Revd Canon Cheryl Collins
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit
‘We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’. When we read Paul’s letters, we sometimes sense a certain frustration. Paul often compared these new churches and new Christians to children, and not in a good way. He tried to guide the churches to grow up spiritually.
But what does growing up mean in this context? How do we do it?
The congregation in our reading from Exodus certainly don’t seem very grown up in their response to Moses and Aaron. They remind me of children on a long car ride- are we nearly there yet? I’m hungry, I’m bored, I wish we had stayed at x...even though I complained all the time we were there too. One of the gifts of childhood is to live pretty much in the present, but it won’t always do for adults. Maturity means remembering what has already happened and learning from it and taking responsibility for how what we do in the present may influence the future. This food crisis is really a faith crisis- the people of Israel seem to have forgotten their oppression in Egypt, remembering only the food even though it was conditional on their fulfilling their master’s requirements. They have also forgotten all that God has done for them, so they have no faith that God will provide for their needs here in the wilderness. Here God is a generous parent, giving the people their food. But, since the Manna will not keep for any length of time, they must learn that God will indeed give them daily bread. They must learn to trust.
The crowd in John’s gospel are likewise fixated on food for the stomach. They were probably mostly day labourers whose whole life was a struggle to put food on the table. No wonder they were attracted to Jesus as one who could save them from this never-ending cycle. But remember sharing in the feeding of the five thousand wasn’t just a free handout of bread to placate them like the Roman distributions, it was an invitation to become part of a community by sharing a meal together. No wonder then, that Jesus wants them to look beyond lunchtime. For many of them this conversation will be a turning point. Up until now they have been largely spectators and recipients, but now Jesus is forcing them to think and make choices. By the end of this chapter of the gospel, quite a lot of the crowd will have gone home unwilling to grow into the commitment Jesus is calling them to.
Like children calling for a magic trick they ask for a sign, as if feeding five thousand people wasn’t enough. But Jesus’s mission is not a spectator sport. I am the bread of life, he says bluntly, Do you want it or not? And now, when it is clear what Jesus is really talking about, the crowd go quiet. They know they don’t want to go hungry again, but they don’t know if they want what Jesus is offering, it might be too costly. They have been thinking about their relationship with Jesus purely in terms of what he could do for them. Now when they are asked to make a commitment to follow Jesus they are reluctant. You might not have heard of the idea of stages of faith, but I’m sure it will make sense to you. In the same way that our childish ideas of our parents, ourselves and the world around us grow and mature as we age, so does our understanding of God. We move from our childish pictures of God as an old man with a long white beard in the clouds to something a little harder to pin down, but no less real and powerful in our lives.
It can be painful as we move from one stage to the next. We might feel anxious and disloyal as we realize that our old picture of God is no longer working. The church has not always been very good at helping people through the stages of faith, not giving them a place where they can explore and grow, just as children need the freedom to explore in order to grow. Each person moves through the stages of faith at the speed that is right for them, and sometimes those at one stage can find those at another stage threatening or uncomfortable to listen to. Our practices can change along with the way we express our beliefs- the way we prayed at six, may not be right for us at sixty. This doesn’t mean that earlier stages are wrong or to be dismissed as immature, it simply means growing and changing is part of faith and nothing to be afraid of.
It seems to me that Paul often speaks of the stages of faith in his letters, as he watches the Christian communities he founded grow and mature. He also provides clues as to how best ensure that we grow up strong and healthy Christians. At the heart of this is love, love for each other which expresses itself in humility, gentleness and patience. Paul always sees Christian development taking place within the community where we can encourage and sustain one another when the going gets tough. He recognizes that each of us have a special calling and God-given gifts with which to fulfil that calling. Together, using those gifts for our mutual maturing the whole body of Christ can grow and mature.
And these relationships of mutual love are held together in the love of God, and in our individual and corporate relationships with God expressed through prayer and worship. So, growing up is something we do together with each other and together in God. Jesus is for Paul and for us the icon of what mature humanity, grounded in God, looks like. By studying Jesus, by seeking to understand and be like Jesus we grow little by little into the people that God has created us to be.
As we look back and reflect on our journey with God, we may be surprised to see how far we have come. Together we can move forward, ready always to lend each other a helping hand and confident in the knowledge that whoever else shares this part of our journey, the Lord is here, his Spirit is with us.