Are you growing in your faith? If you think so, how do you know so?
For the past several weeks we’ve been wading into the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the ancient Greek city of Corinth -- which in the first century was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the Roman empire. It had been populated by former slaves imported from around the empire.
There was a huge temple dedicated to the Greek goddess in Aphrodite -- the associated rituals influenced the culture of the whole region. Not surprisingly then, Corinth was also know for its loose approach to morals -- which in the ancient Roman world meant that they almost did not exist.
So, the question underlying much of this letter is how does one actually grow in their faith when they’re living in that kind of a cesspool? Is it even possible to experience genuine Christian growth when you’re living in a Corinth?
Is the power of the resurrection potent enough and life-changing enough that Corinthian people could actually be transformed and begin to join in God’s mission to transform the world?
At first glance it appears that there was little cause for optimism in answering those questions.
Apparently something had gone wrong -- terribly wrong in the new church there -- and there were some people in leadership who were advocating an alternative to the gospel as it had been taught by the apostles.
They were pitching spiritual growth and stature through an experience that they were calling “wisdom” or “knowledge.” We might say -- “enlightenment.”
In their system it was an add-on to the Jesus message. They were saying that if you are really going to grow and amount to anything as a person -- and a Christian -- you needed to go through a kind of enlightenment ritual in which you would receive their version of wisdom and knowledge.
Obviously, Paul was not terribly happy about this whole thing and First Corinthians is an attempt on his part to move things back toward the center -- who is Christ -- Christ the center.
As we move into chapter 3 of the letter Paul is still vigorously chiseling away at the ideas of these renegade influencers.
And he begins to layout a vision for genuine spiritual growth. So that’s what we’re looking at this morning and I’ve summarized his message with five observations. Five observations based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.
And here is the first one. GENUINE CHRISTIAN GROWTH INVOLVES A SOLID DIET.
Verse 1 -- “Brothers and sisters, I couldn’t talk to you like spiritual people but like unspiritual people, like babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet. Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual.”
Wow, these are pretty forceful and in-your-face statements. This is a slam against people who considered themselves spiritually superior -- who because of their enlightenment experience considered themselves to be the most mature.
But Paul blows them off -- and then cuts them down to size. He says, “You guys are spiritual milk drinkers! You haven’t even advanced to glop.”
That’s what we called the first solid foods that we fed our children. We mixed yogurt with fine ground cereal and we called it glop.
You think you’re so grown-up but you’re not even eating baby food. You’re stuck on milk -- that is, basic stuff. You’re not even getting the most basic teaching right so you have to keep trying to digest that if you’re going to grow.
And “basic teaching” in Paul’s mind would be -- repentance or turning from loose living -- obedience to Christ. Honesty and faithfulness. Trust in Christ. The power of the cross and resurrection -- chapter 15. Love. He devotes all of chapter 13 to revisiting that message.
These are not advanced topics. They are not graduate level -- or even upper division level. They were stuck in second grade.
Well, what then is solid food from Paul’s perspective?
Frankly, the deeper spiritual truths are not a lot different in nature than the more basic spiritual truths.
And the irony, of course, is that the deeper you go the more basic things are. But in a different way.
Yes, the basic teaching is turn from sin and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38). That is, conversion. But the deeper more solid food is the same -- except we’re applying it at a deeper level.
We stop thinking of conversion and baptism as a one time event but we begin to realize that we are having to live into our baptism on a daily basis -- Ongoing obedience to Christ.
It’s not just a past event but it is what is happening every moment. We’re focusing on converting every minute, every second -- giving over every breathe and thought to Christ. Repenting of even the ungodly and self-focused thoughts -- and not just the actions. And as we do that we begin to grasp the depth of our union or connection with Christ. Solid food.
Secondly, GENUINE CHRISTIAN GROWTH REJECTS FRACTIOUSNESS.
Sorry for the big uncommon word. But it is a great word to describe what we are rejecting when we are in the realm of solids. Fractiousness -- F-R-A-C-T-I-O-U-S-N-E-S-S
A fractious person is one who is thrives on being in quarrels. He is argumentative and lives to divide rather than unite.
And that was the Corinthian MO -- modus operand, method of operation.
Verse 3 -- “Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual. When jealousy and fighting exist between you, aren’t you unspiritual and living by human standards? 4 When someone says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and someone else says, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit?”
We saw signs of this disunity in chapter 1:10-13 -- “Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘I belong to Apollos,’ ‘I belong to Cephas,’ ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name?”
Fractiousness is divisiveness. Instead of centering on Christ the focus is shifted to something or someone of lesser importance.
We don’t mean that there is no room for disagreement -- just that those disagreements cannot be used to define us or to set the course for us -- whether as individuals or groups.
In 1885 Swedish immigrants to the US dissolved the church bodies that they had originally formed upon arrival -- the Ansgar Lutheran Synod and the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Mission Synod in order to form the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant Church of America -- the group to which MasterPiece belongs.
Now, those early Covenant people were still pretty Lutheran in how they thought theologically and how they functioned. They were Lutherans who had been influenced by the Pietism of Moravians and Methodists. But they still found a lot of inspiration in the Lutheran theological categories.
And if you don’t yet understand what I just said, don’t worry about it right now. But note that they wanted to make it clear that they were not just for Lutherans -- so they dropped the word Lutheran from their title.
Eventually they dropped the word Swedish from their name because they wanted to make it clear that they were not just for Swedish immigrants or the children of Swedish immigrants.
They were and we still are, working on trying to be less fractious -- less divided -- focusing instead on the common mission. That’s what the word “Covenant” means in this context, a covenant to work together and be accountable to one another for the mission of Christ.
We are not perfect, and we are by no means 100% successful in living into our stated values, but we know that genuine growth takes place in the kind of environment which builds bridges rather than walls over every little thing about which we might disagree.
If we can keep the focus on what God is doing, what we agree he has revealed in the Bible -- then the lesser matters of who and how remain lesser matters. There is less fractiousness.
Diminishing fractiousness is an indicator of genuine spiritual growth.
Thirdly, GENUINE CHRISTIAN GROWTH IS SERVANT GROWTH.
Verse 5 “After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything...”
We are only God’s servants -- and there is not much ego in being a servant. Servants are not looking for nor do they get much personal credit.
And if your spiritual identity hinges on others recognizing all that you have done or the sacrifices you’ve made... If you need people to tell you that you are important because you have helped your neighbor unload
the moving truck -- hey, you don’t get it.
Yes, it is nice when we receive recognition for something we’ve done. But as we grow spiritually and personally we no longer live for the recognition of others. As we grow into our roles as servants we realize that it’s not so much about us as it is about who we serve.
Second half of verse 7 -- “...but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together, but each one will receive their own reward for their own labor.”
Yes, there are rewards -- but we are not driven by the rewards. Our drive is, to quote verse 9, the fact that “We are God’s coworkers...”
That’s our identity -- the fact that we are serving alongside God himself. That’s the thrill!
Are you growing as a servant? Or do you see growth more in terms of how many are serving below you on a pyramid?
Genuine maturity -- spiritual growth is servant growth.
Fourthly, GENUINE CHRISTIAN GROWTH IS A PROTRACTED PROCESS.
This is an assumption behind the agricultural metaphor. We all know that growing plants takes time -- at least in most places.
On Guam we can put a plumeria stick in the ground and within a few weeks it has roots and is starting to branch -- and within a few more weeks is blooming.
But even then it took time -- not as much time as some places -- but it still did not happen over night. Genuine growth needs time.
Eucalyptus trees grow relatively fast but because they develop so fast they are weak and subject to wind and storm damage. You don’t want to have a tall eucalyptus tree one next to your house.
Likewise with mango trees in the tropics. They grow extremely fast and tall -- but they are extremely brittle.
In contrast, there are bristle cone pine trees -- slow growing on the back side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range -- one of which are nearly 5,000 years old.
There is a Baobab tree in South Africa which is 6,000 years old.
Slow but steady growth is more sustainable over the years. Don’t get anxious if you have not developed as fast as you think you should have. Just keep trusting God and moving forward.
Here is a general rule of thumb. In my experience, those concerned that they are not growing enough are the ones who are in fact growing -- they just can’t see it. But those who think they’re achieved a lot don’t really get it and they’re as brittle as eucalyptus.
I teach a spiritual formation class at Pacific Islands University -- that is, how is it that we are formed or grow into the image of Christ.
Sometimes my students get frustrated with me. A lot of them are looking for quick answers and formulas for growth. Read your Bible everyday and pray for so many minutes and you’ll become a mature convinced and convincing follower of Christ Jesus.
The area where I hear the most grumbling is when it comes to prayer. Students really want to learn how to pray. But usually, when they say that, they’re looking for a magic formula that will give them the power, focus, and concentration they think they need to get on top of life.
They’re looking for the right formula -- the right words to say, and the right prayer posture, so that they can get whatever they ask for.
But I teach them the not so flashy Lord’s Prayer -- in which, by the way, we find the entirety of the kingdom of God message summarized. Once you’ve really learned how to pray the Lord’s Prayer in all its simplicity you’ve grown to the place where you can and are hitting on all cylinders spiritually. Then you can learn more.
This is one reason that I’m pretty adamant that we use the Lord’s Prayer in worship -- so that it becomes second nature to us -- and that it is so imprinted over time that it starts to form who we are and what we think and what we ask for and how we ask for it.
We do this with our young children. We make them say words they don’t really understand nor perhaps mean -- please, thank you.
And over time they are formed by the words themselves. They become gracious and grateful people.
The same is true with growing through the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s a process -- and it only comes through time and doing -- repetition -- rooting, to continue the farming metaphor. And it is true that there might be times that we say it without thinking -- but over time -- through the process -- as the imprint becomes deeper we begin to think deeper about it.
In Luke 11 the disciples ask Jesus how they should pray and he says, “When you pray say this...” That is, learn to repeat this. Commit to this long protracted process.
Fifth, GENUINE CHRISTIAN GROWTH ACKNOWLEDGES THAT GOD IS THE GROWER.
vs. 7 -- “Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow.”
The NLT renders the last line -- “What’s important is that God makes the seed grow.”
It’s really God who makes it all happen. We’re just cooperating -- and even the ability to do that is by his grace -- his generosity. And we acknowledge God as grower when we eat solid food, reject fractiousness, become servants in our thinking and acting, and commit to a long term process.
This morning I want to challenge you to embrace this kind of growth -- genuine growth. In Colossians 2 Paul says,
“Just as you have received Christ Jesus so continue to live in him.”
That is, just as you have decided to follow him and have given him total access to your life -- stay that course -- don’t change strategies and look for a short-cut in the form of an add-on spirituality.
And be genuine about it.
You know, our natural tendency is to try to manage our images with other people. We want people to think a certain way about us.
So, for example, I might say, “I don’t watch television much but I saw this great show on TV last night.”
Did you catch it? “I don’t watch TV much...” That is, I don’t want you thinking of me as someone who sits around watching TV all the time.
We do image management in a lot of ways -- and the temptation is to try to manage how others think of our spiritual growth.
I’ve been trying to start these seeds for our garden and I decided last week that it might help to put a grow light on them at night so that they get some extra light on the same wave-lengths as the sun -- firm them up -- speed up their growth. So I bought this plant light bulb.
Cheryl saw the package sitting by the lamp and asked me the other day, “Why did you buy a plant light bulb?”
So I went through the whole speech -- explaining about speeding up and firming up the growth of the seeds.
Then she read to me the side of the package. “This Plant Light bulb from GE is tinted blue to highlight the natural beauty and color of your plants -- so they appear healthier and greener.”
I thought I was buying a grow light (and there are actual grow lights) but I bought a plant light that was only designed to make things look better. I didn’t even know that they made light bulbs for THAT purpose.
I thought plant lights were grow lights. But while plant lights may manage the image of the plants -- making them appear greener and healthier -- they don’t help them grow any better than any other source of light. There is nothing special about them.
Through my own inattentiveness to the label I messed up. And that’s exactly what the Corinthians were struggling with. They had directed a bunch of artificial plant lights onto their lives and were bragging about how wonderfully they’d grown -- all the while they were infected with a sickness that given enough time would probably kill them. They were masking their flaws with artificial light.
Genuine growth isn’t interested in the appearance of growth but is committed to the real thing -- the obedience to Christ that is solid food, the rejection of fractiousness, the adoption of servant thinking and acting, and a long term growth process.