they could not stand against or push back the enemy.

Achan and his family are found out, and stoned to death for in their selfish disregard for others, they had put their personal family enrichment and pleasure before the safety and prosperity of the wider community of the nation and before obedience and love to God.

You might choose your actions, but you can never choose the consequences for those actions.

Had he known what the outcome would be, would Achan have done that? Probably not, but by then it was too late.

We find stories like this hard to stomach in 21st Century Britain because:
  1. There is a lot of seemingly gratuitous death,
  2. We more often think of God being like an indulgent parent than we do a righteous king and
  3. We are so individualist in our outlook, we just don’t see how our personal choices could ever be anyone else’s business and we often have a very poor appreciation of how our personal choices affect our lives as well as wider community life together.
But this story from Joshua is so important and helpful in shedding light on our text for today and helps us to understand why Paul gets so exercised about the situation in view because:

  1. Joshua under God, was leading Israel in conquering the promised land, Paul under God was leading the church in the new phase of Jesus command to conquer the world by making disciples.
  2. Israel’s battle was physical with swords and fighting. The church’s battle is spiritual with the words of God and prayer.

But the secret to success in Jericho, in Corinth and now is the same – active, obedient faith and trust in all that God has spoken. And the consequences of ignoring that are the same – divisiveness, disarray, disappointment and if left unchecked, destruction.

Without obedience, our mission statement of bringing the kingdom of God to Reading and beyond will remain a statement and never become a reality. And the devil loves mission statements, what he hates is when those statements become reality in real people’s lives so he will do everything he can to fool you into thinking that that obedience is either unnecessary or impossible.
Verses 1-5: It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgement on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Back in Ch.1:11 we read that Chloe’s household has brought a report to Paul about the church in Corinth, and that report is the provocation for him writing this letter.

Having talked about how the old so-called wisdom of the world rooted in disobedience to God has made its way back into the church and caused divisions in it, now we see how that same so-called wisdom is causing trouble in other areas too. Namely, in the moral backbone and public integrity of the whole church.

A man in the church has entered into sexual relationship with his stepmother. We aren’t given any more details than that, we don’t know if the woman is divorced or widowed or how long this relationship has been going on for.

The Bible forbade this kind of behaviour – both Genesis 2:24 and Jesus in Matthew 19:5 said that a man should LEAVE his father’s house and be united to his wife and the two should become one flesh. No ifs, no buts, this man has done an outrageous thing.

That should have been enough, but then Paul reminds them that even the laws of Corinth, sexually liberal Corinth, where all kinds of perversions are not just tolerated but openly encouraged and glorified, also still ruled this to be an unlawful thing.

Now, no doubt there are a good number in the church that think he should have been reprimanded for this action, but somehow, so far, nothing has been done. The church as a whole has been at the very least tolerating this, if not actively shielding him from any consequences of it. Why?
  • Is he a big financial backer of the church who no one wants to upset?
  • Is he part of a family which had a big influence in the church and had started to throw its weight around expecting special treatment and intimidating those who disagreed?
  • Are they, as a church, so soaked in a particular misunderstanding of grace that they think the normal everyday rules of the bible and of life don’t apply to them anymore?
  • Or do they know they’re in the wrong, but are furiously trying to save face and pretend that they are a church which has everything sorted because publically admitting this man’s lifestyle choice would bring them more shame and cries of hypocrisy than they could handle?
We don’t know, but my guess is that, like the slide behind me, that their priorities when it came to how to live the Christian life had gotten totally back to front. And they had become so arrogant in it that they hadn’t noticed just how corrupted they had become. This counterfeit wisdom that had infected the church had gotten all their priorities the wrong way round. They were fussing about small things and ignoring the big things. Trying to remove the specks from each other’s eyes rather than removing the great big trees.

You see chapter 7 of this letter begins with the phrase “now for the matters you wrote about…” they are clearly very interested in knowing Paul’s opinion on certain moral issues like:
  • Whether they should eat meat offered to idols
  • Whether they should get married or stay single for the Gospel
  • Whether a Christian, once converted should remain married to an unbeliever
  • Whether slaves should seek their freedom
  • How to handle spiritual gifts in meetings and which gifts should be given more prominence.
  • And on it goes
But they don’t seem to care one bit about issues of integrity that God seems to think are of great importance, they never thought to ask him about this guy who is sleeping with his step mum. They were so ok with it, it never crossed their minds to ask him.

Those other moral and theological questions, which they do want ask have their place. But they are nothing compared to the big black and white teachings about sexual conduct and the reason Paul gets so exercised here is that when we sin sexually, we tell lies to ourselves and to the world with our whole being – body, mind and soul about the God in whose likeness we were all made.  God created sex and marriage to be a beautiful parable to the world of what God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are like and what the mission of the church is. When we sin sexually we deny the nature of God and God's mission in the world.

Paul will say in chapter 11 that their communion meals do more harm than good, and one of the reasons for that is that some are grossly sinning against God and then walking into church and taking communion as if nothing has happened and nothing is wrong, he says: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine themselves, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself [and on the rest of the body for we are all connected inseparably together]. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, [if our priorities were right] we would not be judged.

Just as Achan’s disobedience brought disaster on the nation of Israel, the willful disobedience of this man in sleeping with his stepmother is one of the factors contributing to the disarray and impotence and potential destruction of this church.

Paul pulls no punches as a spiritual father to the church – he tells them that they must eject the man from the family of the church. The reason is simple, this man is claiming to be a Christian, but is living like the devil, and so to bring him to his senses, Paul tells the church to hand this man over the one who appears to be his heart’s desire - to the devil.

This is a restorative action not a vindictive one. The aim is to restore the man, it is a gift of grace to him. The hope is that this man will come to his senses, repent and then be welcomed back into the church family. Paul is echoing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. If the man doesn’t repent, he proves that his profession of faith in Christ, however impressive or seemingly heartfelt, is meaningless and he should therefore be treated like an unbeliever - that is with great love and compassion, but not as a brother or sister in the faith and he must be denied access to the communion meal.

Paul isn’t advocating this practice for all sins and all unrepentance. If I squash a fly because I get impatient with it buzzing around the room, I may well have anger management issues and you may well want to challenge me on it, we may end up agreeing to disagree, about whether I was in the wrong, but no one would think we would need to go to the elders about it and kick me out of the church. So what is the rule of thumb here?

It would seem that what gets a person excommunicated from the church, that is kicked out of the church family, is the same kind of thing that would have received the death penalty in Old Testament Israel. Hence we have the list later on in the chapter, if you were convicted in the Old Testament of idolatry, sexual immorality, greed, drunkenness, lying and cheating – in some or all of those cases, you would be handed the ultimate sentence. You would lose your life.

The good news here is that the death penalty is no longer in view, that is for the state authorities to decide and in this country, at least, that is no longer in play, but spiritually speaking this is no less serious, to be put out of the church is to be put out of Christ. In Matthew 16 Jesus said, whatever you (the church) bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven, that simply means that Jesus will back up his church when his church is obedient to what he has told her to do, so if, in obedience to God’s word, the church has to kick someone out of the family for gross disobedience and unrepentence, then Jesus will give it his AMEN to them and back them up.

Of course there have been abuses of that authority all down church history, and Jesus will judge those who have misused his authority for their own ends, but the principle still stands and we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If, in obedience to God’s word, the church has to kick someone out of the family for gross disobedience and unrepentence, then Jesus has said he will back them up.

The difference between the Old Testament and the New is that in the Old Testament, there was no way back. Once you were dead, you were dead. But here, in the new life of the church, there is every possibility that a person who has had to be put out can come back in and be restored.

And indeed that is exactly what we see in a later letter Paul wrote cleverly titled 2 Corinthians. This man has finally been disciplined by the church, has repented and is being restored. Paul writes in chapter 2 of 2 Corinthians: Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything.

The good news is that whilst this man may have had to endure consequences to his actions in the everyday of life, he was nevertheless restored to full participation in the family of the church and welcomed back to the communion table.
Verses 6-8: Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul draws in these middle few verses on an analogy from the Old Testament festival of Passover.

In cultures where everyone made bread at home, the practice was that you would make the bread rise by creating what was known as a sourdough starter, but that took time and effort and wasn’t something that could be done every day, so they did something ingenious; once their bread had risen and before they put it in the oven, they would remove a piece of the dough, put it in a jar and keep it for the next day. The next day, when it came to making bread again, they wouldn’t need to ferment another starter, they would just make their dough and then add the lump from yesterday’s mixture into the new batch and the unseen yeast already present in that little lump inside that lump would multiply through the whole new batch. Once that batch had risen again they would take out another lump and put it aside for the next day and so on and so on.

A brief look on the internet told me yesterday that the oldest leaven lump known to be in existence is to be found in Newcastle, Wyoming in the USA and it was first created in 1889 – the same year the construction of the Eiffel Tower was completed. It is a lump that has been passed down the generations and continues to rise the family breads and pancakes to this day.

At Passover, the nation of Israel was supposed to get rid of all the leaven lumps in their houses and only eat unleavened bread. It was symbolic of a new beginning, a new start, a new creation.

Christ our Passover Lamb was sacrificed, not so that we could carry on the old destructive ways of life, but that so we could enter into a new kind of life – not ruled by the hidden desires of sin and the flesh, but ruled by the hidden eternal, holy Spirit of God.
Verses 9-13: I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people - not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
A couple of practical pointers then from these verses as we come to a close.

To reiterate from earlier, Paul is not at all advocating that the church cuts itself off from sinners or unbelievers, for those are exactly the kinds of people Jesus came to save and be amongst – the kinds of people you and I were, at least in our hearts, before we received the truth about Christ. In chapter 14, Paul seems to take it as given that there can be unbelievers in church meetings. If the church cuts itself off from the world, it will end up having no mission purpose in the world and therefore self-destruct.

The issue is that we should not call someone a brother or sister in the faith or be treating them like one if there is a gross unrepentant disobedience going on in their life. You can associate with them in all manner of other ways, indeed you have to if they are a member of your family, or a work colleague or someone with whom you do a hobby. The point isn’t that you shun them completely, that would be totally unworkable in some cases. You can love them in a thousand different and creative ways, just not as a brother or sister in Christ – until they repent. And until that time, you will have to live with some degree of awkwardness, sadness and tension.

Finally, when Paul says that he has nothing to do with judging those outside the church, he is not saying that the church should not be interested or involved with wider social or national issues, he is saying two things:
  • Firstly, that the church must get its own house in order before it starts getting involved in anything else. In a letter to Timothy, Paul tells Timothy that he should not appoint any man as an elder of a church if he cannot keep his own household in good order. For if he cannot manage his own household, how can he oversee the church family with any credibility. Similarly, if the church with all the power of God at its disposal cannot govern its own family life with any integrity or diligence, she will not in any way be God’s means of saving the world, but rather she will become a total laughing stock.
  • Secondly, that the church’s mission in the world is not to get people to behave like Christians, without receiving Christ. The church’s mission is to introduce people to Jesus and all that he is and says – once a person has received him into their life, then we can have the conversation about what it means to live like God requires, but if you just try and get people to behave Christianly without receiving Christ, all you do is turn them into hypocrites. And the church has enough of them already without making any more.
Purge the evil doer from among you. Drive out the unrepentant Christian, so that they may come to their senses and be restored and the church strengthened for her mission to the world.

The Bible says that God’s love is to lead us to repentance not complacency and pride. Sin has consequences that go beyond you and me into the body of the church. I don’t say that so that anyone can start a witch hunt on others, I say it so that we can all come before God in humility and ask him if there is any offensive way in us that he might lead us in the path that leads not just us to life but others too. Where sin has abounded, grace abounds all the more. In Christ, we are all connected together in deep and eternal ways, many of which we don’t understand, but we can trust God that as we walk in obedience to him, quickly repenting when we fall short to him and others, he will ensure that we have everything we need and will be successful in the calling he has made upon our lives.