July 12, 2015
Psalm 133:1-3, Ephesians 4:1-16
“The Encyclopedia of Immaturity” boasts that it is the world’s most complete guide on how to never grow up. It covers such important topics as “How to Make Noises Under Your Arm” and “How to Do a Wheelie.” I bought this book for my husband for his 40th birthday knowing full well he was already an expert on the subject.
I sometimes need to be reminded that immaturity isn’t such a bad thing. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven? But for some reason, I don’t believe Jesus meant that God’s kingdom is only open to those who can make a perfect spit ball or wiggle their ears.
I also don’t think Jesus was advocating the sort of immaturity that permeates our culture today. Public figures making social media faux pas, excessive celebration of sports team victories, and our constant clamoring for the latest and greatest bit of tech are just a few examples of the childish behaviors that might not have been on Jesus’ mind when he encouraged us to become like children.
The letter to the Ephesians offers a corrective of sorts to Jesus’ instruction, encouraging followers of Jesus to “no longer be children” and instead come to “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
This is all well and good if you know what it means. But the greatest problem we have with maturity in our culture is a lack of definition. We have no threshold for adulthood in American culture, no demarcation of the time when we must “put an end to childish ways,” as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians.
In first century Rome, adulthood for boys meant a ceremonial first shave, a new toga, induction to military service, and a visit to the local house of ill repute. For girls, it meant giving up your dolls and preparing for marriage.
In 21st century America, we have a number of legal thresholds for adulthood. You can drive at 16, vote and buy cigarettes at 18, purchase alcohol at 21.
However we define adulthood legally, this tells us very little about how to be a grown up. A 45-year-old can still drink and party too much, and a 16-year-old can maturely balance school, work, and relationships. Does voting for someone who is as immature as you are make you an adult? How grown up is someone who can legally drive but chooses to text her babysitter at the same time? It is challenging to define maturity around a system of laws.
The fourth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians gives us a different set of criteria to use in helping us grow up.
The chapter begins with a reminder to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” In Greek, it says something more like “walk in your vocation.” The word used here for walk literally means to go back and forth, implying that you are intently busy with something.
I think about all the things that we are intently busy with: planning vacations, watching soccer games, catching up on episodes of the Walking Dead, playing Game of War, and renovating our kitchens. None of these seem to be too intimately connected with what I would consider to be our vocation or calling.
The call of God on each person’s life is secured in our “one baptism.” For many of us, this is an event we were not even cognizant of, much less something of which we could be considered worthy. But Ephesians describes what this “worthiness” looks like: humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, unity, peace.
When I asked a group of parents what qualities they thought of when considering what it means to be an adult, the number one response was independence: financial, emotional, physical independence. When you no longer have to depend on your parents for anything, you are a grown up.
This quality of independence is rather contrary to qualities like humility, gentleness, patience, mutual forbearance, unity, and peace. These are all relational, dependent qualities. You humble yourself to others, you are gentle toward others, patient with others, bear the burdens of others, unite with others, make peace with others. These are outward-looking qualities.
And if these qualities define our worthiness, our maturity, we have a lot of growing up to do, I’m afraid. Where is the humility in a presidential candidate with a fragrance called "success"? Where is the gentleness in scathing and hurtful comments posted to blogs, online news articles, and social media sites? Where is the patience in our constant consumption? How are we bearing with one another in love as we shrug off relationships we deem to be too much work or not meeting our needs? Where is the unity in our country fractured by constant partisan bickering and a diminishing concern for the common good? Where is the Spirit of peace in our quest for blame and revenge?
We have a lot of growing up to do. But here is the good news: “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.” And Christ’s gift is truly immeasurable. The one who descended to the lowest parts of the earth and “ascended far above the heavens so that he might fill all things,” has equipped us for the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ.
Notice that again there is no mention of independence or personal fulfillment. The end goal is to be a “whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, each part working properly, promoting the body's growth in building itself up in love.” Maturity isn’t about having stronger muscles, it’s about creating stronger ligaments, stronger connections. Growing up means working toward the overall health of the body using the gifts of God which are present everywhere and in everything.
Within our little limb of the body of Christ at FPC Birmingham, we can keep growing up, keep strengthening the body. We are blessed with many, many spiritually mature body builders who we can look to as examples.
I am always awed by those humble saints in this church who model spiritual maturity by doing all the little, invisible tasks that no one even thinks about: filling the pew racks with prayer cards and other materials; giving the kitchen a deep cleaning; stocking up the hospitality baskets in the bathrooms; stuffing envelopes for church mailings; printing the bulletins each week. Humble tasks taken on by humble people. These are grown-ups in the faith from whom we can all learn.
And then there are those who are so beautifully gentle, strengthening our connections with compassion and kindness. Those who teach and care for our children, and those who visit the sick and the homebound members. These, too, are grown-ups in the faith.
Patience is, for many of us, the greatest struggle in growing up, but we have models for that as well. Those who will wait patiently for someone who can’t move quickly or give a ride to someone unable to drive. Those who will take the time to listen to someone trying to sort out their thoughts without interjecting their own foregone conclusion. These are patient grown-ups in the faith.
I’ve seen so many of you bearing with one another, carrying each other’s burdens, praying for each other, caring for each other’s children or bringing a meal in difficult times. There are many grown-ups in the faith who do those things around here.
Our vision statement has been a unifying force in this congregation, helping us share a common purpose. Even when we disagree over how to carry out that vision, we maintain those strong ligaments of connection.
The bond of peace is strong here, too. This congregation, like any, has seen its fair share of conflict. And we have grown up enough to know that peace is preferable to victory, that peace is necessary for the health of the body and must be prioritized over our individual desires and concerns.
We’ve had over 180 years to grow up, and we’ve come a long way. But as any truly mature person will tell you, there is always room to grow, always more to learn. And sometimes, as we age, keeping the body strong becomes more difficult. We can get set in our ways or complacent. We can become too attached to our ideas and stop listening to others and trying to understand their point of view. We can isolate ourselves from others. We might even become a little grumpy at times. So it is important to keep in mind our need to grow, to strengthen our ligaments, to regularly check up on the health of this body.
What is more difficult, perhaps, than maintaining the health of this FPC Birmingham limb of the body of Christ is growing with the whole body of Christ in all the world. The Presbyterian Church (USA) sees itself as a connectional church at its core, yet in recent years we’ve been fractured over a number of controversial issues. We’ve been losing limbs and have disintegrating ligaments.
And once we look outside our denomination, and outside of mainline Protestantism, the body looks to be in even worse shape. The behavior of the church is simply infantile.
After the Supreme Court’s recent decision on marriage equality, Christians have been gloating on one side and throwing dirt on the other. I don’t hear gentle words spoken from many of us about anything we disagree about in the public sphere. We don’t patiently listen to those with differing viewpoints or those trying to figure these things out for themselves. Instead, we follow along with whatever camp reinforces what we want to believe. The unity of the body of Christ worldwide is in shambles, and very few of us are actively working for peace and reconciliation.
We need to grow up. In order to do that, Ephesians tells us that we must “speak the truth in love.” The apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Perhaps this is the true definition of a grown up. Someone who can speak the truth in love.
So let us speak the truth – but not with a bullhorn, not with a sword. Let us wait patiently to speak the truth. Let us understand that the truth will hurt, and be compassionate as we speak. Let us speak the truth politely, humbly, generously, honestly. And let us speak the truth in love no matter the consequences. And perhaps then, finally, we will grow up into the full measure of Christ. Amen.