A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 16, 2014
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 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. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Thanks be to God for this, which is God’s Holy Word, and to God’s name let there always be praise. Amen.
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The Rev. William Sloan Coffin once said, “the good news of the gospel is that God loves us, and loves us just the way we are; but it is also true God also loves us too much to let us remain this way.” If we are not growing in our spiritual life together, then we are not really responding to God’s love.
I first learned this in confirmation class at the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago Heights. My pastor Gordon Reif, known simply as “The Rev.” to all of us kids, would end class each week with a citation, a quote, some nugget of wisdom from the saints and scholars of our tradition. One week in early spring he ended class with, “Remember what Saint Augustine said: ‘Love God and do as you please, and God will be pleased with you.’”
Well that confounded me. I struggled for a week to make sense out of it. “Love God.” Got it. That’s easy. “Do as I please.” Wait a minute. I’m 13 years old and I have permission to do whatever I want? OK! “And God will be pleased?” Huh? I was pretty sure not everything that seemed pleasing to a 13 year old male who was meeting his first real girlfriend behind the church facilities shed before confirmation class each week was pleasing to God. Nevertheless, from this conundrum, and over the course of the next week as I struggled to understand Augustine, I found my notions of love, of God, and of pleasure (both mine and God’s), completely transformed. Loving God changes what we most deeply desire to be and do. And this transforms our understanding of God’s love for us. This is what God’s love is supposed to do – set off a transformation in us that leads us ever deeper into God and into the world God loves.
God’s love sets off a transformation. We are not expected to stay as we are but are expected to grow. For a couple of years I was fluent in the language of conversion, by which I mean I was comfortable speaking about the experience through which I offered my life to God. But soon I began to feel that speaking this way diminished the value of all the nurture I had received from my parents, my mentors and my teachers in the church up until then. My insight was important to me, but I came to appreciate that God had long led me through my life, preparing me not only for that transforming moment, but for many more as well, as I continued to grow. I realized that conversion is not one moment but a way of life. Being born again, meant being born again, and again, and again.
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For two years in high school I was passionately and politically against abortion. At the time I thought it was the only Christian position, and I wanted my faith to change the world. But my congregation taught me to listen to the voices and experiences of women. The Presbyterian Church has long supported a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her own body, including her right to terminate a pregnancy, though there have been attempts to reverse this. I remember attending a meeting of our General Assembly in Minneapolis when I was a junior in high school. And there I got to hear women speak about how they had made the difficult decision to have an abortion, about what abortion was like before Roe.v.Wade, and hundreds of other stories that shattered what I had thought was a simple issue of right and wrong. That was the beginning of a journey of conversation, study and prayer that led me to change my mind and support a woman’s right to choose abortion. And it required me to rethink what it means to be created in God’s image, what I thought about contraception and many other matters.
Maybe this is just part of adolescence, but it took me some time to realize that growing as a Christian is not about gaining biblical knowledge or holding the right positions; it is not about time spent in prayer or taking part in church affairs, or even racking up a list of personal deeds pleasing to God. Growing as a Christian means deepening the reflection of Christ through our relationship with others. It is about the words we use when we speak to one another; it is about the generosity with which we listen to one another; it is in the expectations we set for one another and the mercy we show when we fall short; it is about how we treat those with whom we disagree, especially when we disagree; it is about having the courage of our convictions in personal and public ways while participating in the necessarily messy and ambiguous redemption and reconciliation of the world that God is accomplishing. It is not about our intentions but our interactions, “so far as they depend upon us” (Romans 12:18). It is about treating others with dignity, equality, and love.
In our scripture reading today, Paul writes to the community of Christ followers in Corinth because this community where Paul had labored for almost two years had become divided into small groups of like-minded believers with some outrageously claiming to be more spiritually mature than the others. But their jealousy, quarrels and division rather revealed their immaturity in the ways of the spirit. “I cannot address you as spiritual persons,” Paul writes in utter frustration, “because you are still mere infants.”
Paul claims that while he was with them he had loved them with the love of a nursing mother. “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now, you are not ready…” Picture what he is saying: for two years I responded to your every need; I shared my very self with you to the point of utter exhaustion; I ate for two and never got a full night’s sleep; I prayed over your progress and suffered your bites and burps and your inarticulate cries, and I did it all with joy to see you grow. And yet instead of growing as a covenant community that could bear a distinctive witness to God’s reign of love in the world, you can hardly bear one another.
The measure of our maturation in Christ is not the fidelity with which we hold position, but the fidelity with which we are willing to hold one another through the complicated and challenging journey of life together. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes, “The Church does not have a social ethic, the church is a social ethic.”
So what are the signs that we are mature Christians; that we are saved?
Hauerwas tells this story.
A team of evangelical Christians [who] invaded Shipshewana, Indiana, to bring the lost of Shipshewana to Christ. In front of Yoder’s dry-goods store one of these earnest souls confronted a Mennonite farmer, with the challenge, “Brother, are you saved?” The farmer was stunned by the question. All his years of attending the Peach Bloom Mennonite congregation had not prepared him for such a question particularly in front of Yoder’s.
Wanting not to offend, as well as believing that the person posing the question was of good will, he seriously considered how he might answer. After a long pause, the farmer asked his questioner for a pencil and paper and proceeded to list the names of ten people he believed knew him well. Most, he explained, were his friends but some were less than that and might even be enemies. He suggested that the evangelist ask these people whether they thought him saved since he certainly would not presume to answer such a question on his own behalf.
It makes us wonder, doesn’t it, what ten people we’d list and what they might answer to the question, “Is Jeff saved? Is Leslie saved? Is Mike saved? Is Sharon saved? Is Susan saved?
But Paul realizes that both pride and worry over one’s salvation are misguided, childish behaviors. He reminds us that we are God’s field, God’s building. That the question isn’t whether we are saved, but whether we are confident that God is with us, shaping us, challenging us, trusting us every step of the way.
William Sloan Coffin was right: The good news of the gospel is that God loves us, and loves us just the way we are; but it is also true God also loves us too much to let us remain this way. Thanks be to God.