Based on 1 Corinthians 3:5-9
One day, while rushing around, a parish priest encountered a challenging and difficult question: what does it mean to exist? The question came from a church member who wanted to grow in her understanding of God and our existence here on earth.
We’re a lot like that church member. We all want to grow in Christ, grow in our knowledge and understanding, and so we ask questions and seek answers to our questions. We challenge assumptions and pose hard to answer questions to those in our lives whom we believe to be experts, like priests.
Such is what this particular church member was doing. She was simply looking for an answer by which to grow in understanding Christ. She wanted to know why we exist at all.
The priest readily answered the question. This seemingly difficult, metaphysical question, of our human existence was no problem. He looked right at the parishioner, a gleam in his eye, and said, “I can answer that! It follows a simple syllogism I learned in seminary. All people exist. All pigs exist. Therefore, all people are pigs. Wait, no that can’t be right…”
The priest never answered the question, and the parishioner left, more puzzled than before.
This morning, the task before us is to take on a puzzling question of our own; one that Paul poses in the scripture and one that can seem simple enough on its surface, but the more we dig, the more complicated it becomes. That question is:
What does it mean to grow in Christ?
When I think of growth, my mind goes immediately to the little garden I had in Macon, similar to the one I just planted at the parsonage. A church member at Vineville had turned me onto square foot gardening as we worked together to set up three square foot gardens for a local homeless shelter. Inspired by her example, I went home and made my own square foot garden.
In the garden, I put in the right kind of soil, I watered it regularly, and I pruned the plants as they grew. Considering the heat, the plants did remarkably well. Jack and I loved to go out and water almost every day, checking on the growth of our plants, seeing what fruit was being born off the limbs.
The growing was sometimes messy and difficult. I discovered that the squash was invasive, growing rapidly across the garden. I tried to prune it back, but only had limited success. The tomato plants shot up and kept falling over. I had stakes to tie them to, but they seemed to like to grow away from the stakes, shooting up and falling over again. And my poor peppers struggled at times, overshadowed by the tomatoes and grown over by the squash and watermelon.
Growing in the garden was messy and seemingly uncontrollable at times. I planted, I watered, I pruned, and the plants grew, but seemingly with a mind of their own.
I learned much from watching my little garden grow. When I planted the vegetables and fruits, I expected their growth to be predictable. They’d grow, either up or out, depending on the plant, at the same rate of growth, and bear their fruit on their stalks. They’d mind their own space, not invading others or overshadowing others. I thought the growth would be logical and linear, one thing leading to another, like the way we grow in knowledge.
But the garden challenged my assumptions. Growth was messy, not linear, and one thing did not seem to lead to the other.
School teaches us that growth is supposed to be linear, with one thing leading to another. We learn about addition and subtraction, for example, so we can learn about multiplication and division. We learn about multiplication and division so we can learn formulas and functions. We learn about those so we can learn algebra. And so on and so forth, all of that learning contributing to growing in our analytical and logical abilities, such that we can understand the world and its functioning more deeply.
To grow in school is to grow in knowledge, with each step leading to another, deeper step.
We mimic the same thing in church. We go to worship and Sunday school and bible studies to grow in our knowledge about God. We read books together, we read devotionals, we research biblical topics, all in pursuit of growing in Christ. As we learn more, our understandings deepen, our knowledge grows, such that we feel a certain growth, just like in school, because we can point to how our knowledge has deepened.
This is the way of things, in terms of growth. Predictable. Linear. One thing leads to another. These are logical steps as we deepen our knowledge around a particular subject. Certainly, we can deepen our knowledge about Christ, about the Bible, about the church, through this predictable, linear, rote, school-based approach.
And yet, the question this morning remains: what does it mean to grow in Christ?
Such linear growth in knowledge reminds me of that old parish priest trying to explain existence. He tried to explain growth spiritually through the logic of a syllogism. While we do not often come to the conclusion that we are pigs, we do often try to explain God through logic, through knowledge that builds upon itself, and hope that, in doing so, we grow spiritually.
It’s like seeking to understand the Trinity. If you’ve ever tried, you know it’s a head scratcher. But we have this complex, and indeed beautiful, concept of the Trinity that comes from logic, from knowledge that built upon itself, until all the ancient bishops, meeting together in Asia Minor, could finally put together what we now call the doctrine of the Trinity.
Sometimes logic and knowledge that builds upon itself: that linear, rote, school-based approach, works for understanding the nature of God and theology.
Kind of like an author I like to read. He is brilliant in his knowledge of God. He can espouse all sorts of amazing ideas and concepts that give me new perspective on God, on the Trinity, on the nature of Jesus, on the church. He’s absolutely brilliant, much smarter and better read than I am. And he’s an atheist, and quite proud of it. Being an atheist who studies God forms a core part of his identity.
He will readily tell you that he knows all about God, but he doesn’t believe in God.
So what does it mean to grow in Christ?
In Corinth, the people are asking the same question: what does it mean to grow in Christ? They’re searching around for the right leader to follow so that they will gain the right knowledge, which they believe will lead them to grow in Christ. Internal debates have broken out within the Corinthian church which have led to conflict in the church. Some want to follow the teachings of Apollos, an evangelist during Paul’s time. Others want to follow Paul’s teachings. Later in the book, we learn of other teachers the people are wanting to follow and some want to follow the teachings of other religions.
The church in Corinth believes that, if they have the right knowledge of God, they will grow in Christ. So having the right teacher, who gives them the right doctrine, is paramount. Nothing matters more, for to grow in Christ, according to the Corinthian church, is to grow like at school: gaining head knowledge in a way that deepens their understandings of who God is; that predictable, linear, rote, growth.
Just like the author I referenced, who knows about God but does not believe in God.
So what does it mean to grow in Christ?
By now, I’m sure that rather simple sounding question has grown more difficult as it has grown in complexity. What, indeed, does it mean to grow in Christ?! The difficulty before us in answering that question is the classic problem Christians have faced for 2000 years. We grow up learning in school how to get more knowledge, how to grow in our understandings of the world. And we approach knowing God in the same way. But that is not the way to approach God, for that is not the way to approach relationships.
For God is not primarily a thing to be studied, but a being to be loved.
The Corinthian church, like the parish priest, like the author, have conflated knowing about God with knowing God.
The two, knowing about God and knowing God, could not be more different.
To grow in Christ is not to know about God, but to know God.
Not long after I began at Mercer, I found myself at odds with my boss. In my arrogance, I had gone to her demanding that she do certain things to make my life easier. She, and quite rightfully so I now admit, called me out for my arrogance and put me in my place. At the time, though, I thought she was very much in the wrong and treated her with disdain.
Throughout the next several months, she continued to reach out to me. She’d stop by my office to check in on things, remembering personal issues and asking about my family. She showed me great care and concern, and as my pride melted, I realized what an amazing gift she was giving me.
She showed me love, the love of Christ, even though I had done nothing to deserve it. In fact, I had done quite the opposite. She would have been right to push me aside, avoid me, and even suggest that I find employment elsewhere, the way I had acted. Rather, she lived Christ’s love out, accepting me as I was, seeking to love on me, demonstrating forgiveness.
It was through her that I experienced the love of Christ in a profound and meaningful way. Her love for me opened my eyes to see how much my church was loving on me, how Dana’s family was loving on me, all of which I did not deserve. And yet, I still received it, because in my life were shining examples of God’s love for me.
It was from that moment that I grew in faith, as I experienced God’s love for me. This love came from different people, with different sets of beliefs, with different understandings of who God is, and yet I experienced the same love from all of them.
I discovered the truth in what Paul describes at the beginning of Chapter 13 in this same letter to the Corinthians. Paul says, “…if I…understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but I do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians, to grow in Christ comes not from knowledge alone. All the knowledge in the world led Paul, a highly educated man who used to be a Pharisee, by his own account, to nothingness.
This is the thrust of the message of 1 Corinthians. Paul encounters the church in Corinth, a church that, like us, wants to grow, asking how they can get more knowledge about God. Their primary concern is to identify which teacher has the right doctrine to ensure that they only hear the right truths about God, which they believe will ensure their growth. Paul dismisses their questions and the logic of their position entirely. He says it does not matter if you have the right knowledge, it does not matter if you have the right teacher, it does not matter if you have right belief or right doctrine, for if you do not have love, you do not know God, and your faith is, then, meaningless.
For faith, Paul boldly proclaims, comes first and foremost not from knowledge, but from rooting ourselves in the experience of Christ’s love.
Paul’s words that his knowledge is nothing without love are the prelude to the famous verses on love in 1 Corinthians, “love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irratable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Cor. 13:4-8a
That is Paul’s answer to the church in Corinth. Knowledge, right doctrine, is meaningless without love. To know God, to grow in Christ, then, was for those in Corinth as it is still for us today: rooting ourselves the experience of Christ’s love. To grow in Christ is to let ourselves be loved on by those in our lives who have God’s love inside of them. To grow in Christ is to ask God to show us that kind of love, having faith that we will not be let down.
To grow in Christ, to root ourselves in God’s love, is to grow very much like a garden.
In my garden, the plants seemed to grow with a mind of their own. They grew as they were designed to grow, and sometimes that meant they came into conflict with other plants. And yet, I learned from my master gardener church member, that conflict helped the plants grow. Their roots produced different nutrients, which other plants needed. The shade some plants produced forced other plants to find new paths to the sun, strengthening their stalks. The invasive plants helped protect the smaller plants from squirrels and other critters with their spiny, sometimes sharp, stalks.
The same is true for how we grow in Christ. Paul makes such clear to the church in Corinth as he proclaims to them that right doctrine, right belief, is pointless if it is not grounded in love. He would know: as a Pharisee, he had spent the better part of his adult life enforcing right Jewish doctrine and belief. But he readily admits, he did not have love, and so his work came to nothing. We can tend to focus in the same ways: we want to be sure we believe the right things, that we are following the right rules, that we have conformed to the right doctrine. But all of that is meaningless, Paul says, unless you are grounded in Christ.
And then, in noting that Apollos watered and that he planted, he notes how God can give the growth through people whose doctrine and beliefs are in conflict. Apollos and Paul didn’t agree on many points, and yet God was using both of them to grow the church. We today have lots of differing, competing, beliefs, whether comparing religions or comparing denominations or comparing churches or even comparing against each other. Paul says none of that matters, for the first task of anyone who wants to grow spiritually is to grow in love.
We are all different. We in this room may believe different, even contradictory, things. But we can all grow because we have available to us the right ingredients: the love of Christ and each other and our knowledge about God.
Just as the plants of my garden were different, they were sometimes in conflict, but they all grew because they had the right ingredients of water, soil, and light.
Knowledge is important, beliefs are important, but they are only one ingredient in growing in love, and not the primary ingredient. Before that knowledge can do us much good, before our beliefs can help us grow, we must experience the love of Christ, that love the hymnist declares, reflectively, “how deep the father’s love for us, how rich beyond all measure…”
And the path, the way to grow in the love of Christ, is to plant ourselves in spiritual disciplines and relationships that grow our love.
Growing in Christ, then, means first receiving love from others in relationships in our lives. That’s sometimes hard, because to receive love means we have to be willing to put ourselves in a vulnerable position; it means we have to humble ourselves, for it means we must recognize that we are in need of love, in need of the affirmation and encouragement that come from receiving love’s patience, kindness, and gentleness. It means realizing that we have our own pains, hurts, wounds, fears, that need the healing balm of love. It means owning up to that, in the presence of others, to receive God’s love through their love for us.
In my life, this means I make sure to stay in fellowship with relationships that feed my soul, such as mentorships, close friends, and with special attention to my marriage and family; all of which form another layer of my spiritual discipline. Those relationships require that I remain humble, that I share my struggles, that I ask for help, so that I can receive their love and, in receiving it, receive God’s love for me.
Growing in Christ also means receiving love through practicing spiritual disciplines that fit who we are.
There’s no formula for choosing and using spiritual disciplines. There’s no sequential, linear, function to that growth. No, like planting, tilling, and keeping a garden, this growth is messy. It requires experimentation, trial and error, until we discover those spiritual practices that cause us to experience the love of God.
In my own life, I have experimented with different spiritual disciplines until I have discovered those that best help me grow. At different moments in my life, I have tried reading devotionals, studying the bible, meditation, petitionary prayer, centering prayer, singing, the daily office, and others. What I have discovered is that those disciplines that feed me are contemplative disciplines, and as such, every morning, I read the daily office, I read a Psalm, I meditate, and I journal. And I run, praying and listening to God as I go on my path. These are the spiritual practices that feed my soul, causing me to experience the love of Christ and thus to grow. And they are spiritual disciplines that I found by experimenting with many, casting aside those that do not feed my soul.
It’s like planting seeds in a garden. The seeds are like spiritual disciplines: we try them all out, like scattering seeds across the ground, and see which ones grow. Those that cause us to grow we till, prune, water, and nourish, and those that do not cause us to grow, we discard.
It’s trial and error, it’s experimental, but we know, undoubtedly, when a spiritual practice is feeding us because we grow in love; in other words, we grow more patient, more kind, less envious, boastful, arrogant, and rude, less irritable and resentful, we rejoice in righteousness and truth. We can bear more, we can believe more, we can hope more, we can endure more, because we have discovered, more deeply, through spiritual disciplines that feed us, the love of God that has no end.
We know spiritual disciplines are growing us when they lead us to become more loving.
Growing in Christ is messy and challenging. It requires that we till the soil of our own souls, scattering the seeds of spiritual disciplines until we discover what causes us to grow in love. It requires that we remain in relationships that require vulnerability. Both are hard, both run against our natural human instincts, but both result in growing in Christ because both lead us to grow in love.
So let’s get to gardening. If you’re wondering how to move forward, if you’re wondering what the next step is, if you’re seeking new spiritual disciplines, come talk to me. Let’s set up a time to come up with an individual plan. Go and speak to spiritual mentors in your life. Above all, try.
For, as Paul says, we are God’s field, God’s building. God grows us individually by growing us together. Proverbs tells us, “as iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” If we’re all focused on experiencing more deeply the love of Christ, we can’t help but to grow each other.
Christ will grow us if we earnestly seek. We’ll discover, as Paul tells us, that some will water us, others will plant us, but God will give us the growth we seek. All that’s necessary is we try, scattering the seeds of spiritual disciplines, seeing which ones cause us to experience the love of of God that will not betray, dismay, nor enslave, but will set us free to be the person God has made us to be.
As a church, let’s get to gardening. Till the soil of our souls. Scatter the seeds of spiritual disciplines. And watch God grow our roots ever more deeply in the love that created us.
For then we will know “how deep the father’s love for us. How rich beyond all measure.” Let’s get to gardening.