I would guess that if someone walked up right now and called you “a lump of dough,” you wouldn’t take it as a compliment.
But as we saw in the last post, that’s Paul’s latest metaphor for the church at Corinth. He has called them a field and a building (1 Cor 3:9), and a temple of the Holy Spirit (3:16). Then, to warn them of the insidious contagion of sin, he uses the image of yeast permeating dough. On the surface, the issue is how to handle a member of the congregation who’s living incestuously. But what’s at stake is the holiness of the church. Paul is not simply demanding that they punish the man for bad behavior. He’s telling them to put away what that man’s life represents–the failure to mourn sin for the evil it truly is.
Then the metaphor shifts again, subtly. Whereas before, in Paul’s Passover imagery, the people were themselves the dough, now they are Passover celebrants, shunning leaven: “Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:8, NRSV).
There’s some inconsistency in the way Paul uses his metaphors, but surely his meaning is clear enough. “Malice and evil” together represent the old way of life that is to be left behind, the sins of attitude and behavior that so readily infect the church with their noxious influence. The new way of life, “unleavened” by malice and evil, is characterized instead by a purity of heart that is bound to the truth of the gospel. It is, after all, their lack of gospel-centeredness that Paul has been addressing throughout his letter thus far.
But I don’t want to pass too quickly over the word “festival.” Yes, Paul is using imagery drawn from Jewish religious customs surrounding the Feast of Unleavened Bread, hence the language. But Paul is also speaking of the Christian life in general as “keeping the Festival.” Think what that could mean.
We might ask, for example, how we react to the language of “keeping the Sabbath.” Does that sound like legalism, or freedom? An appointment with the dentist (apologies to dentists!), or a day spent with a dear friend?
Similarly with the Festival. The Passover was instituted through Moses (Exod 12:1-28), as a tribute to God’s stunning rescue of his people; unleavened bread was to remind them of the haste in which they fled Egypt. Such rituals were not meant as religious homework assignments but enactments of memory, celebrations in and through which the people remembered and renewed their shared identity under the covenant grace of God.
And it was during the Feast that Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples, offering himself as the Bread of Life (John 6:35), giving them a new ritual of identity to do in remembrance of the new covenant established through the sacrifice of his body and blood (Luke 22:14-20).
What do we mean when we say that we “celebrate” the Lord’s Supper? There is sorrow in the remembrance, but is there also joy? Does the ritual of memory reorient us to the identity that has been so graciously bestowed upon us?
More generally: what might it mean to think of the Christian life as “celebrating the Festival”? For in these words, I think, Paul is not so much castigating the Corinthians for their disobedience as calling them to their true joy.