Easter people: celebrating liberation and new life, but living on unleavened bread

Mar 27, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

The Church in captivity.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, as it relates to the Church of England, has focused on the failure of institutional process. Bishops and other church leaders, when presented with evidence of clergy sexually abusing children or having done so in the past, at worst appear to have colluded with the abuse by covering up the evidence and protecting the abuser; at best they didn’t know what to do, perhaps following the letter of the law and agreed procedures by passing the information on to other responsible individuals or bodies, but not taking more decisive action to ensure safety and justice.

The Pastoral Letter from the Archbishops of York and Canterbury continues the attitude of penitent admission of fault in the organisation, and reminds readers that the situation is now vastly improved compared with the dark days of the past that have been exposed so excruciatingly. However there is acknowledgement that the sense of the church being under judgment from the secular world has only just begun. IICSA will in due course produce a damning report, and from there will flow strong calls for statutory regulation of church activities, and even its theology, by government agencies.

Some commentators have pointed out that there needs to be profound spiritual analysis, and the seeking of spiritual solutions, not just legal and managerial ones. Could the crisis be linked to toleration of sexual immorality in other areas by clergy, and in Christian discipleship in general? A misplaced pastoral concern for a clergyman with a ‘weakness’, desire to protect the reputation of the church, a belief that sexual behaviour is a minor, secondary issue, not understanding the spiritual toxicity that results from unrepentant sin in this area – all of these and more have surely been factors in allowing a ‘turn a blind eye’ culture to develop in the church.

I was brought face to face with this in a safeguarding training day that I attended recently. Our table group were discussing a fictional case study of a salaried parish youth worker who was in a relationship with a girl in the youth group; she was pregnant, but they claimed that as she had recently turned 18 they were consenting adults and no wrong had been committed. My response (although I prefaced my remarks by laughingly admitting that I was “a bit hard line”), was to say that this was a clear case of gross misconduct; that the youth worker should be immediately suspended, and once lawyers had been consulted about employment contracts etc he should be removed from his post as soon as possible. A vicar on the table disagreed. His instinct was to be pastorally concerned for the couple, that this was a minor indiscretion in a loving relationship, and that my attitude would result in losing a successful youth worker and giving a bad reputation to the church.

The next day my morning bible reading was 1 Corinthians 5. Here Paul addresses a similar situation of sexual morality in the church. “A man has his father’s wife” almost certainly refers to a situation where a wealthy, elderly man takes a much younger second or third wife, who then has an affair with the son of the previous marriage. The young man is a member of the church, who pride themselves on their liberal tolerance, not judging the situation in any way. Paul says instead that they should have “gone into mourning and put out of your fellowship the man who did this” (v2). Paul’s first concern was not the young couple’s happiness, or whether people on the fringe of church might be put off by a judgmental attitude towards unconventional domestic arrangements. His first concern is for the spiritual health of the church, which is being harmed by the toleration (and even celebration) of sexual immorality in its midst.


Exodus and unleavened bread

What has this got to do with Easter? Paul goes on to use the image of yeast. “Get rid of the yeast”, he urges, “for Christ, the Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (vv7-8).

This is a reference to the well-known practice at the Jewish Passover, when the children are sent to run around the house looking for yeast, or bread with yeast in it, so it can be put out of the house before the feast begins. The instructions from Moses had been clear and strict on this (Exodus 12:8; 14-20). Getting rid of the Egyptian yeast, going without it during the escape from Egypt, and then as a people remembering this every year, was a powerful symbol for detachment from the spiritual influence of the pagan culture from which God’s people were liberated after the slaughter of the lambs and the application of the blood.

So too, says Paul to the Corinthians, you have been set free from the power and defilement of sin by the atoning death of Christ, the Lamb of God. Now you are a new batch of dough, a new creation, ready for a fresh start, living every day as a celebratory Passover feast in memory of that great day of salvation. But in practice this means discipline – not allowing the ‘yeast’ of sinful ideologies and behaviours to infiltrate the dough again.

He goes on to say that unlike the Israelites who physically moved away from the pagan Egyptians, the Corinthians would have to keep living among those with different values, but internally, spiritually, they were to be set apart. In practice this means separation, even the harsh consequence of putting outside the fellowship someone who claims to be a believer but is living in open and unrepentant sin. While sexual immorality is not the only or worst sin (Paul lists others), it is the first on Paul’s list in 5:11. At the end of the next chapter he urges the Corinthians to “flee from sexual immorality”, and instead, honour God with their bodies (6:18-20).

Of course many would want to draw a clear distinction between sexual abuse of children, which is a crime and universally acknowledged to be something heinous, and consenting sex among adults outside marriage. The latter is seen as a sin in the apostolic biblical tradition, but other more liberal versions have historically not worried about it – indeed some revisionist Christians have even claimed that traditional, conservative ‘hang-ups’ about sex may be responsible for child abuse and its cover up. But the consistent witness of Scripture does not draw this distinction, as if all sex is OK as long as it is consensual and not exploitative. If anything, Jesus and Paul strengthen and reinforce the Old Testament teaching in this area: “flee sexual immorality” does not just refer to criminal activity, or sex where there is a power imbalance, but to any sinful sex in deed and even in thought (Matthew 5:27-28).

Like yeast, toleration of this infuses the church, and infects each one of us individually. It cannot be dealt with by finger-pointing and self-righteousness;  by denial of the problem, or saying that sin is only committed when crimes against children are involved. The grip of spiritually and psychologically damaging habits is powerful for us all, and can only be broken by the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God, but then comes the discipline of the Christian life, which Paul explicitly links with the Passover discipline. Easter people are those who celebrate their freedom, but live carefully, on unleavened bread, putting aside hypocrisy and lies, and embracing sincerity and truth.

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