Growing Up, Building Up
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany/A • February 12, 2017
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
© 2017 All Rights Reserved
Click below to hear the sermon preached
Where is your mind right now? Are you thinking about something that happened earlier this morning or during the week? Are you in the past? Are you in the future: thinking about what will happen next, what your day will hold? Are you here?—or somewhere else? I think the greatest change in our time has been the way our minds are asked to focus on so many different places at once. Have you seen people out together, perhaps at dinner or a coffee shop, clearly together and yet both engaged with others because they are busy texting on mobile phones or taking photos for Instagram or doing something else that calls their mind to another place, another person? Where is your mind right now? Buddhists especially raise the issue of mindfulness: simply, consciously, disciplining your mind to be right here, right now. The question of your mind, my mind, is one we heard Paul raise last week when he spoke about the mind of Christ.
Division in the Church and the Mind of Christ
Remember that Paul is dealing here with the problems of human division, especially within the church at Corinth. The congregation has divided into factions, some looking to Paul as their leader, some to a man named Apollos, perhaps others to Cephas. The issues are not clear, but we don’t have to go far to imagine the result. We know what division looks like and many have experienced it, if not in church, then perhaps somewhere else. We are hearing this season a connected series of readings so it’s important to remember this background. Last week, we heard Paul deal with division in a general way. He advanced this principle: Christ crucified as an emblem of the mind of Christ. That is, the emblem of ultimate compassion animated, lit, by the love of God, like a lamp flaring up and burning brightly. The mind of Christ always cares, always fills with compassion, always sacrifices like a parent giving up something for a child.
Now Paul is applying this principle to the people in the church, that is to say: to us. Now, I’ve always found this is where things get sticky. It’s one thing to announce a great principle; it’s another to make it personal. Every week I try to share a reflection on the great principles in the Bible. I know my own life doesn’t always reflect these. I know that Jesus says that the commandment not to murder really means not to be angry with someone but I do get angry. I know that Jesus says that we are required to forgive those who hurt us but I have been hurt and I have had a hard time forgiving. Do you find this? Do you struggle to live with the mind of Christ in your mind? Then this is for you—and me.
The first thing Paul says is that these people are babies. I remember ‘baby’ as an insult. I grew up with two younger brothers. Allan was four years younger and I don’t remember a time before him. But my brother David is ten years younger than me so I do remember him as a baby. He always wanted to join in with Allan and I but of course he was too little for some things. We would climb up to a treehouse and leave him behind, we would get on the top bunk of the bed and leave him behind and he would cry. And we would say: “Don’t be such a baby”. Paul says to the Corinthian Christians: you were being babies.
What are babies like? Well, of course they are wonderful and inspiring and the make us smile and we track each advance in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for Rosie to be big enough to come to children’s time. But if we are honest, we can admit there is another side to babies. Babies are selfish. They don’t care how tired you are when they want to eat; they don’t care that your’e doing something when they want to be changed. They don’t care that you just need a quiet moment when they feel like being rocked. Babies are totally self-centered. In the same way, Paul says the Corinthian Christians are acting like babies, self-centered, and that leads them to be jealous and quarreling.
Dealing With Babies
Now notice something about the way Paul responds to these baby Christians: he doesn’t throw them out, he doesn’t work to overcome them, he doesn’t maneuver to make his faction winners. What Paul does is to simply assess where they are, who they are, when they are in the process of development. They’re babies; fair enough ,give them baby food. “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,” he says. This is the piece we miss about being church members: we never ask where people are in their spiritual development. I wonder what it would be like if when our Deacons met with new members, we had a conversation about where that person is in their development as a Christian. Even more important, we need to have this conversation within ourselves. Where are you in your own development? Are you a baby? Are you able to walk but need a little help? Are you grown up but needing some guidance? How much better we could nurture each other as Christians if we asked and answered these questions personally.
So Paul is dealing with babies. How do you grow babies up? You feed them appropriate food, cuddle them and teach them. Some of the teaching is formal but the most important teaching any of us get is what happens around us, what people show us is the right way to do things. I learned to take care of myself at school; but my mother taught me to make my bed. I learned to read from a teacher; my family provided a whole library and an example of people who read.
When Paul wants to teach, he does it by contrasting the smallness of their leaders with the greatness of God.
For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, 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. [1 Cor 3:4-7]
What matters? Does Paul? Does Apollos? Casablanca is a movie from the moment when people were asked to choose sides between fighting fascism and cooperating with it. Humphrey Bogart plays a man named Rick who says over and over, “I stick my head out for no one”. But Rick has a past, a past that includes a love affair with Ilse that ended bitterly in Paris when she failed to join him in escaping the advancing Nazis. When Ilse shows up at his cafe, he learns she is married to the leader of the Resistance. Rick has two passes to get people out of Casablanca, where fascism is increasingly becoming more violent. At first it appears Ilse and her husband will be trapped: Rick refuses when she begs for his help. But finally, at the end of the movie, Rick, gives the coveted exit visas to Ilse and her husband so they can continue their Resistance works. He says,
…it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.
He summons her to a greater vision, a bigger vision.
We’ve all seen this process at work. We grow up in a place, maybe move a few times, travel some and see a few places. Isn’t it always surprising how different customs can be? When I moved to Boston after college, I remember going into a little diner and asking for a cup of coffee. The counter guy said, “Regular?” This was before the age of espresso and Starbucks, I’d never heard of anything but regular coffee, so I said “yes”. Now I’ve always drunk my coffee black but what he put in front of me was light brown; it had cream in it and when I tasted it, sugar. So I said, “hey, I wanted my coffee black”. He looked at me like I was out of my head and said, “You said regular”. So we encounter other customs.
Seeing the Greater Vision
Every once in a while, something really shakes us though, something makes us see a much larger picture. For me, one of those moments was when the astronauts broadcast the first picture of the whole earth. Do you remember seeing that for the first time? One thing that was clear: none of the boundary lines on the atlas at school were on the earth. So as we move to a larger view, what we thought was important becomes less so.
Now Paul is asking the Corinthian Christians—and us!—to see this fundamental huge principle: that we are not here for ourselves, on our own, but part of a larger weaving. We are God’s field he says. And what is a field? It isn’t just a piece of ground; it’s a place where things are grown, a place that bears fruit. We are God’s field and God is growing a harvest here, we are meant to produce that harvest. We are God’s building, Paul says. What is the building? Isn’t it a meeting house where God’s people can come to praise God and embrace in imitation of the God who embraces us?
We do these things by growing up spiritually. We do them be growing from babies into servants, who can cultivate and care for the field, who can maintain and share the building. Where is your mind right now? Is it open to the mind of Christ. It was the mind of Christ that prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God, as any human might, to ease a time of trouble, but then moving on to say, “Not my will be done Lord but yours—to embrace the purpose and providence of God even in that moment of darkness. How often do we pray that prayer? how would it change us if we did? How would making it our center change our church?