““For Christ, our Passover 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 5:7b-8).
Within the context of an essentially negative point in which the author of these words, the apostle Paul, is criticising the church in the Greek city of Corinth for tolerating gross immorality, we catch a glimpse of a wonderfully positive view of the Christian life. It is, we are shown, a celebration, a festival.
Any celebration must have something that is being celebrated and at the heart of this one is Christ. Although his self-giving death is mentioned — referred to as a sacrifice — yet it is not this event that the Christian celebrates by his/her life, but the person whose quality of character is demonstrated by this event. We celebrate the vastness of virtue by which Jesus gave himself to free a world held captive by death into an abundance of life.
As far as the nature of the celebration itself is concerned this, Paul suggests, takes the form of a community life that exemplifies those virtues by which Christ has set us free. Paul refers to only two of these, namely sincerity and truth, not because these represent their sum total, but because these are among those which his readers are wilfully disregarding. And so the festivities of the liberated amount to lives that nurture and demonstrate the virtues of Christ. To celebrate Christ is to live as he lived.
I am aware, however, that to say this exposes me to the accusation that I am explaining away the mood suggested by the words ‘celebrate’ and ‘festival’ and am reducing Paul’s vision of a life of joy to an ethical imperative. But, and this will come as no surprise to anyone, I honestly don’t think I am. The life of virtue, the life lived towards God in faith, towards others in love and towards the future in hope is a joyful life. Those who live in this way are compared in Psalm 1 to a ‘tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither’. These people are flourishing. I believe that where the Bible talks about joy, it is linking it to human flourishing and not necessarily to the particular circumstances of our lives, which may, or may not promote happiness.
There is no room here for the tyrannical happiness that is often expected of evangelicals, the “It-was-there-by-faith-I-received-my sight-and-now-I-am-happy-all-the-day!” phoney joy that brings only the fear of not being happy enough or the guilt of feeling the negative emotional impact of life in a fallen world. The joy of the celebrating life is the joy of the well lived life, or, to be more accurate, the joy of a life that is becoming well lived.
This is not a cop-out; a way of lowering expectations of what the Christian life can deliver while paying lip service to the idea that it is a joyful life. One of the reasons we may be tempted to dismiss it in this way is because the Biblical idea of a joyful life is sometimes confused with the West’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness, where happiness stands for little more than a sustained feeling of satisfaction and pleasure in ourselves. These are two completely different things and, by the way, only one of them is a true depiction of human flourishing.
But a vital reason why Paul uses the celebration analogy as a depiction of the Christian life is to highlight that this is a life lived in community. To put it simply, you can’t celebrate a festival by yourself. What this means is that a life characterised by sincerity and truth, and by faith, hope and love can’t be lived in isolation. These, or any of the other virtues such as courage, patience and humility can neither be nurtured nor expressed except in community. We can’t celebrate Christ unless there’s a tradition to teach us how to celebrate and others who can help us to celebrate.
The heroic notion of Lone-Ranger Christian who achieves great things for God owes more to the Romanticism of the Nineteenth century than it does to a Biblical view of the life of faith. We are not called to be the Ivanhoe of our generation, but invited to flourish through worshipping and serving within the context of the life of the church. No individual life can possibly be a true or adequate representation of the values and goals of Christ’s ministry. These can only be genuinely expressed in the transformation and flourishing of the church and, ultimately, of the universe as the impact of Christ’s life is rolled out across the whole of creation. That single tree planted by streams of water, it turns out, is part of a vast celebrating forest: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).