The way of life is the way of God; following in the way set before is grace and gift, though we too often see it as the opposite. The grace of Christ invites us to know this way as the way we want to walk, the way we want the Spirit’s help to live.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, year A; texts: Matthew 5:21-37; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Psalm 119:1-8; Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready.” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2)
Paul, we just heard you say this in your letter to our sisters and brothers in Christ who once lived in Corinth, and it troubles us. So we have a question for you: What about us, Paul? Are we ready for solid food? Or are we still only able to take in milk?
Sometimes it seems as if we have grown, matured in faith. But then we come upon a proper meal, filling, fiber-laden food for our hearts and our minds, rich, tasty food that requires some chewing, and serious digestion, and we back away. We hear Moses today, and Jesus today, and we flinch, even grumble. Why is that, Paul? Are we only still infants?
You said to the same Corinthians a little later in this letter, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) Is that our hope as well? And if so, Paul, how will we know when we have grown? How will we know when we can handle solid food, not just thin gruel and milk?
Moses and Jesus, we need to ask the same of you, too. How can we be certain that the choice you set before is life and death, Moses? Can’t we just go on as we are, not choosing God’s way or our way, but muddling somewhere in between? And Jesus, this way you describe seems so daunting, so over the top, making the commandments so complete, so full, that we cannot begin to see how we could live by them. Is this really necessary?
Or is this what solid food looks like?
My friends, what we have before us today is witness from Moses, the psalmist, Paul, and our Lord Jesus, the Son of God, that holds out a sophisticated, deep, completed way of living in the world according to the way of the Triune God. It is not easy to digest. It is not sweetened with extra sugar. But Moses has said, and the others agree wholeheartedly, that this is the way of life. That any other way is a way of death.
So I ask you: is it possible that we might find a way to grow up and see such food for the life-giving grace it is proclaimed to be? Must we remain as children in our continued resentment of the law of God, not wanting anyone to be the boss of us, or is it possible that we might seek the Spirit’s help in growing up enough that we can take the solid food of life our gracious God is giving, and see it for the grace and hope it truly is? So that we can look even at Jesus’ words in our Gospel today and see them for what they are: life, and grace, and gift?
When we only want milk, the idea of loving God’s law seems absurd.
God’s law, we think, is to be feared, because we can’t do it, we fail at it. So we resent it. We don’t want to face that it might actually speak truth about our lives. We find ourselves arguing like children with God, and with the law: why do you tell me to do that? It’s too hard. I don’t want to. It’s too confusing. I’m not able to.
Love your enemies? That’s ridiculous. Who loves an enemy? Give of our hard-earned money to the poor, to others? Who can afford that? We can take any law of God and find any number of reasons why we don’t think it’s worth our time. It’s unrealistic. Impossible to achieve. Unfair. Nobody’s perfect, so why should we try?
When we are ready for solid food, however, we begin to appreciate the grace – the grace – God’s law really is. Moses makes sense to us, this is a choice of life over death. The psalmist’s joy in keeping God’s laws actually sings in our hearts.
We know we are ready for solid food when we look at God’s law and see it as a way of life which would make life worth living, rich, full, abundant.
Just as with any command our parents gave us when we were little that we resented or feared then, but now do of our own free will because we know it is good for us, life for us, so growing into taking God’s solid food can become a joy and a gift.
We could play in traffic still, but fortunately we grew up and realized how dangerous that is. We could never wash our hands or our faces, but fortunately we grew up and realized how good and healthy it is to be clean.
We likewise could hate our enemies, and ignore the poor, and not do anything of what God asks of us, but fortunately we can grow up with the Spirit’s help and see that a world where there are no enemies, and no poor, and no selfishness would be nothing short of paradise.
There is life in the way of God that is given us. When we’re ready for solid food, we’ll see that.
When we only want milk, we think that only actions matter, and only some actions: that as long as we don’t do the really bad things, then the lesser things, and the things that we only think in our minds really aren’t a big deal.
We categorize sins, the breaking of God’s law, making some worse than others so that we might pretend that we’re just fine.
So when Jesus claims that hating, being angry, calling others names are a violation of the Fifth Commandment and as serious as murder, we find that ridiculous. As ridiculous as claiming that thinking about adultery is breaking the Sixth Commandment.
Everybody knows killing is worse, we say. Actually committing adultery, cheating on your spouse, that’s far worse than just thinking it, we say. Who can control their thoughts? we say.
This is because we’re still thinking like children. When we are children, no matter what we do that is wrong, as long as there is someone else who’s done worse, we loudly proclaim that. When we are children, no matter what we do that is wrong, as long as there is some extenuating circumstance that explains it to our minds, we loudly proclaim that.
How is it fair to judge thoughts, if we hate someone, or lust after someone? How is that right? we say. I can’t help getting angry: you should see what he did to me, we say.
But when we’re ready for solid food, we begin to understand the depth of the problem of our sin, that it runs to our core, and that all things are related.
We understand that anger, left to fester, makes ever-widening cracks in relationships, in community. That hatred for another must be fed, nurtured, sustained to stay alive, and that drains energy and joy from our lives.
We learn that if we indulge our thoughts toward things that lead away from life, even if we don’t do them, we incur a cost to our well-being, to our sense of feeling good about the kind of person we are, and the vibrations of our hearts actually get picked up even by others.
That is, we learn that if, for example, we hold someone in disdain and hide it as best we can, it’s not only that our heart begins to wither under that emotional drain. But that sense inside also never really remains within us, and the other begins to feel it, even if it’s unspoken. And the relationship suffers. This is true of all our thoughts, they can never stay hidden.
When we’re ready for solid food, we realize that Jesus here is giving us a great gift of grace to speak the truth about how our lives are affected by even our thoughts and attitudes.
We realize that all he’s doing is exactly what we already heard in the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, commandments that have nothing to do with action, only intention: coveting is an internal sin, a sin of the heart, that leads us to dissatisfaction, broken relationships, a dismal sense of what good we have. Jesus here is only saying the same thing.
When we’re ready for solid food, we see that were we to live by such a way as Jesus describes, our lives in community would be enriched, the world would be beautiful, as God intended.
When we only want milk, we think that there’s only black and white, right or wrong, Godly or ungodly.
Our objection to any law of God is that we can’t do it perfectly, so we want nothing to do with it at all.
We want to hear only of God’s forgiveness, not realizing how ridiculous that is if there is nothing to forgive. If we haven’t done anything wrong, why do we need forgiveness?
But we do this because, as drinkers of milk, we can’t get our minds around the idea that it’s not either/or, this living in God’s way. We think too often that if we can’t live up to it at all times, we will have nothing to do with it.
So we justify why we get are who we are, saying God can’t expect us to be perfect. We justify whenever we go against what it’s pretty clear God wants, because no one could live like that, we say.
But when we’re ready for solid food, we hear these words of Jesus, Paul, and Moses for the good news they are, in every respect. Good news, because they are the way of life, as we’ve said already.
But good news, because we are talking about growing up, not being grown up. One does not become mature in an instant. It takes time, a lifetime. It takes patience, and the long view.
So, just to take anger as one example, if this is our particular sin, we don’t get rid of that in one moment, but by regularly attending to our anger, regularly asking God’s help to move us past it, regularly reminding ourselves that it is not the path of life.
And many years later, we might have the joy of looking back on the road we’ve walked and realizing that in fact we are different now. That for all that prayer and work of the Spirit, we are less angry, more like Christ. With much more growth to go, yes, but we can see that we’ve come a ways. This is true of anything we need to remove in order to walk God’s ways.
And of course we hear these words as good news in light of Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection. None of this law of God comes to us apart from the reality of our being forgiven and loved completely by God in Christ Jesus.
When we fail, when we struggle to walk this path of life, we are forgiven and blessed to be put back on it. But that’s the point, isn’t it, that everyone’s trying to tell us today: even forgiveness is ours so that we can once more get back on the path to life, not the path to death.
The grace and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus that we are so overjoyed to know and have only makes sense in seeing God’s law as a path to life as well. Then, when we fall and are picked up by our Lord again, we know exactly the direction we want to take, the road that leads to life.
So Paul, we have to say this to you: we think we might be ready for solid food.
And so we pray:
Gracious and holy God, so deepen our hearts and lives into the mature faith you wish to see in us, that we see your path as the path of life. By the love of your Son, forgive us when we stray. And with the strength of your Spirit, shape our lives into this way of life until that day when we start a new journey with you in the world that is to come, through the same Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.