Sunday, July 28, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Holiness

 Preached on Sunday, July 28, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 49:8-16; I Corinthians 5:1-23

Vacation: June 2013
Walking East of Live Oak, CA
There is a glaring example of sin in the fifth chapter of First Corinthians. It really seems too horrible to talk about it and so I am not going to do it. I am not going to speak of it. Yet the presence of a glaring sin in that church in Corinth, and knowing how to deal with it, is at the heart of what it means for us to be the people of Jesus and his body at work.

The normal Greek word for sin is an archery word that essentially means missing the mark. It can mean overshooting, or undershooting, or going wide of the mark to either side.

The sin in the church at Corinth was so glaring that it would be like an outrageous act at an archery competition. Imagine that the presenter of the gold medal is the little daughter of one of the officials. Imagine that one of the archers comes up and (instead of shooting across the field at the bull’s eye) he turns toward the officials’ podium and shoots the little girl.

The glaring sin in the church in Corinth seems like a sin on that outrageous order. Yet Paul compares this glaring sin to some other sins, like greed, and lying, and cheating, and drunkenness. (1 Corinthians 5:10-11)

Actually Paul calls the lies something like slander; and he calls the cheating something like swindling; but is there really any difference? And how can lying (or slander) and cheating (or swindling) compare with the truly outrageous?

Have you ever told a lie?  I have. How do you know that you never will lie again; ever? Or, have you ever allowed anyone to remain seriously uninformed? I have. Can you guarantee that you will never do that again? And yet think of all the trouble it may cause if you don’t quietly leave that person uninformed.

And what can you say about the condition of truth in a world where everyone finds a socially compelling reason to tell a small lie every now and then? And, then, who has any right to complain about the condition of truth in our world? Who has the right to blame anyone?

I have no stomach to talk about the glaring sin in the church at Corinth. Instead, here I am, talking about such a common thing as a petty lie.

I guess I could change the subject and talk about greed and selfishness. But I wouldn’t be changing the subject. I would still be talking about sin. Sin is sin.

On one hand, it seems to be so pessimistic, so gloomy, so negative to lump such little sins together with such a glaring sin. Yet, if we thought that all sin, by its very nature, was serious, then lumping them together would be necessary.

We do this with other serious things. We do this with cancer. There are big cancers and little cancers. There are cancers with good odds of treatment, and cancers with less good odds of treatment.

When we’ve been around that kind of thing much, I think we learn, as Christians, to deal with reports of cancer, or reports of the possibility of cancer, carefully. We give it a balance of encouragement founded in faith and concern founded in faith. We treat the big and the little with careful seriousness.

I had a small growth on my neck and my doctor said she didn’t like the look of it, so she cut it out (a couple weeks ago) and sent it in for a biopsy. The results turned out negative (which means no cancer). Spiritually, mentally, emotionally, I dealt with my waiting period carefully and seriously. I had about a week of wondering if my life was about to change, and just how much. I wondered what I would be willing to do about it. I wondered if I would take it seriously enough. Sure, I would take the treatments, but would I be willing to change my daily life forever in order to deal with it?

Paul was surprised that the people of Jesus who formed the church at Corinth could be proud. (1 Corinthians 5:2) Paul’s letter is clear. They were proud of their maturity, their wisdom, and their spirituality as a church.

I can never read about this pride without being curious about it. Were they ignoring the glaring sin in their church? Were they like ostriches hiding their heads in the sand? Were they thinking how modern and accepting they were?

They were certainly living as if they were “not under the law, but under grace”, which was the kind of thing that Paul often spoke about. (Romans 6:14) By being proud they could claim that they were only following the advice of Paul, himself. But Paul saw nothing of this in them.

Paul could see that they didn’t understand sin, or God’s law, or God’s grace because they didn’t understand God’s holiness. They didn’t understand what it meant to be holy. “Holy” isn’t a word that Paul used in the verses we have just read; but it is in his letters to the church in Corinth.

In the next chapter (the sixth chapter of this letter) Paul gave us a picture of holiness. He wrote: “He who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:17)

Sometimes holiness sort of means “being different”. It doesn’t mean being strange, but different in a way that may not be very well understood. It means crossing a boundary into a whole different way of life that you could never have imagined before.

“He who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” This represents a huge step in the direction of not being single: holiness means being in a relationship. Holiness is a partnership. It is being a member of a team because of love.

Holiness is like marriage, in which you become a new person because you are joined, in the core of your being, to another person. Holiness is the highest marriage, because it is like being married to God. The Church, in fact, is called “the bride of Christ”. (Ephesians 5:16-18; 2 Corinthians 11:2-3; Revelations 21:2)

In the spirit of marriage, everything else falls into a new place; or else the marriage doesn’t work because you, or your spouse, are not diving into it. Someone has not completely surrendered to it.

I am not married in the conventional sense of the word; but I am married to Christ, and I am (in some way) married to the church. My marriage to Christ makes my life follow a different set of rules.

My being a Christian and my calling as a pastor to the people of Jesus require that I relate to others, and even to myself, in a way might not be very clearly understood by those who do not know Jesus, or what Jesus may ask of those who have positions of responsibility in his church. But this is true of every Christian.

The word “holiness” can make us think of a life regulated by a lot of rules, and commandments, and expectations; but the rules are really only the shape of the marriage without the spark of the marriage. Holiness doesn’t even mean always being in harmony and total agreement with God. Holiness means having in your relationship that you would never part with: having something that just clicks and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Holiness means having the instinct, or the motivation, or the love that is required to be “one with the Lord in spirit”.

The glaring sin in the church at Corinth could have seemed like love. The people who were involved would have pleaded for love as their defense.

We don’t know, for sure, if both the parties were Christian. It seems clear that one of them was Christian. I simply think that the one who was a Christian was held in a higher marriage to Jesus, and that marriage that should have prevented that glaring sin.

I believe that we do not always listen to the spirit of our marriage to Jesus in our other relationships. I believe that I can be very superficial and shallow in my marriage to Jesus, and that is where I, and my marriage, can certainly turn ugly. I make this beautiful thing, the good news of Jesus, ugly, when I don’t live completely in the spirit of my marriage wit him.

But that is not Paul’s greatest problem with the church in Corinth. Strange as it sounds, Paul was not nearly as mad at the glaring sin in the church as he was at the people who were ignoring it or taking pride in it. Strange as it sounds, Paul’s main goal was not for the church to punish the man. His goal was for them to love the man sufficiently. They did not love him nearly enough.

Even when Paul said to “expel” the man, it was not for the purpose of getting rid of the man. It was for the purpose of getting him back. In fact, the story of the glaring sin runs on into Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth. In the second chapter of the second letter the church turns out to have listened to Paul, and expelled the man in question, and now Paul was pleading with them to do something for the man they had expelled. Paul wanted them to take him back: to comfort him, and to forgive him.

The problem is, how do you help someone who is messing up their marriage to Jesus; this beautiful and holy thing? How do you make them better?

In the world of the ancient church there was no other place to find the people of Jesus but in the church. In the world of the ancient church, going it alone was not an option. If you were married to Jesus, and even if that marriage was messed up, you need the protection of the friends of Jesus around you. You would miss the family of Jesus even if they were giving you a time out.

The expulsion was nothing more than that. Even the talk about delivering the man over to Satan doesn’t have to mean anything more than what it is like to not have the protection of holy friendships.

A family can be like a little castle with walls and towers, and so can the church, at its best. The only problem comes when the castle’s safety tempts us to stay inside our walls. We are tempted to forget God’s love for the whole world that he has made. We are tempted to forget his purpose in Christ to reach out to the world he loves so much. The church at Corinth forgot that it was the purpose of Jesus to reach out to the man they had expelled.

At first, the church at Corinth didn’t love its people enough even to notice, or to care, when they were going wrong. Then the church at Corinth didn’t love its own people enough to comfort them and nurture them when they were ready to change. They didn’t love them into holiness. They didn’t love them into growth. Paul got very frustrated with his friends, in Corinth in both of his letters to them.

When going it alone was not an option, expelling people was the best way to love them when they were going wrong. It was, as I said, like a time out. There was no real alternative.

There may be different ways today to effectively love the people of Jesus when they are drifting into trouble, or into absence. Ignoring them, or taking pride in ourselves, or not forgiving or comforting them is no good solution. Holiness has rules, but true holiness also has a spark. It has fire. It has a passion and a love that cannot turn the other way.

Paul doesn’t tell us who to judge and how to punish them. That is not his purpose. He tells us to love them enough to find a way to reach them and bring them back. If we don’t see this then we are very much in danger of being like the church in Corinth that was so frustrating to Paul.

If we are holy, if we are married to Jesus, we need to remember the wedding ring of Jesus (which is not a ring, but a mark on his hands). It is like the mark of God when he talks about being like a mother to us. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)

I hate to say it (because I don’t like tattoos), but it is as if the Lord has a tattoo on his hands, and it bears the name of every soul and every life he loves. It is a pretty big tattoo, but God is infinite in his love. Jesus is God, coming into the world with a compassion that will not forget even one person that he loves. On the cross, with the points of nails, the hands of God were marked with his love and compassion for us.

This is the mark of our marriage covenant to Jesus. And the Lord says, “I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people….to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!” (Isaiah 49:8-9)

No one knows how to take sin seriously until they know how to love seriously. Paul said, “Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief?” (1 Corinthians 5:2) Paul really meant the grief you feel in response to a death.

A long time ago in my ministry, I began to notice the comforters who would come up to a person who had lost a loved one. The best comforters were the people who knew a similar grief, a similar loss, of their own.

They almost didn’t need to say anything. Their presence was healing.

But I saw that, in comforting others, they were reliving their own grief in their own quiet way. Time had given them perspective in their loss and sorrow, but time did not give them forgetfulness. Time had brought more of Jesus to them, but it was the Jesus of the cross and the resurrection, and not a Jesus without wounds. But that is where healing and salvation get their power and become, living things.

It’s the same with the seriousness of sin. Our effective and loving grief for the sins of others can only come from our own experience of our own sins, and the wounding, and the dying, and the rising of Jesus for each of us.

Without that genuine grief and the love that comes from it, we are dangerous. Without that grief and love, we are more dangerous as people of faith than we would be without our faith. But, with the holiness that is built upon love, when we are one with Jesus in spirit, we can find the best and clearest way to say, “Come out! Be free!”

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