Would you believe it? - 1 Corinthians 5:1 - 6:20
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It was a scandal which practically destroyed a government. What back in 1963 was to become known as the ‘Profumo affair’ was later made into a film with the simple title which summed it all up: ‘Scandal’. What happened was this: the then Minister for War, John Profumo who was married, was sleeping with the high class prostitute Christine Keeler. In the House of Commons he vigorously denied any impropriety. Then it was revealed through the security services that Christine Keeler was also at the same time sleeping with a Naval Attaché from the Russian Embassy and so now it became an issue of national security. In the event John Profumo resigned from Government and resigned as an MP. It was a national scandal. And we might well think how things have changed; what was considered shocking then is taken in its stride today, so that it is possible for an American President to be having sex with an intern young enough to be his daughter and still remain President. So as a society we are not shocked anymore
But what of God’s new society, the church? Is it possible for Christians not to be shocked anylonger? Sadly, the answer is yes. 25 years ago I was at a meeting in which a bishop said that he had been in the United States and had come across two Anglican Nuns who were in a practising lesbian relationship and in this, he said, they were discovering God. That was shocking. But now, the consecration of both a practising homosexual bishop and a lesbian bishop happens and people try to stifle a bored yawn.
Now, let me tell you the same things were happening in Corinth, a city well known for its promiscuity, indeed, the slang word meaning to ‘fornicate’ was ‘Corinthianise’- it was that bad. But what is the reaction to be when things are worse inside the church than outside it? If the apostle Paul were Victor Meldrew I am sure that when the reports came back to him about the shenanigans that were going on, he would have exclaimed, ‘I don’t believe it!’ that is pretty well what he is saying in these two chapters. There are four ‘shocks’ that we are going to think about tonight, three which are negative and degrading and one which is positive and redeeming.
First, there is shocking toleration, 5:1-13. V1, ‘It 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. And you are proud!’ Paul is doubly shocked. In the first instance he is shocked that there is a Christian who is having sex with his step-mother. And even the pagans draw a line around that one. In the second instance Paul is shocked that the Corinthian church isn’t shocked. Indeed, according to verse 2 they are rather proud of the fact that this is going on. Now isn’t this an extraordinary situation to find in a church?
Secondly there is shocking litigation- 6:1-11. ‘If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?’ This can hardly be described as a happy church can it? Christians are actually dragging other Christians to the courts on matters which should have been settled amicably within the fellowship. And Paul draws attention to this in order to shame the Corinthian Christians into repenting-v5. So why is Paul so upset? Well, because dirty linen is being paraded in public, in full view of the non-Christian world which will cause them to look down on the church and maybe switch off from the Gospel which is the emphatic point at the end of verse 6. After all, who can take seriously a message about peace and reconciliation if those who proclaim it are at war and are incapable of being reconciled? What is more these Christians who pride themselves on being so wise don’t have the nous to sort out things which even pagans can settle and that is rather pathetic. Now don’t misunderstand what Paul is saying. He is not saying that there are times when Christians shouldn’t use human courts. Nor is he saying that the church should cover up scandal, as in the tragic and appalling sex abuse scandals which have hit to the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, he is questioning the attitude which makes it the first recourse to go before pagans to adjudicate between believers rather than them being able to do it themselves
Thirdly, there is shocking fornication, 6:12-20- Look at vv13b, ‘The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!’ But that is what is happening. You see this is not simply ‘paying for sex’ which would be bad enough, this is using temple prostitutes. Here different gods were associated with different trades. So if you wanted to be successful in, say, the textile industry’, then you paid your dues to the ‘textile god’ and part of that was having sex with a temple prostitute-male or female. And so you can well imagine the temptation for a Christian businessman simply to ‘go with the flow’ and just get on with ‘business as usual’. It was just part of the cultural air they breathed.
Now friends, it would be all too easy for us standing outside this culture at a safe historical distance to say, ‘How on earth could they have been so blind?’ But we might well ask what are we blind to as Christians in our culture such that we allow the world to come into the church? Just take a look at some of the other things which Paul lists in chapter 6 v9, ‘Do 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 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’ The term translated, ‘sexually immoral’ is porneia, from which we get the word ‘pornography’ and it covers all forms of sex outside of marriage, and given what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, this includes the mental act as well as the physical act- the fantasy as well as the fact. So why do we have Christians today who aren’t married sleeping together? ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘but we intend to get married’- I don’t see Paul giving that as an exception do you? Why do we have an estimated 20% women and 50% men in Christian congregations accessing internet porn? Why is there that incessant desire some of us have for more and more and getting ourselves deeper into debt which is surely covered by the term ‘greedy’? And heavy drinking amongst Christians certainly happens. And Paul is quite clear that those who persistently do these things, who are caught up in a lifestyle of such things (we are not talking about the occasional lapse which all Christians have but set patterns of such behaviour) - will not inherit the Kingdom of God no matter how sound and orthodox their profession may be. You can’t get it any clearer than that can you? Friends, what is at stake is eternal life.
Now before we turn to the shocking solution, let us pause and think about two other questions which may have occurred to you, namely, why is that Paul is so concerned about what is happening and why are the Corinthians, and maybe some of us, so unconcerned?
It is obvious that Paul has two big concerns- the honour of God’s name and the good of God’s people. We have already seen that in the cases of incest and litigation, Paul anticipates that those he calls ‘outsiders’ in 5:13- will fail to take the Christian faith seriously, how can they when the world has higher standards than the church? This was Israel’s re-occurring problem according to Romans 2:24, they didn’t practice what they preached and so God’s name was held in contempt by the non-Jewish world, and now history is in danger of repeating itself but with the church. But Paul also has the big heart of a pastor and can see what deadly effects sin unchecked can have on the rest of God’s people. In chapter 5 he likens it to a small amount of yeast permeating the whole batch of dough until it is all contaminated and corrupted and then the church is good for nothing. But ultimately if professing Christians keep on with an immoral lifestyle, sex outside marriage, greed, stealing, slander and so on- then they will end up not in heaven but in hell. And Paul, and any self respecting minister, will not want that, that is why he has to be so blunt. In short he loves these people so much so that he is willing to be unpopular. The question is: are we?
But have you thought why the Corinthians are actually bragging about such things? Are they just plain dim? Well, they may not be the sharpest tacks in the box for look at how they misunderstood Paul in 5:9 thinking you should have nothing to do with non-Christians which is ridiculous. One possibility for them embracing immorality and thinking it to be godly may be hinted at in chapter 6 v12; just take a look at it: "Everything is permissible for me"-but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me"-but I will not be mastered by anything. 13"Food for the stomach and the stomach for food"--but God will destroy them both.’ What is that all about? Well, these appear to be two ‘catch phrases’ which the Corinthian Christians were fond of quoting which reflected their twisted theological thinking resulting in dodgy moral behaviour. Christians do have a tendency to latch on to such sayings as if they settle everything. When I was a young Christian one such saying which was current was, ‘Let go, let God.’ That is, don’t try and resist sin and battle against temptation that shows lack of faith, just surrender to God and let him do the fighting for you by his Spirit. And as with many such saying there is just enough grain of truth to make them plausible.
So it is here- ‘All things are lawful’ and ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.’ Now it could be that these catchphrases are sayings of Jesus which the Corinthians have latched onto and misapplied. You see, in chapter 2 of Mark’s Gospel there is a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees over whether it is right to pick corn from the fields on the Sabbath that is, was it ‘lawful? And later he has another argument with them whether it is right to eat food without first having had your hands ceremonially washed. Jesus taught it was not necessary because it was not what went into the stomach that polluted a person, but what came out of the heart- and he lists a number of sinful behaviours which match what Paul lists here and then it is noted that by saying this Jesus declared ‘all foods clean’- eat what you want. And so maybe other visiting teachers who came to Corinth taught this and appealed to Jesus authority that ‘all things are lawful’- after all Jesus said so! ‘Food is for the stomach and stomach for food’ so you can do with your body what you want-it is the soul that matters. And Paul quotes these sayings back at the Corinthians but qualifies them by adding a few words of wisdom himself. ‘Yes’ in one sense ‘all things are lawful’ in that as Christians we are no longer under the laws of the Old Testament including food laws, we are forgiven and liberated people, but that doesn’t mean that, ‘all things are helpful’. Some things, like sex outside marriage are actually destructive and unlawful. And while food is for the stomach, because God made both he is capable of destroying both in judgement if we are not behaving right. And so you can understand why they were so proud; they thought they had an insight into Jesus’ teaching others hadn’t- they were so spiritual! Do you see?
Now let me say that if you a Christian and you find yourself in a compromising situation, perhaps you have met the girl or boy of your dreams and you are tempted to go to bed with them or your mates want to take you out for a night on the town and you know that is going to involve some heavy drinking- then your big temptation will be to find some way of justifying what you want to do from the Bible. In the first instance you won’t ditch the Bible, you will abuse the Bible. This is why we have to work hard at learning how to read the Bible properly as well as having a realistic estimation of the sinfulness of our hearts- that we are capable of doing the most appalling things as Christians. You ask: is it possible for Christians to have sex with prostitutes, get drunk, cheat- you bet it is possible, but it is wrong.
So how are such shocking things to be approached? The answer: by thinking through a shocking crucifixion. We saw a few weeks ago how Paul called the Corinthians back to the cross before giving them a command. Well, the cross is not that far in the background here. So in the matter of dealing with the Christian who was sleeping with his step mother, Paul says in chapter 5: 7, ‘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.’ Behind this imagery is the Exodus and the flight out of captivity in Egypt- the Passover- which involved a lamb being sacrificed and its blood smeared over the doorposts of the Jews so that they did not suffer God’s judgement. But Jesus is the real Passover lamb and Christians are the real Passover people and that means having, if you like, a Passover lifestyle. Jesus died to set us free from sin, not for us to wallow in it. He died so we could escape the old lifestyle and not be enslaved to it. So we are to be consistent. And to help a fellow Christian who is enmeshed in this kind of sin, the church sometimes has to discipline him, in this case excluding the offending Christian from the fellowship until he sees sense. So the aim, as we see in v5, is that ultimately he will be restored-saved. It is a restorative discipline Paul has in mind. And the church today cannot soft peddle on this. Sure any such discipline must be done lovingly, sensitively, prayerfully and fairly-but it must be done.
Similarly with the lawsuits the Christians have been taking out on one another. Look at what Paul says in 6:7, ‘The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?’ Let me ask: who was the most wronged person the world has ever known? It was the sinless man Jesus on the cross, and yet how did he respond? Peter tells us in his first letter: 2:23 ‘When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate ….. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.’ Jesus on the cross sets the supreme example on how we deal with disputes with each other. We don’t go off rushing to court demanding our rights, we bear with each other. Is that what you are doing with someone who has upset you?
And what about immorality- adultery, homosexuality, greed, theft and booze? Is there no hope for people caught up in them? Of course there is and again we are taken back to the cross. Look at 6:11 some of the most hope inspiring words in the whole Bible. Note the three fold ‘but’ in the original acting like bullet points, ‘And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’ Let me say as clearly as I can that if you have been or are caught up in sexual sin-heterosexual or homosexual, if you are a shopaholic or are drawn to drink- God loves you. God has not abandoned you, he sent his Son to the cross to set you free, to wash away all that guilt which stains your soul and makes you feel so utterly ashamed, he came to set you apart so that you could be part of his new community equipped with his Spirit –that is what Paul means by these three ‘buts’. So he does not want you to despair or give up- he simply wants the best for you and for you to come to him.
Now some people say ‘sin is sin’ there are no distinctions. In one sense yes- all sin cuts us off from God, but in another sense ‘no’ because according to verse 18ff, sexual sin is in a different category in that it damages ourselves and others in ways that other sins do not. It damages your relationship with God because you grieve his presence in your body which is his holy temple. But it damages you in another way too. Professor J. Budziszewski uses a helpful illustration at this point. He says that our sexual capacity is like duct tape. The first time you use it, it sticks to whomever it touches. But just like duct tape, if you rip it off and then touch someone else with it, it isn’t as sticky as it was before. So what happens when you pull it loose from one partner after another? Well then it doesn’t stick any longer, your sexual partners feel like strangers until eventual you don’t feel anything. So serious is this that Paul simply says in v 18 ‘Flee immorality’ like the Jews fled Egypt. What might that look like in practice? The American Evangelist, Billy Graham was once asked in a talk show by David Frost whether he had ever been tempted by the lusts of the flesh- sex. And being a rather private man he said, ‘Let me tell you about an evangelist colleague of mine. He was in Paris and one night he found himself so tempted with what was on offer there- the Pigalle district and so on. It was excruciating for him. Later that night he phoned me and said, ‘Billy, I am almost too ashamed to tell you, but the temptations I have felt tonight have been almost unbearable so let me tell you what I did. I came back to my hotel room; I locked the door from the inside and threw the key out of the window so I couldn’t get out. I felt it was the only way to deal with it.’ Billy Graham then went on to say, ‘When you are tempted, God has promised a way of escape, whether as with Joseph who leaves his cloak and flees or that evangelist who locks his room. The Holy Spirit provides a way to escape and God changes us not only what we do but what we want to do and gives us new strength we could never have mustered up on our own.’
How does Paul put it in verse 19? ‘You are not your own; you were bought at a price.’ Let us pray.
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