February 12, 2017
The Sixth Sunday in Epiphany
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Rev. Ryan Slifka
You never know when the Bible will show up in the news. I remember last year when the Republican party was choosing their candidate for President. You may remember that at that time many people were questioning the sincerity of then-candidate Donald Trump’s Christian faith. Amid much skepticism, especially from conservative evangelical Christians, Donald received a visit from one of the gurus of the American conservative evangelical movement: Dr. James Dobson. Dobson being the founder of “Focus on the Family,” a highly influential organization devoted to socially conservative political views. Dobson emerged from this meeting in a relatively positive mood, saying that Donald “did accept a relationship with Christ.” His faith was genuine, Dobson said and he “really made a commitment” to Jesus. Dobson eventually endorsed Donald for president. There was a caveat, a “but,” though. “But,” Dobson said, “but… he’s a baby Christian.”[i] A baby Christian.
Now, I can’t speak for the personal faith of the president of the United States. Though I must admit I would have expected Dobson to use the phrase “fetal Christian,” or “zygote Christian” at best. But Dobson’s visit, and his language got me wondering. If there’s a such thing as a “baby Christian,” what is the difference between a baby Christian and an adult one? What’s the difference between spiritual immaturity and spiritual maturity? What does it look like to be all grown up?
In our passage from this morning we get a glimpse at least of what spiritually immaturity looks like. You’ll remember from the past few weeks that our passage is a letter from the Apostle Paul to a community of faith he started in the city of Corinth three years before. Things started off on the right foot, the community grew and blossomed. But three years down the line the cracks are showing. There’s deep division in the community. People are fighting over all sorts of thing. Among other things, they are fighting over who is the most spiritual. And which leader is the most wise.
Paul’s response to their fighting is to tear right into them with a lecture:
“And so, brothers and sisters,” he scolds (you can hear the venom). “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human?”
Paul calls them a buncha babies, “infants in Christ.” They think they’ve scaled the heights of religious knowledge. They believe that they are gold metal material for their divine athleticism. They suppose that they’ve finally reached the promise land of spiritual fulfilment. And yet, all of this has led them to nowhere but conflict. Quarreling, taking sides. Looking down on one another, as sense of superiority. Their quarreling is proof that they still have a long way to go to transition from milk to solid food. Their growth is stunted. They are still “of the flesh.” They are still driven by those human impulses that lead them to fight with one another. So Paul has had to step in, and spoon-feed them the basics once again.
You’d think that after three years, they would have progressed somehow. But they haven’t. In fact, Paul says, it’s time to put the training wheels back on. Because they’re just not ready. They’re about to crash. What fascinates me about this, though, isn’t the fact that they are immature. Or that they’re fighting. Or that they should know better. It’s the fact that they thought they were all grown up already. And this actually fuelled their quarreling. Because in the end, they were using their sense of maturity, of spiritual superiority, to assert themselves over each other. It’s easy to tell when we have literally, physically grown up. That follows a straight line. From infancy, to childhood, adolescence to adulthood. But it seems different when it comes to spiritual maturity. It’s when we think we have it all figured out is when our ignorance is revealed. When we see no need to grow anymore, we pull a Benjamin Button and our souls actually age in reverse. And when we stop pursuing it, that’s when it seems to most elude our grasp.
Spiritual immaturity, it seems, is to believe that you have no more maturing to do. And I think this is our human default. It’s kind of ironic that the moment we hit adulthood is when we become most set in our ways. When our opinions become the most fixed, and we become the most averse to change. I’ve noticed this about myself. And it always seems to lead me to arrogance, ingratitude, and conflict. Rather than to humility, graciousness, and harmony. When we’re not spiritually growing, we’re spiritually dying. When we don’t think we have any more growing to do, that’s when we’re stuck, Paul says. That’s when we’re stuck in spiritual infancy.
And, you know, sometimes you’d wish Paul would stick with one image or analogy. But he really likes to mix his metaphors. Where he talked about human babies to illustrate stunted spirituality, here he shifts to the plant world. To flora and fauna to illustrate spiritual vitality.
“What then is Apollos?” he asks. Apollos being his fellow preacher who helped him establish the church at Corinth, but stayed behind to continue their work. “And What is Paul?” he asks. “Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted,” he says, “Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.”
Paul switches the metaphor from babies to a field, to a garden. One that requires planting, watering. One that requires constant care and cultivation in order to grow. And just like sunshine draws well cultivated and cared for plants towards the sky, closer to their source of light in the sun, their lives are meant to be constantly nurtured in ways where they can more easily be drawn closer to God, the source of life for all creation. And as they grow closer day by day, they are able to eventually bear fruit. In the end, Paul is trying to get them to see their lives not as their own project with a clear end point or a destination. But he’s trying to get them to see their lives ultimately as part of God’s ongoing project, God’s ongoing plan. One that isn’t completed until, as Paul says in another letter—to the church in Ephesus—one that isn’t completed “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Until we are exactly like Jesus. A project they will likely never see completed. At least not in their life time.
Whereas seeing ourselves as all grown up is a sign of spiritual immaturity says Paul, spiritual maturity seems to begin with the sense that we may plant, and we may water, and since God gives the growth, and since all true growth is growth closer to God. Then it means there is always more growing to be done.
There’s always more growing to be done. Each of us comes here today at a different stage in our lives. And a different stage in our journeys. Some of us have attended church, been Jesus people our whole lives, or at least the better part of them. And some of us have arrived on the scene only relatively recently. Some are Bible scholars, spiritual practitioners. While some of us are newbies in Christ. What Paul is saying is that none of us are done yet. None of us have reached full maturity, the full stature of Christ. Maturity actually comes when we realize just how immature we actually are in comparison with Jesus. Maturity begins with a sense of humility.
So, brothers and sisters. How about you? Consider your own life right now. Do you consider yourself a finished product? How’s that working our for you? How’s that working out for those around you? If you aren’t finished yet, how are you going to cultivate a life of humility, as a garden for God’s grace to reach towards the source of our life in God? Boy do I have good news for you. You’re in the right place. This is what church is all about. We have so many opportunities to grow in our life together. The Lenten Challenge. Bible Study, small group ministries. Opportunities to serve each other, and serve the world God loves. Because growing up in Christ means to realize we’re never done growing. We’re never done cultivating.
Because in the end, the difference between spiritual immaturity and spiritual maturity isn’t a matter of advanced knowledge. It isn’t a matter of a list of life’s achievements, and it’s not even about obtaining a mystical, ecstatic experience of God. It’s cultivating a life that is intentionally cultivated, and radically open to the nourishing, sanctifying work of God’s Spirit. To love more deeply than we love. And to reach out in new ways we never thought possible.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “We ain't what we oughta be. We ain't what we want to be. We ain't what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain't what we was.” Or, as Jesus put it, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. For theirs is the kingdom of God.”
May you understand your life as an unfinished work. May you begin to cultivate the kind of life that bears fruit. One where you are able to grow. Where you draw closer to the God who has already drawn you close in Christ.