Corinth

Red Meat

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1 Corinthians 3:1-9

What does advanced, mature Christianity look like? Well, sort of like advanced eating.

That is Paul’s metaphor, not mine. In his first known letter to the church at Corinth, Paul drew a clear distinction between those who have advanced in their relationship with God via the Holy Spirit and those who have not. His critique of the church was harsh; despite having had plenty of time to grow in their Christian faith, they remained mewling babies, unable to handle anything except the most basic spiritual food.

The evidence underlying Paul’s accusation was straightforward. The church in Corinth suffered from disunity, breaking into factions and rallying around human leaders rather than Christ and the world-changing message of the cross.

It’s a brilliant metaphor, one that can be stretched far without breaking. Most of us have seen how children grow from milk to mashed food to an eventual desire for nourishment as complicated as red meat. (I’ll just go ahead and apologize to the vegetarians now; feel free to visualize raw kale and radicchio instead.) Many children even exhibit a strong desire to move from one type of food to the next, demanding what they’ve never had when they first see it.

We’re called to hunger in the same way spiritually, moving from the basic, comforting message of the cross to more challenging concepts. Just as it would be sad to see an adult unable to stomach anything except milk, it should sadden us to see people 10 or 20 years into their Christian lives who have not moved beyond a beginning Christian’s understanding of the cross.

C’mon, Try a Bite

With all that in mind, I want to put a spiritual sampler platter before you. If you haven’t tried some of this, you should.

Advanced Bible Study. I’m not just talking about being able to distinguish Noah from Moses. Can you dive into God’s word and tease out the big, overarching messages of Scripture? For example, there are recurring themes like creation and holiness, the brokenness sin brings, God’s overwhelming love for us, and the tremendous gifts of grace granted us. Can you then use those concepts to keep the more complicated or troubling points of Scripture in context?

Do you know what it means to study the Bible inductively, to let the Holy Spirit work through Scripture to shape you and change you? It’s a much better approach than letting your human thoughts and emotions blind you to God’s revealed truths.

You do not have to go to seminary to learn all of this. Every good church offers you the opportunity to learn such things. This church offers you such opportunities.

Advanced Prayer. It’s good to pray the Lord’s Prayer and to take time to pray for your family and others around you. But we can go so much further in prayer.

Ever heard of contemplative prayer? Everyone talks about meditation these days, usually from the perspective of yoga practice or Buddhist teachings. Christianity has its own form of meditative prayer, designed to help us better understand God’s will in our lives.

Ever tried praying Scripture? Using the Psalms as a basis for prayer is particularly helpful and enlightening. We’re going to make it possible for you to learn more about praying the Psalms during Lent this year.

Our goal should be to turn our lives into a walking prayer, to “pray without ceasing,” living in constant union with God. Are we there yet? I’m not, but I know I want more!

Living through your spiritual gifts. Remember last week how I mentioned that God continues to pour out grace on us, in part by granting us new spiritual gifts? Do you know what your gifts are? I continue to be astonished by Christians who don’t know how they are gifted.

The gifts we are given tell us specifically how God is wanting to use us in this world now. Knowing these gifts lets us be more effective as we help God build his kingdom. There also is great satisfaction in developing these gifts.

Portrait of a Healthy Eater

If you’re not trying all the possibilities God has placed before you, maybe it will help if I give you a picture of what a mature spiritual eater looks like. We become spiritually svelte, holy and attractive to God.

In particular, I look to another of Paul’s writings, the letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul listed what he called the “fruits of the Spirit,” the result of deep engagement with God.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering (patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” Paul said. Who would not want to be described by others as such a person? And as Paul knew, such people have little trouble understanding God’s will and how to live in unity.

As I say sometimes during communion, the table is set. Come, partake.

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Gimme Three Steps

However you’re tempted to sin, there’s a way out.

That’s Paul’s promise in the 10th chapter of his first letter to the early church in Corinth. He begins with a reminder of the early history of the Israelites, evoking images of them fleeing Egypt, escaping Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea, and wandering in the desert for 40 years.

He highlights particular sins they committed during that time: idolatry, sexual immorality and complaining. These are just three items on a very long list of sins potentially separating us from God, but Paul makes a point of connecting these three sins to death.

It’s not difficult to see how these ancient temptations remain relevant today. We don’t make little idols out of wood or metal too often, but we live in a culture that offers us many alternatives to God. I would define an idol as anything that becomes more important to us than our relationship with God. Some examples might be sports, celebrities, work, or the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Sexual immorality has become so rampant that we now live in a culture trying to redefine what God has clearly defined as sin. Many of your minds went to homosexuality when you read that previous sentence, but it’s important we keep that particular sin in context with other sexual sins. Frankly, within the church we have a more visible problem, if we’re just willing to see it. It is sex outside of marriage—premarital sex and adultery.

I’ve actually known people who railed against homosexuality while they were at the same time involved in adulterous or extramarital relationships. But in God’s eyes, they are all grievous sins. And the readily available, addictive nature of pornography only makes matters worse as people engage in behaviors that actually change the chemical structure of their brains, damaging their ability to participate in present and future holy relationships.

The sin of complaining also is not hard to find in modern times. It’s the sin of negativity, an unwillingness to trust that God is at work in the world. The early Israelites failed to trust God when he was visibly before them. We fail to trust God despite his full revelation to us through Jesus Christ and the promise he is changing the world now through the resurrection.

At a minimum, these sins can bring about the death of dreams and plans. At worst, they can separate us from God in ways that lead to eternal death.

So how do we escape? If we trust the Bible, we have to believe what Paul tells us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

As I was working on this sermon, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Gimme Three Steps” kept coming to mind. It tells the story of a man in a bar who has gotten a little too friendly with another man’s girlfriend, and he ends up “staring straight down a forty-four.”

When you’re looking down the barrel of a very large gun, you’re facing death. The frightened man asks for one thing, “three steps toward the door,” a way out.

When we’re facing sin and the death sin brings, we need three steps away from where we’ve found ourselves. Here are the three best steps I know to take:

Prayer. Yeah, I know, preachers are always telling you to pray. But I mean it. When you realize you’re about to cross a line, stop and reconnect with God. Temptation arises when the connection is broken. It doesn’t have to be a fancy prayer. A good start would be, “Lord, help me out of this situation where you and I both know I’m weak.”

Scripture. The Bible isn’t just any book. Believers understand there is life-changing power from God flowing through it as we study its words and absorb their meaning. Learn where the Bible talks about your temptation. Learn also where the Bible offers you words of comfort and grace in difficult times.

Accountability. Here’s the step most American Christians don’t like to consider. This involves a relationship with another strong Christian who can talk with you in confidence when you’re struggling. Maybe it’s a one-on-one accountability partner who has faced similar temptations. Maybe it’s a small group of people you can trust. This third step is so important—it is your accountability partner or partners who act as the presence of Christ. They allow the Holy Spirit to fill them so God is visibly with you as you struggle.

By the way, if you’re in the Kingsport, Tenn., area, there’s a new Friday night worship opportunity that should result in the formation of such accountability groups.

Finally, remember that we’re doing more than just avoiding death. We’re accepting the life God continually offers us. As Paul tells the story of the Israelites in the desert, he speaks of the water that sustained them, water flowing from a rock as needed. “And the rock was Christ,” he says.

It’s a startling reminder. The redemptive aspect of God has always been with us; Christ simply was most visible on the cross. He remains with us today, continuing to heal us from sin.