Sanctification is never easy
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:1-13 ESV)
When Charlotte and I were in Damascus a few years ago and we were having that long conversation about Christianity and Islam with Muhammad, the young man who ‘adopted’ us for a few hours and became our tour guide while also practising his English – I’ve spoken about that before – and it came back to me when I was reading our second reading – from 1 Corinthians.
Muhammad spoke openly of wanting to be saved but not knowing for sure that he would be because at some point later in his life he might commit a terrible sin for which Allah would punish him. Charlotte and I told him that we are certain of being saved – that is what Christ has achieved for us – and it was precisely because of that salvation that we then struggled each day with our sins and while we weren’t planning on committing some ‘terrible’ sin, should that happen, even that had been taken to the cross. Muhammad was simply sceptical that if we knew we were saved then we wouldn’t seek to ‘submit to Allah’ (to use his terms).
For Muhammad, the uncertainty of his salvation made him struggle each day. For Charlotte and me, the certainty of our salvation through Christ made us struggle each day. Muhammad has 1,400 years of theology since the Prophet Muhammad plus aspects of Christian and Jewish history to draw on. Christians have 4,000 years approximately of theology to draw on as presented in the Old and New Testaments. The Qur’an tells him one thing. The Bible tells us another. And what we need to remember is that our Second Reading is part of that New Testament which was coming to grips with the reality of the risen Christ after he was crucified. And our text is speaking into Muhammad’s scepticism. Paul was having writing to the Corinthians because he had received reports that the congregation was fighting, split into factions, and they had ‘issues’ most of which might be thought of as now that they had the grace of God they thought themselves able to do what they liked. God’s grace was seen as some sort of charm or protection allowing them ‘free reign’ in how they behaved. ‘See I told you’ Muhammad-in-Damascus would have said.
Sanctification – living as a child of God, living as a person with whom God has made a covenant – has always oscillated in Christianity between being works righteousness on the one hand through to being an option but really irrelevant on the other. It has been taught as Christian morality, as a list of do’s and don’ts, but also about freedom – freedom to love with the only caveat being that we don’t use that freedom to sin. Sanctification has been dissolved almost into culture so that when Christians migrated it was thought of as ‘making them like us’ – wherever that was. We can look back on 2,000 years of Christian Church history and theology and see that we all struggle with how to respond to God’s grace in Christ.
For Paul in our letter it would seem that he was dealing Christians in Corinth who were joining in the temple feasts of and to other gods, following their own desires probably of the ‘eat, drink and be merry’ kind, engaging in promiscuity, testing God and grumbling against him for calling them to follow Jesus. And what Paul does is instructive for he draws on the Old Testament accounts of God’s people in the wilderness as a typology or type or model or example of how God and his people interact the outcome of which is that God’s grace establishes a relationship between God and them and that relationship then governs the people’s behaviour.
That relationships govern behaviour is true whether that involves feelings such as friendships, family, marriage, patriotism, and so on or whether the relationship is more functional such as at school, or employment, or even citizenship. The relationship hopefully governs the behaviour on both sides but of course we responsible for ‘our’ side. That is where we have choices. Just because someone is bad to me shouldn’t automatically control my behaviour towards them. We teach our children to be wise thinking, responsible people who take ownership of their decisions and behaviour and are accountable for them. That might be the goal of raising children. It is simply wise to do this. What Christianity does is bring Jesus into the picture and say simply he is a relationship you need to consider as well. For he is able to help us when we are puppets to our sins and fears, our failings and our pride, our excuses and our rationalisations and like Paul admitted in Romans 7 – the good I want to do, I don’t do whereas the bad I don’t want to do that’s what I do. And then some of us will admit that we didn’t even struggle much! This is reality – most people will recognise it – and it is a spiritual reality for Christians. If you take another path and not recognise your sin and in reality continue to rebel against God then consequences – Paul calls them ‘falls’ – will come because we will reap what we have sown.
Paul can almost hear the Corinthians groan in exasperation that God demands too much. He wants us to fight sin when we’re tempted and follow his way of doing things. I think that sentiment is not confined to the Corinthians and Paul makes a promise that challenges us to struggle with temptation while removing our excuses – God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
We pray for this guidance and strength in the Lord’s Prayer – and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Temptations are very personal, intimate and can give an insight into our deepest desires. Temptations are not sins; Jesus was tempted. But what tempts us or tests us is really a fork in the road, a signpost with two directions on it. God tempts no one to sin but then we have enough cheerleaders in our sinful flesh, the world, and the cosmic powers of this present darkness (as Paul described them in Ephesians 6) tempting us to sin (though they rarely would call it ‘sin’). But in that struggle there are ways to resist, to go another way, whether it is our memory of past regrets, Scripture in some form – memory verse, something from Confirmation, a hymn or song, recalling what a Christian told us, and so on, or even circumstance that contrives, it seems, to stop us – and it is in hindsight that we often see how God was working to help us follow him.
Why bother with any of this? Because, as I said at the beginning, God’s grace doesn’t leave people unchanged. When God’s grace in Christ is encountered we discover that things are never the same again – not even our idea of love can compare with God’s love for the world that he gave his only Son and that relationship God has established with us through words, water, bread and wine, is something Christians daily learn is the one worth living in as we live here and now in all our other relationships. Whether we are still single, married, with families nearby, with families far away, young, old, with our strengths and weaknesses – we are who we are – and God loves us not so that we remain in our sins, or blindly thinking that God will approve of everything we do because that’s what we hope his love is but so that we can life live to the full – and that was the reason Jesus came into the world. Living following Jesus or living on your own terms? Yes, that’s what life in this world boils down to. And the cross of Jesus gives us the best answer.
- 1 Corinthians 10:1 - 13