Click here for the reading: 1 Corinthians 5:6-8.
The greatest of all festivals in old Israel was the Passover. And connected to Passover was the week long celebration of unleavened bread. Set free from Pharaoh’s bondage the people of Israel went out with haste. To facilitate that haste the Lord had commanded them to eat bread without leaven, bread that did not require time to rise. The food of freedom was to facilitate a hasty escape.
This then became an ordinance in Israel. For one week’s time, beginning with the day of Passover, no leaven was to be used. What’s more, the old leaven was not only kept in the pantry, but was discarded. Just as Egypt and all its works and all its ways had been physically left behind, so too the people of Israel were to annually discard their leaven and leave behind the spiritual Egypt and all its works and all its ways that had crept back into their hearts.
Writing to the Christian congregation at Corinth St. Paul speaks of the fulfillment of that Old Testament festival. He identifies Christ Jesus with the Passover lamb, sacrificed for the people’s redemption from sin, and the Christian Church with the unleavened bread, cleansed from sin’s leavening effects. This indicative reality comes with an imperative calling: “Become who Christ has made you to be, an unleavened lump.”
At Corinth, sin’s old leaven had been working through the congregation in many ways. The immediate context is the sexually immoral man who was committing fornication with his own step-mother, something even the pagans would not tolerate. Making matters worse, there was an air of arrogant boasting about this, as though the Christian congregation had been set free from sin for further sin! Imagine Israel coming out of Egypt only to outdo Pharaoh in idolatrous worship! Was Christ raised to be a servant of sin?
The Apostle warns his erring congregation that sin’s tolerance and boasting will not remain isolated, but will spread through the whole lump. The Church is not a loosely affiliated association of individuals, but an organically united whole. Malice and evil are to be guarded against so that sincerity and truth may have free reign.
The festival that Paul speaks of celebrating was not confined to a day, a week, or even a 50 day, “tide,” but encompassed all of life. While the reading certainly has application for the importance of pastoral oversight and corporate discipline in a congregation, there is also an individual application. Each individual participates in the corporate life of the congregation and has a responsibility to the others to offer all of life as a living sacrifice.
Consider the obstacles to sincerity and truth that your hearers live with. While St. Paul could speak in powerful images of the leaven of malice and evil, he also specified what he meant by this in detail, giving a healthy example for preachers to name the sins that would leaven their congregation if unchecked. Lists of vices are part of the Pauline corpus. But so are lists of virtues. Consider too that hearers need to hear sincerity and truth identified and praised. Without a vision of the beauty of holiness will anyone pursue it?