A congregation of the United Church of Canada
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 really experienced him verbally poking them in the eye. The main gist of what he’s saying is, “You think you’re all grown up, think you’re better than other followers, think you’ve got the one and only true teaching while others follow the wrong people, and because you think you’re all that, and a bag of chips, you behave badly toward one another. You are not mature! You’re spiritual babies!” Ouch!
They’re misbehaving babies. Well, actually 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 them 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. Right? Are we sometimes wrong too? How would we know?
The big Corinthian 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 – a colleague of Paul’s who taught at Corinth after Paul 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!
We in the contemporary 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 1 Corinthians 3:5, “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?
It’s a classic problem. Someone stands and points at the moon and says, “Look, how awesome!” and we zero in on their hand and admire their fascinating insight. Paul says “don’t look at the finger, or whose finger it is; 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:
1 Corinthians 3:6 “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Let’s spend some time with this.
Paul planted – he planted the church, and 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, but not identically to Paul. I’m kind of like Apollos here. I didn’t plant this church, or start you on your faith journey, but I get to be 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. Growth is never 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. It’s a growing thing.
Now for the really tough question: What does growth mean? Lots of people think church growth is about filling the pews. I think church growth is about deepening the pewsters! (That’s y’all!) The dictionary says growth 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.
That’s not about numbers – that’s about depth. It’s a growing ever-deeper thing.
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? When I was ordained they neglected to issue me a mature-o-meter.
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 our 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?
Back in the old days there used to be a thing called Adult Sunday School that happened either before or after worship. I’m not suggesting we need to implement that again (ok, maybe a little). I’m just wanting us to come to a robust understanding that church and faith are so much more than just attendance at worship – that maturity takes a long-term investment of passion and conviction – and that every single person who has ever graced any church – including all of you, and surely me too – everyone has room to grow ever deeper in maturity. Faith is a growing thing.
Think of spiritual maturity as a spectrum. Imagine the line – from baby Christian to mature follower. Where would you place yourself on that spectrum today? (Oh, I know, it changes constantly, but generally speaking.) Where were you on that spiritual maturity spectrum, say, 5 years ago? Are you moving in the direction you want to be moving? Do you feel like you’re growing ever deeper? What do you need to help you ‘grow’ – to help you mature?
Everyone is on their own, unique spiritual journey, and no two follower of Jesus have the same needs. But we do share a calling to ever-deepening experience on our never-ending journey into maturity.
Maturity comes in all shapes and sizes. There’s maturity in scripture and theology – maturity in prayer and spirituality – maturity in service – maturity in deep fellowship and mutuality – maturity in openness to ‘others’ – maturity in living justly and with integrity. In some of those areas I know I am very mature – and in other areas I know I’m the baby Paul’s pointing his finger at. How about you?
1 Corinthians 3:6 “Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Planting and watering are human efforts. We have a role in our growth. You have a role in your 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 connected here today (!) is a wonderful bit of watering. I can pour out the water all I want, but if you don’t connect here somehow you don’t get that water. 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 also 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 – that’s why your muscles fail after so many reps. 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?
If it’s a growing thing, what fertile space are you creating to allow God to grow your spirit?
Ok, this all sounds well and good, but there’s a challenge that we haven’t acknowledged that really trips a lot of people. Growing is hard. 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! – not like sore muscles, but with discomfort for venturing outside of your shell. Another way to say that is that discipleship has a cost.
Remember that famous quote from Chesterton: “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 doing so means 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 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 abundant life, 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.” That’s ‘you’ plural, as in the church – but it’s also ‘you’ singular, you personally. 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 love, love, love. 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. We call churches ‘buildings’ but really they are ‘builts’. They’re finished. Built. Completed. We, on the other hand, the people who inhabit these ‘builts’, are the real ‘buildings’ – God’s holy dwelling place.
Someone, somewhere along the way, 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 yourself – as you engage in all sorts of experiences and practices to create fertile soil for growing and tending to what’s been planted in you. And God gives the growth! God grows you deeper, and deeper, and deeper as you journey. If only the Corinthians could have realized that. And it’s still true today. We get to learn from their mistakes. And what have we learned?
It’s a blessing thing. It’s a harmony thing. It’s a heart thing. It’s a spirit thing. And it’s a growing thing. It’s all those things – and all together we see that it’s a faith thing. A ‘Faith’ thing. Thanks be to God.