During this season, which means "manifestation" or "revelation," our texts will explore various ways the fuller dimension of the Christ-child we welcomed during Christmas is made known. Who is he? What has he come to do? What has he come to call us to do? To begin to answer this, our texts focus on his ministry, the calling of the disciples, his teachings and miracles, and finally, just before the first Sunday in Lent (March 1), his transfiguration.
February 16, 2020
“We Won’t Grow Up!”
1 Cor. 3:1-11
One of the iconic songs from the musical, Peter Pan, is entitled “I won’t grow up.” Do you remember it? In it, the young boy Peter declares something I’m sure we’ve all felt at one time or another: “I won’t grow up, I don’t want to go to school, just to learn to be a parrot and recite a silly rule. If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up, not me!” One the ironic aspects of these lyrics is that, in reading the history of the play (which dates to 1904!), the television production which came out in 1954 had to be recast in 1960 because the original children had all outgrown their roles!
It highlights, of course, that physically we all must grow up; there is no getting around it. But how about spiritually? There, it seems, we have a bit of a choice. Our text for this morning reveals a congregation, planted by Paul in the Greek city of Corinth, which had basically said, in their actions if not their words, “we won’t grow up!” Paul describes it to us five times in the first four verses in terms of their being “still worldly” (some translations, “in the flesh”), and “acting like mere humans.”
The challenge, of course, is that we do live in the world, and we are mere humans, and those two realities do exert a strong pull on our affections. But God still calls us to move beyond our infant, and even child-like faith, to, as Paul puts it, “live by the Spirit” (v. 1), and, as Peter puts it, to “grow up in our salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pe. 2:2). As someone has said, the Christian life does not end with obstetrics; it is pediatrics, family practice, internal medicine, surgery, and geriatrics.” The fact is that if we refuse to grow up, if we refuse to pursue an “adult faith,” we’ll never experience the life that is truly life that Jesus holds out for us, nor will we be able, as a community of faith, to “put skin on Jesus” for a watching and needy world because we won’t look any different from it.
I. The Problem in Corinth: The Way of the World
A. Let’s begin with the problem in Corinth. Actually, reading through the entire letter, we find many problems! Their struggles ranged from sexual immorality, to idolatry, to spiritual pride, to divisions and factions based upon personality cults. They were, in other words, a church made up of human beings, called to work through the various challenges human beings can have. But the problem was that they refused to so work. The primary example of this Paul gives us here is the quarreling and jealousy that existed because some wanted to link their loyalty to Paul, while others were enamored with a leader named Apollos. Later in the chapter, Paul adds Peter to this group (v. 22).
B. A writer named Scot McKnight points out that this was actually the human, worldly way, the reality and mentality of life in the Roman Empire. For, life in that empire was held together socially, economically, and politically by allegiances to patrons or benefactors. One gave allegiance to these people of power and in return, received benefits. The wealthier and higher the status of your patron, the better. It’s not unlike, in our day, linking your arms with a particular political candidate, or business leader, or someone at work whose coattails you think you can ride to a better position. When this kind of thinking and living was brought into the church, it caused all sorts of divisions and disunity. In today’s world it might be seen in the way personality cults can develop around certain pastors, or in the way certain churches are thought to have just the right model for ministry that everyone else needs to have. The bottom line is that this often prevents churches from being able to work together.
Illustration: In this regard, I so appreciate the North Shore Gospel Partnership that has begun to develop in the last few years, defined as “a friendship of churches united around the historic gospel, and collaborating for the advancement of Jesus’ mission to transform the North Shore.” These churches and leaders are seeking to acknowledge that the good news isn’t about the growth of any one church, but the overall kingdom of God in our very backyards. Their goal is to give every man, woman, and child repeated opportunities to hear the good news where they live, work, learn and play, no matter which church or pastor they may meet.
C. There are other ways, it is worth mentioning briefly here, that an “empire way of living” can leak into our thinking in the church and dilute the kingdom way of living that Jesus calls us to. These have to do with ways God’s people in the first century expected him to launch and operate the kingdom of God. Primarily, there are three. First is the way of holy war. The expectation was for a military Messiah who would call God’s people to grab their swords, head for the hills, and beat back the Roman infidels, overcoming this occupying power. Second is the way of holy withdrawal. The goal was to form a community that isolated itself from the rest of the world and focused on obeying all of God’s laws while waiting for God to come and lay out his wrath on the disobedient. Third is the way of holy cooperation. The goal of these folks was to negotiate with the powers that be, cozying up to them, hoping that if they just backed the right candidates and passed the right laws that God’s kingdom would come.
All three of these elements are present in some manner in our life today. But Jesus would have us guard against all of them. His way is not for us to grab our swords but to take up our crosses daily, losing, (apparently), by self-sacrifice and dying to ourselves. His way is the way of love of neighbor, no matter who that neighbor is. It is a missional way, a way of incarnation, a way of engagement, not a way of isolation and escape. His way is the way of faithful presence, refusing to cozy up to political power but recognizing that we serve a different kind of king with a different kind of government.
II. “Follow Me:” The Way of the Cross
A. These ways of Jesus are all linked to the power and wisdom of the cross, which we heard Paul speak of a couple of weeks ago in chapters 1-2. The world considers the cross to be weak and foolish; God knows it to be the source of power and wisdom. It is the way of death of the old and the birth of the new. And it is also the way forward, the way we grow toward an adult kind of faith that certainly does not become perfect overnight but exhibits progress over a lifetime. It is the way we are to live as we take up Jesus’ invitation, “follow me.”
B. Now, this invitation to follow is not an easy or a natural or a sought after one. Leading is the action that gets the airtime and emphasis in our world. We have leadership seminars, books, networks, and headhunters. Leaders are thought to be the people that make things happen. Leadership comes with control, power, authority, and status. Who would want to become who a follower? As Adele Calhoun puts it, “Who wants to be told, ‘Wow, you have great potential as a follower’”? And as a follow-up she asks, “But is following only for those who don’t have what it takes to be leaders?” [Invitations from God, 39]
C. Following is actually a huge deal to Jesus because it is what shapes us for life in God’s kingdom. More to the point, it is what sands away our ego and forms our character, shaping us to be a servant, just like Jesus chose to be. Servanthood is the way of the cross, the way of wisdom, the way of power, the way of the empire of God. Again, it is not the worldly or human way, as Luke records for us:
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves...I am among you as one who serves. [Lk. 22:24-27]
Paul comments on this in his letter to the church in Philippi, exhorting the congregation there to put aside their selfish ambition and vain conceit and cultivate the same mind and heart that Jesus had, who, though he was God in the flesh, was willing to put this aside, making “himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant . . .” (Phil. 2:1-7). To paraphrase a writer named Edmund Clowney, Jesus, when he came to dwell among us, didn’t take the grand staircase up to a throne room, but the back stairwell that led down to the servant’s quarters. Growing up, it seems, means going down.
D. This is the way, Paul goes on to say to the Corinthians, that both he and Apollos sought to live and model. They were not patrons to be pitted against one another to be sought out for their power and their benefits. Rather, they were simply servants who were humbly carrying out their task, one planting the other watering, seeking to serve as Jesus had come to serve and working together toward one purpose, trusting in God to make things grow.
Illustration: This led me to think of a meal Rama and I recently enjoyed at The Common Man in Ashland, NH. When we entered the restaurant, a hostess showed us to the table. A teenage boy poured us some water. A waitress came to bring us utensils and napkins and to take our order. And a different waitress brought us our plates filled with food. Did we mind that four employees took part in our dinner? Not at all, because they were co-workers, all working toward the same purpose of satisfying our hunger with what the chef had prepared for us, out of all our sights.
Of course, Paul and Apollos were not serving meals at a restaurant, but they were serving, and in so doing, were laying the foundation of Jesus on which his community was to be built and operate in the world. They were to operate not as worldly people living with an empire reality but as people who live by the Spirit with a kingdom reality, the reality of the cross.
To follow Jesus in the way of the cross, as individuals and as a community, is the way of wisdom and power. To follow him in the way of the cross is the way we begin to grow into the life that is truly life. To follow him in the way of the cross is the way that those among whom we live, work, learn, and play will begin to see the goodness and grace and glory that comes from hanging out with the king of kings and lord of lords, the one who came not to be served, but to serve, giving his life for us in the process.