Friday, October 30, 2009

Doing Wrong and Being Wronged

This is sermon #14 from my First Corinthians series. The opening context is my pastoral identity of twenty years ago, but the core issue is for all Christians at all times. Perhaps I was too restrictive with the options, but Paul was writing at a time when the options were few: be radical for Jesus or deny Him. Two thousand years of church history have complicated things a bit, especially a Christian's relationship with the civil sphere. Yet we still need followers of Jesus who are radical (which is not the same as fanatical, although the world will make the accusation). I would still say today that the main point(s) here are faithful to true Christian commitment.

1 Corinthians 6:1-11


Obedience is a very important issue in the life of a Christian. Obedience has played a key role in the identity of the Brethren in Christ Church; the title of the definitive history is aptly called A Quest For Piety And Obedience. Obedience is the correct human response to God's commands. That is one clear emphasis in the Bible.

Now if the Bible gives us God's commands, and if the Bible entreats obedience, it is only natural that a people with a concern for pleasing God find those things that are commanded in the Bible and do them –– or not do them, in the case of prohibitions. That was essentially the attitude of the Brethren in Christ Church over most of its history.

A bit later in I Corinthians we will see Paul saying that the women should cover their heads, so Brethren in Christ women devised a covering. In other places Paul extended in his letters the cultural greeting of his day, the holy kiss. The Brethren in Christ made the holy kiss a practice, and defined it as such in their Manual. Jesus took the part of a servant with his disciples and washed their feet after walking the dirt roads of Judea in sandals, and he said his disciples should follow him and wash one another’s feet. The Brethren in Christ simply obeyed and turned feet washing almost into a sacrament.

Now I have said all of that to say the obvious: The clear point in this passage is that Christians should not take each other to court. Is this another simple command that is to be simply obeyed? That is as far as some Christians would take it. We might wish all Christians would simply do that much, but if that is all one sees here it is no wonder that the church has trouble with obedience.

The passage is clear enough –– there is an issue of obedience, and people in the church had best be aware of it and practice it. But again, is that all there is to obedience? Do we simply read the law and concur? A good understanding of Paul and New Testament theology will cause one to say no; simple obedience is not all there is to good Christian response.

Paul is strong in these verses. If I developed and preached this chapter with the same tone Paul is using you would feel as if I were a blast furnace. That is not to say, of course, that I am not prepared to state the truth without equivocation. We desperately need what this chapter says, but we do not need it merely as a law to be obeyed. That is not what Paul is doing; it's just that we are so far removed from the occasion of the letter that we must constantly step back to see the bigger context. Paul gets to it as he concludes, but we need it as we begin.

Go back in your minds, if not in your Bibles, to the opening words of the first chapter. There Paul identifies the people to whom he is writing this letter. He is writing to the those sanctified in Christ Jesus...and called to be holy (v2). He goes on to affirm our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you (v6). And because of that he expected certain things of them: He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (v8). Was this a confidence he had in the Corinthians themselves? No! So how could he hope such a thing? God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful(v9).

Maybe you remember the two words used to describe what Paul is talking about throughout this letter –– the indicative and the imperative. If you do not remember, an indicative states something; it "indicates" what is. An imperative statement, in contrast, is a command. For Paul (and for us, and all other Christians), the indicative precedes the imperative. The reason we obey an imperative is because of the reason behind the command, which is the indicative.

Maybe you remember a ridiculous example I gave. An indicative statement would be: All smart people eat sardines. Follow that with an imperative by a parent who wishes his child to excel in academics: you must eat sardines. The point is lost, though, if the indicative statement, "all smart people eat sardines," does not come first. The imperative makes sense only as it is based on the indicative.

Now to be sure, Paul gives a strong imperative here in this chapter –– but that is not where we begin. We should never begin with the imperative. To begin with the command is to take obedience out of its context. The Christian life is not lived by obeying laws. That is drudgery. It is defeating, for we can never obey the laws good enough to escape guilt. Turning Christianity into laws makes it harsh and ugly. It also makes it deadly, for it gives no life to those who would try to do it that way, and it turns the watching world away from us because the gospel is distorted and hidden. Before there can be any imperatives, we must understand and embrace the indicatives.

Paul alludes to the indicatives over and over. They are implicit in everything he commands. But if we are to get to the heart of obedience, we must eat, sleep and breathe the basic things that are true which make obedience worthwhile and relevant. As I said, they are implicit here, but I need to make them explicit for us.

I want to identify three things Paul says in this chapter, and show how the indicative and the imperative work in each. The three things here can be called:

I. An Avoidance of World Courts

II. An Acceptance of Wrong-suffering

III. An Aversion to Wrong-doing

In vs 1-6 we find Paul exhorting an avoidance of world courts. The whole section is written with the most biting sarcasm anywhere in the letter, and its one intent is to drive home an imperative: Christians shouldn't take other Christians to secular court. I could stop here with cries and laments over the times people in the church at large have not obeyed this, but that would not be helpful. We need more than straightforward commands.

What we need are the indicatives that give the reason for such a command –– and we need to embrace those indicatives so that they mold the way we think. The actions we choose to do are always based on our understanding of reality and truth, and so wrong actions come from a wrong understanding of what is really true. There are indicative reasons Christians should not take other Christians to court, and if we truly believe those indicatives we will not choose to take such an action. On the other hand, those who do choose to act in such a way do not really understand or believe the indicatives.

What are those indicatives? Paul gives them here implicitly. The basis of everything he says in vs1-6 lies in the different world-view a Christian has. The non-believer looks out on this world and thinks it is the sum total of reality. A Christian, on the other hand, sees this world but knows that another unseen world must also be taken into consideration, and is indeed the greater part of reality. The choice is between this present visible world and the kingdom of God. And the contrast is so great that one cannot believe and act on both at the same time.

Consider just a few of the ways the Bible describes and contrasts the two (and remember we are looking at indicatives here –– things that are):


seen / unseen

passing / abiding

apparent reality / true reality

death / life

foolish / wise

Man-centered / God-centered

material / spiritual

outer appearance / inner heart

wicked / just

lose by winning / win by losing

selfish / giving

retaliate / forgive

hoard / give

indulgent / controlled

The list could go on, but you get the idea –– there is a different perspective at work. Christians are people who believe the kingdom of God is real, so that they try to live that way.

Now Paul's point is rather simple: Why should Christians, who live out the perspective of the kingdom of God, go to secular courts which are based on the way of thinking of this present world? That is his point in v4 (where in the NIV, the alternate translation in the footnote is better): do you appoint as judges men of little account in the church?

In other words, why go to a judge who, in the eyes of the church, understands so little and makes his decisions by standards Christians abandoned when they saw the truth of the kingdom of God? In fact, if we really believe this world is passing away, the very ones who now pose as judges in the world system will be the ones who are judged by Christ and his saints (vs2,3). And how absurd it is for us who have the greater understanding to go to people who understand so little.

Now if this is a concept almost foreign to us, it only shows how far we are from the kind of understanding Paul assumed as basic for Christians to truly live as Christians in this world. But that is not the only thing that shows the need for us to understand who we are and what it means in everyday life.

A second thing that Paul encourages (or, if you prefer, commands) is an acceptance of wrong-suffering (v7,8). We must remember this imperative is based on particular facets of the indicative of the kingdom of God. The imperative (we might even be tempted to call it the idiotic imperative) is in v7b: be willing to be wronged and be willing to be cheated.

Maybe you wonder if this is hyperbole. Is Paul serious? I can tell you a story of one man who believed Paul was, indeed, serious. One of the names in Brethren in Christ history is that of a Canadian farmer, Lafayette Shoalts. According to Morris Sider, the reigning historian of the Brethren in Christ, told me this story some years ago. It seems that Farmer Shoalts had an ornery neighbor who insisted the fence bordering their property was two feet over on his side. So Brother Lafayette hired a surveyor to come and determine the right boundary. After that was established, he moved the fence two feet over on his own side. Hiring the surveyor, giving up a running two feet of property, moving the fence.... all at his expense.... Mr. Lafayette Shoalts knew what it meant to be willing to be wronged. He also knew what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.

Some would say that just doesn’t make sense, and they would be right –– from the perspective of this present world. The reality of the kingdom of God says something different, though. The kingdom of God has what we might call here an inverted indicative.

Look at the first part of v7: the very fact that you have lawsuits means you have been completely defeated already. The reason a person goes to court is to win. The inverted indicative says if your priority is that of winning, you are already a loser. The flip side of that, the kingdom perspective, is that people who choose to embrace losing are actually the winners. It’s the way of the cross. Jesus won by losing. He is alive because he died. He knew that winning in this world is not winning because it does not last.

When the church has believed this and lived it, the world has looked on in wonder. This is a passage that strikes at the heart of our values. It puts the light of God on a love of money and materialism. The only way we can be willing to be cheated and suffer wrong without retaliation is when we see this passing world in contrast to the reality of God’s kingdom. Can we live in the reality of what Paul will later say in 7:31 –– this world in its present form is passing away.

Peter and John had that perspective when they met the cripple beggar on the way to the temple (Acts 3). Peter made it clear that material was not the priority when he said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give to you.” Representing the power of the kingdom that is unseen, Peter pulled the man to his feet and told him to walk.

People who follow Jesus with abandon believe what Jesus modeled is true –– that we actually win by losing, and they act on what they believe. This could be called an identifying indicative. What we do identifies what we truly believe. The problem with the Corinthians was that they were not acting out of the perspective of faith in the kingdom.

Instead of accepting wrong-suffering, they were committing the very thing that is the antithesis of God’s people. That is why Paul gives them a third exhortation: an aversion to wrong-doing (vs9–11). Someone in the church was unwilling to suffer wrong so he was going to court over it, and someone else in the church had caused it! Paul gives an intercepting indicative at this point ––he wants all the church to know one thing: the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God (v9).

Hear this in context. Remember all that has come before. It is not that God accepts people who do not do wicked things and rejects those who do. This is not a self-action program to get people in or out of the kingdom. Paul is not putting a performance rule on salvation. He is saying once again that the people of God will not have lives characterized by certain behaviors precisely because they are God’s people.

The list in vs9,10 is not meant to be exhaustive. It is not a full catalogue of sins. Yet the ones mentioned are clear enough. This is not the focus of this sermon, but I want to highlight briefly two things. The first is the observation that God’s Word is quite clear about homosexual behavior. In a world where even some in the church-at-large are calling for embracing this increasingly “popular” disorder, the warning stands that there is no place in God’s kingdom for such. The second thing I call to your attention are some of the other sins: greed, drunkenness and slander. People whose lives are marked by these are in the same category as homosexual behavior and other sexual immorality. Embracing sinful behavior is just that –– there is no hierarchy of sins.

But to make sure the Corinthians know how he truly sees them, Paul reminds them of an intervening indicative. Yes, once they had been among those whose lives were marked by sexual immorality, homosexual activity, greed and drunkenness, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (v11).

That is the gospel. There is a kingdom. There is another reality, unseen by the natural eye. The entry to that kingdom has been provided by God himself. His Son has gone the way before us. He has shown that one can be wronged and things still come out right. He has shown that death itself can bring life. He has made it possible for our sins to be forgiven. He has given us his Spirit so we can understand what cannot be clearly seen. He has set us apart so that we are not like the rest of the world, and he calls us to become brand new people. All these things are already true. They are God’s intervening indicative. They make God’s people different.

That difference always carries an implied imperative. Sometimes the imperative is more than implied. Sometimes it stands out so strongly that it’s like the commandments of Sinai thundering over our heads. But behind the imperatives, whatever they are, lie the indicative truths of what God has done –– and who we are if we are his people.

What that means is that when we are given a choice in our everyday lives –– something like either doing wrong or suffering wrong –– we will choose to suffer wrong instead of doing wrong. It’s because we are people who believe in the One who won by losing, the One who died but is now alive, whose kingdom is forever.

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