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Grow or Decrease

Grow or Decrease.
1 Corinthians 3: 1 – 9; Matthew 5: 21 – 37
Growth is part of the warp and woof of life. Whether we like it or not we are growing. We grow in our experiences of life. We grow in our knowledge. We grow in our relationships. We are growing in one way or another. The opposite of growth is decrease, decline, withering or dying. Not to grow is to decline. Every aspect of our existence requires development. Take for example our emotions. Because our experiences are ever changing our emotions are not only exercised but are pushed into deeper levels of experience. We have the choice of learning from the experiences and developing how we handle our emotions or not. We can only talk about anger-management training if it is possible to manage the anger.  Better management of our emotions requires maturation. The point I wish to make is that growth is part of our total human life, which includes our spiritual life as well as emotional, intellectual and physical lives.
Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth saying that they are still on a child’s diet. He is speaking about their spirituality.  He says to them; 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 [1 Cor 3: 1,2]. The Corinthian church had some problems and Paul experienced difficulty in dealing with these problems because the Corinthian Christians were immature in their faith.  In this instance their jealousy, quarreling and their human inclinations displayed their immaturity and held back the life of church. 
What I want to focus on is that a Christian needs to grow. A church full of infant Christians will not be going far. After 50 years of ministry, which includes my training and education to be a minister, I sense there are many Christians who don’t entertain the notion that they need to grow in their faith.  And those who don’t entertain such a concept of developing their faith will either not mature or develop very little. The immature don’t exercise the gifts of the Spirit and struggle with loving their neighbour. It is hard enough at the best of times.
I want to suggest that there are two basic reasons why the Church doesn’t give sufficient attention to developing the faith life. Firstly, we tend to talk about our growth in terms of education and follow that up with study groups, workshops and courses. Now part of our Christian growth is about knowing the things of God.  It is about knowing the Bible. But that is not all. Our Christian growth involves developing our prayer life and loving our neighbour. Christian growth is about knowing the bible, developing the spiritual life and practising love and justice.
 I am not sure that we in the Church handle our growth well. Firstly, we tend to focus on intellectual growth or Bible knowledge rather than on personal growth. Our personal and spiritual growth happens on an ad hoc basis. I try in my study groups to blend knowledge of the Scriptures with personal and spiritual development.  There is a danger of thinking that Christian growth is about knowing more. The Church has frustrated its Christian Education programme by focusing too much on the intellectual content. That is a problem for us. I have endeavoured to mix spiritual, educational and intellectual knowledge so that our growing in the faith may be balanced. Even in Bible study groups I include thoughts and questions about how the teaching applies to our development as Christians.
The second reason why we don’t work well at our Christian development is that we are working with a conflicting concept of being a Christian. Remember we were sent to Sunday School to learn about the Bible and get some good values, we then graduated to the finishing class, Confirmation, and then we were confirmed as members. We became members of the Church.  We no longer were expected to go to Sunday School or actually do much else but attend worship and get involved where we could or wanted to. We became members and that’s it. Our membership was life long. Some even believe that Church membership can be inherited. I’ve had people come and ask something of the Church and add that their grandfather was a minister! Most of us if not all took this membership to be like any club or society’s membership. We had rights, a few responsibilities and we could use the club, I mean the Church, as we saw fit. Does that make sense to you? Do you recognise yourself, or your friends in this brief analysis? I’m sorry to tell you that this is not what Jesus meant. It is not what our theology actually holds. It is not what the Basis of Union understands about membership.
Our confirmation did not mark our graduation, but our introduction to a life long walk with God in the company of others. You can see that our concept of Christian education, which was weighted towards acquiring knowledge is complemented our corrupt notion of membership. I’m sorry friends, but these practices were all wrong.  Membership is about being part of Jesus’ earthly body.  Christian membership is about belonging to Jesus not a group. It is unhelpful if not theologically incorrect to speak of being a member of the Church. We’re members of Christ Jesus. We practise the Christ-life for Jesus’ sake.
So let us remind ourselves that the first Christians were challenged to grow in their faith, to not remain child-like in their understanding and their practice.  Jesus himself called people to follow him and he taught them. Discipleship was about being an apprentice. It would be far better for us to speak about ourselves as disciples of Jesus rather than ‘members of the church’.  Jesus makes this point in his interpretation of the Parable of the Sower, where he says that one of the reasons the seed has failed is because we let the cares and riches of this world choke our Christian growth. Therefore the seed fails to mature and bear fruit. [Luke 8: 14] Jesus clearly expects growth that matures into fruit bearing.
Scattered through the writings of the NT Church is this theme that Christians are to grow, become mature and reach the fullness of God’s calling.  The Ephesian Christians are encouraged to grow up in every way into the likeness of Christ Jesus [Eph 4:15].  The apostle Peter sees us growing in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ [2 Pet 3:18]. Peter likens Christian converts to be like infants taking pure spiritual milk so they may grow strong [1 Pet 2:2]. The Colossians are spurred by the image of Jesus in whom the fullness of the God resides and to strive let the fullness of Christ Jesus enter their lives and so too the Ephesians so encouraged [Col 1:19; 2: 9; Eph 3:19].   The readers of Hebrews are reminded that solid food is for the mature Christians who have been trained by practice to distinguish between good and evil [Heb 5: 14]. There is no question in the minds of the Apostles and teachers of the Church that the Christian life is a life of growth towards maturity in Christ and being Christ-like. We could say that we can stop growing when we have reached that likeness and only then. I’m reminded of the story of the little old lady going off to Bible Study and friends asking her whether she still needed to go. Her quick retort was, ‘I’m studying for my finals!’
Frederick W Robertson said; “It is not the number of books you read, nor the variety of sermons you hear, nor the amount of religious conversation in which you mix, but it is the frequency and earnestness with which you meditate on these things till the truth in them becomes your own and part of your being, that ensures your growth.”
Let us return to our readings from Corinthians and Matthew and note two things. Firstly Paul uses two metaphors for the church – a field and a building. Both a field and a building are explicitly about growth and development. Indeed the metaphor of building has most significance, because it includes the notion that the people of God form God’s house and God’s Temple. Secondly, Jesus’s comments about murder, divorce and making promises are essentially about moving to a deeper level of understanding and practice. Jesus expects his followers to think deeply and become wise in what really matters.
We can see that being mature was an expectation of the first Christians and has continued to be so. Imagine what it would be like to be more inclined to love others and be prepared to serve them without criticism or a sense of duty. Imagine what it would be like to have the deep joy of God always present in your life.
Imagine having the joy of seeing the fruit of the Spirit of love, patience, peace, self-control, generosity and gentleness in your life. [Gal 5: 22]
Imagine having grown to a point where you are a blessing to others.
Imagine enjoying practising the gifts the Spirit has given you to exercise. 
Imagine being humble, loving, compassionate and forgiving like Christ Jesus.
Imagine just being a little more of a Christian than you are now.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  12/02/2017
 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org.au