Yr A ~ Epiphany 6 ~ 1 Corinthians 3:1–9
We’ve been looking at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians for a few weeks now and this is the first time we’ve experienced him verbally poking them in the eye. The main gist of what he’s saying is, “You are not spiritual! You’re babies!” You can imagine how they’d react to such an accusation.
He says that they are obviously babies because they’re acting immature – thinking they’re all grown up, thinking they’re better than other followers, thinking they’ve got the one and only true teaching while others follow the wrong people, and behaving badly toward one another. So Paul says, “Fine, if you’re babies then I’ll feed you milk instead of solid food!” Again, ouch!
Paul has called this community of faith to account. Now, do I mean the Corinthians or the Faith-ians? Can we see some of ourselves in his rant? Maybe a little. And that starts to make us squirm. Because we want to think we’re pretty grown up and mature in our faith and that we’ve got an insight into this whole spirituality thing that “other” versions of Christianity don’t have – so we’re better!……Oops!
Paul’s charge is that they’re behaving badly – but he doesn’t literally say behaving. The Greek word he uses means something closer to “walking in the way of.” So his indictment isn’t exactly about doing right or wrong it’s that they’re not really following the way of Jesus even though they think they are. That statement should really give us pause. The Corinthians obviously thought they were doing right, but Paul said not. We obviously think we’re doing right or we wouldn’t be doing what we do. Are we wrong too? How would we know?
The big problem though is about the conflict over whose teaching they’re listening to. Some are apparently following Paul’s own view and others are following Apollos – the guy that Paul left in charge when he left. We don’t know what the difference in the teachings might have been, and for Paul it didn’t seem to matter because he didn’t take issue with Apollos he took issue with the church! What mattered was that the church was placing human teaching above anything else – even God! That is trouble!
This is the part that stings us too. We in the mainline church are famous for championing the latest author or theologian who articulates the theology we like and looking down our noses at others who don’t read the same stuff. We toss around names like Marcus Borg, John Spong, Bart Ehrman, Phyllis Tickle, and Diana Butler Bass and puff up because we’re on the leading edge of so-called ‘progressive’ theology – while other churches follow those other authors and theologians, you know, the backward, old school, passé, blah blah blah ones. And when we do this we are the Corinthians!
So Paul says in verse 5 “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?”
What is Spong, who is Borg, what is Tickle? – ok, that sounds weird!
Who are these people? What are these voices?
Paul says they are all “Servants through whom you came to believe.”
Actually the word is ‘slaves’. So, who or what are Apollos and Paul slaves to? Who or what are the authors we read in service to? God!
It’s that classic problem. Someone stands and points at the moon and says, “Look, how awesome!” and we look all right, we look at their hand and admire their insight. Paul says “don’t look at the finger, look at what the finger is pointing to! – Don’t focus on the messenger, focus on the one who inspired the messenger – focus on the one the message is about.”
Then we get the key verse in this passage. It’s so good:
v.6 “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Let’s spend some time with this.
Paul planted – literally he planted the church and figuratively he planted the seeds of faith in the Corinthians by introducing them to the Jesus story and Jesus Way as the means of communing with the Holy Mystery we call God. Apollos then watered – not literally (at least I hope not) but in the sense that Apollos carried on the spiritual inspiration, nurture, and guidance for the congregation. I’m kind of like Apollos here – I didn’t plant this church or start you on your faith journey but I am the one who is currently “watering you” in this season of Faith.
Both of those jobs are critically important. Someone has to plant the seeds of your faith, and someone has to water and nurture those seeds. But neither the planter nor the waterer is the key ingredient. God is! God gives the growth.
Actually, the NRSV says “God gave the growth” which is ok in that context but grammatically the verb is really “gives” – God GIVES the growth. It’s not complete. It’s not past tense. It’s ongoing, for ever and ever. We are always on the journey, never finished. We are always growing, never fully grown.
Now for the really tough question: what does growth mean? The dictionary says it means to increase, to develop, to become by degrees, to mature.
God gives the growth.
God gives the increase.
God gives the development.
God gives what you are becoming.
God gives the maturity.
Ok, I think we’re getting there now.
And here are some more questions:
What does growth or development in faith look like?
What does spiritual maturity look like?
How do you know if you’re maturing?
Is there a measurement tool?
If so, what is it?
I used to be a teacher. In education there is a clearly laid out pattern of experiences and learnings that every student more or less follows. It’s called a curriculum. Many educators got together and over time figured out what students need to learn and experience in what general sequence in order to grow toward educational maturity. We have grade levels and tests and all sorts of devices to help us gauge the kid’s progress and maturity.
Can you see where I’m going? What would all that look like in spiritual terms? What would the curriculum be? What would the grade levels look like? Is there a set of learnings and experiences that every follower of the Way of Jesus ought to progress through to grow toward maturity?
Does that concept sound odd to you? I don’t mean that we should develop a test that finds out how many books of the bible you can name, how many parables you know, or how many times a week you pray, and if you pass you get to be mature. That’s ridiculous. But is all talk of an intentional set of sequenced spiritual experiences nonsense? I don’t think so!
Take prayer for example. A beginning Christian, whether they’re a little kid or just a person new to faith, needs to learn how to pray. So we start by modelling prayers – ‘repeat after me’ like I do at kid’s time, memorizing the Lord’s Prayer, maybe learning a couple of table graces. Then when they’re ready we introduce them to some spiritual practices like centering prayer, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, or just encouraging them to chat with God casually. Then when they’re ready we urge and challenge them to adopt a couple of these spiritual practices as their own. Then we eventually encourage them to go deeper into those practices or explore ones they’ve avoided.
Or what about the bible? We start a kid or a new Christian with stories of Jesus or compelling figures and stories from the Old Testament, then over time we start to show how those stories connect together, then we encourage them to do a Program Calendar course like Bible 101 or Exploring Faith Questions, and then we suggest that they partake in something from the Program Calendar every season – twice a year.
There’s a logical, sequential progression of deepening experience in these examples. Isn’t that a way to move toward maturity? Of course, if we did this and established levels of spiritual maturity you can be sure the ugly Corinthian in us would emerge and we’d be arguing about who was on what level!
Now, if you’re really on the ball you’ll be thinking that I just made a big deal about God giving the growth and not relying on human knowledge or effort. That’s true, but you’ll also recall that God can’t really give much growth if nothing has been planted and watered. Planting and watering are human efforts. We have a role in our growth. Our efforts are absolutely imperative. And it seems to me that if we want our efforts to be useful and we want God to grow amazingly deep and profound spiritual things in us then we really ought to have our efforts organized somehow.
This is why being a member of a church is so important! Showing up here every Sunday (most Sundays? Some Sundays?) – being here today (!) is a wonderful bit of watering. I like to compare it to being a member of a fitness club. You might be able to get fit on your own but you’re much more likely to thrive if you go to a place where everyone else is striving for the same thing, and there’s special equipment to help you, and there are experienced or trained trainers, and there are learning programs to tap into… See?
And even in that analogy we can explore who gives the growth. When you lift weights you’re expending effort in order to grow your muscles, right? Not exactly! When you lift weights you’re actually tearing your muscle fibres – you’re hurting them and weakening them. BUT, then when you rest your body mysteriously knits them back together and makes them stronger and larger in the process. So without your effort it never happens, but even with your effort you aren’t directly making it happen – you’re just creating the fertile space to allow it to happen. What fertile space are you creating to allow God to grow your spirit?
Ok, this all sounds well and good, but there’s a problem we haven’t mentioned yet – a challenge that we haven’t acknowledged that really trips a lot of people. Growing is hard. There’s a song I love by a guy named Wayne Watson that goes: “I’m growing, I don’t like it, I’m growing and it hurts!”
Growing hurts! Want big muscles – go ahead and work out, but your muscles are going to hurt. As the saying goes: no pain, no gain!
Want a deep and abiding love for God and a life infused with shalom, love, joy, kindness, insight, wisdom, justice, compassion, and communion with God? – go ahead and pray! But it’s gonna hurt!
Chesterton famously said that “Christianity hasn’t been tried and found wanting, Christianity has been found difficult and left untried!”
Growing in faith hurts!
Living justly hurts!
Surrendering your ego to God’s will hurts!
Acknowledging that you are not the centre of the universe hurts!
Letting down your guard and accepting that you are truly loved hurts! – because you’re vulnerable, out of control, and having to rely on and trust in something inexplicable yet profoundly real.
Dying to who or what you were hurts!
And being reborn hurts some too!
There’s no getting around it – growing up in faith hurts!
But it’s worth it! It’s so worth it. Because on the other side of the hurt is more and more of God’s Presence, and more and more of who you were really meant to be.
The final verse of this passage ends with the phrase: “You are God’s field, God’s building.” The field part is easy to understand now.
Seed is planted in God’s field – your heart, your soul.
Seed is watered in God’s field as you strive to practice communion, compassion, and connection.
And in God’s field – your heart, your soul – God gives the growth.
And it says you are also God’s building – or God’s house – God’s dwelling place. That too is a beautiful image, but we’ll have to leave that for two weeks from now.
Someone planted the seed of God’s love and the teaching, life, and presence of Jesus in you. I get to do some watering, but mostly you carry that task, engaging in all sorts of experiences and practices to create fertile soil for growing and tending to what’s planted. And God gives the growth! God grows you deeper, and deeper, and deeper as you journey.
This is the maturity lesson those Corinthians can teach us. None of us are done yet. We’re all in the process of growing up.
And it’s hard, and it hurts, and it’s worth it!
Thanks be to God.