It’s freedom, but not as we know it. (1 Corinthians 5-6)
January 28, 2011
Dear reader, I’ve really enjoyed my experiments over the last week or so. Letting myself be freer and more creative in my responses to reading the Bible has really breathed new life into this project. Thanks God!
Yes, I’ve definitely felt more enthusiastic of late… and then there was 1 Corinthians 5-6. These are not two chapters that give me that ‘spurred-on by the word of God feeling’; more turned off by the word of Paul. I don’t react well when the chapter heading is “sexual immorality defiles the church” and as read I just kept thinking “stop being mean!” It makes me angry when I read lines like “drive out the wicked person from among you” (5:8). Is that how the Church is supposed to behave? To ‘hand over to Satan’ those who are not living right (5:5)? Aren’t we supposed to love them???
Okay, lady, take a breath. Aaah that’s better. Once I let my immediate (allergic) reactions die down I begin to see past the bits that make me angry. Paul is writing to a divided community in different time. In fact I read a great reflection commentary on 6:12-20 which opened up this whole reading for me. So here goes:
It is widely believed that Paul established the church in Corinth when he lived there for a year or so (Acts 18:11, AD 49-51?). He’s writing to them sometime later (AD 54?), when they seem to have more than slightly lost their way.
He had taught them about the freedom that we are offered in Jesus; he had taught them of a redemption that was beyond the law. However, they seem to have taken the whole freedom thing and run with it. So much so that they are now boasting about a man in their congregation who’s married his father’s wife (is his father still alive? is it his mum? too many icky questions). They’re also arguing in public, taking lawsuits against each other (6:1-11). So it looks like the early Christians weren’t so good at working on their public image; “come to church; you can sleep with your step-mum and argue with each other”. Erm, no thanks.
When I think about it like this, no wonder Paul needs to give them a good talking to. I’m still uncomfortable with the whole ‘throw the naughty ones out’ idea. Seventy times seven and all that. But then I guess you can’t forgive someone if they’re not sorry… Still, I think one of the most miraculous and inspiring things is when you stick by someone even when they’re behaving badly. When you just keep loving them. That’s a witness of Christ to me.
That aside, there’s something really important going on here. The beloved Spiderman quotation (beloved by my husband at least, he wishes he had spidey senses) goes “with great power comes great responsibility”, perhaps the same is true of freedom. Indeed, I think what it is to be free has been totally misunderstood in recent years (always? I duno, I’m only 26). It’s seen as an absence of constraints, a “I can do anything I want, I’m empowered” thing. I certainly saw it like that (within reason, not many people feel they are ‘free’ to kill others etc).
But perhaps instead of an absence it’s a presence, or the assurance of a presence. The deep knowing that God is and always will be with us. This freedom isn’t the kind that makes you want to go out and get wasted, it’s the kind that frees you from those needs for oblivion. But there are no rules; you don’t have to be a teetotaler to please Him either. He just wants your heart. That’s a big ‘just’.
A passage from ‘concerning worship’ in the Iona Abbey worship book (fantastic resource) reads “We owe our very existence as a community to the central Gospel conviction that worship is all that we are and all that we do. Either everything we do is an offering to God, or nothing. We may not pick and chose.”
Wow. Everthing? I was really struck by this, especially “we can’t pick and choose”. And it seems to resonate with what Pauls is saying when he asks “do you know that your bodies are members of Christ?” He is reminding the Corinthians that they’re not living for themselves, that their religion cannot simply be a mechanism for justifying their behaviour.
You are one with Christ. Do you get that? Do you get how major that is?
When we know this, when we enter into a community where knowing this is the premise for everything else, we open ourselves up to be challenged. Instead of reading Paul’s words as arrogant berating, I could see them as brotherly admonition (though he terms it fatherly in 4:15 but that’s not very Matthew 23:9).
It is okay for us to challenge each other, because we have all made a commitment to be changed each day from glory in glory.
Paul makes it very clear that there is a different standard for those outside the Church (5:10) and though he phrases it in rather derogatory terms (we know that there are good people who aren’t Christian!) I think his meaning remains true for us. If you have invested in the message of Jesus, if you have chosen the narrow gate, then you better be ready to have a long hard look at yourself. What is the church for if not to hold up the mirror?
Church needs to be a place where can safely, lovingly challenge each other, not because we know better, or we live better, but precisely because we’re all in the same boat. And sometimes the boat needs rocking.
Can you imagine a community where it was safe enough to challenge each other? Where criticism could be seen as an expression of love not attack? I’m not sure I’m secure enough to be a community like that, but I think it sounds very special. Perhaps Paul thought so too.