Monday, October 6, 2008

Christ's Virgin Church (notes for sermon 5/10/08)

1 Cor 5

This can appear a rather negative passage, but Paul’s passion, despite whomever on the receiving end of it might have felt, is a very positive thing. He is consumed with a hunger to see Christ glorified and the church living as it is intended to – set apart, sanctified, undefiled... kept pure for her betrothed...

We’re still early in this season of spending time with the Corinthian church of AD55, but already we’ve read & heard that Paul has had to address: divisions in the church at Corinth, the essence of true wisdom in a world of human folly, and what it is to be one of Christ’s apostles and how they should be respected. Already, his message so far has been concerning the Corinthian church’s immaturity and inappropriate attitude. Once again, we find this attitude has allowed for yet another issue that Paul must address. Paul has laid out this part of his letter in such a deliberate way that it can be followed through sequentially for greatest clarity:
  1. He states the sickness itself – that of the individual AND the church. Then,
  2. He states the cure – the required response. Then,
  3. He states the reasons behind his instructions. Then,
  4. He states the application
(v 1-2) - The sickness: the specific sin and the church’s response

A man is sleeping with his step-mum! She may not be his biological mother [“His father’s wife”], but this brother has wooed and been having sex with the woman he calls “Mum”!

The report has been obviously significant enough to reach Paul in Asia, hundreds of miles away across the sea. Paul does not pass judgement on the woman herself: we can safely assume she’s not a believer then, otherwise he would have had the same pronouncement upon her. And where’s the guy’s Dad? We don’t know the full story, but what we do need to know is the issue at hand; and that this would not even be tolerated amongst pagans! Corinth was a city that was very open about sexuality, prostitution and so on - it was very "Amsterdam", in fact more so... The crowning feature of Corinth, up on the acropolis, was the temple to Aphrodite. Normally, she was the goddess of love, but various versions were worshipped in the Greek world. Here in Corinth, she was Aphrodite Porne, the patron goddess of lust and prostitution. Hordes of temple prostitutes ("priestesses"!) went up to the temple and men would have sex with them as an act of worship. So well known for its immorality that to have loose morals was known as “behaving like a Corinthian”. So, for the pagans to have not even tolerated this situation (let alone “frown upon it”) is eye-opening too. The Bible speaks of this kind of situation succinctly and bluntly; it does not need to explain itself: Deuteronomy 27.20 says 'Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness': it is defiant, it is deviant and it is evil.

Everyone knew this man well. The church in Corinth was not that large (50-60 max? Rom 16.23 = “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you”, written from Corinth in AD57, 2 years after this letter; the house of Gaius could not have held more than 50-60 at a push in one room).

And now, to add to the insult to God Himself, this church family themselves were arrogant about the whole thing (v.2); this could have been borne from pride – “We are free under grace!” – or out of cowardice, avoiding the confrontation of dealing with the problem. Either is a sin. This arrogance is just as much a stinking sin as what this brother’s been up to. “Free under grace” is an absolute, inexcusable abuse of the notion of “Christian liberty”; are you slave to your lust, or slave to your Lord? Freedom in Christ is not about free reign to do as we please because God now thinks we’re lovely... it is about submission, repentance, and genuine love for the King of kings. Plus, he thinks you’re lovely... See the difference?

(v 3-5) - The cure: the required response

Paul may not have been physically present, but he already knew what needed to be done with this man; he was not afraid to reveal his concern or outright horror at the situation, nor to pronounce his judgement upon the man himself.

“When you are assembled... deliver this man to Satan” (v4-5): this must be dealt with corporately and PUBLICLY (Paul isn’t suggesting a closed meeting). This way, there would be no confusion over the reasons, deliberations, the circumstances and the decision made: all the church must be aware of what was happening, and outsiders should be allowed to see how the church deals with such things – that it will not be tolerated for the sake of the Gospel and God’s glory. This is about integrity: it is not the sin that is being aired in this meeting – that’s already in the open! – but it is the church’s right response that is being made public.

We are not talking about a confidential issue at stake – not all church business should necessarily be aired “in public”! – individuals could be hurt in the process – but here we are talking about something that is open, defiant, blatant, with no attempt to hide it; even the general Corinthian populous, in all their own deviant ways, would not tolerate such a thing...

“Delivered to Satan” (v5): what a sentence! Paul means that this brother must be handed back into the kingdom of this sinful age around him, away from the supportive fellowship of his brothers and sisters (and note that Paul does not say forever...)

Paul uses this term elsewhere in 1 Tim 1.20 (“Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”). The only other occurrence – likely where Paul got the notion from – is Job 2.6, where God places Job into “Satan’s hand” [“And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life”]; the immediate result? That Satan “struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head”! God’s purpose in this? That the ultimate result was Job’s declaration in the final chapter {Job 42.5-6}: “ my eye sees You; therefore I despise myself [or ‘loathe my words’] and repent in dust and ashes.” Satan became the means, under God’s sovereign reign and control, in purifying Job’s heart and rightly restoring his relationship with his God. That is exactly Paul’s intention here again in Corinth.

(v6-8) - The reason: the purity of the bride

Now Paul deals with the church’s core problem: how they have responded until now is indicative of where they are at as a church family.

Paul states that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (v6). He is relating this to the Jewish Passover festival – when the Jews celebrate(d) leaving slavery in Egypt and beginning their journey to the promised land: leavened bread was forbidden during Passover... why? Upon God’s instructions, the enslaved Jews in Egypt sacrificed an unblemished lamb, the meat of which they ate and the blood of which marked their doors, distinguishing them from the Egyptian households and thus saving them from the final plague: God’s deadly judgement upon any house that wasn’t marked so. But they were also told to eat only unleavened bread (normally, a leavening agent, like yeast or sourdough, is used to soften and lighten the batch of dough - micro-organisms reproduce and spread throughout the whole lump, causing gas bubbles that make it rise). So, why unleavened bread at Passover? Because they had to leave in a hurry – “Don’t take time to bake risen bread! Make haste! You’ve got to get out of here when I say go!” The unleavened bread of Passover (“flat-bread”) – ‘fast-food’ - is still a memorial to their escape to freedom.

In the same way, Paul is saying, as His church Christ is now our perfect Passover sacrifice. The Passover itself in Egypt was merely a precursor of something far greater happening nearly 1500 years later... In the ultimate prison break, Jesus took the place of that unblemished lamb when He died upon the cross; God has released us from slavery under sin, delivering us “from the domain of darkness and [transferring] us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1.13), Jesus’ blood marking us out as His people, saving us from that plague of death... and yet here in Corinth the forbidden leaven/yeast of sin in His church is threatening to reproduce through the whole body. One infection can affect an entire body, causing fever and sickness, even more widespread infection and, in extreme cases, death. Small sin can be the thin end of the wedge. The church, if left unchecked, would leaven and become soft, light, weakened...

Thus, Paul is telling the Corinthians that this UNREPENTANT sin is infecting the whole body of the church. What’s his advice? If gangrene sets into a body part, applying a plaster will not solve the problem. What is required for rot? AMPUTATION. Literal “Dis-member-ment”! If this situation had been left alone, how many believers (particularly the younger, less mature Christians – although no Christian is immune to sin of course) could begin to think it’s okay after all to live like this? Or those outside? What would the witness be?

It may seem harsh, but delivering this man to Satan, "dis-membering" him is borne out of love, not vengeance; we can all sin, we all do, but flagrant, blatant sin that goes unchecked and not dealt with needs to be acted upon without hesitation but with a full understanding of why and how; we must be intolerant of sin when it jeopardises the rest of the church. Otherwise, that infection will just keep on creeping...

(v 9-13) - The application: purity in a fallen world

Paul has explained the issue at stake – the church’s purity under severe threat; the required response – removing the infection; and the Christ-centred reasons – the individual’s own repentance and the church maintaining purity for the sake of their King. Now, he addresses how this applies in a wider context...

Keeping ourselves pure for our betrothed is the responsibility of all the church. We are Christ’s bride – the Bible regularly uses the picture of marriage for the relationship between Christ and His church. There is a reason why Paul keeps reminding us throughout 1 Corinthians, right from the very 2nd verse, that we are sanctified (made holy, and are being made holy):

In ancient Greek weddings, the most important part of a bride's costume was her veil, which symbolised her virginity, and was not removed until she was finally handed over to the groom at the end of the day. The most important part of the celebration was the anakalupteria (“unveiling”), late in the evening, after the feast, and possibly as late as the moment the couple arrive at the groom's house, and that is when she is "unveiled". God's people are called to be sanctified, made & kept pure, until that great marriage day when he calls us home to Him.

How do we keep ourselves pure? The key issue here is about what goes on IN THE CHURCH. Paul, interestingly, insists we are not to avoid the sexually immoral, or the greedy, the swindlers, the idolaters (v10) OF THE WORLD; that is our mission field and our calling, to relate/engage/preach Christ in. We are in no position to judge them, that is God’s prerogative; only He knows their hearts. The ones we are supposed to have nothing to do with – not even eat with! – are those same people who do these things AND also call themselves brother or sister. They're the ones that should know better, that should be showing repentance. Their unrepentant sin infects the church. Paul’s examples:

Sexually immoral? Anyone who practices adultery, fornication, homosexuality, transgenderism – ANYTHING that is outside of God’s amazing, beautiful, simple mandate of MAN/WOMAN/MARRIAGE. Anything that despises and snubs God’s perfect blueprint for human sexuality has no place in His church.

The greedy? Those with a selfish lust for money, power, food, possessions. These are their gods, and have no place in the church of Jesus Christ, God of all gods.

The idolater? In the same way, these place material goods, money, health, family, TV, even THEMSELVES, before the God of gods. We should know better. Don't be enticed. The OT gods of Mammon, Baal & Asherah, and Molech are still around today... they just go by the names of Money, Sex and Power...

The revilers? Those who are abusive. They have no place in God’s kingdom of grace, love and humility.

The drunkard? The man who needs alcohol to get through each day rather than God, and destroys others’ lives with his drunkenness, and does not seek God’s help (alcoholism is an illness; Christ can heal – the unrepentance here is the issue, remember) has no place in the church.

The swindler? Untrustworthy, selfish, conniving, unscrupulous, cheating. Doesn’t sound much like a Christian witness, does it? No place in the church!

Our responsibility is to our Christian family and they to us: this is not about every little thing (PJ explained last week how we should not be judging each other in the light of foibles and, more importantly, the lack of a bigger picture about that person; Paul the Apostle even discusses how any smaller squabbles should be dealt with in a loving way in chapter 6), but when it comes to serious sin that is damaging the spiritual health of the church and its subsequent witness, then we have little choice and should in no way shy away from dealing with it. The purity of Christ’s bride, and the message she sends in her lifestyle is paramount.

The application(s):

1. Our response to our own sin:

Study our own hearts for impurity. Regularly. How is my thought life? Is it pure? Am I looking at inappropriate things? Adultery is only a couple of mouse clicks away.

Are there any gods in my life that I didn’t realise I actually idolise? Money? My career? Family? Health and fitness? Martin Luther said: “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.”

Are there any addictions in my life? Seek a brother or a sister’s help; confidentially. Don’t think you’ll cope on your own: there’s a reason we’re meant to be God’s people TOGETHER. He can help you and heal you THROUGH THE SUPPORT, PRAYERS AND COUNSEL OF YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS.

2. Our response to a bro/sis’s sin:

Accept each other’s foibles! But, if something is significant, or affecting the church, then this is a job for the church leaders to pray through and deal with. Pray for your elders as they lead Beacon: for wisdom, foresight, and courage. Hopefully, it might not be needed...! Church discipline is never nice, nor easy, but it IS a necessary part of ensuring our well-being and our purity... Your leaders have been entrusted with that job and we need to trust them and to pray for them... With hope, much prayer and love, the individual would repent and change, but if not... we now know what needs to be done and why.

3. Our response to outsiders and their lifestyles:

Love them; don’t judge them. Only God knows where they are at, and we could never expect them to change without the Holy Spirit’s help anyway. They are living their life that way because of what’s going on at their core. Only the Holy Spirit can change that. What if a transvestite came into church this Sunday? Would we give sideways glances, nudges, whispers; or would we treat them like ANYONE ELSE? Sit next to them, talk to them, get them a cup of tea, invite them back next week, invite them along to cell group?

In conclusion:

Christ died for us on the cross as our unblemished sacrificial lamb; His blood saved us from the plague of death and set us free; now we are betrothed to Him and must live as such... Purity as His bride must be a priority. Let’s flee from anything that stains our witness and spiritual health: sexual immorality, greed, etc, but also gossip, slander, envy... Our corporate purity (our “veil”) should be a priority; let's pursue purity as His people, as His bride, because we are told to, but also because we WANT to...
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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Beacon Touchpaper #3: "Mud, glorious mud"

"For we are God's fellow-workers. You are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it." (1 Cor 3.9-10)

Groundwork is always messy. I remember digging out the footings for my extension some 7 years ago and how messy and mucky we got (and thank the Lord for hired mechanical diggers...). Many skips of earth later, and then suddenly the rains came. Our 2 metre-deep trenches flooded and the walls began collapsing, dishearteningly. So, more mess and mud and screaming back muscles later and finally we had shored up the damaged areas, emptied the trenches of rainwater, and filled them with 7 tons of concrete. Was it worth it? Well, there wasn't much to see, to be honest: a large area of sticky clay, some grey patches of concrete lying dormant in the holes and not much else to appreciate. It wasn't pretty and it wasn't particularly inspiring. But now, sitting in my beautiful kitchen-diner, with mod-cons for cooking and a fancy-pants roof and a great space to entertain in, I can definitely say it was worth it.

Foundations do not typically contribute to the architectural aesthetics of a building, do they? They're hidden below ground, where (hopefully!) they'll never be seen again. But the fruit of building them well will always be noticeable. Without solid foundations, a building can collapse at any moment, and God's Church is exactly the same. The metaphor of comparing the Church to a building is not simply a human whim, it is entirely Biblical. Jesus told Peter He would "build" His church upon the "rock" (Peter's nickname), Paul refers to the concept in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and Peter himself and the writer to the Hebrews both write on the same theme. Overwhelmingly, the Bible tells us to build well: and not just the foundations, but everything on top as well. Each part of the process must be deliberate and Christ-centred.

We are entering into a new season at Beacon, and some of the near future could seem messy. As we restructure our small groups, and re-evaluate why we do certain things, and look to the future promises God has prepared for us and how we can act in that light, let us remember that these current times are foundations for the future. Let's do this well, together, praying with and for each other; despite the mud, the back-ache and the occasional delay, let's remember that as long as everything is Christ-centred, Bible-based and hence wise and deliberate (like the wise man of Matthew 7), the future fruits can be magnificent.
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