Bible study with Dr Di Rayson, Parish of Wingham on Biripi Land; Diocese of Newcastle on the stolen lands of the Awabakal, Biripi, Darkinjung, Geawegal, Kamilaroi, Worimi, Garrigal and Wonnarua peoples. I acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional custodians of this land on which we meet, their elders past and present, and the Indigenous people among us today.
I’m a public theologian and academic: I am a lecturer at the University of Newcastle and the United Theological College.
Like many of you I’m a first timer at General Synod and I’m honoured to be here and I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead our reflection this morning.
I greet you this morning in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
I Corinthians 5 is surprising in many ways.
At first glance it’s a chapter asking us to focus in on that part of an individual that we might find confronting, their sexuality.
It’s a chapter that draws us into the specific problem of a church member that needs confronting so in that, might not seem so foreign to you at all.
But what might surprise you, as it did me, is that of this chapter there are but a few moments drawing attention to one individual’s sexual behaviour.
The rest of this chapter draws our attention to church unity. This is a letter that admonishes the toleration of sin that brings disrepute to a church community, and instead it promotes harmony and purity.
BACKGROUND and Original Application
First Corinthians is actually Paul’s second of several letters to this church, of which only two are extant. As we’ve heard already from Ruth and Michael, in First Corinthians we are overhearing a part of the ongoing dispute between Paul and his beloved church-plant that has gone off the rails in ways both general and specific.
Chapter 5 introduces Paul’s responses to specific problems. It’s for that reason, we don’t know all of the context so we make some best guesses.
Here we have a man we are told is living in incest.
Or at least, a man who is living opening in a relationship with his stepmother, and most likely, in order to retain inheritance, something we’ll come back to.
So it’s not necessarily sexual activity per se, that is the key problem here, it is the cultural prohibition of the behaviour and the social ramifications of breaking that taboo.
Paul is deeply concerned about this for two reasons.
The first, is that an openly incestuous, ongoing relationship of a man and his step mother living as a couple is, or should be, outrageously offensive to everyone. It is against Roman and Jewish law, and beyond cultural acceptability of ‘even the Pagans’ according to Paul.
The second reason for Paul’s concern is that instead of being ashamed of this behaviour, the community, or at least a portion of the community, are proud of it.
They are arrogant, they are boastful. Instead of mourning, showing remorse, grieving, they laugh.
Paul is pointing out to them the utter hypocrisy of enduring such a shameful situation. What would not be accepted in the outside world is not only tolerated within the church, but boasted about.
Paul addresses this within the Paschal theology of Passover. A little yeast leavens all the dough, but you are the new dough. Christ, the Paschal lamb has been sacrificed, you are free from the bondage of sin, you are now a holy and set apart for sincerity and truth.
Allowing a sin such as this to remain inside the church community taints the entire fellowship and thus dishonours the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So what is to be done? Paul is concerned for the integrity of the church and hence, the integrity of the church in the view of the broader community. An impure church, a hypocritical church, will be seen as such by the rest of the community.
And here Paul exhorts the church to look in on itself. Don’t be judging those outside the church community who are without the knowledge of the grace of God. Rather, look inward to yourselves.
Anyone who bears the name of brother or sister, these are the ones we are to be careful of allying ourselves with, if their ongoing behaviour does not honour the sacrificial lamb, who is Christ.
In the specific case of the man who lives with his father’s wife: Paul directs that he is to be excluded from engaging in the Thanksgiving feast, the breaking of bread together. He is to be given over to Satan.
What does this mean? It most likely means that being excluded from the church community means just that: he is out of fellowship with those who love and support and envelop him in prayer. He is denied the sacrament and the physical reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus. Socially, he is excluded and to be considered not a follower of the Way but a follower of his own desires.
So let’s think for a minute how this man got himself into this position.
For a man to live in such an offensive way, and yet still remain, up to this point, in the fellowship of the church community, despite already having be warned off in the previous (lost) letter hints at only one thing.
We must be talking about a man of considerable power and influence. Only a person of privilege could behave in such an offensive way and get away with it. The most likely reason for living with his stepmother was for the sake of protecting his inheritance. This makes him wealthy, and perhaps, a significant contributer to the church. His wealth seems to have bought him his ongoing place in the church community despite his offensive lifestyle.
I’m reminded here of the decades of abusive, criminal behaviour within our church communities that was tolerated because men in power were not challenged and the subsequent disgrace that has been brought up us.
I’m cautious of the exertion of power over others in all its forms, at the expense of the purity of the church—the place that most captures what it means to live into the kingdom of heaven, the place that experiences the grace of God in its richness and fullness—how dare we forfeit this for the sake of wielding power and privilege over others?
This week I am asking myself does my presence here represent my own relative power and wealth? Why do I look across this room and not recognize faces that represent the true church in this place? Why are there so few black and brown faces? Why are there so few from places already facing the consequences of rising sea levels? Or how do we pay attention to the desperate voices of young people begging us to do something about the climate crisis?
Let me ask you to sit with those ideas for a few moments.
Paul directs the church in Corinth to clean out the old yeast so that they may be a new batch. They are, ontologically, unleavened, so he exhorts them to behave in such a way that manifests that truth.
Exclude from fellowship those who bear the name Christian, and yet continue in sexual immorality, or really, a lifestyle that even the broader community finds offensive.
But not only that, those who continue to be greedy.
Those who continue to be idolaters, or revilers, or drunkards, or cheats.
Revilers: people who criticise in an abusive way. To spread lies or gossip about others. To be mean, to be hostile. To speak in such a way that our words cause harm instead of healing.
Exclude from the holy fellowship the revilers.
Take a moment to think how serious this admonition is.
What Paul is saying is don’t dare pretend to be part of the sanctorum communio and flaunt your sin. These are ideas we see throughout Paul’s writings. Don’t dare continue in sin so that grace may abound, a favourite verse of Rasputin’s. Don’t confuse freedom with a carte blanche to continue in evil patterns of behaviour. Don’t ever let your actions be a millstone around the neck of others.
And here, don’t you dare be boastful of your disgraceful behaviour. Rather, mourn. This is the hardest teaching in this chapter.
For when I think of ongoing patterns of behaviour that the world sees as bringing the church into disrepute, I’m afraid there are many. There is hypocrisy, there is violence, there is greed.
We’ve already been alerted to in 2 days of synod that our beloved church has failed to address with power imbalances that support family violence, or climate change, or stolen land, or human rights of people we see as other.
Paul is insisting that the church community look inward to itself and root out these ongoing behaviours that challenge our collective purity and harmony. Root out that which makes us look like hypocrites to people outside the church.
We are to hand over to Satan those who continue to exert their power in order to continue in sin.
But what does that mean? Commentators suggest that being handed over to Satan in this world, that is, being excluded from the communal and nourishing life of the church, might bring the powerful into a fresh and invigorated relationship with our Lord and God. And so Paul’s intention is soteriological: forcing people then and now to confront their own sin, even those patterns of behaviour in which they boast, especially those!, so that they might know afresh the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we commit today’s proceedings.