2014 Lent 13

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I Corinthians 5:9–6:8

Luke Timothy Johnson, the New Testament scholar, was in town last night.  I attended a lecture he gave called Paul: Oppressor or Liberator?  I found it to be especially good, in no small way because I’ve been immersing myself in I Corinthians for the past several days of Lent, struggling even with some of what Paul writes.  This is the Bible, after all, God’s inspired and authoritative word.  Is it acceptable, then, to question anything in the Bible?

My take on this, as you’ve seen by now, is a resounding yes.

Look at Paul’s heritage.  He’s Jewish, meaning he descends from Abraham.  Starting with Abraham, then, think with me, briefly, through the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, through King David, and through the Prophets.  Doesn’t every one of them argue with God somewhere along the line?  Okay, maybe you can think of one or two examples who seemingly never question or kick back, granted; but I’m drawing a blank right now.

Abraham trusts God in the episode with Isaac, sure.  But he questions what many believe was the Trinity itself in the Old Testament, in Genesis 18, when three apparent men show up at Abraham’s door and he offers them hospitality.  “Pardon me,” he argues, “but what if there are fifty righteous people in Sodom?  Will you destroy the city then?”  And again: “Um, well, forgive me for pressing, but what if there are forty righteous?”  And so on.  Down to five!  Point is, it’s an argument.

What about Isaac, who favors Esau against God’s promises to Jacob?

And what about Jacob?  He wrestled physically with God!

And so on.

And so forth.

Down to Paul.

This arguing nature is in Paul’s blood, his broughtupsy, if you will.  He knows what it is to argue, debate, fight, wrestle, struggle, contend, and contradict.  Why should it be otherwise, then, for us when we read Paul?

A good picture that sticks with me from last night’s lecture is that Paul knew what it was to rest in tension between ideal and real worlds.  So, for instance, when I read the beginning of today’s passage, perhaps this tension comes across.  “Don’t keep sexually immoral persons in the group,” he says, “but” (to continue with yesterday’s point) “exile them.”  But this is an idealistic vision.  Maybe that’s why, in the next breath, he says, “Now, eh hem, I’m not saying don’t associate with the sexually immoral who are outside the church.  Jesus associated with them.  We should too.  But, er, we should expect that such behavior won’t happen inside the church, right?”

Well, Paul, we say, have you read the headlines?  The reality is that sexual immorality is inside the church too.  So now let’s deal with it realistically.

We argue with Paul, in other words.  And this is okay!  And this does not deny the authority of scripture!  Isn’t that liberating?

But I get Paul’s ideal side too.  Like him, I want the church to be rid of divisions–what this letter is really about.  Ideally this should be so.  And so I will strive toward that end throughout my ministry.

But realistically speaking I still expect divisiveness to be found in any and every body of Christ across the globe this side of glory.  So I will write about ridding ourselves of division, teach toward it, and preach it.  And I will continue to argue, debate, contend, wrestle, and struggle for it–just as I will with Paul.

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