“Baby Food” – Stephanie Wing, 2.13.11
Growing up as a younger sister, I was often frustrated by what I saw as blatant unfairness. My older sister got to do all kinds of things that I wasn't allowed to do, just because she was older. I argued in vain that I was at least as mature as she was, but for some reason, my complaints didn't get very far. I had to suffer through the injustice of seeing her be given greater privileges and freedoms for the arbitrary reason that she happened to have been born two and a half years before me. I was ready for the rights and responsibilities of an adult, and to be told otherwise was quite a blow.
I'm not sure, but I imagine that the Corinthians would have felt something similar when they received this letter from Paul. You see, Paul had started the church in Corinth, and it had grown by leaps and bounds. Sure, they had their problems, but doesn't every church? One of their biggest issues was arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest, who was the most spiritually gifted, and who was the wisest in the church. Paul's message to them delivers this terrible blow to the ego: "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."
The Corinthians are arguing about who is the most spiritually advanced among them, then Paul comes along and says, "I don't know who thinks they're about to get a doctorate in Spirituality, because you all are still in pre-school!" When he first came to them, he had to nourish them through "baby food," and even now, they still aren't ready for solid food-Christianity. Not yet. He can tell that they aren't ready because of the problems they're having. They simply don't get what it means to be Christian; if they did, they wouldn't be so divisive.
Back then, the early church met in homes, and it sounds like certain home churches were in competition with others. Though Paul was the first to spread Christianity to Corinth, other teachers followed, and factions developed based on which teacher or evangelist the group followed. That led to some of the arguments over who was greater, or who had had received the better instruction. Some boasted that they were in Paul's camp; others in Apollos' camp, and so on. Paul responds, "Don't you realize that both Apollos and I are merely servants of God? We're just doing what God directed us to do. The real credit belongs to God."
Paul is saying that a sign of spiritual maturity is unity among the body of believers through the Holy Spirit. Factions and divisions are signs of spiritual immaturity, signs that the church still has very far to go, and much further to grow. By that measure, I dare say we still need the baby food diet today. There have always been arguments within the church, as long as there was a church within which to argue, but dividing ourselves into different camps takes it a few steps further. For nearly 1000 years, the Christian church was mostly united, at least in name. In 1054, there was the great schism between what became the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. There was relative stability again for another 500 years or so when the Reformation came along, splitting the Protestants from Catholics. Almost immediately, there were a number of offshoots from the Reformation that became the sources of different denominations today. Denominations have continued to develop and split off from each other ever since. Today there are estimated to be 38,000 different Christian denominations in the United States! If division is a sign of spiritual immaturity, we all need to grow up!
This weekend Andy and I were at a Presbytery Retreat at Shaker Village, and one of the ministers was talking about a particular church that he drives by on a regular basis. The sign says "Independent Presbyterian Church," and we all agreed that there is no such thing! A central part of being Presbyterian is being connected with other Presbyterian churches, being part of a connectional body of believers. But even within the Presbyterian church, there have been many divisions, and we are a much more divided body than we used to be. Even some who continue to worship in PC (USA) churches have very little connection, and even less desire for connection, with the larger Presbyterian church.
I commend the history of the United Presbyterian Church here as having voluntarily reunited after the Civil War, 70 years before the northern and southern denominational streams came back together in 1983. Even so, we are not the only Presbyterian church in the county. There are Cumberland Presbyterians, and even two other churches that are technically PC (USA) in affiliation, if not in name. I've heard some ideas that all of us Mercer County Presbyterians need to join forces and merge, and I've heard some responses indicating that is about the last thing that some people would want to do. I can understand - there are some pretty significant differences between our church and some of those other churches, and it would be very hard to come together. Besides, none of us wants to lose our own identity.
We do try to work with other churches in some ways, for instance in participating in Ministerial Association events and services, like the Holy Week services we hosted last year. We also have some churches with whom we routinely share special services, coming together as an extended body of Christ. We try to play well together, but it can get tricky. I understand that.
Often it feels like, even with the churches with whom we have particularly good working relationships, there is a sense of competition. Do you know what I mean? We want to know how many people they have, how many young families, how much programming, and what kind of budget. When a new family moves into town that seems to be inclined to worship in a non-Baptist, mainline denomination, there is a sense of pressure to "get to them" before someone else does. And I think we beat ourselves up a little bit when if they ultimately choose to go elsewhere, don't we? And what about those who used to be members here, but who have gone to different churches? Do we ever stop wanting to "get them back?" It's not easy to resist that sense of competition, but if we trust the word of God that we have read today, we must.
Paul says, "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." That's what we are doing here - planting, watering, and harvesting, all for the kingdom of God. Sometimes we might be called to plant seeds that others will get to water. Other times we might water the seeds that have been planted elsewhere. When harvest time comes around, we enjoy the harvest, but also have to remember that we harvest the fruit that has been planted and watered by others. And ultimately, it isn't about us, it's about God.
The only way that anyone comes to spiritual maturity, that anyone comes to belief in God and Jesus Christ as Savior, is through God. God calls us as church to plant, to water, and to harvest, but the work we do is only as servants of God. Rather than seeing ourselves as the owners of the farm competing against other farms, we should see ourselves as hired farm hands, all working together in the field that belongs to God.
Here's another little secret: we might never know what particular role we are playing, and we might never see some of the fruit of our labors come to fruition. We will be called to plant seeds that seem never to take root. We will be called to use our precious resources to water seeds that never seem to grow. Sometimes we will watch the seeds that we plant and water bear fruit in other places, but rather than pine for the fruit of our labor, we should instead rejoice for the fruit of God's vineyard, and be thankful for the opportunity to be workers in it.
We must support our brothers and sisters in Christ in churches across the street, across the country, and around the world, and recognize that we are all co-workers on God's great big field, all working to increase the harvest together, in whatever role God calls us to play. We are here in this particular church for one reason or another, but that doesn't make our church any better (or any worse!) than other churches who are working towards the same ends, which is building up the body of Christ for the kingdom of heaven.
When babies are born, everything in the world necessarily revolves around their needs. As children grow, they continue to think that the world revolves around their wants and needs, and it is jarring to find out it doesn't. Part of the maturing process is beginning to develop empathy for others, and eventually to care more for the needs of others than you care about your own needs. Isn't that parenthood? How many parents in this room haven given up what they wanted, and sometimes even needed, in order to provide their children? That is mature parenting. That is mature nurturing.
If we as a church get stuck in the place where we are more concerned with our own needs and desires, we have stopped growing, and we will die. But if we continue to mature as God calls us to mature, if we look beyond our own needs and prioritize the needs of people that genuinely need help, then we are growing in Christ. We might not necessarily grow in the places we want to see growth, but if we remember that all growth comes from God, we are on the right track. We must trust that we are growing just as God is calling us to grow, and serving just as God calls us to serve, not in competition with other workers in the vineyard, but working together as servants of the one God who unites all of us as one holy church.
It isn't easy, but we can get there. We might want to spit out the baby food and go straight for the steak, but remember that we, too, are growing, and as we mature, we will move onto solid food. That is not just exciting for our palates, it is exciting for the kingdom of God. May it be so.