February 12, 2017 “Grow Up” – I Corinthians 3:1-9

I  Corinthians 3:1-9
“Grow Up”
February 12, 2017 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Paul has two simple words for so-called “baby Christians.” “Grow up!” That’s our lesson today from the third chapter of his first letter to Corinth. Christians are meant to mature, to make progress in spiritual life, to become more and more like Christ. But he wasn’t seeing that in Corinth. Instead, he saw people who seemed content to stay as they were, infants in their understanding of the faith and infants in the way they behaved.

Babies are wonderful. We got a picture of Jim and Joyce’s new grandson in the mail last week and he’s a fine looking little fellow. He will bring delight to his parents and the rest of the family. We also saw an image of the little guy that Luke and Kayun are adopting from Korea. He too is wonderfully cute. But you can be sure of this. No one wants those boys to stay the tiny, helpless, self-centered beings they are right now. Crying to get whatever they want is only natural at the moment. Ten years from now it would only be annoying. They need to grow up.

Paul wondered if the church at Corinth would ever grow up. He went for a little shame in verse 1 as he pictures them “as infants in Christ,” who are not even ready for solid food. Verse 2 has them sucking “milk” rather than chewing meat. They should no longer be in an early stage of spiritual development, like when they first heard about Christ. But their immaturity has continued. “Even now,” says Paul, “you are still not ready.”

Spiritual maturity might be measured in various ways. To some it means deep knowledge of the Bible. To others, Christian maturity is a strong prayer life. For some it’s generous giving or active service. Those are good marks of a person growing up in Christ, but for Paul there is a single important gauge which determines the level of one’s spiritual development. It’s how you get along with other Christians in the Body of Christ.

Paul starts out in verse 1 by contrasting being “spiritual” with being “people of the flesh.” It may sound like the aim of Christian growth is to become less and less attached to the flesh, less attached to one’s body, and to become more focused on the spiritual and mental, non-physical world of heaven. But that’s not what Paul means when he uses the world “flesh.”

For Paul “the flesh” is his unique way of identifying everything a person born again into new life in Christ wants to leave behind. “The flesh” is not the body. It’s all the evil ways of life and the desires that mark people who haven’t yet experienced the grace of Jesus.

So when Paul said the Corinthians were “of the flesh,” the apostle was not so much concerned with sins like overeating or drunkenness or sexual immorality, although they were certainly doing those things in Corinth. No, being of the flesh instead of being spiritual doesn’t really have much to do with what we think of as “sins of the flesh.”

Paul’s contrast between flesh and spirit is not what theologians call “gnosticism.” He’s not saying that the non-physical is better than the physical, or that the soul is more important than the body. He’s saying that life filled with the Holy Spirit of God given to us in Jesus Christ ought to look different from life lived without the Lord’s Spirit. We ought to be growing up into the Lord through the Spirit, becoming more mature people in Christ.

Being of the flesh means that a Christian keeps behaving like non-Christians do. People who are spiritually immature behave like everyone else, like all the people in the world around them. The primary sign of that spiritual immaturity is not physical indulgence. It’s what we find in verse 3, “jealousy and quarreling among you.”

Paul turns the conversation back to the first problem of chapter 1, the party spirit we looked at three weeks ago. The Corinthian problem is acting like mere human beings, he says, not like people filled with the Spirit of God. And that’s nowhere more visible than in the facts stated in verse 4. Some are saying “I follow Paul,” and some are saying, “I follow Apollos.” Their church is divided up around the figureheads of their leaders and failing to cooperate and work together in love.

You and I know that we have similar problems in getting along with each other, even in the church. Our church may not divide up around two or three charismatic leaders, choosing sides, but we may still find ourselves conflicted and split in regard to styles and visions and personal needs that make it hard to work together.

Blast it, it’s hard just to be with some people. Sometimes the issue is not our own maturity, but the maturity of another person. We don’t want a fight. We want to cooperate and work together, but the other party keeps criticizing or picking at us or being stupid or performing incompetently. It’s not our fault when relationships in the church go south. It’s the fault of other people who are less spiritually mature than we are. Right?

No, Paul wasn’t addressing just the trouble makers in Corinth. He was saying the whole church needed to grow up because of the quarrels among them. It’s the same vision Jesus had when He warned us about anger in today’s text from the Sermon on the Mount. Anger and division is not our Lord’s way. He taught us to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters, to make peace with each other. Anything else is infantile and immature. You and I can’t just point a finger at the baby Christians among us. We all need to grow up.

The church in Corinth was divided over a number of theological issues, like eating food offered to idols, or how spiritual gifts should be used, or whether there is a resurrection. But Paul started out his letter by telling them the fundamental problem was not these issues but the way they related to each other around these issues. What they were quarreling about was not as important as the fact that they were quarreling.

Our denomination, the Covenant Church, is a small experiment in trying to be more mature about our differences with each other. That picture on the front of your bulletin has a Latin slogan that means “joined in Christ.” And that’s exactly and only what joins us together. It’s not that we agree about everything. It’s that we are in Jesus Christ together. So some Covenant people are infant baptists and some are believer baptists. Some of us look forward to being raptured out of this world before the tribulation while others of us wait for Jesus to return and make this world His kingdom. Some of us believe God created this world only about 10,000 years ago while others of us find the book of Genesis compatible with what science tells us, that our earth is billions of years old. We disagree about that kind of stuff, but we agree about, we agree in, Jesus.

Covenant people want to be the kind of mature Christians Paul was looking for in Corinth. We want to be people who care more about our common faith in Jesus and life together than about our own individual points of view or interests. We believe that’s what it means to be grown up in Christ.

Notice how each of the different sayings from Jesus today, about anger, about adultery, about divorce, about swearing oaths, ups the ante from what we ordinarily expect. We think we’re doing pretty good if we don’t hurt anyone, don’t kill anyone, but Jesus tells us not even to get angry with anyone. We imagine our marriages are O.K. if we don’t cheat on our spouse, but Jesus demands that we not even think about cheating. We suppose divorce is all right if we do it legally, but Jesus says it’s never just all right. We have the idea that we need to keep our oaths or solemn promises, but Jesus taught us to simply do everything we said we would do whether we swore an oath or not.

Christian life, spiritual life, is the experience of our Lord always and totally upping the ante on us, expecting more of us than we expect of ourselves. We are supposed to keep growing up, and that means growing up together in Him. That’s why Paul was so upset with the Corinthians. That’s why he says at the end of verse 3 and at the end of verse 4 that when they keep slipping into these quarrels, when they keep dividing up to follow different leaders, they are doing what’s “merely human.” They’re living up to human expectations rather than spiritual expectations. They need to grow up.

If we need any more reason to grow up, it’s there in the next four verses. “What, then, is Apollos? What is Paul?” asks verse 5. Paul takes the party names which are dividing them to demonstrate how Christians need to grow. Those two Christian leaders weren’t rivals. They were partners in a work that can only be done together. The answer to the rhetorical question about what Apollos and Paul are is “Servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each.”

Verse 6 explains Paul’s and Apollos’ different assignments, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” There’s that growth again. As Paul will explain more clearly later on in this letter, each Christian has a role and a task, and we perform those together and in harmony so that God can work with us to accomplish the greatest work of all, to make us grow together to be more like Jesus.

Verse 7 draws the conclusion that, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” What you or I or any servant of the Lord does is much less significant than what the Lord does. And that’s exactly what we need to remember as we seek to grow up and get along with each other.

Paul and Apollos were not at odds with each other because, as verse 8 says, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose.” That purpose was the growth that God wanted to give to people in Jesus.

We have a common purpose. It’s the cool thing these days for churches to have a mission statement which everyone knows and recites. Being cool isn’t really what Valley Covenant is known for, but we do have a simple mission statement there on the back of your bulletin which fits today’s text perfectly, “Our mission is to grow faithful disciples of Jesus Christ…” The rest of it tells us the four main ways in which we accomplish that mission, but the heart of it is what Jesus is asking for in the Sermon on the Mount, what Moses was asking for in our lesson from Deuteronomy, what the psalmist was saying about young people following God’s law, and what Paul is concerned with here, that we grow up together as people who look more and more like Jesus, following His way.

The good news is that verse 9 repeats the thought of verse 6. We each do our part to help one another grow in Christ, but it is God who gives the growth. I favor the translation you find in Today’s New International Version. Paul says, “We are God’s co-workers.” Alongside everything good Paul and Apollos did, God was at work to make it fruitful. It’s the same for you and me.

At my uncle’s funeral last Saturday, I read the end of I Corinthians 15, with those beautiful words:

Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where O death is your sting?
Where O death is your victory?”

then, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” But the last verse of the chapter asks us to be steadfast, to excel in the Lord’s work, “because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

That’s the blessed of promise of doing God’s work of growing as followers of Jesus. It won’t be in vain. It won’t be in vain because it lasts forever and because God is at work along with us.

Think of how gracious God is to let us work with Him. Imagine baking a cake with the assistance of a small child. It would be far easier, far less stressful to just do it all yourself rather than deal with little hands that will spill the flour or crack the egg too hard and drop shell into the batter. You know you will have to give the bowl a few good stirs after she’s done to be sure it’s really mixed well. You will have to put the pan in the hot oven and be careful to keep the little guy out of harm’s way. You’d get done lots faster and likely lots better by yourself. But then how would the child ever learn, ever grow up to do things like that himself?

God knows He could accomplish what He’s doing in this world and in people’s lives easier and better without our immature and fumbling attempts to help. In the end, what Paul says is true, our parts don’t amount to much of anything. It’s only what God does that is ultimately significant. Yet God keeps using human co-workers.

You keep letting that little person help in the kitchen, despite all the mess and aggravation he or she produces. You do it because you hope and trust that your child will learn and grow in the process of working with you. That’s what God wants when He draws us alongside as His partners. He is expecting us to learn and grow spiritually as we work with Him.

And the biggest lesson God wants us to learn is not how to bake the spiritual cake or how to plant the seed of Christ in someone’s life or how to water it with Scripture, as vital as those things are. What God wants us to learn in working with Him is how to work with each other in the way He works with us. He wants to form in us the same kind of forgiveness and love with which He patiently partners in all our immature and lame attempts to do His work.

The most important part of learning to work together with God is learning a love and patience like His for those with whom we find it hard to work. As our Lord patiently deals with the lumpy batter and fallen cakes of our lives, we see how we are to deal with each other as the heat rises in the kitchen.

It’s not easy. As we mix together in the church, in marriage, in our workplaces, and in the world, we’ll often find it much simpler to only take care of ourselves. We will be tempted to just forget about trying to live and work together with someone who is immature or incompetent or even just plain mean. Sometimes we can’t find any way around splitting up those partnerships and no longer being co-workers together in this life.

Yet God keeps reminding us, as He does through Paul here this morning, as He does through the words of Jesus we heard calling us to beware of anger and to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters. God keeps reminding us of His own patient, gentle, forgiving, co-working love. As He works with us, so we want to learn to work with each other. Paul says in verse 8 that when we work together in that Spirit, in the Spirit of God, with His one purpose in mind, “each will receive a reward according to the labor of each.”

“We are God’s co-workers;” says Paul, “you are God’s field…” Together in Christ we, at one and the same time, are God’s co-workers and God’s field in which that work is taking place. By working with God and learning from Him how to work with each other, we are growing into that spiritual maturity we so desperately need and which God so much wants us to have.

Praise God for the way He so patiently and lovingly works with each of us. And praise Him for all the ways He helps us become not only His co-workers but co-workers with each other. It’s a great harvest that He is growing as we grow up in Him. Let us grow up to work together well, let us be a fruitful field for our Lord.

Paul mixes metaphors at the end to add that “you are… God’s building.” God is building something great in us. We are laborers in the field and we are construction workers together. Next week we will consider the materials we bring to God’s great project.


Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj