Well I'm going to start by getting you thinking. What would you say was Jesus' purpose in coming into the world? What was his purpose? I guess, as Christians, things that might come to mind are 'to die for us', 'to save us', 'to free us from sin', 'to show God's love for us'. And they're all right answers. 1 Timothy 1.15:
"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."
"Jesus said, "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.""
But what has he saved us for? The key thing that the Bible points us to is that he's saved us to be God's holy people! He's saved us to be holy and enjoy a relationship with God - holy meaning we are to be pure and distinctive, so that we can be a light to the world. In Ephesians 5.25-26 it says:
"Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy."
In 2 Corinthians 5.15 Paul says:
"he [Jesus] died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised."
And there are many other passages I could point to. And yet, in this day and age, many people seek an experience of God or claim to follow him, and yet aren't striving to be like him and grow in holiness. In fact, they want a God who doesn't make any demands of us. Martin Wroe, writing in The Observer says:
"This is the era of the do-it-yourself faith, of making your own god."
And not surprisingly, that leads to a God who affirms whatever we do. It's not just a problem for today. It was a problem back in Corinth too. In our passage today, we see that the Corinthians thought that as Christians they were free from any moral constraints. In fact, they were even more tolerant of sin than the world around them. Straight away in verse 1, Paul says:
"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans"
Sadly, that can be the case in the church today as well. But as we'll see as we go through, Paul shows the Corinthians that a healthy church doesn't simply seek great experiences of God, but strives for holiness.
I've got three points and my first point is:
1. A Healthy Church Strives for Holiness
As we've already seen, God has saved us to be a holy people – and so we're to strive for holiness. We're to become more like Jesus by displaying the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We're to grow in holiness, 'sanctification' as it's called. And that's something which requires effort and demonstrates our love for God. But we know that the Spirit helps us in that fight against sin. In Paul's letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, he says that if we walk by the spirit then we won't (v.16)
"gratify the desires of the sinful nature".
He lists them as (v.19-21):
"sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these."
The importance of holiness and godly living is essential for us to take on board today, just as it was back then. The Corinthians were relaxed in their attitude to sin because they had a wrong idea of the Christian life. As we saw last week, they didn't believe that there would be a future eternal life, so they thought that the Christian life was all about having a great spiritual experience in the here and now. Right throughout this letter, we see Paul correcting their thinking. And in this chapter he challenges them to take sin seriously as a church and to strive for holiness.
In verse 1, Paul points them to a particularly shocking example of sexual immorality among them. Apparently "a man has his father's wife". That phrase implies that it's probably a stepmother. We don't know how old this woman was – women married young, so whilst it's surprising, it may be less surprising than you first think. We don't know whether his father was alive or dead. But whatever the answer to these questions, Paul calls it 'immorality' and of a kind that even those outside the church wouldn't tolerate. This wasn't a one off one-night-stand. The verb used 'has' his father's wife' rather than 'had' suggests an ongoing thing. There's no repentance or fleeing from this sin – and that's the key issue here. You see, the most shocking thing here isn't so much the sin itself but the Corinthians response to it. Take a look at verse 2 – Paul says:
"And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you."
Paul can't believe how little they care about what's going on. They're not striving for holiness at all. Rather than repenting and mourning the sin among them, the Corinthians are actually boasting about it. It may be that they see it as a sign of their freedom in Christ to do what they want. It's as if they're thinking, 'because we're forgiven in Jesus we can go on sinning'. But Paul says, shouldn't you rather be mourning?
It reminds us of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount when he says "blessed are those who mourn" and "blessed are the meek and broken-hearted". It's those who recognise the horror of their sin and how little they deserve God's forgiveness who Jesus welcomes into his kingdom. And I guess that's the first challenge to us today. Do we mourn our personal sin and the sin in our church? Are we broken-hearted as we come before God today – recognising that we don't deserve anything from him? Or have we just become numb to our sin – even arrogant about it? A healthy church strives for holiness and mourns its sin.
But mourning our own sin doesn't mean that we shouldn't wisely rebuke others at times. That's what we see next. In fact, it's that very humility which means we're willing to take sin seriously and submit to what God says here about church discipline, which brings us on to my second point:
2. Church Discipline is Good for the Sinner and the Church
This is one of the key passages in the Bible about church discipline. Paul said in verse 2 that they should remove this man from among them. Take a look with me at verses 9-11:
"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one."
I wonder how you react to reading that? Christians can easily slip into two camps can't they? Those who say we should never judge and those who judge too much. Those who are unwilling to judge often ignore the Bible's teaching on church discipline and the importance of holiness, whilst those who judge too much can be self-righteous and judgemental - thinking of themselves as better than others. But there's another way – the biblical way! In the book of Matthew, Jesus condemns those who are judgemental and self-righteous - those who are critical of others without seeing their own faults. To them he says (Matthew 7.5):
"first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye".
And all of us need to keep remembering that. But whilst Jesus says don't judge, he also teaches that we should be discerning and careful. And he teaches specifically on church discipline in Matthew 18. What he says is that church discipline is sometimes necessary, but only as a last resort.
Jesus says that the first thing that should happen is for someone to speak to the person involved in private. It should be done in a spirit of love for the person and wanting the best for them – but without shying away from saying what needs to be said. If the person doesn't listen – they remain unrepentant and are unwilling to change, then Jesus instructs us to go back with one or two other people, who can back up the fact that there is an issue. And if the person is still not willing to listen, the case should be brought before the church, with another chance for them to repent. And if then, and only then, they are still unwilling to listen and to turn from sin, then discipline should follow as a reluctant last resort.
So as we look at our passage today, Paul isn't saying if any sin is found, the person should be thrown out of the church. There wouldn't be any of us left otherwise. No, the situation in Corinth is that this person is continuing in sin after numerous chances to recognise it and turn from it. They're not listening. And at that point there's a need to exercise church discipline – not to be judgemental, but both for the good of the individual and the good of the church.
Now good parents discipline their children wisely, because they love them, don't they? And church discipline, when done wisely, is a loving thing. It's both good for the individual and for the church.
Good for the Individual
Take a look at verse 5:
"you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh…"
I think Paul just means you are to remove him from the church, because Ephesians tells us that Satan is at work in those outside the church. Why remove him? Verse 5:
"…so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord."
It's for the good of the individual. They're to be no longer regarded as members of the church. They're not to be allowed to share the Lord's supper with the church. Paul uses pretty harsh language, but it's discipline, and it's not meant to be pleasant. But it's not wanting them to go to hell, it's with the desperate hope that they will recognise the foolishness of their ways and come back to God. Paul talks about it being "for the destruction of the flesh". Flesh can be translated 'sinful nature', so it's for the destruction of their sinful nature. The hope is that they will wake up and realise the seriousness of going against God, and the wisdom of turning back to him, so that they will be "saved in the day of the Lord". They'll be ready for Jesus' return. Speaking the truth in love is uncomfortable, but it's absolutely necessary.
So church discipline is for the good of the individual and it's also for the good of the church.
Good for the Church
We see throughout Paul's letter, and particularly in the later chapters, that the Corinthians had a very individual view of faith. It was all about 'me' and what I can get out of it – my freedom, my rights. And yet right throughout the New Testament we constantly see that we're saved to be God's people together. It nearly always talks about the Christian life as a 'corporate' thing – lived out together as a church family. And Paul reminds the Corinthians of this. Look with me at verse 6:
"Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened."
Paul's saying, because you're a church family together, how you behave will impact others.
Sophie and I actually got a bread making course for Christmas and so we've been trying our hand at a bit of baking, with mixed results! But it is amazing the way that you just put flour, water and yeast together, mix it up, leave it for a while in a warm place, and the bit of dough doubles in size.
And Paul's saying, just like yeast spreads and grows in bread, sin will spread and grow in a church if no action is taken. If a leader in our Sunday school consistently gets drunk every weekend, and no action is taken, there'll be others who assume that must be ok. If someone is known to be dishonest in their business so they can make a quick buck, others will follow. And if someone lives a sexually immoral lifestyle and nothing is done, then a culture will develop in the church where people will assume that this is a place where you can belong and anything goes - what's said from the front doesn't really matter and holiness isn't important. And sin spreads until the church is no different to the world around. It's not distinctive. And it won't be a light to the world.
Now at this point let's stop the train - the train that's hammering home that message of the importance of church discipline and holiness. Let's stop the train and acknowledge that we all have issues. None of us are without sin or without fault. Some of us might be particularly feeling the weight of this teaching. And it is important that this passage wakes us up from our indifference to sin. But we also see in this passage God's grace – and the reason why we should want to please him. It's the whole reason why Paul's used this yeast analogy. It's because it links in with the Passover festival where the Jews ate unleavened bread.
3. Jesus is our Passover lamb
Look down with me at verses 7-8:
"Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
At Passover time, they remembered God's rescue of the Israelites from slavery under the Egyptians by sacrificing a lamb. You might know the story of Moses leading them out of Egypt. Despite the Israelites' sin and their lack of trust in God, he rescued them. As part of the rescue, the Israelites put forward a lamb that was killed instead of their first born son. The blood of the lamb protected them from God's judgement. It died in the place of the son. And it was a picture of what was to come – the perfect rescue, when Jesus would die in the place of others on the cross.
Back in the American civil war, there were bands of outlaws robbing and pillaging unsuspecting communities. And the story is told of a band of outlaws in Kansas who were captured by the local military. The standard procedure at the time was to execute them without delay. And so a trench was dug. The firing squad was lined up. But suddenly a young man rushed out of the undergrowth, shouting "wait! wait!". He pointed to a man who was waiting to be shot, and said, "Let that man go free. He has a wife and babies, and he's needed at home. Let me take his place. I am guilty." It was a crazy appeal, but after a consultation, they allowed it. The condemned man was set free and the volunteer took his place. And was shot dead. Later on the rescued man went back and buried the volunteer. And on his grave he inscribed the words:
"Sacred to the memory of
He took my place in the line
He died for me"
Jesus took our place in the line. He died for you and me. We don't know whether Willie Lee deserved to be in that line up, but what we do know is that Jesus certainly didn't. He was completely perfect. He'd done nothing wrong. In fact, he's the Son of God and yet he didn't grasp onto it. He lowered himself in order to take our place in the line, at the cost of his own life, at the cross.
And that's why Paul says in verse 8, "let us celebrate the festival"! Let's remember what Jesus has done for us! But not with the old leaven (or yeast) of malice and evil – not by continuing in sin! – but instead with sincerity and truth, striving for holiness. Jesus had to die because of our sin, so if we're truly thankful how could we want to continue in sin?
But notice Paul doesn't say, celebrate with perfection and truth. We don't have to be perfect to celebrate what Jesus has done, or none of us could celebrate. But we do need to recognise our sin, mourn it and be willing to accept help in overcoming it. If our attitude is just that we don't care about our sin, then we need to question whether we've really understood and accepted the good news of Jesus.
But if we have put our trust in Jesus, and we're striving to be holy, then we don't need to fear God's judgement… but we should expect God to discipline us. He does it for our good, so that we keep growing in holiness.
And so we have to ask ourselves – are we a church that is rejoicing in Jesus and therefore striving for holiness? Not just individually, but together. Is this a place where we're willing to say the thing that is not always easy or comfortable, but is truthful and loving, recognising that all of us are on a level playing field? We're only in God's family because of Jesus' rescue. Can we do that in our midweek groups? Are we willing to talk to each other about the sermon on a Sunday? Have we made sure that there are Christians in our lives who we trust to be honest with us, and are we willing to humbly listen? And whilst it's the more 'obvious' sins that will probably be the most likely candidates for church discipline, we should be just as thorough in examining ourselves for things like jealousy, pride and fits of anger as we pursue holiness.
But as we finish, let's remember that holiness isn't just following rules and laws. It's following God himself! God is wonderfully holy! It's part of his amazing character. When we say that God is holy, we mean that his character is blameless and spotless and perfect. He can't be charged with any wrong. He is infinitely loving and completely just. He was willing to send his son to die on the cross. And so a healthy church strives for holiness because of who God is. Because of his amazing character! And because of what he's done for us.