February 06, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Say the word “radical” to the average person and the name of “Jesus” will likely not be the first thing that springs to anyone’s mind. If you think about “radical acts,” the Sermon on the Mount is unlikely to come to mind, either. Radicals throw Molotov cocktails at police and stage sit-ins and carry placards in the town square. But that’s not Matthew 5-7! We like to think of the Sermon on the Mount as gentle and soothing. The Beatitudes are so lovely. Jesus’ teaching of what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer” is likewise lyric as is the passage that follows that prayer about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. This just does not strike us as all that radical.
But as I was taught in New Testament class a long time ago, the root of the word “radical” is the Latin radix and that is the Latin word for “root.” The word radix lives on in mathematics to refer to the base number in some larger system of numbers and numeration. The radix is what is at the bottom of something, at the foundation or below the foundation, at the roots. The radix gets at the root, at the origin of something. And so there is a sense in which a radical is someone who wants to return something—a political system, a religious belief system—to what it was intended to be in the beginning, at the root of all things. If you visit the 9/11 Museum in New York City, you will go underground to what is referred to as the “bathtub” where the foundations of the World Trade Center were. There you see a giant retaining wall with tie-backs into the concrete to hold back the nearby Hudson River. Those deep walls and foundations were the radix of the World Trade Center Twin Towers, though they were not ever seen by anyone above ground. But they were more than a little important and are, of course, the only surviving pieces of those decimated skyscrapers.
In this lection from Matthew 5, Jesus is indeed a radical after all because what he is doing with God’s Law here is radicalizing it, getting everyone’s attention back to the basics and the root origin of God’s commands—Jesus wants us to go underground to see what has been holding this whole thing up from the beginning so as to understand things afresh. From the outside looking in, it looks like Jesus is making the Law of God ridiculously hard to keep. He’s turning the Law into something different, something harder and more difficult.
“You haven’t slept with a woman not your wife? Good for you. But you looked at your co-worker Jill and thought about it so that ‘Do not commit adultery’ command is in shambles in your life as far as God is concerned.”
“You haven’t stabbed anyone through the chest or shoved someone to his death off a cliff? Good for you but when in your anger you told Harold last week to go take a flying leap, in God’s eyes the ‘Do not murder’ command snapped quite cleanly in two in your life.”
“You haven’t sworn out a false oath in God’s name? Good for you but when you knowingly lied to your boss about what you did while attending the convention by saying ‘I swear by my children this is not true,’ then in God’s eyes the ‘Do not give false witness’ command died a sudden death because your children are God’s children and they bear his image.”
But is Jesus changing the Law into something new and different? No, he is radicalizing it, he is bringing everyone back to the roots of why God gave the Law in the first place. Of course external behavior and actual deeds are always worse, always more injurious than secret fantasies. And only a very careless person would conclude that if an adulterous fantasy gets you in as much trouble as the actual affair then you may as well have the affair, too, while you’re at it. That is, to state the merely obvious, not exactly Jesus’ point here.
So what is the point? The point is that the Law of God was meant to foster human flourishing at every level, including at the deepest levels of our hearts and minds. God wants us to respect each other, to love each other, to see God’s own image residing deep within one another. Human life is not supposed to be some giant game in which you scheme and scam to get ahead for good old #1. We are not to use people as pawns, as objects of our lust, as receptacles for our scorn, as the targets for our desires to brutalize, manipulate, and then discard.
And it’s not enough that all of this does not show up on the outside of our behavior. Hypocrisy is everything it’s cracked up to be and sooner or later it has a way of brutalizing the hypocrite, too. Remember in The Inferno Dante’s clever punishment in Hell for hypocrites: they were clothed with elaborate and resplendent golden garments but the garments were lined with lead. To wear this attire every day literally weighed the person down with weariness and an unending sense of burdensome heaviness. And that is what unremitting anger and lust and deception does to us on the inside: it weighs us down, saps our joy, and sooner or later really will show up on the outside in how we treat others, talk to them, regard them.
Of course, the root origin of God’s Law is not all about human psychology or some me-focused program of self-improvement. It is finally also about other people and about God himself. How do we see others? How do we treat them in our heart of hearts? Do we think it doesn’t matter how furious we are at every driver who cuts us off or makes some mistake in traffic (a driving mistake that we surely have made more than once ourselves)? Do we think it’s pleasant to nurse a grudge for years such that every time we see Marge or Bill our innards coil up and bile curdles all over again in our gut? Do we think that that attractive guy or that fetching woman exists for our pleasure only? Do we think that this other person who just asked us a question is so worthless as to be undeserving of hearing the truth such that we will play God in his or her life by dictating his or her grasp of reality?
Look, by getting back to the radix of the Law, Jesus really does nail every last one of us and there is a sense that the larger function of Jesus’ teachings on the Law does cast us back to a reliance on grace alone (“your righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees”—good luck with that one). We are sufficiently mired in sin and selfishness that we know full well how easy it is to see ourselves in the pictures Jesus sketches. But Jesus is not just being tough on us: he is at the end of the day reminding us of a truth that is actually so very encouraging: God created us to flourish in his good creation. God wants all of us to flourish.
If it is difficult to see how routinely we undercut the flourishing of our neighbors and of ourselves, it is nevertheless glorious to know that the Creator God of the cosmos is on our side and really does desire to see all things and all things and all manner of things going well in his good creation.
The term translated in verse 22 as “raca” is probably the equivalent of our word “idiot.” Also, when Jesus refers to calling someone “a fool,” he uses a term that calls into question the other person’s morality–it might be the equivalent of calling someone “a dirty rat,” someone you don’t trust for a second. Taken together Jesus is decrying our belittling of people’s mental powers and our belittling of their moral status. “Let your anger get the best of you in simmering grudge-bearing,” Jesus says, “and sooner or later you’ll start to denounce the people around you as stupid and immoral–as not worthy of your time.” You may even start to regard them as sub-human, and it’s a short step from that to treating them in sub-human ways, too.
Jesus knows the utter untruth of the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” As Dale Bruner says, there are lots of people in mental hospitals because some hurtful word is lodged in their psyches like a bullet in the spine. When people hurl words at us that cast our mental or moral abilities into question, these angry words reach places inside our nervous systems where no laser can reach. Our Lord is against such angry words because they murder the spirit.
A couple of vignettes related to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:
–In his novel, A Widow for One Year, John Irving depicts a man who lures women into his studio supposedly to model for true art. He begins by taking Polaroid pictures of these women in the nude. His first photos are of the whole person and show the woman smiling and looking lovely. But as time progresses he begins to snap pictures of only body parts, and suddenly the part of the woman’s face you can still see becomes twisted into something profoundly despairing. This supposed artist, like all pornographers, had taken their humanity away from them.
–We all know someone whom we could best describe as “an angry person.” They rarely if ever forget anything negative that has happened to them. Franklin Roosevelt’s closest political advisor was a man named Louis Howe. Mr. Howe, with some frequency, would be very rude and cruel to certain people at dinner or cocktail parties. On one such occasion Eleanor Roosevelt asked, “Louis, why did you do that?” “Because,” Howe replied, “he was once unsupportive of Franklin.” “Oh goodness,” Eleanor exclaimed, “I’d forgotten all about that.” “I never forget,” Howe snapped back. And that’s just the way some folks go at life: they nurse old wounds and so allow them to fester into an entire cesspool of resentment and anger.
Author: Doug Bratt
I’m not sure God cares much whether we choose, for example, to eat oatmeal or fresh fruit for breakfast. However, God does very deeply care, in some cases even more than we naturally do, about some of our choices.
This might provide Deuteronomy 30’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore with worshipers and students what human choices God cares about. What sorts of human choices might God be indifferent about? How can we know the difference between the choices that God does and does not care about?
Moses talks about making a fundamental choice in a Deuteronomy 30 that’s probably the end of his farewell message to the people of Israel. He has brought the Hebrews as far as he can. They stand on the doorstep to the land of promise toward which they’ve been meandering from Egypt for the past forty years.
Moses and Israel have learned a lot about choices. Along their way through the wilderness both have made volumes of choices. Some of them have been good ones; more than a few have proven fatal. In fact, one of those choices has extended Israel’s trip by nearly a whole generation. One of Moses’ own choices has resulted in God’s barring of him from entering the land of promise.
At Canaan’s entrance, Moses says, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (19). It’s the only place in the Old Testament where human beings are the subjects of the verb behar (“choose”). Almost always God does the choosing.
Old Testament scholar Terrence Fretheim notes that while Moses originally spoke this to the Hebrews who were preparing to enter the land of promise, it was also probably delivered to 6th century Hebrews whom God had driven into Babylonian exile. Their future was no less certain than their ancestors’. The 6th century Hebrews had also made a series of disastrous choices that had landed them far from the land of promise. Their response to God’s offer of life and death would be no less formative than their ancestors’ responses had been.
Fretheim notes that it’s important to recognize that this call to choose comes in the context of God’s already having redeemed God’s Israelite people. God has already graciously given them life. So, in a sense, God invites them to respond to God’s choosing and redeeming work in Israel’s life by “leaning into” that life, by fully receiving the life God has already given her.
How can Israel most fully choose the life God has already given her? God has given her the gift of the Law, what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls her “Owner’s Manual” for life not only in the land of promise, but throughout the creation.
What does the kind of “life” that God calls Israel to choose look like? For not just Israel, but all those whom God has redeemed it looks a lot like Deuteronomy 30:16: “To love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws.”
Real life, in other words, looks like a life lived in a faithful relationship with Yahweh. It gratefully chooses to receive the life God gives by living by God’s purposes. Israel can choose life by doing things like worshiping no other gods, speaking the truth in love, fostering healthy relationships and being content with what God has graciously given her.
Yet as Fretheim notes, the kind of life that God graciously grants God’s Israelite people is more than physical life. In fact, in one sense, one’s heart may beat vigorously in the chest of a person who’s essentially dead because she doesn’t live according to God’s good purposes. True life is found in health in every part of the human person.
Of course, Israel has repeatedly shown that it’s more natural and, thus, easier to choose death than life. Verses 17 and following aren’t, after all, just about choices. They also reflect Israel’s sad history. There Moses says, “If your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.” Persistent disobedience is, in other words, the way of death.
It’s a way that’s, sadly, well trodden. It’s the way of the husband who chooses to be intimate with someone to whom he’s not married. It’s the way of the child who deliberately dishonors both God and her parents. It’s the way of powerful corporations that choose profits over advancing their customers’ well-being. It’s the way of both big and small nations that choose soldiers and guns over bread and butter for their citizens.
But it’s not the way of life. It’s the way of death that has a thousand children. Shattered familial and other relationships. Broken neighborhoods and workplaces. Warring ethnic groups and nations. All may seem and in fact be quite lively. But all are in a real sense dead.
Of course, as Hoezee vigorously reminds Deuteronomy 30’s preachers and teachers, obeying God’s commands saves none of us. We are saved by grace alone that we receive with faith in Jesus Christ. We don’t walk in God’s ways in order to convince God to bless us physically and materially. We walk in God’s ways in order to express our gratitude for God’s mighty acts of redemption.
Yet though keeping God’s commands, decrees and laws, doesn’t save us, we aren’t saved if we stubbornly and permanently refuse to love God above all and our neighbors as much as ourselves. It’s not just that true human flourishing is found only in faithful obedience to God’s commands and purposes.
It’s also that the Holy Spirit uses such obedience to shape us more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, in whom we have life, both now and forevermore. After all, in verses 19 and 20 Moses calls Israel to “choose life, so that … you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” It’s almost as if Moses suggests that choosing life will produce greater obedience.
Of course, Deuteronomy doesn’t not report whether Israel “chooses life” or “death.” It remains, says Fretheim open-ended. But that seems appropriate. After all, the question remains open-ended in the 21st century, for all who read, as well as even preach and teach the words of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.
Illustration Idea (from the February 16, 2014 CEP Old Testament Sermon Starter)
As Frederick Buechner and others have observed, the word “law” can be used a couple of different ways. Sometimes a law reflects the way someone decides things should be. So the sign that tells you to drive 55 MPH on a certain stretch of highway is the law, but it’s rather arbitrary. Maybe it used to be 45 MPH and maybe someday a Department of Transportation committee will decide to move it up to 65 MPH. Similarly, if you own a patch of forest, it’s up to you whether or not to grant access to hunters. You can post either a “No Trespassing/No Hunting” sign along your fence line or a sign that says, “Hunters Allowed with Permission.” It’s up to you, and either way it is, as it were, the law for your property. Speed limit and trespassing signs are “law” in the sense of how we decide things should be.
But there is another kind of law that you can detect when someone speaks of “the law of gravity” or “the second law of thermodynamics.” This sense of law does not suggest how things could or should be in a given situation but how things very simply are in all situations. You may disobey the law of gravity if you want — you could even decide you don’t believe that particular law. But that attitude won’t help you if you lose your balance at the top of a stepladder or drop a hammer while it’s over top of your left foot.
Too often we make the mistake of thinking that God’s laws are like speed limit signs — they are just arbitrary hoops God has decided people should jump through. But as the people of God, we need to know that God’s laws are like gravity — God gave us these guidelines and rules as a kind of owner’s manual for life on earth. These rules describe the way things simply are. All in all, you will be far better off in life if you respect the law of gravity — when dealing with hammers, ladders, staircases, and the edges of cliffs, it’s a really good idea to know that gravity is not a law that depends on circumstances to take effect. So also with God’s law for the Israelites: God wanted his people to be safe, healthy, and well. But God knew that for shalom to come, it would come best and easiest and the most quickly when people followed the owner’s guide for life in the Promised Land.
Author: Stan Mast
Whenever I read Psalm 119, alarm bells go off in my head. For one thing, it feels like a literary monstrosity, 176 verses of boring, repetitious monotony. The great Old Testament scholar Artur Weiser wrote that Psalm 119 is “a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. The formal external character of the Psalm stifles its subject matter. The Psalm is a many colored mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in a wearisome fashion… without any recognizable order….”
In addition to those literary alarm bells, I also hear theological bells warning me away from preaching on this Psalm. Its profuse praise for the beauty and value of God’s law seems at least on the surface to collide with the warnings about God’s law in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s letters. Think of Paul’s strident words to the Galatians: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law or by believing what you heard? (Gal. 2:1-2).”
Or consider Paul’s personal testimony in Philippians 3. After talking about his former allegiance to all the markers of Old Testament faithfulness (“as for legalistic righteousness, faultless”), Paul says, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” He even says he considers all those covenantal blessings to be “rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ…” (Phil. 3:7-9)
Given those literary and theological issues, why would any Spirit filled, Christ honoring preacher take on the challenge of preaching on this stiff and boring piece of Hebrew poetry? Well, first of all, we should consider it, because it is God’s Word. As Paul put it in II Timothy 3, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable….” I take that as an article of faith.
And second, all of us have had the experience of tackling something difficult, like playing a complicated sonata on the piano or reading a 600 page Russian novel or learning a new golf swing, and finding great satisfaction when we mastered the challenge. Hard biblical passages can be more rewarding than the familiar old chestnuts. So I invite you to join me in an exploration of this alarming Psalm.
To do that well and in good conscience, we’ll have to deal with those literary and theological issues I raised above. As to the first, my initial judgment that it is boring and redundant fades away when we carefully investigate the structure of Psalm 119. It is the supreme acrostic poem. It is divided into 22 stanzas or strophes, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Further, each verse in each of those 22 stanzas begins with the letter in the alphabet that heads that section. So our reading for today is called “aleph,” the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and each verse in this stanza begins with “aleph.” What’s more, each stanza has exactly 8 verses, which is possibly based on the fact that the Psalm uses 8 different words for “law.”
C.S. Lewis described Psalm 119 in his characteristic style. “In other words, this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart, like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidering, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject, and for delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.” But it isn’t just art for art’s sake. It is art for obedience sake. It is, says Brueggemann, “a massive intellectual achievement, an astonishingly crafted acrostic psalm designed to elicit full obedience.”
Why would anyone work so hard on such a theme? Here I must quote Brueggemann at length because he will make you want to preach on Psalm 119. “First, the Psalm is deliberately didactic. It reflects the work of a classroom teacher. Its intent is not casual. It wants to instruct the young in the ‘a-b-c’s’ of Torah obedience. Second, the Psalm wants to make a comprehensive statement of the adequacy of a Torah-oriented life. It affirms that Torah will cover every facet of human existence, everything from A to Z. Third, the dramatic intent is to find a form commensurate with the message. The message is that life is reliable and utterly symmetrical when the Torah is honored. And so the Psalm provides a literary, pedagogical experience of reliability and utter symmetry. A Torah-ordered life is as safe, predictable, and complete as the movement of the psalm.”
Isn’t that lovely? But here comes the theological problem, which is really an existential problem. No one actually lives a life that is perfectly ordered by Torah. Torah is beautiful and orderly, and if we lived by it, we would be perfectly happy. But we don’t. In fact, we can’t, because of the weakness of the flesh, the work of the devil, and the temptations of the world.
This existential problem is, of course, why God sent his Son. In the words of Paul in Romans 8:3-4, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteousness requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”
This is how we should read and preach Psalm 119. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18) In Christ and by the power of his Spirit, we must obey the law, for it gives shape to our grateful love for God and our fellow humans.
When viewed in the light of Christ, Torah becomes, in the words of James 1:25, “the perfect law that gives freedom.” To quote Brueggemman yet again, “Our modern bias that sees commands as restricting is countered. The commandments liberate and give people space to be human. This Psalm instructs people in the need, possibility, and delight of giving settlement to the foundational issues of identity and vocation. Torah living does not require keeping options open about who we shall be.” The law answers such difficult questions (of identity and vocation) already; we need only study and obey through faith in Christ and by the powerful leading of the Spirit.
Now we are ready to focus on this opening stanza of Psalm 119, which sets the stage for all that follows. Verses 1-3 lay out the theme of the Psalm. It is possible to be blessed in this cursed world, to be happy in the midst of all this unhappiness, to be content (the fundamental meaning of the Hebrew word translated “blessed”) in a wildly restless culture. The secret is to “walk according to the laws of Yahweh… keep his statutes, and seek him with all [our] heart.” That is the theme of the entire Psalm and the following 170 some verses show what it means to do that. Verse 3 spells out the obvious. If we actually do walk in the ways of Yahweh, we will do nothing wrong. We will live blameless lives and we will be blessed. Here’s the way to complete human happiness. Isn’t that good news? There is a way to be happy in this world. It is so simple.
We make life complicated by insisting on our own way. We view God’s commands as optional, as mere suggestions, as general guidelines, as outmoded rules from an ancient agricultural culture that can be ignored in our multi-cultural urban world. But we do that to our peril. Indeed, we subvert our own happiness. The law of God is meant to “be fully obeyed (verse 4).”
Verse 4 represents a turning point in Psalm 119. The first three verses are thematic, spoken to the listening community or the inquiring mind. In verse 4 the poet turns to God and addresses God for the rest of the Psalm. This turn transforms Psalm 119 from a theoretical meditation on a subject to a personal conversation with God about that subject. “You have laid down precepts,” says the Psalmist, and now I want to talk with you about those precepts.
The conversation that follows expresses the inner life of every genuine believer. We realize how “holy, righteous and good” God’s law is, but we don’t, in fact, live by it. As verse 5 says with obvious passion, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!” This is where we begin the rest of our lives, with a frank admission that we aren’t where we ought to be. I don’t actually do what verses 1 and 2 describe.
And that is why I’m not as blessed, happy, content as I want to be. Indeed, I often feel “shame when I consider all your commands.” Most scholars believe the Psalmist is talking there about the shame he feels in the face of enemies, a shame that would disappear if he kept the law. Such obedience would give him peace when he is confronted by illness, warfare, or poverty. That might be, but I wonder if he isn’t talking about the shame we feel when we realize that we don’t measure up. I’m not talking about guilt here, which has to do with the violation of specific commands. I’m thinking rather about that overwhelming sense that I’m not who I want to be. Think of the body shame an overweight girl or a skinny boy feels when they look in the mirror. When I look into the mirror of all your commands (as in James 1:23), I am ashamed of myself, because I am not what I ought to be.
But I’m not going to wallow in my shame. In Christ and with the Spirit, I’m going to keep learning your righteous laws (verse 7). Because I can have new beginnings every day, I’m going to keep going to school with Christ, as he teaches me the heights and depths of the Law (cf. the Gospel reading for today in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:21-37). So I will rejoice in your law. It is so good and right that I it provokes praise in my heart. I’m not perfect, but instead of getting stuck in my guilt and shame, I’m going to school. There I rejoice in what I learn from Christ about how to live happily and contentedly in this world.
The Psalmist closes off this first stanza in his poem with a promise and a plea. “I will obey your decrees….” I don’t do that yet, not perfectly, but I hereby make a promise, a vow, a resolution. “I will obey….” And until I do, O Lord, don’t forsake me. I hear this as a plea for help and forgiveness. By your Spirit, help me to do what I fully intend to do. And through the work of Christ, forgive me when I fail, however often that may be. Don’t forsake me utterly. If we pray that sincerely and faithfully, we can be sure that God won’t forsake us, because of what Christ has done. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Read this way, Psalm 119 is not the prayer of a perfect person characterized by what C.S. Lewis called “priggery and pedantry.” It is the prayer of a serious disciple who needs both law and Spirit, both moral effort and helpless faith, both obedience and trust in Christ. In a lawless age, where everything is relative, moral standards change rapidly, identity is fluid and calling is amorphous, this paean to the law of God is a much-needed counterbalance. Preach it in the light of Paul and Jesus, and it will set your congregation on a counter-cultural path to the happiness everyone is seeking.
Have you seen that commercial on TV for an asthma medication? It features a gold fish who has somehow gotten out of his fishbowl. Surrounded by spilled water, the little fish gasps for its breath. A child’s voice provides the commentary. “This is how I feel when I have an asthma attack.” It’s painful to watch, but the message is clear. When you have asthma, you need our medication.
I take a different lesson. When a goldfish is out of water, it gasps, it flounders, and eventually it dies, because water is its natural environment. Though water and, particularly, that bowl of water might seem restrictive, it is in fact the sine qua non of life for that little fish. The same is true for humans and God’s law. That law might seem restrictive, but it is in fact our natural environment. To live in freedom, we must live in the law of God. Blessed are those whose lives are bound by the Law of God. They are truly free to live and breathe and have their being in this world.
I Corinthians 3:1-9
Author: Scott Hoezee
“We have the mind of Christ.” That was Paul’s amazing, lyric, profound final word in what we now call 1 Corinthians 2. It is this mindset alone, Paul claims, that allows us to see in the cross of Christ something other than a complete and senseless dead end. The cross is wisdom, not folly, but you will ever and only recognize that if you are filled with Christ himself. And the Corinthian Christians were so filled, Paul says.
And then . . . we get to what Paul has to say next and it seems to contradict it all. Because as chapter 3 opens, Paul loops back to something mentioned earlier in the opening of this letter. The Christians in Corinth had allowed themselves to become rather balkanized as various groups latched onto not Christ first and foremost but leaders like Apollos, Peter, Paul. Earlier Paul had already chided them for taking their eyes off Jesus first and foremost. Human leaders are unimportant and are here only to serve Christ.
But here as chapter 3 opens, his criticism of this has a sharper bite. Paul says he has to talk to them as though they were children, not mature adults. Indeed, he has to coddle them as though they were INFANTS yet and not even quite children. Their maturity is so lacking that they will choke on anything other than teachings that are the equivalent of milk and not solid food. They are not even up to Cheerios yet! Their factions and their quarreling over such silly things—and their inability to recognize that only God and his work matters—indicate how very much growing up they still have to do.
We cannot know, of course, how this rhetoric went over when this letter was read by the Corinthians (perhaps in the context of a worship gathering). You’d have to guess, though, that the people felt a combination of a bit of pique and a bit of shame. “How dare Paul label us as little babies?!” on the one hand and “Alas, he’s got a point!!” on the other hand. In any event, Paul could not have been much clearer or more direct. One of these days these people were flat out going to have to grow up. The sooner the better, but maybe God will be patient too.
One thing that may leap out at us as we look at this text, however. If you did preach on this particular issue from 1 Corinthians 1 from earlier in this Lectionary cycle, you may wonder what is left to say in a new sermon on these verses as Paul re-treads the same wheel. So perhaps one thing that could be highlighted here is the fact that Paul does not merely lambast the Corinthians as “infants.” That would be arresting and perhaps hurtful enough. But in continuity with the end of the previous chapter Paul does take care to say that although they may be infants, they are “infants in Christ.” Ahhh, now that little prepositional phrase makes all the difference!
Because as most of us know, “in Christ” is Paul’s favorite shorthand way of referring to all the blessings we have as a result of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. As the theologian Lewis Smedes once wrote, “in Christ” represents a kind of situational Christology. To dwell “in Christ” is to be located inside the new cosmic situation that Christ ushered in. Through Christ’s sacrifice the whole universe turned the corner from darkness back into light. The powers and principalities were put to flight and God’s ultimate victory was cinched and assured. Believers enter this new realm via the gift of faith and through union with Christ achieved by grace in our baptisms. When elsewhere in the Corinthian correspondence Paul says “Behold: new creation!” what he means is that all things are already in the process of ultimate renewal and we believers bear that newness in our hearts already now. We participate in the future glory of the New Heaven and the New Earth and we do it right here, right now even while we still live in this broken world.
All in all, it is a breathtaking concept, and Paul signals all that joy and glory and wonder every time he uses his favorite two-word expression “in Christ.”
But here in 1 Corinthians 3 it is spiritual infants who are said to be “in Christ” and if it sounded harsh for Paul to call the Corinthians infants, I’d wager that his throwing in the line “in Christ” properly modifies this. Yes, yes, the Corinthians were being ridiculous, not just here on the whole Paul vs. Apollos thing but in the passel of other A-Z issues Paul has to address all through 1 Corinthians. Arguments about spiritual gifts, doubts about the resurrection, lawsuits in the Body of Christ, a man shacked up with his mother-in-law, poor people being left out of the Lord’s Supper . . . the list goes on and on. They had a lot of growing up to do.
But then . . . who doesn’t? Honesty should compel most any modern-day congregation to admit that on any number of points, Paul might call them spiritual infants, too. And not a few of us pastors now and then could behave a bit more like grown-ups, too, in how we handle certain issues that crop up in the church. I know I could have for sure now and then.
The good news? Even spiritual infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, and the occasional true spiritual adult are all nevertheless and by grace alone “in Christ.” It seems like a small thing Paul slipped into these otherwise chiding words at the head of chapter 3.
But it is by no means a small thing. Thanks be to God! Thanks be to God that the largeness of his grace means more than the smallness of our attitudes at times. And who knows, maybe one fine day we will—as Paul predicts in another place—actually grow up into full maturity after the manner of our elder brother, even Jesus Christ himself.
Infants, after all, have nowhere to grow but up!
Those of us who are parents can be a sly lot at times. What I am about to relay is something I’d wager most every mom and dad reading this has done (and something most anyone who has ever been a child may recall happening to them whether they have yet become a parent or not!). Because when we chide our children for this or that, we calibrate how we assess their age, maturity, and abilities according to whatever it is we are trying to accomplish. So when a child tries to—or asks to do—something we deem well beyond their reach just yet, we may say “Absolutely not! You are just 9 years old and you cannot possibly attempt that so forget it and don’t ask me about it again!” But then a day or two later when that same child—still 9 years of age mind you—refuses to do something we ask them to do, the same parent will say “Oh good grief! You are almost 10 years old now and it’s high time you started to help clean your own room!”
You are only 9. You are almost 10. How we tilt our language depends on what we are addressing. In 1 Corinthians 2 Paul says the Corinthians have the mind of Christ, which sounds a bit like “You are almost 10.” But then in chapter 3 he calls them mere infants in Christ, which sounds a bit like “You are only 9 but you SHOULD be 10!”
We all make our various points in various ways. Paul too!