Sermon from 1 Corinthians 10.1-13

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Think about those big moments in history. V-E Day or V-J Day. These signified an end to the second World War. More recently, many people remember where they were when they heard about JFK’s assassination or 9/11. I think about these moments and what we can learn when we look back. Sometimes we don’t know when we are entering an epoch-shaping moment. I wonder how history will record the pandemic. What can we learn from these last two years?

Or, how will historians remember Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Will the violence end and things normalize? We don’t know. To live in fear of Russian escalation and nuclear Armageddon is to (a) worry about something over which we have no control and (b) abandon our faith in God. 

Last week, I talked about the meaning of faith. Recall that faith is a dialogue. It’s an encounter with God in which we grow, change, and affect the world around us. In this dialogue, we both listen and speak. We listen to hear God’s voice. We believe God can and does speak through everything in the world around us, and we are careful to hear it. Thus, if God is active and speaking in the world, we do not need to be afraid.

Still, we can learn by looking back. Living in faith means letting God shape and mold us. If we listen and hear God’s voice, we adapt our lives to reflect what God says. Our gospel lesson points to the hope in which we live. If we are the fig trees and our lives don’t bear the fruit of what we proclaim to believe, we had better hope for a magnanimous gardener to give us another chance to bloom and grow. 

When we pray, “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us,” the implication is that we know we did something wrong. We know we need God to forgive us. Even if we hang our hats on something like Micah 6.8, and we try to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our Lord,” we fall short. A better place to put our hopes might be the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer in Luke 10. When asked about eternal life, Jesus asked what is says in the Law. His interlocutor answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10.27). 

We still fall short. So what do we do? 

Our reading from 1 Corinthians today is part of a much wider analysis of behavior. In 1 Corinthians 5.1-11.34, Paul tackles lawsuits, sexual behavior, marriage, food, the eucharist, and liturgy. People from the Corinthian church brought various questions to Paul, and he tried to respond.

Paul corresponded more with people in Corinth than any other place. In this correspondence, we find familiar ground for today. Raymond Brown writes, “Attempts to live according to the gospel in the multiethnic and cross-cultural society at Corinth raised issues still encountered in multiethnic, multiracial, and cross-cultural societies today.”[1]

Isn’t that comforting? The Corinthians struggled just like we struggle. We might not be able to write to the Apostle Paul for guidance, but we can look at what he said to the Corinthians when they struggled. 

They knew Micah 6.8 and Luke 10.27, yet they were unable to live the kind of ethical and Christ-centered lives depicted in scripture. When Paul responded to the Corinthians, he condemned some obvious behaviors, like people who rob from others, drink to excess, and those who slander others. Falling short in these ways is clear. What about good people like us?

Extended Digression

Beyond our reading, 1 Corinthians 9.1-10.13 is an extended digression in which Paul gives two examples. One is good and the other is bad. The good example can be hard to take because Paul uses himself. Parts of the good example are inspiring, especially the athletic metaphor in 9.24-27, “Run the race in such a way as to get the prize!” It’s exciting and beckons us to only focus on Christ. 

The other example is our reading: 1 Corinthians 10.1-13. It’s problematic because Paul uses his people, the ancient Israelites of the Exodus, as the bad example. We can’t do that. It would be clumsy, at best, and antisemitic, more likely. 

Still, we can read what Paul said to the Corinthians because when he invokes the past, it’s their past too. He highlights four areas of separation from God to avoid: making idols, mistreating our bodies, testing Christ, and complaining. Each one is multifaceted and he draws out the implications from Israel’s history. We could focus on the specific examples Paul uses, and there are places in each category of sin where, with very little imagination, we would find ourselves. 

An Example

For example, 10.8 prohibits “sexual immorality.” Lots of people hear that and think, “Thank God! That doesn’t apply to me.” I used the euphemism “mistreating our bodies” and could add “mistreating other people’s bodies.” The Bible uses “sexual immorality” as a catch-all for hedonistic behaviors that violate covenant relationships. Whether this means checking someone out (and objectifying them), looking at pornography, or, the obvious, having an affair or one-night stand, Paul’s warning against “sexual immorality” catches almost everyone at some level. 

And in this short passage, he has four such catch-all sin categories: making idols, mistreating our bodies, testing Christ, and complaining. However, when we focus on the sin categories, we miss the point. Paul wants the Corinthians to live focused on Christ. He wants them to learn from those who came before them and to grow in faith. 

For us, we don’t need to get caught up in counting our idols, identifying how we test Christ, or feeling guilty every time we complain. 

That’s not living in grace. 

Paul wants people to see how much of a test daily life can be. He reminds the Corinthians that “God will not let you be tested beyond what you can handle” (10.13). This is where English betrays the meaning in Greek. Both of the “yous” in 10.13 in Greek are plural. This means “that the experience of the testing and the efforts and handling it are never presumed by Paul to be borne by an individual alone.” Paul’s assumption is that any testing you experience is never in isolation.[2]  Keep in mind that 1 Corinthians is correspondence between Paul and a church. The people in the church don’t go through anything by themselves. They are in a community. The context of God’s testing suggests deliverance. Even though there are negative lessons from the Exodus, God did bring the people out of the desert and into the Promised Land. This passage has the motif of deliverance. God will deliver.

In 1 Corinthians, at first glance, it appears Paul’s talking about sin. Yet, it’s about learning from the past. And, he wants us to experience God’s grace as we look inside ourselves and turn over the worst parts to God. 

We are not alone

We don’t have experience this present moment alone. People experience each moment in history together. Remember the famous pictures of the ticker-tape parades at the end to World War II. At each moment in history, people are together. The family of faith is like that. We walk together. We pray, sing, and grow together. If you show up at the church this Friday or Saturday morning, we will even shovel mulch together. This Lenten season, we can pray with joy, “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” We can look back and learn. We find the places in our own lives that we need to turn over to God, and we can grow together.

[1] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, ed. David N. Freedman, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 511.

[2] J. Paul Sampley, “1 Corinthians,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 916.

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