This is adapted from a sermon I gave yesterday at Mars Hill University’s homecoming chapel service. The sermon text was 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.
For many, college is a time of growth: of learning who we are, of growing in our faith, of finding some direction for our life. It’s a time to grow up.
It’s a hard process. It’s a process full of faith and doubt, questions and even more questions. While I was here, I know that one day I would be talking about how heathen Mars Hill was, and the next I would be trying to convince someone that yes, my religion professors were, in fact, Christian.
It’s hard because we begin thinking for ourselves, claiming our faith as our own, and we begin living the consequences of following Jesus. It was and is a messy process, but it’s also a faith-filled endeavor that some people don’t understand.
Christian author and blogger, Rachel Held Evans, has written about this type of experience that she had as well. She says that everyone told her that questioning aspects of her faith would lead her down a slippery slope. Questioning one thing would simply lead to questioning another. She says that for the most part they were right, They were wrong on one part, however.
They told me that this slippery slope would lead me away from God, that it would bring a swift end to my faith journey, that I’d be lost forever.
But with that one they were wrong.
On a whole, we have this static idea of what it means to mature in our faith. For many, it simply means having a bigger faith. Nothing really changes, it just gets larger. I had a small apple, now it’s big. I had a small pumpkin, now I’m winning the county fair.
My faith was small, now it’s just bigger.
Then we arrive at a place like Mars Hill, and suddenly we’re being asked questions. We’re asking questions that we would have never asked before. We find new information that we never knew before, and that troubles us. We find that our once firm faith feels a little less stable as our foundations are chipped away.
Now we realize that through those moments our faith was growing, but it felt a lot more like our faith was crumbling before our very eyes. All we held dear is seen in a new light, and while we aren’t throwing it all out, we are examining it anew.
A professor I had in seminary, Dr. Loyd Allen, said that faith growth is a lot like an acorn. He pointed out that the acorn and the oak tree were one and the same. If one asks to see a mature acorn, they aren’t looking for a bigger acorn. They are asking to see the mighty oak tree. When we plant an acorn we don’t want a 100 pound acorn in return. We want a tree for lumber, shade, or simply to marvel at the majesty of creation.
The same goes with faith. A mature faith isn’t simply a bigger version of the seed planted, but it is a mighty and transformed oak tree. The essence, the DNA of the faith is the same, but it’s appearance couldn’t be more different.
Paul, I believe, is saying something similar to the believers in Corinth. Trouble is brewing in the church. People are bickering about who is right and who is wrong, who is in the know, who has special knowledge.
When we get to chapter 12, Paul turns his attention to spiritual matters, and then to spiritual gifts. Some Corinthians were practicing ecstatic gifts such as speaking in unknown tongues, practicing prophecy, and claiming specially revealed knowledge. Paul doesn’t really see anything inherently wrong with these gifts, but he does have a problem with the division they’re causing. He also sees these gifts as secondary, the gifts of childhood.
That’s why in chapter 13 Paul begins to speak about the better way, the mature way of love. He says that those ecstatic gifts will pass away when the perfection comes. Prophecies will cease; tongues will cease; our knowledge is partial and will not last forever.
He basically says that these things are the ways of a child. As we mature, however, these things must be set aside, even if those things are worthwhile, valid representations of our faith.
Paul isn’t telling them that the way they practiced their faith was wrong; he’s just saying it’s time to move on to the more profound parts of faith. It’s time to leave the milk for solid food.
The problem is that this is very uncomfortable. We want to mature, but it’s not easy leaving behind the things of our childhood. The things of childhood are the things we know. Maybe we’ve been told they’re essential. We feel faithless, out of sync with everything we’ve ever known.
Are we turning our backs on Jesus?
All of this reminds me of an experience I had while Bekah and I were living in Chile. I was teaching at a small institute in Arica. This institute was a new start, and many people in the city had never had the opportunity to study to prepare for ministry. One night, one of the other teachers was sharing about the importance of realizing that when we read the Bible we’re looking at translations of Greek and Hebrew that, at times, are less than perfect.
As an example he used a passage from the book of Revelation that speaks of how we Christians make up the kingdom of God. The popular Spanish translation, he Reina Valera, mistranslates the Greek to say that we Christians are kings. He discussed for a while the implications of this. One is individualistic, focusing on the aggrandizement of one as a believer, the other is communal focusing on our relation to Jesus as the lord of the kingdom. There is one King and we make up his kingdom.
As it turns out, these verses were foundational to one of the local churches that taught the congregation to be the kings of society. Several of our students were members there who were surprised by these new findings, and took them back to their pastor. In good faith they shared what they had learned, how they had misunderstood the verse, and how they could better understand our role as Christians.
Their pastor then forbade them from ever attending a class with us again. Instead of seeing the opportunity to mature, to grow into new depths of faith, this leader felt threatened. Instead of realizing that in order to mature at times we must change, static normalcy was chosen.
It’s easy to look down upon them, but we are often the same.
The old practices and beliefs are comfortable and it’s hard to leave them behind. I can personally think of many papers I wrote and conversations I had while in college that now seem ridiculous.
It’s all part of the process, the messy process of growing up in our faith.
And this new faith is probably more in need of ‘faith’ than anything we’ve ever experienced before. In the blog mentioned earlier, Rachel Held Evans goes on to say:
When I decided I wanted to follow Jesus as myself, with both my head and heart intact, the slippery slope was the only place I could find him, the only place I could engage my faith honestly.
So down I went.
It was easier before, when the path was wide and straight.
But, truth be told, I was faking it. I was pretending that things that didn’t make sense made sense, that things that didn’t feel right felt right. To others, I appeared confident and in control, but faith felt as far away as friend who has grown distant and cold.
Now, every day is a risk.
Now, I have no choice but to cling to faith and hope and love for dear life.
Now, I have to keep a very close eye on Jesus, as he leads me through deep valleys and precarious peaks.
But the view is better, and, for the first time in a long time, I am fully engaged in my faith.
This process of maturing is a lifelong process. It’s easy to become acquainted even with our new found thoughts and practices and faith, but we have to keep pushing forward, keep finding Jesus in unexpected places. We have to keep looking for the ways in which the seeds of faith planted can sprout into the flowers, crops, and trees that will sustain, enrich, and empower our faith for years to come.
Maybe that’s why Paul alludes to the coming perfection. Scholars have argued over and over about what that word means: The close of the New Testament? The firm establishment of the church? The return of Christ? I can’t help but think that maybe Paul was ambiguous because he wanted to be.
By not spelling it out maybe Paul was emphasizing that we are always children, growing into maturity. That the clarity we achieve today, looks like a blurry, misshaped reflection tomorrow. Until we come into the fullness of faith it will always be that way, and we must always be striving towards that better way. A way that is marked by loving others, by seeking mutual encouragement, even with those we disagree with.
If we’re all looking at a murky reflection we can’t be sure of anything except of the faithfulness of the One who has called us.
So today I’m thankful for this time where I can remember how Mars Hill University helped set me on the course I am on today, and I’m reminded that God is still at work within me teaching me, maturing me, and helping me to grow up.
And I pray that the same may go for you as well.
May we remember how God has led us in the past, and may we look forward to the maturity God is calling us to today.
May God help us grow up.