READ : 1 Corinthians 5:7-8
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
1 Corinthians 5:7-8, rsv
I want to talk with you today about your integrity, yours as a person and that of the particular group to which you may belong. How do any of us, as we say, “keep our integrity”? How do we keep our hearts right and our lives straight?
The Bible passage I’m thinking of now is 1 Corinthians, chapter 5, beginning at the start. The apostle Paul is dealing here with a serious case of immorality in the church. It seems that a man in the congregation had been cohabiting with his father’s wife. This was not a one-time occurrence but a steady relationship. The members of the congregation, aware of this, had done nothing whatever about it.
Paul was dismayed. He points out to them that this kind of sexual liaison was condemned even by pagans. In other words, even those who adopted much lower moral standards disapproved strongly of such behavior. And they, the Corinthians, seemed unconcerned, even arrogant. Paul felt that they should rather be in mourning, grieved about this.
Now he gives his advice. The one who has done this should be removed from the fellowship. He should be put out of the church, excommunicated. Paul goes on to explain how this should be done.
For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:3-5).
Paul, though physically absent, will be present with them in spirit as they take this action. It’s as though the apostle has already done this in his mind and heart and is communicating his presence now to them. They will still need to act themselves but he will be thoroughly with them in what they do. More importantly, they are to carry out the action “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and with His power, recognizing Him as the present, reigning Lord of the church.
The offending man, we read, is to be “delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” That has a frightful sound to it, but it simply describes what happens in excommunication. Satan’s kingdom is this world-system, this present age, under the power of sin. To be a member of the Christian fellowship, to experience the salvation of Christ, is to be delivered from that dominion. Accordingly, to be excommunicated is to return to bondage, to be delivered again to the enemy’s power. All of this, though it sounds very severe, has a redemptive purpose. The hope is that this radical break will awaken the man and cause him to forsake the evil of his way so that he may truly be among the saved when Jesus returns.
THE SPREADING LEAVEN
Next, the apostle gives the rationale for what he proposes, why it is vitally important. His first point is that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Leaven in the Bible almost always refers to moral evil. It’s used to illustrate vividly the growing, expanding power of sin. Just as a small quantity of leaven will eventually transform the whole lump into which it is placed, so moral evil keeps on spreading until it affects a person’s entire character. Or to change the image, it travels like a cancer through the body, destroying life as it goes.
You know what that’s like. You tell one small lie. Later it seems necessary, convenient at least, to tell one or two more. That leads to a situation in which falsehood can mushroom until finally you’re caught in a tangled network of deceit. It seems impossible to break free.
Or suppose you take something that doesn’t belong to you, perhaps from a store or from an employer. It’s a petty theft. You did it on a sudden impulse and you’re sure you’ll never do a thing like that again. But when another opportunity arises, the impulse seems stronger. You pilfer again, and again. Now your resistance to stealing has been notably weakened. If you had the chance, you might be able to do it now on a much larger scale. The thing grows in you alarmingly.
That happens with alcohol and with drugs, doesn’t it? It happens also with lust and cruelty. You open the cage just a little bit. Then the dragon in you, once let loose, is hard to control. Soon you may be the one in the cage.
According to Paul, that kind of thing happens in a group also. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” By keeping this offender within the congregation, the Corinthians were holding on to a bad influence which could only spread and infect many others. As one Puritan writer puts it, “Souls to souls are like apples, one being rotten rots another.” It seems that any kind of moral evil, recognized and tolerated, will go from bad to worse, will spread its corruption. In persons and in groups, it will undermine character and compromise integrity.
THE NEW LUMP
But Paul wants to view this moral issue as every other one, in the light of the Christian gospel. He’s not a moralist, not an ethics professor, but a herald of good news. The center of his message to the Corinthians is this: “Christ our passover has been sacrificed” so that we can be free from the old leaven. Paul is looking back here to one of the greatest events in Israelite history – the first Passover. When God brought judgments upon the oppressors of His people, He “passed over” His own. That is, He spared them from the calamity that fell upon their captors and then led them forth from bondage to freedom. From that time on, the Passover became a great feast of remembrance in Israel, always associated with the use of unleavened bread. Leaven represented their old life of servitude and estrangement. The unleavened bread spoke of newness and salvation. At the heart of the Passover feast there was a sacrificial lamb, providing both the shelter of God’s forgiveness and strength to journey toward a new life.
Paul sees the ancient feast of the Passover marvelously fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and also the exalted One who nourishes His people by His risen life.
Christians have now been recreated as a people. “The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Paul can say to these Corinthians, amid the ups and downs of their moral life: “You really are unleavened.” Christ, their deliverer, who brought an end to the old leaven of sin in their lives, has purged them and made them, as Paul puts it, “a new lump.” He has given them a fresh beginning in His saving love.
The apostle wants the believers in Corinth to focus again on the Cross and the empty tomb. He wants to remind them that something decisive has happened in the redeeming work of Christ. Just as God delivered His ancient people from misery and bondage at the Red Sea, so at Golgotha and in the garden, He has liberated them from a deeper enslavement. He has brought about a new situation in their lives. They are forgiven; they are cleansed; they are free.
In every prolonged military conflict, there comes a strategic moment when the final outcome is determined. From that point on, it is simply a matter of time until that becomes completely evident. Every seeming advance of the losing side after that is strictly temporary. The victors are in control, and they know it. All further engagements can be described as “mopping up operations.” They give final expression to a triumph already won. Every war has its Waterloo, its Gettysburg, its D-Day.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus represent that decisive moment in the triumph of God’s kingdom over the powers of evil. Out of the seeming defeat of Good Friday came the glorious victory of Easter morning. The final issue was settled then. In spite of all their furious thrashings, the forces of sin, death, and hell have been decisively defeated. All who know the risen Savior are the children of a new day. They are on the victory side.
KEEPING THE FEAST
But the apostle isn’t through yet. He follows up that glad announcement with a ringing challenge: “Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” I like that! Now that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, now that God has raised Him from the dead and sealed our freedom, we are called to respond, and the response is one of celebration. Christians are called to a continuing festival. They are to keep on remembering and rejoicing in the great things that God has done. Jubilation has become the order of the day.
I hope you know that and feel that about the Christian faith. Maybe sometimes we church people haven’t given that impression. We have seemed to be as sad, weary, and anxious as the rest of the world. But that’s when we have forgotten the good news and taken our eyes off the crucified and risen Jesus. When He is in view, when His victory is presently real to us, the trumpets are blowing and God’s people have a great song to sing. Sin is forgiven; death is defeated; the future is bright with hope. We lift up our hearts and celebrate.
If you have never known Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, I want to invite you today to a festival of great hope, to hear wonderful good news and enter upon a life of joy and freedom. To become a Christian, even though it sometimes involves hardship and costly following, is still, in C. S. Lewis’s words, to be “surprised by joy.”
Here’s how we are to celebrate. Paul says “not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The fact that Christ has set us free is not an abstract truth “out there” somewhere. It’s a reality to which we are to respond with our whole hearts. It calls us to decision. It stirs us to action. It holds before us a new possibility which we are to choose and appropriate: that is, real integrity.
Celebrating the festival means on one side saying a great no. We say no to the old leaven, to the spreading growth of malice and evil. Recognizing that Christ has died for us and that we have died in Him, we renounce our old pattern of living. We reject the former mastery under which we lived. We say a resounding no to the old slave driver, sin.
It’s the death of Jesus that provides the basis for that. That’s the tremendous reality that has set us free. When we affirm that, we’re not simply kidding ourselves, psyching ourselves up about something. We’re standing on the bedrock reality of what God has done. We’re acting on the truth. We’re claiming the promise. We’re agreeing totally with God’s verdict on the old way.
That’s what we fail to do when we tolerate some known wrong in our lives or wink at a glaring evil in our fellowship. We’re forgetting that all that belongs to the old age to which we died in the death of Jesus and from which we were delivered in His resurrection.
On the positive side, we say yes to “the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Sincerity speaks about purity of motive. Truth has to do with uprightness in action. Both are as vital for a Christian as his or her necessary food. How do we celebrate the festival? How do we keep the feast? When we prize integrity. When we recognize that we’ve been raised again from our bondage and death to walk in newness of life, when we give ourselves gladly and gratefully to God and present all our members as instruments of righteousness to Him.
Do we realize all that we have in Jesus Christ that can make us whole persons? In His death and rising, we have both a motivation for integrity – thankful devotion, a grateful sense of indebtedness – and also the power by His Holy Spirit for new attitudes and new actions. The gospel tells us who we are in Christ: really unleavened, a new lump, freed from sin’s power, alive to God. Then it calls us to believe that, to bank on it, and go out to be who we are. That’s the key to integrity. May it be real for you today and for me!