St Matthew’s, Bloomington–Hebrews 5:12-6:1, 9-12; Mark 10:46-52
I’m going to begin my sermon with a question—actually, several questions, rhetorical questions, questions that I don’t expect you to answer to me, but to think about seriously.
What is your greatest temptation to sin? If it met you with full force this afternoon, what would be your resources to resist it?
If someone asked you to explain why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important, could you?
If a bible-believing neighbor pointed out to you where Jesus said, “Call no man ‘father’” and called you to account for the way male priests are customarily addressed in the church, what would be your response?
What do you think of the statement that religion is just a matter of personal taste and upbringing, because they all eventually lead to the same God?
Is regular prayer one of the central habits of your life?
If you were to be diagnosed with terminal cancer tomorrow, would your faith in God fly out the window?
In short, how well equipped are you to meet all the spiritual challenges and crises that could very conceivably come your way?
And now, let me ask these same questions of you corporately, as the parish community of St Matthew’s.
How well-equipped are you to meet the challenges and crises that may well lie ahead for you? How would you cope if your beautiful and historic—in a mid-century modern sort of way—church building were destroyed by fire or tornado? What will you do if your next bishop, in contrast to your current one, publicly ridicules belief in our Lord’s resurrection? What will you do if this neighborhood in which you are comfortably located seriously deteriorates?
I don’t know about you, but these questions—both the personal ones and the corporate ones—put me in a very sober mood. As a pastor, I know that a great many members of my flock are poorly prepared for spiritual challenge and spiritual crisis. Things may seem to be cruising right along in their walk with the Lord, but let stress or adversity come along, and they’d be in some trouble. And as a flock, while you all are, thanks be to God, doing passably well at the present time, I am concerned about how well you would do in the face of some of the potential crises that might come along. Many of the baptized faithful throughout the Diocese of Springfield are, in the words of the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, still spiritual babes, children in the faith, when, in fact, many more of us ought to be “teachers,” mature spiritual adults, capable of leading and nurturing others. We haven’t yet even mastered the fundamentals, let alone moved on to the fine points of life in Christ. Our growth is stunted, because we are too often satisfied with a diet of spiritual baby food—milk, “formula”—when we should have graduated to solid food, “meat,” substantive spiritual nourishment.
In a few moments, we’re all going to stand up and recite the Nicene creed. If your unchurched neighbor were sitting next to you in the pew, could you explain what the phrases of the creed mean, and why we believe them? If that same neighbor said to you, “All that dogma and doctrine is irrelevant; isn’t being a Christian just a matter of living as Jesus did, and following his example of upright and ethical living?” would you be able to respond?
In my experience, the prime example of spiritual immaturity, of not having even mastered the basics of the gospel, is a widespread misconception about how one gets into heaven. A great many baptized Christians—people who have been reborn in Christ but have not grown much since that time—entertain the notion that after we die, all of our good deeds during life are piled up on one side of a scale, and all our bad deeds are loaded onto the other side, and our eternal destiny is determined by whichever side weighs more, by whether or not we were a “good person.” Am I making this up, or is this not the prevailing perception of how things work? Unfortunately, it is, at best, a crude and distorted shadow of Christian teaching, in much the same way that a first-grader’s reading book is a crude and distorted shadow of English literature. But so many of us cling to this image, and other examples of theological baby food, because we’ve gotten used to how it tastes, and how smooth and comfortable it is, how warm and familiar it feels. We remain spiritual infants because we either don’t know any better, or because we are simply afraid of the change that growth demands of us.
Growing up is hard — most of us would not want to repeat the traumas of childhood —and it’s no wonder that we want to stay where it’s warm and comfortable. Most babies don’t particularly enjoy being weaned, but a good mother knows that it’s in the best interests of the child that she force the issue. Physical and emotional development that is appropriate and even cute at eight months is inappropriate and tragic at eight years. We call it a developmental disability, and we love and accept those to whom it happens, but we weep bitterly when it does. Why are we so tolerant, then, of spiritual developmental disability?
The good news today is that God is a loving Father, and he has the cure for our stagnant spiritual development. He wants to introduce us to the joys of solid food, spiritual meat. He has laid out for us a spiritual banquet table overloaded with delicious and nourishing food, everything we need to grow up as mature and joyful Christians, faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. When the persistent cries of blind Bartimaeus resulted in Jesus turning his attention to him and restoring his sight, Mark’s gospel tells us that he got up and followed Jesus, he became a pilgrim on the way of discipleship. The solid food of the gospel nourishes us along that same way. The solid food of the gospel carries us into a life-giving relationship with the one who is himself the bread of life and living water, a relationship that captures our hearts and imaginations and liberates us to love as we have been loved. The solid food of the gospel fills us with the truth that comes from him who is the truth, teaching that enables us to discern the authentic word of the Lord among the clamoring and competing philosophies and ideologies of this world. The solid food of the gospel calls us into a life of discipline that empowers us to resist the wiles of the Evil One, the tempter, who wants nothing more than to snatch our souls from the bosom of Christ the way a predatory wolf attacks the slow and defenseless newborns among a herd of elk. If we eat solid food and move beyond newborn status, we are less vulnerable to spiritual predators.
The solid food of the gospel enables us to lead lives of purpose and inner tranquility even when the storm is raging around us. It grows mature Christians who are resilient in their faith, and bounce back from adversity, and who, even in the midst of it, radiate the peace that passes understanding. The solid food of the gospel produces parish churches that are dynamic and growing, churches with such vitality in their worship that every pew is filled, and with such vital programs that every bit of space is utilized to the fullest. Doesn’t solid food sound delicious? Isn’t it worth the temporary trauma of being weaned? The banquet table is about to be set. It will bear the very gifts of God for the people of God. When the dinner bell rings, COME AND GET IT. AMEN.