Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 28, 2016
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Commentary
If in a sermon for seminary any of my students did to the Old Testament what Paul does in 1 Corinthians 10, I would probably tell the student to start over or fail. Paul seems to be playing a bit fast and loose, a bit midrash and allegory where some key stories from Ancient Israel are concerned. He’s got the Israelites getting baptized not just in the Red Sea but in a cloud. He’s got them rebelling not against Yahweh but Christ himself. He’s got them drinking water from a rock and that rock, too, is said to be Christ Jesus himself. Paul takes us on a backwards tumble into history and is tossing in all kinds of spiritualizing interpretations and allusions as he goes along.
Of course, those of us who confess Paul to be a holy Apostle who has the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on his side are pretty much obligated to say that if this is how Paul chooses to interpret biblical history . . . well, then he gets it right! What’s the old line when it comes to Jesus Christ and the Bible: In the Old Testament concealed, in the New Testament revealed. Something like that. But the point is, the whole thing is about Christ. And since we now believe Yahweh is and all along had been the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then we know that the Person of the Son who became Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, really was present and involved all along. Paul does not need to insert Jesus where he had not been but rather DISCERN the Christ of God who was there to begin with.
Those hermeneutical and theological issues aside, this Lectionary text from 1 Corinthians 10 is, to put it mildly, a curious text. Although Paul is an Apostle of profoundly Good News, of grace unto salvation as the free gift of God, he is fully capable now and then of proffering dire warnings to his Christian friends in places like Galatia, Corinth, Rome, and even Philippi. Here Paul is basically saying, “Look, my squabbling Corinthian sisters and brothers, you who are arguing over everything: the Israelites were as good as a baptized people who were spiritually and literally drenched with the presence of God in Christ. God saved them. He baptized them. He led them in Person. He fed them food and gave them fresh drinking water in a place of pure death. And yet despite the God right in front of them, they kept giving sidelong glances to Baal. Despite a clarion call to holiness so powerful the divine Voice uttering it terrified them, they still took up sexual orgies the moment they got the chance. And despite the loving hand of their loving God all-but handing them bread every morning, they complained like spoiled brats and got what they had coming to them.”
In short, if all that could happen to them . . . it sure can happen to also you who have been baptized into Christ, you who are now walking Temples of the Holy Spirit, you who are also drenched with the permeating presence of Christ. Be well warned!
And, of course, since Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes it clear that they ALREADY were having their fair share of sexual problems, ego problems, complaints, lawsuits, and other forms of spiritual meanness and pettiness, Paul is as good as saying, “Shape up now or it might be the fire next time!”
It’s all very disappointing on one level, of course, and that is perhaps why this sobering and disappointing text is assigned for the sobering Season of Lent. It was bad enough to watch Israel mess up again and again. But at least you could comfort yourself a bit and say “Well, yes, but then again, that was centuries before Jesus was born. It was long before cross and empty tomb and definitely long before Jeremiah’s and Joel’s prophecies had been fulfilled that the very Holy Spirit of God would one day get poured out on God’s children. All that unhappy wilderness stuff Paul refers to from Exodus and Numbers was way before Pentecost, way before stony hearts had become fleshy hearts onto which God inscribed his very Self in a New Covenant in Jesus’ blood.”
All true. Except that the Church has very often proved itself fully capable of wilderness-like shenanigans, and Exhibit A in the New Testament is Corinth itself. We could wish it were not so but at almost any given moment in any given congregation there is enough hurt, enough animosity, enough complaints against the preacher, the praise team, the worship director to tell us we’re never far from being tempted to do it wrong. And if we don’t exactly lay down in sexual revelry in front of literal golden calves, we find other idols that tempt us and other ways to use our bodies in dishonorable ways.
So where is the hope, the Gospel, the Good News in a text like 1 Corinthians 10? True, the Season of Lent calls us to sober penitence and confession but even so, we are still Gospel people and need some hope. Well, surely there is hope even in this pericope that though temptations come, God is still in control and does not let us be overwhelmed. His power is available to us if only we let his Spirit flow into us. We can resist. Or better said, through the Holy Spirit, God enables us to resist.
But perhaps there is some hope to be derived from also the very fact that the New Testament never hides our problems in the church, never tries to prettify the picture of the Church. The Book of Acts never tries to present the earliest days of the Church as some Golden Era that sets the standard for all ages to come. Luke’s narrative is honest: people disagreed, people lied to each other, people parted ways over divisive issues, some of the hardest questions needed to be hashed out, and compromise was sometimes the best way to unity. Sounds familiar. And the subsequent epistles of Paul, John, Peter, and James make clear that the earliest churches had people with egos, hang ups with social status and money, worship services that did not always quite redound to God’s glory as much as some might have hoped.
And yet . . . and yet God was faithful and stuck with these flawed folks. He has never stopped and will never stop calling us to our better selves in Christ, reminding us that we are baptized people who had died to the very nastiness and meanness that too often still worm their way into the Church. Yet grace is real. It is abundant. And the days of people dying from snakebites and being swallowed up by the earth from the wrath of God are also done: all that got laid on Jesus on the cross. All of it. Sin is as serious as ever but we don’t need to look for divine lightning bolts to realize that: a thoughtful glance at Christ’s cross should suffice.
There is no room for excuses in the church. None of this licenses spiritual laziness or some casual approach to morality since God forgives us anyway. No, no. But it is a chance to see ourselves in the Church as we really are, to repent, and then to sing the doxology of God’s grace in Christ once again.
In Lent, the acoustics of that doxology gain in poignancy.
A friend of mine used to be a pastor in Toronto, arguably one of the most diverse cities in the world. The city is chock-full of immigrants from almost every nation, representing a huge panoply of religious faiths and ethnic traditions. (Just walk around Toronto sometime and take note of the ethnic supermarkets and restaurants—you will encounter ingredients, vegetables, and cuisines you’ve never even heard of!)
My friend once preached a sermon on that part of 1 Corinthians in which Paul gives advice—almost certainly in reply to a question the Corinthians had previously sent to Paul on this very idea—on what to do when faced with “food sacrificed to idols.” The sermon expended a good bit of time trying to translate this concept into a modern context, explaining briefly what this had meant way back when 2,000 years ago in Corinth but then spending far more time suggesting current equivalents of this and how we could appropriate and translate Paul’s advice on this now defunct issue to situations we might actually face in the church or in society today.
After the service a young woman from the congregation came up to my friend and said, “Thanks for that sermon but I was just wondering something. See, my boyfriend follows an East Asian faith that is kind of like Hinduism and Buddhism. Friday nights we go to this Temple for a service and a meal but before time they offer the foods to their god who then, I guess, blesses that food before the temple members then eat it at their potluck supper. So I am just wondering for me as a Christian: is it OK if I eat that stuff?”
Sometimes we err when we think old temptations and sins are simply gone now. What goes around comes around. And we in the Church yet today do well to take our lessons from history and see just how and when they may yet quite literally apply to today.
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