Eph.4: 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Are there any gardeners of vegetables or flowers here? Or farmers? Any who raise animals or livestock? Or who have raised pets, like dogs from puppies, or cats from kittens? Or parents, who are raising children? Or who have raised children? Or anyone here who has personally ever grown up from a child to adult?
Did you cause such growth to happen? Like, did you try pulling on your tomato vines or bean stalks, or for that matter, on your children’s feet, with the result that they all got longer or bigger by dint of your effort?
Of course not. As gardeners, farmers, parents and teachers, we provide the conditions necessary for growth, but we can’t provide growth itself. All growth is miraculous. And there we have the first answer to subpoint A of the first question in the sermon outline: Why does “growth in Christ,” matter? Because it’s a miracle of God, like every other kind of growth in Creation.
I marvel at this miracle of growth very time I come to my vegetable garden. Mostly what I see growing are weeds. But poke around in them, and you’ll find some of the rutabagas, beets, beans, peppers and tomatoes I planted last spring. Maybe next year, I’ll plant weeds and see if more vegetables come up.
What’s true in the natural world is also true in the spiritual life. The words we just heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians describe the miracle of Christian spiritual growth in verse 15: “…we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” When Christ enters our lives, what grows is Christ. As his life grows in us, what emerges is his likeness in our conduct, our character, our love, hopes and aspirations, in our works, our words and our worship.
The goal and proof of our Christian Education ministry then is not just knowledge of facts, not just fellowship with each other, though such things are good and important. I hope they happen. The goal of our Christian Education ministry, according to today’s passage, is the growth of Jesus Christ’s life and Spirit in our character, our conduct, our qualities, our spiritual gifts for ministry and in our relationships and community. Such growth is not an achievement of our own. It’s a miracle from God. And it’s the first reason why growth in Christ matters.
Now for the second reason, subpoint b: Christian Education or faith formation matters so much because the one and only option to growth is death. That’s also true in nature: A tree that is now leafless and grey with dead wood was finally overcome by worms and bugs and rot, or perhaps the shade of other trees, about the very time that it stopped growing and spreading.
For us, the agents of death, decay and dying back are named in verse 14: “every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” Much of that comes through the 5,000 advertisements coming at the average American every day, most of them without our noticing them. Aside from the occasional public service announcement to buckle your seatbelts or to not litter, how many of them encourage and cultivate all that is good, godly and Christlike in us? (Pause)
I didn’t think so.
In the Methodist tradition, every year the local bishop meets with each pastor under his supervision for an interview. One of the questions that the pastors must answer is: “Are you on the path toward perfection?” Yes, that sounds daunting and impossible. But the question is not, “Have you arrived at perfection?” but “are you on the path toward perfection?” To a pastor who replied, “No, I’m not,” the bishop then asked, “Then, just where are you going?”
For we are all headed somewhere. Getting our Christian life all together just the way we like it, keeping it that way, and staying in one comfortable, familiar place with God, the faith, the church, is simply not an option. Like the t-shirt said, “By the time I finally got it all together, I forgot where I had put it.” We’re either growing and going forward toward Christ, toward more life and light, or we’re going backward, toward death and darkness. That makes what we do today, and in every Sunday School class, every Bible study, every prayer, every prayer group, every ministry, a death-defying act.
Which brings me to the second question: If growth in Christ is such a miracle, and such a life-and-death matter, how then does it happen? What must we do to enable and encourage growth? Paul’s words give us two things necessary for growing and going forward with Christ: a) truth and b) love. Biblical truth and love.
Let’s talk about truth first, biblical truth. We live in an age now when not only is everyone entitled to their own opinions–which is better than the alternative; it’s called democracy—people claim entitlement to their own truths, or facts. Not just to our own partial perspective on truth, which we can’t help but have, but our own “alternative facts.” Far from making us more tolerant and welcoming, the competition between “alternative facts” is becoming all-out war.
It’s enriching to have different perspectives on the truth. But only if there’s agreement on what the truth is that we are examining from our different perspectives. That’s why Christian Education to be called “Christian Education,” must be, at heart, biblical education. Even if we’re seeking education on social issues like racism or sexuality, or on personal matters like addiction or mental health, yes, we need access to the best of all scientific, or historic, or medical, or scholarly resources. But if we are to act and to grow as Christians in these matters, then we must relate them to the Bible. If Christ, the Living Word of God, is to grow in our lives and loves, then we must feast and drink of the written word of God.
To have faith in the truth of God and of God’s Word is not to say that we have the same faith in our understanding, interpretation and application of the truth. The Bible itself requires us to be humble and teachable all throughout our lives. The Scriptures are most fruitful when we let them question us.
For all my questions and uncertainties, I am pretty sure of this: That nothing and no one ushers me into the presence of God as do the Holy Scriptures. No words better inspire nor inform my prayers, nor cultivate in me holy desires for eternal things, and then better express them, than does the Bible. If parts or aspects of the Scriptures strike us today as going against the grain of oneself and one’s society, take heart: that has always been the case, in every age and place, just in different ways and for different reasons. Its challenges, critiques, warnings and opposition to the conventional wisdom of any times, always turn out to be prophetic, just what we needed most to hear, even when we least wanted to hear it.
For its words were not written in gold script in ivory towers and royal palaces by the powerful and the prosperous, in order to oppress the weak. Much of it was written in the blood of martyred prophets and apostles, for whom the privilege of being God’s spokespersons cost them their lives, or at least much suffering. Whenever we think that the Bible and the faith need updating to be relevant and more appealing in our day and age, remember, so did the corrupt kings of ancient Jerusalem, when they put their neighbors’ idols in the temple. So did the Babylonians, the ancient Greeks, and the Romans, who tried to crush the Jewishness out of the Jews. So did the Nazis, who rewrote the Beatitudes of Jesus to say, “Blessed are the comrades, who die for the honor of their regiments.” So, now, does the Chinese government, with its new state-approved Bible for state-regulated churches. It has rewritten the Ten Commandments as nine, minus the first: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Their new president for life seems to be angling for that spot. One reason I became a Mennonite was because of how American civil religion was trying to erase, “Love your enemies” out of the Gospels.
In Christian Education, we teach, study, and seek to practice a Word that is infinitely bigger, greater and wiser than ourselves, even, a Word that evaluates, critiques and judges us before we dare evaluate, critique and judge anyone else. We may think that, by updating or replacing the Bible, in whole or in parts, we are increasing our freedom and our appeal to the world. But the world will only shrug its shoulders at any new, improved, more appealing package of divine revelation and ask, “What’s the point?” Church history and personal observation tell me that every attempt to liberate us from divine revelation actually decreases our freedom. For it opens the door for someone else to be the authoritative truth. Or something else will claim to be the authoritative truth, like an ideology, a party, a cause or a crusade.
But Paul does not say that merely “speaking the truth” will cause us to “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” He says, “speaking the truth… in love.” That is, while loving, and while being loved. The other ingredient, subpoint b of Question #2– so necessary to our growth in Christ then, is love. Biblical love. Not just love as a sentiment, emotion, affection or attraction, as wonderful as those are, but love as character, conduct, choices and actions. The Scriptures speak of love in both ways: the willing and the wanting, the desiring and the doing, action and affection, virtue and feeling.
In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? The author, Phil Yancey defines grace this way: Nothing we can do would ever make God love us less, and nothing we might do can ever make God love us more. God’s love for us is based on God’s nature and goodness, not ours. Thus, God’s love is constant, infinite and eternal. Trust in such faithful covenant love allows truth to take root and grow in us. We can only take the risks of growth and change for the better when we are secure in a love that does not need to change us in order to love us more.
In fact, the love in which we grow must be so great that it takes risks, even the risks of honesty and truth-telling. We can only grow in the warmth of a love that is so secure and unshakable, it gives and takes correction as well as affection, counsel as well as comfort, warning as well as praise.
Are there any fans here of the BBC comic TV series, Doc Martin? Doctor Martin Ellingham is an extremely gifted British surgeon, both in practice and in teaching new surgeons. Unfortunately, Martin has contracted hemophobia, a fear of blood. The mere sight of blood makes him want to faint or vomit, or both. So much for his career as a surgeon.
So, he takes a post as a general practice physician treating the people of a little seaside Welsh village, Port Wen. There he applies his skills as a brilliant diagnostician, his amazing powers of observation and deduction, and his encyclopedic memory for any and every possible medical condition and its best treatment. In every show you get an education in some medical condition that most of us have never even heard about, but which Martin Ellingham catches quickly and correctly.
Unfortunately, Doc Martin has all the empathetic and caring, compassionate bedside patient manner of a brick. A typical patient encounter goes like this:
A man walks into his office clutching his chest, saying, “Doc, this might be the big one!”
As Martin checks him out, the patient asks, “Doc, am I going to die?”
Martin replies, “Yes. Of course.” As in: You’re only now learning that you’re mortal?
When the good doctor sees the horrified look on the poor man’s face, he realizes that he’s done it again. As usual, the truth is out of his mouth and a mile down the road before love has even tied its shoes. He diagnosed the patient’s condition, but ignored the patient’s emotions, and missed what the patient really needs and means. So, he adds, “But probably not today, and certainly not of this. Go down to the chemist’s and get some antacids for your reflux condition. Meanwhile, lay off all alcohol and desserts, try to lose some weight, and if that doesn’t help, come see me again.”
Martin’s knee-jerk brusque behavior is funny because he is not being intentionally cruel. He just got such an imbalance of truth over love in his childhood. But his long-suffering wife, “Louiser” and his quirky neighbors are trying hard to give him plenty of both. And he’s trying to change.
Whenever I have heard people reminisce about a favorite and inspiring Sunday School teacher or youth sponsor, they may mention the life-changing truths and the wisdom that came out of their mouths. Just as often, however, they mention how much that teacher or that sponsor loved them, enough to give them attention, appreciation and affirmation, and some straight talk, hard counsel and correction, as necessary. About them it could be said, “We didn’t care as much about how much they knew; we knew how much they cared.” That is one of the strengths of this church’s Christian Education program: the very warm and very evident love that teachers, sponsors, song leaders and others have and show for their charges.
“Speaking the truth in love:” If what we say to each other is not truthful, then it’s not really loving. We may think that by shading or fudging the truth we are protecting someone out of love. Just as likely, we are protecting ourselves. But if we speak truth to each other without love, our words may be factually correct, but they’re only half truths. People who pride themselves on being “brutally honest,” I find are usually just honestly brutal. Love without truth can be a cowardly indulgence, while truth without love can be just cruelty.
There is no such disconnect between truth and love in God, nor in God’s Word. For God is love, and God is truth. If we would know the miracle of growth in Christ, and escape the downward pull of spiritual death, then we must in every age and stage of life seek God’s truth, and speak God’s truth, in God’s love, out of love for God, for each other and ourselves.