Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Passover People

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is urging the Corinthians to take action regarding a sexually immoral brother within their midst.  Paul tells us that this person is engaging in a relationship that is not even condoned among the Greco-Roman culture of the day: a man is with his step-mother.  It seems from what Paul writes that the Corinthians are not only condoning this behavior but actually boasting about it.  While we may find this to be an odd thing for a group of Christians to boast about, it fits with the picture of the Corinthians we have gathered from the first several chapters of this letter.  This is a congregation that thinks of themselves as so spiritual that they have been liberated from any sexual norms.  They consider themselves to be "beyond" something as merely physical as sexuality.  They likely regard this perverse relationship as proof of just how advanced they are in the ways of the spirit.

Paul says to the contrary "Your boasting is not good.  Don't you know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?"  This saying was probably a popular proverb in Jewish culture similar to our saying "A bad apple ruins  the whole bunch."  Instead of seeing this behavior as something that the Corinthians can be proud of or even something that can simply be ignored, Paul says that it is a spiritual corruption which will spread throughout the entire community if it is left unchecked.  It is worth noting here that Paul's address is to the church at large rather than to the immoral individual.  This reinforces the notion that this immoral relationship is not merely an individual matter.  It involves the health of the entire community.

However, Paul is not only making a point about the communal nature of their salvation.  He is also making a point about the age or season, the epoch of history in which that salvation is taking place.  Paul goes on to say "Clean out the old leaven in order that you might be a new lump of dough, just as you are unleavened. For Christ, our passover lamb, has been sacrificed."  What does leaven have to do with Christ's death?  The imagery here is that of the passover feast.  Every year faithful Jew celebrated the passover meal as a reminder of God's deliverance of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt.  One of the main parts of that meal was the eating of unleavened bread.  It was unleavened as a symbol of Israel's hurried exit from Egypt... they had to be ready to go at a moment's notice, unable to wait around for bread to rise.  Since unleavened bread was a part of the passover meal every year, it was an important custom to entirely cleanse one's house of all leaven before beginning to prepare the passover meal.... a kind of original spring cleaning.  If you didn't, then there might be leaven on the surface where bread was prepared and the bread that was to remain unleavened might be contaminated with leaven.

By saying that Christ, our passover lamb, has already been sacrificed Paul is, in effect, telling the Corinthians that a new season in their lives has already begun but they have failed to carry out the appropriate cleansing in their lives for which that change in season calls.  Christ's death and resurrection has inaugurated a new age in history, a new exodus, in which those who trust in Christ are set free from their slavery to sin.  The Corinthians, however, are still living with the leaven of the old age in their lives by way of their boasting and sexual immorality.  They must cleanse themselves of these old way of doing things in order to truly join in the celebration of their deliverance from the old way of life.

All of this leads Paul to make a clarification about something he said in an earlier letter to the Corinthians (now lost to us) which relates to the matter at hand.  In that letter, Paul had told the Corinthians not to associate with sexually immoral people.  It seems some in Corinth took this to mean that they couldn't have any contact whatsoever with anyone who didn't believe and behave as they did.  Paul says that such a notion would be truly absurd; it would mean that you have to remove yourself from this world entirely. Paul now clarifies that the Corinthians should not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother and is sexually immoral - precisely the situation he is addressing in this chapter.

This chapter concludes with a statement which is an exceedingly apt principle for the Church to ponder today.  Paul says "For what have I to do with judging outsiders?  Is it not those inside the Church you are to judge?  God judges those outside."  In short, Paul's principle is this: hold those within the community of faith accountable for their actions but leave all other judgment up to God.  Unfortunately, too much of the Church often does the exact opposite of this.  We judge the culture around us for not living up to our values while we ignore and excuse those within our own fellowship who openly reject the life Christ calls us to while still calling themselves "Christian".  If we are to be a people of this new season, this new exodus where we have been set free from the way of the old age by Christ's death and resurrection then we must not turn a blind eye to the sin and spiritual laxity within our midst.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Only God Can Judge Me... Sort Of

Only God can judge me.  That is essentially Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5.  The Corinthians have been judging Paul.  More specifically, they have judged Paul as inadequate to be their leader and teacher in the faith.  They believe that they have outgrown his weak preaching and humble presence.  In these verses, Paul scolds them for this attitude.  He tells the Corinthians that their judgments mean very little to him because he is not their servant.  He is God's servant and as a result it is only God who can judge him as to whether or not he is a trustworthy servant.  Paul says that even his own judgments of himself don't mean much because even if he considers himself to be guiltless, what is that before the judgment of almighty God?

But wait a second.  Isn't Paul judging the Corinthians?  Isn't that what he has been doing throughout this whole letter; judging their behavior?  And doesn't he actually encourage them to judge one another?  In the very next chapter of the letter when Paul urges the Corinthians to remove the sexually immoral from their midst, isn't he urging them to make a judgment about that person's behavior?  Is Paul just encouraging a double standard here where he judges the Corinthians and encourages them to judge one another but they are not allowed to say one bad word about him since he is their father and leader in the faith?

I think it is often tempting for us as Christians to take precisely that attitude where we want to tell other people what they are doing wrong but as soon as anyone speaks to us about something our attitude becomes "You can't judge me.  Only God can judge me."  Or "That's between me and Jesus."  Obviously, there is some truth to that idea.  If there wasn't, Paul wouldn't have spoken of it here.  There is a very real sense in which we will one day be judged only by God and no one else.  Perhaps some of us could even use a little more of that kind of attitude; that is, we could care a little more about what God thinks of us and a little less what others think about us.  After all, who among us hasn't failed to proclaim the gospel in one way or another at some point in our lives because we were afraid of what someone else might think?

But we can only fully understand what Paul is saying here by reading it along side his larger body of writing and the rest of scripture as a whole.  Paul does constantly exhort, not only the Corinthians, but all the churches to which he writes concerning their behavior.  In fact, that is usually the very purpose of his writing; to correct something he sees as an error in their life together as a community.  Of course, Paul is not alone in this.  The other letters in the New Testament carry much the same task.  Jesus himself condemns the entire religious establishment of his day and in doing so stood in a long line of Israel's prophets who called upon the people of God to correct their ways and turn back to God.  So we can be sure that when Paul says "only God can judge me" he is not saying that brothers and sisters in Christ can not correct each other in the faith.

Instead, what we must recognize is that there is a difference between accountability and correction on the one hand and the kind of judgment that Paul is talking about on the other hand.  Accountability and correction are absolutely essential aspects of the Christian life and what it means to be the Church.  We must be willing to speak the truth in love to one another, pointing out our sins and weaknesses to one another within the Church as the Spirit leads us.  And if we use an attitude of "only God can judge me" as a shield against our brothers and sisters holding us accountable in the faith, then we have deeply misunderstood what Paul is saying and the nature of our faith as a whole.  Such an attitude will certainly lead us away from Christ.

The Corinthians, however, were not calling Paul to account for a specific behavior that they regarded as sinful.    Instead, they had simply judged Paul himself as inadequate and irrelevant.  They had judged him as too weak and lowly to be their teacher and leader.  They were ready to toss him aside so that they could move on to bigger and better things.  This is evident not only from what we have seen earlier in the letter but even in what Paul says in these verses.  In v.5 Paul says "Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes...".  It seems that the Corinthians were not merely calling Paul a lousy preacher.  Instead, they were trying to pronounce God's judgment on Paul in God's place as if Jesus had already returned, God's kingdom had already come, and Paul had been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

It is that attitude that causes Paul to say that only God can judge him.  Paul is, in effect, saying "I don't care what you think of me as a preacher and spiritual leader.  My task isn't to impress you.  Instead, God has entrusted me with proclaiming the mystery of the Gospel and I am going to do that even if it doesn't win me any popularity contests.  And in the end, only God can judge whether or not I have been faithful to the task that God himself gave me as his servant and steward."

As the Church, we are called to what can be a difficult and sometimes awkward task.  We are undoubtedly called to hold each other accountable.  We must point out to our brothers and sisters what we see as sin in their lives.  God wants us to help each other grow in righteousness and holiness by correcting one another.  But nowhere in Scripture are we ever called to make a judgment about someone's eternal standing before God.  That is an attempt to be God ourselves, to take God's place and make judgments that only God is entitled to make.  On the flip side, we also must be willing to be held accountable ourselves for our own sin.  We must have the humility and love that allows others to correct us where we have gone wrong.  We can not use these verses as a shield for our own un-Christ-like behavior.  To say that only God can judge us is not an excuse to turn a deaf ear to the prophetic voices around us.  But neither should we be held captive by mere popular opinion.  We must imitate Paul in his robust confidence, proclaiming the Gospel even if we are regarded by others as weak and lowly in the process.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Temple of God

There are at least two things that are exceedingly important for understanding Paul's profound statement concerning the Church in 1 Corinthians 3:16.  The first of these is grammatical in nature.  In English when we address someone in the second person we use the word "you" whether we are addressing one person or a group.  The word "you" is both the singular and plural form of the second person address.  Likewise, the form of the verb "to be" does not change from the singular to the plural form.  In both instances, we would say "you are".  This is not the case in Greek in which there is one pronoun and verb form for addressing a single individual and another for addressing a collective group.  The closest parallel we have in English is the southern variation of "ya'll" used to distinguish an address to a group from an individual.  In 1 Corinthians 3:16, Paul uses that plural form of the second person Greek pronoun and verb.  In other words, Paul is not saying in these verses that each of the individual Corinthians are themselves God's Temple (although he will say something like that in 1 Cor. 6:19).  Here Paul is saying, in effect, "Or don't ya'll know that ya'll are the Temple of God in Corinth and that God's Spirit dwells among ya'll?"  That is to say, that Paul's statement here is, in fact, a statement about the Church and not about individual believers.  The Church is the place where God's Spirit dwells.

The second thing we must recognize in order to appreciate Paul's statement here is the vast significance of the Temple to 1st century Judaism.   The Temple in Jerusalem represented the presence of God with the people of Israel.  This was God's house.  The very place where God's Spirit dwelt.  It was the salvation of the Jewish people that God had chosen to make his dwelling among them.  It is difficult to overstate just how meaningful the Temple was to Paul and his contemporaries, how much it signified God's presence with his people.  This was so much the case in Jeremiah's day that it seems some believed that no harm could possibly befall Jerusalem as long as the Temple still stood because, it was thought, God would not allow his holy dwelling to come to ruin.  The Temple = God's presence.

So when Paul tells the Corinthians "you are God's Temple", he is making a bold statement about the Church.  Paul is telling the Corinthians that the Spirit of God is no longer limited to dwelling in the Temple.  God has actually made his home, his dwelling among the Corinthians themselves. This is the significance of Pentecost; that God's own Holy Spirit has been poured out on all those who place their trust in Jesus Christ.  While that Spirit certainly works in each of us individually, here Paul is emphasizing that it is in the Corinthians relationship with one another that God's Spirit dwells and is at work.  It is in their coming together as a unified community of faith that they are God's Temple.  When we call ourselves the Church we are saying nothing short of claiming that God's Spirit resides among us as a people.

Of course, this serves well the point that Paul has been making all along.  He has been telling the Corinthians for three chapters now that they must be unified rather than fragmenting themselves into different groups centered around different leaders.  Here, Paul reminds them they are all together the Temple of God.  Therefore, if they destroy their relationships with one another then they are destroying God's Temple.  Paul is telling them that their lack of unity is actually destroying the very place where God's Spirit wishes to make his dwelling.  The Corinthians are destroying the house of God by destroying their relationships with one another. This means that disunity in the Church is more than people just not getting along.  It is a driving out of the Spirit of God; the very thing that makes us who we are as God's people.  It is a failure to be the Church at all.

Paul finishes this section by reminding the Corinthians (again!) that human wisdom is not God's wisdom.  Therefore, they should not boast in men (or human leadership).  And he goes on to say "For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present of the future- all are yours, and you are Christ's and Christ is God's".  I think what Paul is essentially saying to the Corinthians here is that they have taken to small and narrow a view of things.  Here the Corinthians are striving after mere men, mere human leaders and their positions of honor and authority and Paul is saying  "Why would you strive after those things.  As followers of Christ, as the Temple of God, everything already belongs to you.  You have already been given everything you could ever ask for.  God's very own Spirit has made you his home.  The Spirit of the almighty God and creator of the universe is at work in your relationships with one another and you want to strive after merely human positions of honor?  God has given himself to you and you want to trade that for human leaders who are nothing but servants of that very same God!"

But, of course, this is what we continue to do.  God has given himself to us, made his own Spirit to reside among us, and all we can seem to think about is "if we just had a little more money... if we just had a little higher attendance...if we just had a few more young able bodies to do the work...if we just had....".  We have the Spirit of God among us!  What else do we need to do the work God has entrusted to us when God has entrusted his very self to us?  Paul encourages us to take a larger view of things; encourages us not to dream so small that we go after these merely human things but instead to remember that we are the Temple of God and that in itself is a truly miraculous things.  God's Spirit has made his dwelling among us.