21 Feb A Cross-Shaped Life: Grow Up!
A Cross-Shaped Life: Grow Up!
1 Corinthians 3:1-9a
February 21, 2021
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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Most of us at one time or another have heard parents or grandparents cooing to young babies and speaking in a tone of voice that they’d never use with anyone else. Perhaps we’ve been those parents or grandparents. This kind of “baby talk” is for the baby’s ears only. And that is all well and good. But have you ever heard adults speaking this way to one another, likely to their spouse or significant other? And what would you think if you did overhear such talk? Believe it or not, some psychologists say that such conversations are a sign of a healthy relationship.
Think back to the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Whenever Ray Barone walked in and saw Debra working in the kitchen, he called her by some silly nickname — baby bop, bubble wrap, doodles, jambalaya, jelly cheeks, lucky pants, monkey, puddlepants, sniggles, twinkles. It was his thing, what he did. These goofy names were terms of endearment, even if they made no sense at all.
A lot of couples use some sort of intimate language. “Honey,” is the most common, except in the South where everyone is “honey.” Similar words are “luv,” “dear,” “sweetheart,” or “babe.
Not all couples get into the really gooey baby talk language. But if they do, they probably have a strong bond. At least that’s what psychologists say.
All of which brings us to this morning’s text. Baby talk is the topic of 1 Corinthians 3, but the mood is quite different here. Paul addresses the recipients of his letter as “brothers and sisters,” but says he feels compelled to speak to them not as equals, but as if they are infants. This kind of baby talk is not an expression of intimacy on his part or a desire to bond; it’s more in line with a scolding because Paul is tired of babbling baby talk to adults. The Corinthians have shown themselves to be spiritual toddlers, and Paul wants them to grow up.
A couple of weeks ago, back in chapter 1, we read that Paul had heard about the jealousy and quarreling in the church at Corinth. So, he said to them: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me … that there are quarrels among you” (1:10-11).
Paul still has that in mind in chapter 3 when says he cannot speak to these brothers and sisters as spiritual people—by which he means, as spiritual grownups, as those who are spiritually mature. Instead, he must speak as though they are “infants in Christ,” spiritual beginners. And when it comes to the maturity of believers, Paul is not really into baby talk. He doesn’t want to coo to adults in a tone better suited to infants, or to limit himself to subjects that only babies can understand. It irritates him and it worries him. How are these Christians to exemplify Christ and live a cross-shaped life with such immaturity? These big babies need to start growing up. As it is, they’re still taking the spiritual equivalent of milk rather than solid food.
Apparently one of the squabbles in the Corinthian church had to do with which teacher — Paul or Apollos — was the authoritative teacher for their faith. The Corinthian believers were becoming groupies and arguing about their preacher preference. Paul, however, sees this as a kind of idolatry, and points out that both men contributed to their deepened understanding, but that “God gave the growth.”
He goes into baby talk mode: “Now boys and girls, my sweet darlings, we all love each other here, and Apollos loves you and you know that I love you, so let’s all hold hands and sing ‘Jesus loves me this I know,’ and let’s try to get along, because we’re all God’s beautiful children. So, let’s all grow together in God’s wonderful grace, you sweet little babies!”
Perhaps Paul has in mind his own spiritual journey. Elsewhere in this same letter, he speaks of maturity in a way that makes it sound like an arrival point: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (13:11).
If only it were that simple. There is truth to what Paul says, of course, but adulthood is not a threshold we step across at some predetermined age. Biological maturation does not automatically equal emotional or spiritual maturation. A person may be able to vote, work, wield a weapon and become a parent, but that does not mean he or she is mature.
Even adults can act like kids. It is not uncommon to see in adults such childish behaviors as selfishness, tantrum-throwing, impatience, name-calling, bullying, gossiping, keeping score and getting even, over-dramatizing, shirking responsibility, blaming, avoidance behavior and problems with impulse control.
Many of us have moments of maturity and immaturity throughout our lives, but in difficult or serious situations, we strive for mature responses. And there’s a difference between keeping our childlike awe, wonder, excitement and playfulness about life versus keeping our childish insistence that the world revolves around us.
“There’s a little boy in the biggest man,” writes psychologist and priest Eugene Kennedy, “and he is forever trying to get out. … He looks with wonder at the world; his eyes are bright and inquisitive, and when you ask him a question, it is the truth that comes out because he has never mastered the deceitful arts. … His playful energy and his transparent openness are incorporated into his grown-up style; his presence disarms us because he neither attacks us nor raises defenses before us. … That’s … the little boy in the big man … who is earnest and good and never wants to hurt anybody.”
But, says Kennedy, there is another little boy in a lot of us, an “obstinate little boy who long ago put his head down against growing up, preferring to hold on to his childhood strategies to get his way. … he is rather a hostile little fellow who cannot get himself out of the foreground in any view he takes of the world. … it is self-infatuation and self-absorption more than any kind of healthy self-respect that marks his attitude toward himself.” And of course, the same can be said for women.
Kennedy concludes his narrative about the child within by saying that when dealing with others, it is “good to be able to tell the difference between the good boy who has become a man and the spoiled boy who has never gotten anywhere.” Then he added, “I think the children Christ let come to him were of the first variety, and it may just be that the little child who ‘will lead them’ is not literally a little child at all, but a grownup who has never lost the best aspects of being young and innocent.”
Some of what the Apostle Paul and Father Kennedy were talking about can be described as emotional immaturity, but there is no doubt that there is significant overlap between emotional and spiritual immaturity.
But let’s focus on spiritual maturation here. No matter how we got started along the way of Christian faith, we didn’t start out as fully mature believers. Some never leave that beginning stage and are like the little boy who fell out of bed one night. Hearing the commotion, his mother ran into his room to check on him. Finding him getting up off the floor, she asked him what happened. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I stayed too close to where I got into the bed.”
In terms of our faith, we can do the same thing, staying too close to our very first understandings of Christian discipleship.
Here are some symptoms of spiritual immaturity:
- holding the belief that faith will make you prosper or at least protect you from trouble
- thinking of prayer as a shopping list of requests
- struggling with the same weakness without any signs of growth
- expecting ongoing spiritual highs
- hanging your faith on a human leader
- believing that the main reason for going to church is for what you receive
- having the blinding certainty that your understanding of faith is right, and therefore anyone who sees faith differently must be wrong
Some signs of spiritual growth include:
- understanding that faith is neither a guarantee of prosperity nor protection from troubles, but the certain knowledge that God is with you
- using prayer as way to make yourself vulnerable to God
- growing in areas of weakness while gaining a greater understanding that grace is not something you earn — it is the gift of God
- hanging your faith on Christ, despite how human leaders serve him or fail to serve him
- realizing that going to church is for what you receive and what you give
- grasping that others’ understanding of faith doesn’t have to be wrong for yours to be God’s truth for you
One aspect of spiritual growth is to cultivate an awareness of how certain problems or issues in our lives interfere with our discipleship. Then in honest repentance we can offer those issues to God with a prayer, such as: “Lord, I’m trying to follow you, but my self-centeredness or judgmentalness or pride (or whatever) creates a bottleneck in my life. Help me to surrender this sin which hinders your Spirit in me and open a wider avenue for your presence.” And, then we need to have patience with ourselves as well as with others, because as Pope Gregory put it, spiritual growth comes gradually, by degrees or steps, not by leaps.
Paul is not the only early church teacher who needed to address this problem of getting stuck in spiritual infancy. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews said something similar to his readers: “You have come to the place where you need milk instead of solid food. Everyone who lives on milk is not used to the word of righteousness, because they are babies. But solid food is for the mature” (5:12-14). Perhaps our Lenten prayer could be for growth in our spiritual digestive system, so that we can handle the solid food of mature faith that leads to an ability to live a cross-shaped life.
From what we know of Paul, he was not likely the kind of person who used baby talk, even to talk to babies, let alone another adult. He obviously cared for the church at Corinth, but he is not at all happy that these Christians resemble a nursery full of screaming children, hitting each other and refusing to share. It’s not surprising, then, that he isn’t about to share deep, theological truths with them. When you think of Paul’s doctrinal letters, you think of Romans and Ephesians, but probably not his letters to the church at Corinth.
In any congregation, there are always people at different stages of the Christian life which means we will always need to deal with one another with love and grace and patience. And as we’re doing so, let us strive to become mature. Or, as Eugene Petersen so aptly puts it in The Message: “So come on, let’s leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on ‘salvation by self-help’ and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgment. God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. But there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!” (Hebrews 6:1-3).
Indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen.