by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are in the midst of our sermon series The Wisdom of God. If you’ve missed any of the last several sermons or would like to look at them again, you can find them on our website at JosephUMC.org. In recent weeks, we have focused on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He may have written others, but this is the earliest one that we have access to.
We’ve remembered that this is indeed an actual letter, someone’s correspondence, from a real person, Paul (not merely some character in a story), a real person who planted a church in Corinth. He had to go elsewhere. Most scholars agree that he was probably in Ephesus at the time, but the Corinthians had questions and were looking for some guidance. In the meantime, he had received some reports that they were squabbling (and sometimes more than squabbling) about some different aspects. He was writing this letter to address many of these concerns.
We learned last week that Paul, and indeed Christianity in general, divides time into a couple of sections, the present age and the age to come. The present age is where we experience pain, illness, war, sin, and death. It is the age that we are living in now. The age to come is when God creates a new heaven and a new earth, and they are co-mingled together with God’s glory shining in the center. The turning point in history when this began, when the age to come was launched was with the death and resurrection of Jesus. We who follow him, believe in him, are “in Christ.” We get to participate in the new age, the age to come. We get to live with each other and demonstrate for others what life will be like in the age to come.
How do we learn how we should live as people of the age to come? The Holy Spirit teaches us. Through the Holy Spirit, we have access to the mind and the wisdom of God. But we can’t do it all at once. It’s like building blocks. We start low, and we build. We start with basic concepts of how we are loved and forgiven by God, and we start to build. We learn the Bible verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Okay, that sounds simple enough, but as we learn more, we ask the same question as the lawyer in the Luke passage, “Who is my neighbor?” We may have even read the story of the Good Samaritan many times, but until our heart and minds are primed, we are not ready to even consider the question at a more far reaching level. We are meant to be transformed, and it is the Holy Spirit that does it within us.
This week Paul is going to move from these generalities to the specifics. What does it mean for these people specifically, these people that Paul has nurtured in the faith? Let’s read what he has to say. Like last week, I am going to start with the last few verses of the previous reading to remind us where we are and to set the stage.
1 Corinthians 2:14-3:9 NIV
2:14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
3:1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
We are starting to get to the part of the letter where Paul isn’t holding back. In the beginning, he complimented them on the variety of Spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit has bestowed on them. He contrasted wisdom with folly or foolishness, implying that they were able to obtain true, godly wisdom as followers of Christ. There were some moments of uncertainty with some suggestions that they were acting more worldly, but he went on to explain that he does have wisdom to pass on to those who are mature in the faith. They should be able to accept this wisdom because they have the mind of Christ.
Well yes … they should, and maybe they even think that they are, but Paul tells the Corinthians, Guess again. You are not mature enough in the faith to be taught about the deeper wisdom. In fact, you are not even children. You are infants. Not mature enough even to be given solid food (or meat), I have only been able to give you milk! Not only that, but you are proving by your behavior that you are still not ready for anything more substantial.
When Paul uses these metaphors of infants and milk, he was using the kind of language that other teachers of that time used to differentiate between the people who were ready for serious teaching and those who were still beginners.
As we talked about last week, we are all on a learning continuum. None of us understands everything just like that. *snap* We all start off as babies in the faith. Some of us were actually babies. We were born and raised in the church. Some of us may not have been born (or “born again”) until we were much older and everything in between. But, at the time we are “born,” we should get milk. I’ve been reading Janie’s Facebook posts about the new baby calf that was born this week, getting that special milk for a newborn, and continuing to get milk from his mother. He will grow big fairly quickly with that milk. If he didn’t have milk, he would die.
Paul had been bottle feeding the Corinthians to keep them alive in Christ. There is no problem with that. It’s needed. We all need that nourishment of that newborn milk when we are babies in Christ, babies in the faith, but we shouldn’t stay there forever. No one can stay on a diet exclusively of milk all their life and become a healthy mature adult.
There are people in church pews all over the world that have never progressed beyond milk. They accepted Jesus, and that’s where they stayed ever since. If we are going to be the salt and light, the preservative, the deliverer of sustenance for the world in this present age, and the example to the world of what the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is supposed to be like, we can’t do it by remaining infants and being satisfied with a gospel that amounts to milk, maybe even watered down milk at that.
Hold that thought for a moment. Paul calls the Corinthians infants, but they aren’t just any infants. They are “infants, in Christ”. (1 Cor 3:1) For Paul, no matter how disappointed he may be in the Corinthians, he remains certain that they remain “in Christ.” That is Paul’s shorthand way of talking about everything that we get through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are forgiven. We have new life. We are a part of the age to come, while we life in this present age. We may life in this present age, but for us there is a new reality.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:11, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” We have been told over and over how great John the Baptist was. We have heard the stories of his dedication and his love for God. Yet, he is considered least in the kingdom of heaven. When Paul refers to the people being “in Christ,” in this case the Corinthians, he means that they are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Those blessings of grace put them in a better position than anyone who is stuck in this present age. So, they are infants, but they don’t have to stay that way. They have hope because they are in Christ.
However, they aren’t acting like it at the moment. I wouldn’t say that they are acting like infants. They’re more like toddlers who are throwing temper tantrums when they don’t get their way, or perhaps, they are more like elementary kids in a school yard fighting about whose teacher, parent, or superhero is the best. But Paul said … But Apollos said … But I heard that Peter said …
Sometimes, we can get like that between the different Christian denominations. There can be important differences in theological understanding. There are reasons why I am a United Methodist, but before that I am a Christian, a follower of Christ, a believer in Jesus. While I try to understand and fulfill what that means to the best of my ability, I respect that others may have a differing understanding but are also trying to understand and fulfill what it means to the best of their ability. I try to join them in that space where we agree, which in most cases it is about 95% of the time. Next month, Carolyn will be leading a study about the Apostle’s Creed. It is not a denominational creed. It is a Christian creed, and while not everyone agrees with every word in it, as a whole, it is something that 99% of groups that call themselves Christian accept. What’s important is our unity in Christ.
Paul makes it clear throughout this letter that he is not in competition with Apollos. Paul considers him a colleague, a fellow servant in the service of the Lord. He says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Cor 3:6) It is an interesting thing. The verb that Paul uses for his and Apollos’ actions indicate simple actions. They did these things, and it’s over, but the verb that Paul uses for God’s action indicates an ongoing continual action. It may have started before Paul ever arrived on the scene and will continue long after they all leave. In other words, people (teachers) may come and go, but God is constant, consistent, and continual. It is God that does the growing.
We are all called to do our part. When it comes to our own personal spirituality, we are called to move forward. We can hardly help doing so while we develop our relationship, increase our contact with, Christ. But we can also stay right where we are, floating stationary in the water, not going anywhere, remaining satisfied with milk. If we want to move onto solid food, we have to be in conversation with God. How do we do that? We develop our prayer life. We talk to God.
I remember a story one of my first pastors ever told me. It was about a woman who always sat in the back pew. She had lost her husband several years before, but she was doing very well. People would as her if she was lonely, and she always said no. How could she be lonely when she talked to Jesus all day long? Paul tells us to “pray continually.” (1 Thes 5:17) This woman is the closest I’ve ever heard of someone doing it. She talked to Jesus like he was her best friend, telling him about what was going on during her day. She thanked him immediately for the little things. She knew that she could pour out her heart to him when things weren’t going so well. As it says in the hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.” Her prayers were never forced or difficult. She never worried whether she was saying the right thing because she practiced it every day of her life. Most of the people that I’ve known that had difficulty with prayer is that they weren’t sure of what to say. I think that this woman is one of the best examples. Just talk to God like you were talking to your best friend. If your mad, tell him. If you’re thankful, let him know. In my day to day, personal prayers, she is my mentor, the example that I try to emulate. The more you talk and confide in God, the closer you will feel, the more open you will be to the influence of the Holy Spirit.
You want to hear from God. There are many ways that God communicates with us, but one of the best is the Bible. We don’t call it God’s word for nothing. Even if you don’t feel that God is talking to you directly through the Bible, it shows you other ways that God can communicate with you, like putting particular people in your path, or even a brilliant sunset. Every time we see a rainbow, God is communicating with us, reminding us that God keeps God’s promises. These days there are more ways than ever to read the Bible. You may think that sounds silly. With a normal book, you start at the beginning and read to the end. You can certainly do that, but most people start getting bogged down in Leviticus and give up. There are devotionals, Bible studies, reading programs. If you want information about any of these, please see me after church, or contact me during the week. As important as my prayer life is to me, I never feel closer to God than when I am interacting with God’s Word. In fact, my prayer life is enhanced by what I read and study in the Bible, as my Bible study is enhanced by my prayer life. While we don’t sit there idle, waiting for something to be done to us, God does the growing.
The same applies to ministry. There we are also called to do our part, much like Paul and Apollos. We are called to be co-workers in God’s service. We are certainly on a mission from God in ALL that we do, in ministry, as salt and light to the world as we live our daily lives. Yet, we have to remember that it is God’s church. We are working in God’s ministry. We are working with or for people who are made in the image of God. Ge can neither We take pride when it goes well, nor beat ourselves up when it doesn’t go as we planned. It is God that does the growing, and God that has the plan. God may be doing something in the background that we can’t detect. We may think that we are supposed to harvest the crop, but God wants us to fertilize the field. God does the growing, and our job is merely to do what God calls us to do. If you are a Christian, a follower of Christ, you have a calling. It isn’t just for preachers, you know. And, I use the word “merely,” but that does not mean that it isn’t extremely important. I think that we would all agree that the Apostles were all important, but yet they were merely “co-workers in God’s service.” (1 Cor 3:9)
We are called to do what God calls us to do to the best of our ability. There are no half-ways. We should not have the attitude of, “I don’t need to give it my best effort. God will understand.” No one here of course, but I have run into some that will only give our serve out of their excess, “If I have time … If there is extra…” On the contrary, we are to give our first fruits, our best, right off the top before anything else. We do this, but then put it in God’s hands because God does the growing.
It can sound like a huge burden at first, but it can relieve the pressure if you think about it. If things don’t turn out as you expect, you know that you did what you could so far as it depends on you. It is not a failure. God is doing something with it, something you may never see. It may be that God has been working with you during this experience while you thought that you were helping someone else.
We also have to remember that giving your best does not mean working or worrying 24 hours a day, seven days a week (or what feels that way). When we realize that it is God that does the growing, we can stop acting like it all depends on us. Quote-unquote success doesn’t mean killing ourselves, working so hard to “make it happen.” We are allowed to have balance in our lives. We give our very best, but we remember that God ordained the Sabbath rest. God wants us to take care of our bodies, our minds, and our souls. In next week’s Scripture passage, Paul refers to our bodies as God’s temple, the place where God dwells.
Do you know about the care that the people took with the Temple in Jerusalem, care that was mandated in God’s Law? As we are now the dwelling place of God’s Spirit would God want us to take any less care? If God can take a Sabbath rest, so can we.
We are the servants. God does the growing. Think about a restaurant. The atmosphere is wonderful. The menu looks appetizing. The wait staff are good, but what matters is the food. It really doesn’t matter who brings it, as long as it is good. God is the head chef in this kitchen. God is the one who chooses the menu and is in charge of the food, and that is what matters. God makes it all come together.
The Wisdom of God in this area is beautifully illustrated by the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr. It is used by many twelve step programs, but can be helpful for all. I will like to pray a full version of it with you now that many aren’t as familiar with.
God, grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change…
Courage to change the things I can,
And Wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.