God has always chosen and used broken and imperfect people to build the kingdom of God. There never was and never will be a perfect group of spotless Christian people. But every time we gather, we remember that God has always invited us to be the hands and feet of Christ. God has always empowered us to be salt and light. God has always chosen us to be the vehicle through which God will love and transform the whole world.
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
3And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for 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? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Paul can be kind of a condescending jerk. I know you’re not really supposed to talk bad about high, holy, church leaders like Paul, but it’s true – he can be a condescending jerk sometimes. “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.” Paul, the great leader of the faith and the planter of many churches, writes this in his first letter to the Corinthian church. “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.”
The nerve of that guy! I know it’s probably easy to hear Paul’s words in a more hopeful sense, “don’t worry, you’re young. You’ll get there, keep going and growing!” That treatment of Paul’s tone comes from the same place that leads us to assume the most angelic dispositions of everyone in scripture. But it’s also quite wrong. Paul is no better or worse than us, just like every other leader and author and writer but Jesus. And Paul comes off like he’s talking to a bunch of little petulant children who can do nothing right. It’s hard to read the whole letter and not see some condescension from Paul come through here.
3 years ago I preached for about 6 weeks in a row on this letter to the Corinthian church and the title of that series of messages was Being Church – it was like a 101 course for how to be church well. And what you find any time you study that much of this book is that a better title for the way Paul actually talks would be “Y’all are terrible at this game.” To preach about 1st Corinthians as a church 101 manual requires us to learn almost exclusively from their mistakes. The letter reads much more like a point by point checklist of what they got wrong; then Paul offers various kinds of correction and encouragement to do it better. Leadership, the Lord’s Supper, Spiritual Gifts, marriage, lawsuits, care for the widows, diet and idols, authority, resurrection – all of it was handled poorly in the Corinthian church. And Paul didn’t hold back in telling them so.
You were infants when I brought the faith initially. You are infants still. I fed you milk. I gave it to you the easy way. And still you didn’t get it. You’re still infants now, you’re still not ready. Paul sure knows how to be a buzzkill. It’s a good thing we’ve solved all those problems they were facing back then………
That was sarcasm, if you didn’t catch it. It’s actually a little depressing to read on and see the specific thing that Paul is calling out at this point. He continues – “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?” Division over leaders – some in Corinth choosing Paul who started the church. Others choosing Apollo who stayed behind to keep things going. Factions forming around one personality set up against another. I belong to Paul… I do not belong to Apollos. I belong to Apollos…I do not belong to Paul. Sound familiar to anyone?
I don’t know what you see, but I swear every day it seems to get worse – we seem to retreat further and further into the right or the left and never the two shall meet. It’s not always conservative vs liberal of course, but it is I choose one and NOT the other – it’s rich against poor – rural against urban – Texan against Cowboy…maybe that’s not too bad – here in our town there’s a tension between the long time small town residents and the just moved out here big city transplants – there’s people who want everything to go back to the 1950s glory and some who want to completely wipe away the past. The divisions are there, I know you feel them in at least one arena of your lives. If churches are any better it is usually because they’ve run off those who don’t look and think and act alike.
Why are divisions so deep? That’s clearly the rhetorical question on Paul’s mind as he continues. “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.” That’s a beautiful reminder from Paul. Paul’s job was to come and plant the church, to get things off the ground. Apollos’ job was to stay and nurture and work in Paul’s absence. But God gave the growth. God did the hard part. God did the only part that really matters.
So, Paul concludes this part of the letter, “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.” It’s not about the credit or the factions. It’s not about the leaders or the best ideas or the most important stage of church growth. Paul and Apollos – everything they did was about working together to see the growth that God would bring about.
That’s a message much easier said than implemented. The leaders and groups you care most about – they don’t really matter. We’re just in it together, trust God in all things! The sentiment is nice, but I don’t imagine you’ll change the world and end the division just by saying it.
I’m not going to solve the world’s divisions by the end of this sermon, but I do want to offer 1 reason division is so hard to overcome, 1 reason to be full of care in how you respond when you hear the words of whatever side you don’t agree with, 1 reason it’s OK to admit that we’re still infants in Christ, and 1 reason to stay hopeful in spite of it all.
First, 1 reason division is so hard to overcome. When people say “I believe” what they really mean is “I am.” Modern society doesn’t foster the kind of families and communities that accept and encourage and uplift each other in strength and through weakness. It’s super easy and common to equate the things I choose to believe or the people I choose to follow with my deepest identity. So when someone challenges the things I say I believe, it feels like they’re saying I’m not good enough or I’m not OK. No matter how intellectual or analytical we may think we are, what’s at stake runs a lot deeper when we try to talk across the dividing lines.
Second, 1 reason to be full of care when responding to the other side – no matter which side that may be. The words we say often hide the things we feel. I’ve had to learn this the hard way, but you can figure out a lot if you really pay attention. The best example I can offer of what I mean were words spoken by a clergy colleague a while back. This colleague was a fairly calm introverted guy. He told me that he had felt a deep calling to be a new church start pastor and it was his passion to make it happen. I could see the passion as he spoke. Then he began pontificating on the stats and the probabilities that every new church start pastor would be an energetic extrovert. He said calm introverts are rejected from those positions.
Can you hear what he was saying? My greatest passion in life and ministry is to start a new church. Introverts don’t get to do that. I don’t get to do that. I am being rejected from fulfilling the passion God has laid on my heart. You can hear a lot if you’re willing to actually listen. I want to suggest two particular phrases for you to hear differently, one more for the right and one more for the left – I’ll hopefully get myself in trouble with everyone this way.
Black lives matter has become one of the rallying cries for a variety of protests within African American communities. It’s especially common in response to incidents in which a black person is killed by a police officer, but the roots of racial tensions and protests run a whole lot deeper. I’m sure you’re aware there have also been similar phrases popularized as a response to that movement – blue lives matter expressing support for police; all lives matter expressing that it’s a mistake to focus on any one group. I’m not going to wade too deeply into the waters of whether the initial word choice was the best because I’m the last person who could understand all the dynamics in play.
I’m not going to tell you whether to support any of the response movements, but I am asking you, again, to listen more closely to the words that started it. Black lives matter. You don’t choose those words because you’re a little upset or something bothers you about society these days. Movements like this don’t catch fire unless they touch a deep hurt down inside a lot of people. You only choose those words when you’re ready to say I don’t feel like my life matters to you. I don’t feel like you actually care if I live or die. And if you have no idea why a black person in America today could possibly get to the point of feeling that way, then before you say something in response, talk to someone who knows. Have an actual conversation to hear the experiences and understand the words behind the words.
Most of the time, our rhetoric is a shield so that we can say just enough to hide the depth of the fear or pain or anxiety that really lives down deep inside. On the other side of the aisle, the most catchy polarizing phrase has been “Make America Great Again.” Implicit in the promise is the anxiety that America is not great and is in desperate need of revival. Again, I would say, if you don’t understand why that slogan would catch fire in someone’s heart, you need to hear their story before you can hope to bridge the divide. If we don’t create the spaces where we can know and be known by people on opposite sides of the aisle, then we’ll never really hear what other children of God are trying so hard to say. If we don’t listen first, nothing we say in response will benefit anything.
Third, I offer 1 reason it’s OK to admit that we’re still infants in Christ. I’ve just said that people equate the beliefs and words they profess with who they are. And I’ve argued that some of the more well known movements represent deep hurts and fears and anxieties. The easy response is to say I must be wrong. Life is really not that bad. I didn’t do anything to cause this. Those other people need to get over it and grow up like me. You can deny the seriousness of the brokenness people feel, but to do so is to deny the heart of the gospel message.
While we were sinners, Christ died for us. We say those words in our communion liturgy all the time; but we could just as easily say while we are still infants, Christ died for us. Christ paved the road that we never could. Christ brought healing and wholeness and life itself through His life, death, and resurrection. The point was never for us to be good enough so that we could get through life without God. We are not in control. We are made new only when we submit to the grace of God that goes before us long before we even know God is there.
And finally, 1 reason to stay hopeful in spite of it all. God has always chosen and used broken and imperfect people to build the kingdom of God. There never was and never will be a perfect group of spotless Christian people. But every time we gather, we remember that God has always invited us to be the hands and feet of Christ. God has always empowered us to be salt and light. God has always chosen us to be the vehicle through which God will love and transform the whole world.
What is milk today is the easy self help, God loves all, kumbaya faith that we sometimes need to hear. Solid food is the radical kind of choice Jesus actually made to risk his life in order to love the unloveable; his choice to tear down so many walls that God’s people had built. Moving to solid food starts with finding our identity in God and in this community of support and encouragement. It spreads when we are willing to listen to our neighbors, to hear their words, and to embrace their stories, no matter how uncomfortable we get. Turning to solid food is possible only by the grace of God and it reminds us that by God’s grace, we are becoming more than we could imagine on our own.
Paul can be a condescending jerk sometimes, but Jesus Christ humbled himself because we weren’t strong enough to do so. As far as anyone could look down on us, Christ lowered himself farther to heal our deepest divisions. None of us is the author of this story, God alone gives the growth. Seek out the solid food, and be willing to change the world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.