Sunday, 16 February 2014

Third Sunday before Lent - Breathing Space. Growing and changing

Today’s readings are both, in their own ways, about growth. It’s easy to see how that is so in the Epistle from 1 Corinthians. Paul writes to the church in Corinth who are plainly squabbling over whose lead to follow – Paul’s or Apollos’. We don’t know how their teaching differed, but it clearly did in some way. That’s not surprising. Those first Christians were very much feeling their way in this new faith. They didn’t have any guidance from what we now call the New Testament, of course. The books that made it up hadn’t been written yet. Letters like that of Paul were the first Christian writings, and the ink was hardly dry on them yet.
So it’s no wonder they had different views on all sorts of subjects. But the point Paul makes here is that  the church doesn’t belong to him, or to Apollos; it belongs to God. That means that neither he nor Apollos has the last word or the whole truth. One plants, another waters – we all have a part to play – but it is God who gives the growth.  And growth is something we all need, otherwise we shall perpetually be “infants in Christ”, and when we really need the sustenance of faith, our roots won’t go deep enough to sustain us. If we don’t grow in faith, we will also never have the confidence to share that faith with others, and unless we do, the Church will simply wither and die. A faith that is truly ours, though, that is deep and rich will be full of life, spreading out naturally to those around us. So we need to grow, says Paul, and God wants us to grow too.

As I said, it is easy to see how that first reading is about growth. It might seem harder to spot the growth in the Gospel reading, though. But it is there. In fact it is integral to what Jesus is saying. It’s not so much the individual growth that he is pointing up here, but the fact that the whole community of believers needs to be open to growth. “You have heard it said….but I say.” Faith is not something which is static, fixed in one form forever. Every generation is called to come to it afresh, learning from what has gone before, but learning also to hear God’s voice in their own times and circumstances. That was true of the people in Biblical times. We see a variety of beliefs and attitudes in the Old Testament and the New, developing understandings of God and humanity, different perspectives in different times and situations. It’s not one document, dropped from the sky in one fell swoop. That’s partly what I love about it – the mix of voices and experiences in it.

For the early Christians that was a vital insight because they constantly faced the accusations, as Jesus did, that they were tampering with time-honoured traditions and rules. Jews and Gentiles mixing on equal terms, men and women both learning and teaching the message…there was a chorus of disapproval at the way these first believers acted from those who proclaimed themselves to be the guardian of the old ways, the ways that things had always been done.

But Jesus had consistently put love above law, people before rule-keeping. That is what he is doing here. “You have heard it said… but I say..”  It’s not enough not to murder people, he says – the real problem is the hatred and jealousy that prompts such action. And by the way, just loving those who love you won’t do it either; you’ve got to love your enemies too. The prohibition against divorce which sounds so problematic to our ears isn’t quite what it sounds either. In Jesus’ time a divorced woman would often be left without any support, ostracised and stigmatised and as his society was polygamous, it wasn’t even necessary to cast off one wife in order to take another – it was just gratuitous cruelty to do so.

Jesus calls his followers to a life of integrity and love, not simply one in which they keep the rules without understanding why. And that means that the faith they follow is bound to change in response to changing situations. The principles will be the same, but the way they are expressed will have to be flexible.

That’s just as true for us. We need to be people who are growing, both individually and together, honouring the old and learning from it, but hearing God’s voice for today. True faithfulness to God demands no less than that.

In the silence tonight, think back over your life. Think back over the times when you have learned and grown, when you have changed your mind, and ask for God’s grace to discern the ways in which he is calling you to grow now too.


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