Pr. Joseph Crippen, Wednesday, 26 March 2014; texts: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Matthew 18:1-7
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Isn’t it interesting, then, that the apostle Paul, later in this first letter to Corinth, says “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) It seems as if we have opposing points of view. Are we to become like children in faith? Or are we to mature, grow up, and set aside childish ways?
And what are we to make of Paul’s accommodations to those who are weak in the Corinthian community, that is, those who are still threatened enough by the presence of idol worship that they are at risk of losing their faith? Surely the mature response of faith is the one Paul describes first, that idols are non-threatening since they obviously aren’t real. There is one God, made known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. So even if someone has offered meat in a temple to an idol, and now sells that meat in the market, it’s perfectly fine for Christians to eat it. That’s clearly the more mature faith stance.
And yet Paul argues against it, on the basis of love. He tells his people in Corinth that they are to pay attention to their weaker members, those whose faith or understanding or knowledge isn’t quite what the others have, and accommodate them, lest they falter in faith. Yes, it’s okay to eat meat previously offered to idols. But, Paul says, don’t do it if it’s going to cause someone else to stumble.
It turns out both Jesus and Paul agree on their one major concern: that believers do not cause other believers to stumble in their faith. Both believe the community of Christ is shaped by a deep and abiding concern for all members, even those who are perhaps seen as weaker, less strong.
But it’s Jesus’ words about children that actually cause us to see another level of understanding of the community: it isn’t only that we are to accommodate those who are weaker. The community of Christ actually needs all believers, of all kinds and all strengths and all developments. We all actually have things to teach each other. And that’s the key to all of this.
Let’s start with the controversy, though, and with the recognition that this sort of thing happens in the Church today.
We may not have problems with meat offered to idols, but we’ve got the same pattern of condescension and dismissive behavior to those whom we consider “less” advanced.
I remember when I first came into ministry that there were basically two kinds of older pastors who related to me. One kind were the ones who were a great gift – my supervisor on internship, other clergy in colleague groups in my first call – because they respected me, while sharing their knowledge and experience. They treated me as if I belonged at the table, raw as I was, and yet were also able to share what they’d learned on the road, with respect and care.
The other kind were the ones I learned to avoid. They were the ones who said, “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you’ll feel differently.” Or, “When you’ve been around the block a few times you won’t have that enthusiasm.” Or, “When you’re a little older you’ll see that just can’t work in the church.” Things like that. The tone was always that I was naïve (which I probably was) and inexperienced (which I certainly was), and therefore my hope and excitement for ministry was inappropriate. Or at least dismissable.
And that latter piece was the part where they lost my interest in listening. Both types of pastors had experience and knowledge I needed, and would have been worth having me know. Only the ones who respected me and treated me with kindness and weren’t patronizing or dismissive actually were helpful to me. And I think a big part of it was they believed I had something to offer as well, that it wasn’t only their experience that was important in the conversation.
The same thing happens when you are a young parent. There are some people who simply can’t help dismissing the concerns of parents of toddlers with the injunction: “Wait until you have teenagers – then you’ll know what hard parenting is.”
Which as a parent of four children, most of whom are adults now, I can say is completely ridiculous. Every age of our children was both a challenge and a joy. It was no harder dealing with the painfulness of adolescent teen children finding their way than it was to deal with the emerging personality of a two year old who needed to be able to say “no”. If anything, each age of our children was just enough challenge and joy for our own age and experience. A parent of a baby has just as much wisdom about how to love that baby as a parent of an adult, even though they obviously will learn much more as the years go by.
But this is not unheard of in congregations, either, and Paul would want us to recognize that.
I’ve led a lot of Bible studies over the years, and I’ve noticed that there are sometimes tendencies among participants that are exactly as Paul describes in this situation, with similar results.
How often have you seen it, too, that in a Bible study someone makes a comment or asks a question that another person, who’s perhaps studied the Bible more or even might have a professional degree, then shoots down as wrong or incorrect? Or dismisses as unimportant?
The first person not only starts to learn that their contributions aren’t welcome, he or she also begins to believe that they have no insight, that they’re not of value. That their concerns aren’t important, because “smart people” have already figured it out. It’s not far from there to stumbling in faith.
So you have the situation where I’ve had any number of conversations with people over the years who fear coming to Bible studies because they don’t know enough, they’d feel dumb, they don’t have anything to offer. Surely Paul would say that those are precisely the people we hope come to Bible studies?
This problem in a Christian community Paul describes is not unknown to us, because it’s a human tendency, a sign of our human brokenness. We like to show off our knowledge and understanding, and often at the expense of those who don’t have what we have, often dismissing those who are asking questions we feel we’ve learned already. Children also bear the brunt of this in congregations, their questions often dismissed as worthless, as unimportant, as ignorant, instead of being honored and listened to and carefully answered.
But here’s the really compelling thing about God: God, according to the Scriptures, seems very interested, committed even, to the idea that we best become who we are meant to be by growing up into it.
None of the people of God in the Scriptures start out where God needs them to be. They always have growth they need to do, places they need to go, learning they need to accomplish. Even the greats like Moses, Elijah, Sarah, any of the disciples, they all are invited into a path of growth.
And of course, God has designed us to be infants first, then children, then adults, and placed us together in families and communities where all ages are found. That might tell us something.
But perhaps most significant is the coming of the Son of God. Jesus doesn’t appear on the clouds, fully formed and ready to be Messiah. Even the Son of God has to start out at the beginning, as a vulnerable infant. Even the Son of God had to learn to spell, to think, had to learn how to get along with others, to ask questions in order to learn and understand.
It seems clear that becoming human is something we have to learn, we can’t start at the end. Which at the very least suggests that we respect and love our fellow sisters and brothers at whatever stage they are, because it’s where they need to be.
That is, it would be better if the Corinthians didn’t dismiss those who struggled with idols. That they chose to avoid eating meat not just because Paul told them to, but rather because they loved them and appreciated where they were.
In fact, the deeper we grow into Christ, the more we mature spiritually, the less we need to puff ourselves up about how wise we are. It’s typically a mark of immaturity that someone needs to put themselves or their knowledge or development over against another. But perhaps Jesus is inviting us to take even one more step and relish the differences as essential to the life of the community.
This seems to be the center of these readings today.
There is certainly a call by both Paul and Jesus to honor and accommodate each other at whatever stage of development and maturity we are. That’s obvious.
The Christian community, shaped by the cross ourselves, called to love sacrificially, is a community where all are loved and respected and honored, whatever they bring, wherever they are in their growth. And we aspire to adjust our behaviors if they are causing problems to others, even if we think we could justify them theologically or ethically or spiritually.
Because of the love of Christ we have for each other, that’s how we are together. That much is clear.
But the next logical conclusion, given God’s need for us to learn as we grow, is actually to see how we need everyone at every stage because of what they bring. So, for example, Jesus tells us that if we want to know what faith is all about, we should look to the children. They know how to trust without any proof, they know how to be loyal even when it seems illogical, they know what it is to depend fully on another. They’re beautiful models to cynical, weary adults of what it would be to trust God with our whole hearts, lives, everything.
And so it is with everyone else in our community. So it is that those who haven’t studied the Scriptures much sometimes ask the questions we most need to hear. I can’t tell you how often that has happened to me when leading a Bible study, that the simplest, perhaps least informed question, has been the one thing we really needed to consider, the one thing the Spirit of God needed us to hear.
So it is also that people who feel more on the outside of a community are often the ones who have the eyes to see what’s really going on, and those inside need to hear them and learn from them.
And so it is that the young among us see with joy and enthusiasm, which those of us who sometimes feel very tired on the journey need to have infused into us. And those who have walked this journey of faith for eight or nine decades have such a gift of wisdom and long-vision that some of us who are impatient in getting where we are going need to hear and learn from.
This is the gift of our community in Christ: we’re all growing into maturity of discipleship, together.
And our call is to love each other at every stage of that growth, because every stage is needed for the community, and every one is needed. We don’t want to cause others to stumble, that’s true, both Jesus and Paul say that. But even more, we want to help each other when stumbling happens, catch each other, and learn from each other where the cracks in the road are, where the potholes are, and where the good paths are. And you never know just who it may be in the community who can see that at any time.
This is the great gift of our Lord, that we live this faith together. Now our Lord would like us to really learn what “together” can mean.
In the name of Jesus. Amen