This morning we concentrate on our Epistle from 1 Peter. I am always engaged by its opening phrase: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.”
What wonderful imagery: to think of ourselves being nurtured into faith through our common experience of being in the Body of Christ, our Christian teaching, interpreted by our Lutheran heritage, feeding us and causing us to grow. I don’t want to shatter that image, but having been a member of a couple of congregations in the past where people never moved from the mother’s milk of Christian growth onto solids or beyond, I wanted to sound a warning early on.
This passage was written for those new to the faith and most of us here are long since weaned, but to what extent have we moved beyond the mother’s milk of faith? To what extent is our faith showing marks of maturity? How do we measure that? I think back to those other congregations, perpetually stuck with the mother’s milk of early spirituality and with a menu of half a dozen parables, some key incidents from the life of Jesus and a few selected psalms endlessly recycled.
Growing churches are churches where the spiritual maturity of its members is discernable. I’m not saying those other churches weren’t growing in the numbers sense of growth: whenever I return there are many new faces, but the size of the congregations remain fairly static and there is a strange sense of atrophy if you stay for any length of time. Such churches are good at nurturing faith, but no so good at weaning people on to solids.
I am really conscious of this at the moment as St. Luke’s considers developing our own web-site. Obviously this web-site needs to be true to our identity and needs to exhibit our integrity because it could well be a tool for church growth. What are we to say about ourselves? How are we to express that we are a mature congregation that engages with the world beyond the mother’s milk of spirituality? How do we show the world that we are a congregation that is not frightened to think deeply about the big religious and ethical issues of the day?
I have heard of churches that see the way forward as being about setting clear guidelines for membership including a standard everyone is expected to adhere to.
1) You attend worship every week unless you are away.
2) If you are away, you attend church locally.
3) You participate in at least one activity a year aimed at helping grow in your faith APART from weekly worship.
4) You give your time to Christian service in some way through or outside the church.
5) You give financially in proportion to your income.
I think we have a problem with most of those here, although I am not suggesting we necessarily adopt that model. There are other factors.
The Epistle talks of Jesus as “The stone that the builders rejected” having been made “the cornerstone.” In other words Jesus is the key stone in the whole edifice. And in that context we are described as a “Royal Priesthood”, a “Chosen Race” and a “Holy Nation”. It’s my contention that how we engage with these discomforting words may reveal the marks of spiritual maturity in our congregation. What are we to make of such passages? And, just so that you know, you aren’t going to get any answers from me on that one because that’s a response which encourages spiritual dependence. What you are going to get instead are more questions and challenges.
My own personal tag-line or Biblical quote, comes from Philippians Chapter 2: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” As we increasingly do that, as we ponder prayerfully over God’s word, as we wrestle with the meanings of the sayings and actions of Jesus and seek to apply them to our own lives we move on into maturity. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
This season of Easter is the time when the church rejoices in its powerful experience of the resurrection of Jesus Christ which transformed the lives of countless people and changed the course of world history. It is also a time when we remember the early church and how through persuasion and testimony the Disciples went out into the world and as a result of their witness called many people to a new life in Christ.
How can our own experience of transformation be as powerful in its witness to others? Well, firstly it has to be as powerful for us. We are called to see ourselves as in Peter’s letter as “living stones”, the material for building and developing to maturity new communities out of diverse people: the material for transforming this community. In today’s Gospel Jesus told his followers that he was “the way the truth and the life” God’s truth results in a life worth living. Jesus is the way into that truth. He is the way into that truth for the people of the first century just as he is the way into that truth for people today, which is why we don’t count the number of times in a year you have occupied a seat in this room as evidence of spiritual maturity.
So we also have to be clearer about what it means to be spiritually mature, moving beyond our own needs and engaging the gospel on a regular basis outside of this Sunday experience as we live it out in the worlds we inhabit Monday to Saturday: the widows and the orphans need caring for, the sick need visiting, the prisoners need to be released, the forgotten remembered, the outcast welcomed in, the workers compensated adequately, the strangers recognised and the foreigner given a home. And so on. This is what makes a mature congregation. Look at how the Epistle describes the characteristics of the mature congregation: “A Spiritual House, a Holy Priesthood, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.”
They don’t sound much like a congregation still to be weaned from the mother’s milk of spirituality.
Yet, there’s an important question here: do they sound like us?
I told you earlier I wouldn’t necessarily provide answers, but after a bit of reflection you might want to have a look at the other side of the red cards on the walls, maybe before you move over to coffee.
Knowing who we are – a congregation of mature spirituality - and living out who we are can bring transformation to the world around us. May God give us the grace to claim our identity and courageously respond to our calling to tell the world about the amazing God we serve.