Home > Uncategorized > Message on Feb 12, Epiphany 6

Message on Feb 12, Epiphany 6

Note:  this is more or less the text of the sermon I preached Sunday minus the ad libs.  The audio can be heard below.

 

Message for Epiphany 6 – Real Spiritual Maturity

Sermon on 1 Cor 3:1-9 

 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

I’m sure it was sometime in seventh grade or so, when I was goofing off at the lunch table and just being a 12 year old boy, when a girl looked over at me and I heard her say, “Real mature.”  That was the ultimate put down from a mean girl to a boy like me.  We’ll ignore the fact that she sounded like a California valley girl and we were living in Kennesaw, Georgia.  In her book, it was apparently more mature to act like someone from another planet, than to act like oneself.  I thought of that comeback about two years later.  If that illustration was a little too 1980s for you, we can zoom out to a more universal, “Oh grow up,” disgusted look not just included but mandatory, or even, “Act your age, not your shoe size.”  Did I get everyone?  Good.

At first glance, it looks like Paul is doing something like this in his letter to the church in Corinth.  “I have to talk to you as babies… I have to feed you with babies milk not grownup food.”  It kind of sounds like Paul is saying, “Oh, grow up!”  “Real mature.”  But while, spiritual maturity is a significant theme for Paul, I don’t think we should hear him like the mean girl from my seventh grade.  There’s no contempt here.  And on top of that, he’s not trying to put himself up as more mature than the Corinthians.  As a good spiritual father, he simply desires a greater depth of understanding and growth in love toward others, a genuine Christian maturity.

The problem that showed such spiritual immaturity was the significant divisions in the church in Corinth.  Most scholars suggest that the church there wasn’t as many as a hundred people at the time Paul writes to them.  And yet, they are torn apart by significant division.  Some follow Peter, the apostle, some follow Apollos.  We know from the book of Acts, Apollos was a Jewish man from Alexandria, that’s in Egypt.  (Ac 18:24)  He was a good speaker and had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, what we would know as the Old Testament.  We’re not sure how, but Apollos was “instructed in the way of the Lord and he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” (Ac 18:25)  He meets Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus and they instruct him further.  And from Ephesus, Apollos goes on to Corinth with letters of introduction from the Christian community in Ephesus and there “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.”  This is all in chapter 18 of Acts.  Apollos doesn’t get a lot of mention, but he was a significant figure in the church in Corinth and he helped a lot of people to believe in Jesus.  Luther and others since him suggest that Apollos might even have been the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, but that’s speculation.1

So the little church in Corinth is marked by these factions.  Some follow Peter, some Paul, some Apollos, and some Jesus.  And Paul says, this is a mark of spiritual immaturity.  If the cross of Jesus is really central to what it means to be a Christian—and last week, I think we saw that Paul certainly thinks it is—then, these divisions in Corinth don’t merely threaten the unity of the people there in the bond of peace, but they violate and endanger the very Gospel on which their unity is based.  As long as they differed over people, mere men, they will have lost sight of the cross of Jesus, they will have lost the power of God in the Gospel.

We honor Peter, because, yes, he was an eye-witness to the Lord’s teaching and miracles, his death and resurrection.  But this is not the church of Peter.  We honor Paul because, yes, he was a brilliant and articulate preacher of the faith and the Lord called him to be His witness to the Gentiles.  But this is not the church of Paul.  We honor Apollos, even if we don’t really know much about him except what we just learned from a Bible dictionary a minute ago, because he was a faithful and even more articulate defender of the faith to all who would listen.  But this is not the church of Apollos.  Neither Peter, Paul, nor Apollos went to the cross.  None of them were raised.  Only Jesus went to the cross.  Only Jesus was raised.  Only Jesus do we follow.  This is the church of Jesus Christ.

Paul is calling the Corinthians spiritually immature but he’s not doing it with contempt.  He calls them brothers.  “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”  Pastor Paul is gentle and affectionate here.  This isn’t a rhetorical trick.  Paul considered the Corinthians his brothers in Christ.  After all, he had been their pastor before his journeys took him elsewhere and he writes them as their former pastor.  And he points not to himself but to Jesus, the way every good pastor should.  And this language Paul uses here about spiritual maturity is a significant theme throughout the letter to the Corinthians and elsewhere in the New Testament.  In Peter’s first letter, he encourages those reading to “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation…” (1Pet 2:2)  It’s such  a profound metaphor it works its way into our liturgical life in the Church, for centuries, the Introit for the first Sunday after Easter is this verse.  Those who are newly born through the observance of Easter are encouraged to grow up into salvation.  Paul’s concern is that there are many in Corinth who are still living and thinking from the perspective of the wisdom of the world and not on the basis of the God’s wisdom, the cross of Jesus Christ.

The Corinthians are involved in a lot of behavior that’s un-Christian.  The thing is, when people convert to Christianity, they often carry with them a lot of baggage with them from the world they left and they need to learn to live this new life a step at a time.  It’s not that they don’t have the Spirit of God, they do.  But they keep living like they used to and as those without the Spirit still do.  Gordon Fee, a conservative evangelical scholar, in his commentary on First Corinthians says, “There is no question that Paul considers his Corinthian friends believers and that they are in fact acting otherwise. But Paul’s whole concern is to get them to change, not to allow that such behavior is permissible.”2   Our own Confessional documents pick up on this same concern.  In the Defense of the Augsburg Confession, “Of course, it is necessary to do good works. We say that, eternal life has been promised to the justified. But those who walk according to the flesh retain neither faith nor righteousness. We are for this very end justified, that, being righteous, we may begin to do good works and to obey God’s Law.”  (Ap III, 227)  I know Lutherans make a big deal out of works not being necessary for salvation, but you just heard that we still believe good works remain necessary for the Christian, just not for earning salvation.

I’m making this point because it highlights one of the chief criticisms against the Lutheran Reformation in Luther’s day.  By his advocating that a sinner’s rescue from hell and eternal life are won by Christ’s work on the cross alone, (Solus crucis, the cross alone, if you will) not by any additional merit a believer contributes, Luther was accused by his opponents of licentiousness, essentially lawlessness when it comes to the Word of God.  And as we see from our second reading today, that is not the teaching of the apostles, nor is it the teaching of the Lutherans for some 500 years now.  Our good works, while they are incapable of earning us even a percentage of eternal life, are still fundamental and indispensable to a life in the Spirit of God.

Life in the Spirit of God is a life that grows from the lifeblood of the cross.

Most of you know how a tree gets nutrients up from the ground.  It has a hydraulic mechanism just below the bark in the outer part of the tree that draws water up the length of the tree and up to the rest of the tree and out to the branches where leaves grow in season and the fruit of the tree grows.  The cross of Jesus is not unlike this.  A tree that draws up the lifeblood of Jesus shed and out to the branches in order to feed the growing fruit of the tree.  It’s a metaphor Jesus Himself used.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  And it’s a metaphor that works in at least two ways.

The first of course is that we are the branches and attached to the tree and we bear fruit, the fruit of faith and our neighbors benefit from this whether or not they are believers or not.  The stronger the branch grows, the more fruit it can bear but obviously not on its own.  The source is Christ.  The second and maybe just as profound way this metaphor works is that the cross is the tree from which we eat, a tree of eternal life.  The fruit is Jesus. The benefit of eating that fruit is eternal life for all who eat of the tree.  This view too implies a growth in understanding that true life, eternal life, a life of peace and forgiveness and love toward others, comes from regularly eating the fruit of this tree.  Eating this fruit, eating Jesus regularly changes us and makes us more like Him.

What’s more, neither of these views of this tree metaphor involve a whole lot of anxiety or worry.  A branch grows stronger by being fed from the source.  It doesn’t worry about it.  It just does it.  Those who eat regularly the fruit of the tree of the life, don’t worry about the nutrition facts on the label.  Growth happens.  This is the power of cross Paul was so keen to keep uppermost in his thoughts as he wrote to the Corinthians.

Paul writes specifically about their divisions.  Some say they are of Peter, or of Apollos, or of Paul, or presumably the really pious ones say they are of Christ.  But Paul doesn’t let them off the hook because they’re not saying it as though they’re right but just as partisan and fractious as those who say they are of Peter, Paul, or Apollos.  And I’ve already mentioned Luther and the Reformation and to outside observers we seem to be celebrating this year the fracturing, and we have to admit the disintegration of the Christian Church in the West.  If we are going to say, “I follow Luther,” we need to be ready to explain to people what that means and how it’s fundamentally different than what Paul chastises the Corinthians for doing.  There is story often repeated among well-meaning Lutherans that when he was asked about being called Lutherans, Luther himself was against the idea.  And we have a quote from Luther himself to this fact.

In the first place, I ask that men make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine [John 7:16]. Neither was I crucified for anyone [I Cor. 1:13]. St. Paul, in I Corinthians 3,  would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I—poor stinking maggot-fodder38 that I am—come to have men call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold. The papists deservedly have a party name, because they are not content with the teaching and name of Christ, but want to be papist as well. Let them be papist then, since the pope is their master. I neither am nor want to be anyone’s master. I hold, together with the universal church, the one universal teaching of Christ, who is our only master [Matt. 23:8].3

That was from a writing Luther wrote in 1522, just five years into the Reformation.  So, first things first, Luther never said, “Hey everybody, let’s call ourselves Lutherans!  That’ll show the pope!”  No, in fact, Luther’s opponents gave the name as they saw him as every bit a heretic as those who had come before him like the Arians, the Pelagians,  the Hussites, and countless others.  Remember too that Lutherans never saw themselves as the new theology but the old orthodox Christianity.  The Lutherans claimed allegiance to the orthodox teaching of the ancient church fathers, Ireneaus and Athanasius and Augustine and they called those who had departed from the faith “papist” because they followed the errors of the pope.  As you can see, it’s the other guy who gets the name.  And it’s pretty clear how Luther feels about party names at this time.  But the Reformation continued for many years.  And new players entered the field.  Zwingli and Calvin and the more radical reformers that came after them like the Anabaptists.

Luther was subject to error.  I’m sure one of the highlights this year will be the terrible things Luther said against the Jews.  Out of context, they are horrible and provided intellectual fuel for hate.  In context his comments are mitigated somewhat but still show how his own hard had been hardened.  It is good to remember that Luther’s sins are as forgiven as our own in Christ.  And so we don’t follow Luther because he is without error like the Scriptures.  Nor is he the head of our church.  And we don’t call ourselves Lutheran because we believe in Luther but rather because Luther pointed us to the power of God and the wisdom of God in the cross of Jesus Christ.

I’ve got a great quote from our own Formula of Concord, a confessional document written in the generation after Luther that makes this point very clear.

  1. We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged, as it is written in Ps. 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” And St. Paul says in Gal. 1:8, “Even if an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

2. Other writings of ancient and modern teachers, whatever their names, should not be put on a par with Holy Scripture. Every single one of them should be subordinated to the Scriptures and should be received in no other way and no further than as witnesses to the fashion in which the doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved in post-apostolic times.  (FC Ep 1:1-2) Tappert, 464–465)

 

Using this name indicates nothing else than that we are Christens who believe that the doctrine which was again brought to light in these lasts times from God’s word through Luther, is the true doctrine. Whomever confesses this doctrine with his mouth we call a Lutheran. But we believe a true Lutheran is only he who believes this doctrine with his heart through the working of the Holy Spirit and who has the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. A true Lutheran and a true Christian, the Lutheran church and the Christian church, God’s word and Luther’s doctrine – these are all one and the same to us.  (This paragraph basically comes from Walther’s article in Der Lutheraner.)

1 R. E. Nixon, “Apollos,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 57.

2 Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 128.

3 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 45 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 70–71. I originally found a version of this quote in an old Der Lutheraner article written by CFW Walther, which can be found translated into English here: http://www.lutherquest.org/walther/articles/nameLuth.htm

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