Sermon from Easter VI: The Family Table

The Family Table
Easter VI; May 9, 2021
I Corinthians 5

Well. For those of you who have been critical of my decision to preach from our guidebook for the Year of the Bible instead of the Revised Common Lectionary, have at me. If I were using the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the day, I would probably be preaching from John 15, where Jesus commands us to love one another as he has loved us – that is, to the point of dying for each other – with the implied threat that if we don’t we’ll be cut off the vine and burned (John 15:5-6).

We preachers like to avoid the tough parts of the Bible every bit as much as you do. Maybe more, because when you don’t like a passage of Scripture you don’t yell at the Author, you yell at us. Or gripe to someone else. When I was an associate pastor and the pastor chose to preach on Mother’s Day from Ephesians 5 – “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” – folks came to me afterward: “Why in the world did he do that?” I have no idea.

But the hard parts are every bit as much a part of the Bible as are the parts that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Sometimes we like the hard parts, if they give us a chance to feel holier than someone else. Remember this old story? The preacher started in attacking smoking, how the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and those who smoke are polluting God’s temple and all the people said, “Amen!” Then he got more intense, and he attacked gambling, and said that God gave us all good things for godly uses but gambling is throwing money at illusions, and the people cried, “Amen!” Then he got louder, and attacked drinking, and said that booze is the Devil’s brew and drinking destroys families and the people shouted, “Amen!” Then he was really fired up, and he attacked sex outside of marriage, and said that adultery ruined families and fornication destroyed souls and there wasn’t a peep out of the people. When he stopped and looked around, puzzled, one of them said to him, “Parson, you done left off preaching and started meddling.”

So I will make some observations about I Corinthians 5, trusting the Holy Spirit to nudge you somehow in the direction God sets before us. The image I ask you to have in your head is a family dinner table. One of the things that has happened during the pandemic is many families are eating together more than they used to do; I hope that will continue. There is something bonding about a family – whether a family by blood or a family of choice – sitting around the table, eating together, and talking with each other. For most families, that happens at dinner, but some do that at breakfast. Anyway, I choose that image because in I Corinthians 5 Paul talks about eating together and about bread and specifically about the celebration of the festival of the Passover of Christ; that is, communion.

The family table builds community. Whether you like it or not, however you feel about it, however close or distant you may be, your family is your family. My family was particularly defined by the presence and character of my Mother; perhaps that is true of yours, as well. No, my Father was not absent, but my memories of our home and family life evoke more of Mom than of Dad; so I don’t mind considering this image of the family dinner table on Mother’s Day.

Paul wrote as vehemently as he did because the Church in Corinth was a family, the family of Christ, formed around Christ’s family dinner table. When one member of a family does a great evil, it affects the family. You and I may pretend that it does not, but it does, and denying it and pretending otherwise can produce all sorts of harm. Paul uses the image of yeast to describe the effect of one person’s wrongdoing on the entire congregation. I have a couple of different recipes I use for pizza dough; one of them uses 2¼ teaspoons of yeast with 1½ cups of flour and the other uses only ½ teaspoon of yeast with 2 cups of flour. Both produce excellent dough. It doesn’t take much yeast to cause the whole lump of dough to rise. And Paul says that it doesn’t take much sin to corrupt the whole church.

But before we get too vehement and start driving out evil-doers, keep a few things in mind. Although the sin Paul is concerned with here is specifically sexual, he makes clear (v. 11) that sexual sin is not the only thing that he finds corrupting. Sexual immorality, yes, but also greed, idolatry, drunkenness, insulting people, and robbery: all these, Paul says, corrupt the church. So before you get on your high horse and start demanding that we shun adulterers or capitalists (you know, those devoted to the creed “Greed is good”), consider whether you might find yourself shown the door as well.

And let’s acknowledge that sexual mores change. We have seen them change dramatically over the last seventy years. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the standards of Paul’s day were God’s intention for all of human history. Our social standards continue to disapprove of incest, which was what Paul was writing about: cohabiting with your mother-in-law was incest, by their definition. That does not mean that everything that Paul would disapprove of continues to be grounds for church discipline.

Let’s go back to the image of the family dinner table. You are familiar with the concept of “tough love.” One example of tough love that comes to mind is the parent who refuses to provide any more money to the adult child until the child willingly enters a treatment program for substance addiction. Another example is the abused spouse who leaves the home, finds a safe place, and determines to stay there until the abuser changes their ways. We know that “love” is not “indulgence.” Families that tolerate abusive behavior are not loving; they are destructive. Likewise, the family of Christ is called upon sometimes to exercise tough love: to say to someone, “We will not tolerate that behavior.”

Two more observations about this before I move to the conclusion. First, Paul makes clear that we are a family that sets standards of behavior for ourselves; we do not dictate to the world how it must behave. We can decide what is appropriate behavior within our life as a family in Christ, and exercise appropriate care and discipline of our own people. That does not mean that we are to dictate the morals of our society, that we appeal to the State Legislature to enforce our morals on everyone in Nebraska.

And the second comment is that the purpose of Church discipline has always been to bring people to repentance. It’s not to run out people we disapprove of; it’s not to ensure purity. It is to convince those who do wrong or whose priorities are misplaced to come to greater faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Among the faithful, when we read something in Scripture that upsets us, when the preacher says something that angers us, our first reaction should not be to yell at someone. Our first reaction should be to ask ourselves, “Do I need to repent?” Likewise, if someone is doing something that violates the moral integrity of the family of God, the purpose of our tough love is not to hurt that person, but to bring them to repentance.

Now a concluding thought. I Corinthians 5 is hard to talk about, I know, and I doubt I have done an adequate job. But the concluding thought is most important. Remember what Paul wrote: “Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the feast.” Our family table is for the family of Christ, the one who calls us, leads us, gathers us, and is the Lamb who is sacrificed for our forgiveness. Remember how Jesus behaved at dinner parties: he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:13-17). He didn’t run them off; he invited them to repent.

Despite what Paul wrote – that you and I should not even eat with sinners – I don’t see Jesus telling the sinner, “I won’t eat with you.” He does say, “Go and sin no more.” But first I see him saying, “Please pass the bread.”

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska