Sermon: Who Grows the Church?

Text: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Series A
Listen to the sermon here!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. 

How much of the produce of a farm do you think can be attributed to the farmer? A study was done by an agricultural school in Iowa. I suppose it’s not like they have anything better to do in Iowa. It reported that production of a hundred bushels of corn from one acre of land required 4,000,000 lbs. of water, 6,800 lbs. of oxygen, 5,200 lbs. of carbon, 160 lbs. of nitrogen, 125 lbs. of potassium, 75 lbs. of yellow sulphur, and other elements too numerous to list. That’s not to mention the need for the proper amounts of rain and sunshine at the right times. Although many hours of the farmer’s labor are also needed, it was estimated that only 5 percent of the produce of a farm can be attributed to the efforts of man. How much spiritual growth do you think can be attributed to human effort? 

The Church’s Need for Growth

In our Epistle Lesson, St. Paul uses an agricultural metaphor to describe the church and its leaders. The individual Christians are plants. The leaders are the farmers. One leader plants while another waters the plants. The church itself is God’s field or cultivated land. 

This imagery highlights two areas  of growth which we’re all too familiar with. First, there’s our own spiritual growth. We all desire to grow and mature spiritually. St. Paul describes the Corinthian believers’ spiritual growth as stunted. They’re immature, still infants in Christ. They’ve divided into factions and spend most of their time quarrelling with each other. Their jealousy and in-fighting were signs that they were still spiritual infants. Their envy led them to emphasise their loyalty to specific leaders like Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. Just as infants are not mature enough to eat solid food, so the Corinthian Christians were not mature enough to receive anything except the most simple and basic teachings.

American Christianity, on the other hand, thinks it has this spiritual growth stuff figured out. Have you had a chance to go into a Christian bookstore recently? You’re bound to see books like “Ten Steps Towards Christ”, “Six Ways to Empower Your Prayer life”, “14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family” “30 Thoughts for Victorious Living”. (Yes, those are real book titles). And they sell. Some of them may even have some good practical advice. But, it seems we’re obsessed with breaking spiritual growth down into manageable chunks. It’s a self-help society we live in and we want to be able to do it ourselves. We want a sense of accomplishment. We want to enjoy feelings of progress. We think that we’re responsible for our own spiritual growth. 

The second area which St. Paul’s image highlights is the growth of the church. Often, our desire to see the church grow is not only the whole church throughout the world. No, we ache to see these pews at St. Peter’s full again. Our longing is intensified as we continue to see the massive decline in North American Christianity. So many seek to grow the church by using the methods and techniques culled from the world. They think if they adopt some of the world’s ideas, or some of the world’s entertainment styles, that this will grow the church. Replace the liturgy with a praise band. Become more inclusive, and then the church is bound to grow.  

Or so they think. In both these cases we end up thinking that spiritual growth and church growth are things which are under our control. We think that if we do the right set of things we will cause growth. St. Paul however says exactly the opposite. You cannot grow yourself. Your works and efforts do not cause your own growth. Adopting the ways of the surrounding culture will not grow the church. Growth doesn’t come from us. Young pastors do not grow the church. You do not grow the church. The source of growth is completely and utterly outside of us and our control.

The Growth comes from God

But St. Paul says that the church is God’s field. The point of St. Paul’s metaphor is that just as God causes the growth of plants in a field so God is responsible for growth in the church. This means that we are completely dependent upon God for our spiritual growth. We must rely upon God to grow the church. Instead of attempting to grow spiritually by our own efforts, we must have confidence that God will give the growth. Instead of relying upon the methods and techniques of our culture, we must entrust our parish and its future into the hands of Almighty God. I do not grow the church. You do not grow the church. Only God gives the growth. What, then is the use of having a pastor if God gives the growth?

St. Paul  says that he and Apollos are ‘servants through whom you believed’. The word ‘servant’ here, can mean ‘the one who waits at table’; in other words, Paul and Apollos are simply the people who serve the food, while God is responsible for choosing it and cooking it. You shouldn’t make a fuss about which waiter brings the food to your table. What matters is that God is in charge in the kitchen. That food, the spiritual food, is the Word of God. If you are God’s field, then the Word of God is the good seed. (Luke 8:4-15). Ministers in the Church are responsible to feed you God’s Word. They plant or water the seed of God’s Word in you. They don’t make you grow. They don’t grow the Church. They preach and teach the Word and administer God’s Sacraments so that the Holy Spirit can use the Word to bring growth.

That means your pastors are only instruments used by the Spirit for your spiritual benefit. The instrument by itself is of no use, unless the Spirit uses it for your benefit.  It also means that you don’t have to worry about the differences between the ministers who have served here at St. Peter’s. Each minister, including St. Paul and Apollos, are different in many ways. Ministers have different kinds of skills and abilities. Not all ministers share the same temperament. Ministers have diverse specialities. Despite all their individual peculiarities, all pastors are one in spirit and goal. What were they working for? They are working to bring spiritual food to you. One planting, another watering. Different kinds of work, but still one. The contribution of each worker is important, but one pastor is not more important or necessary than the other. They are working toward the same goal, not in competition.

Now, does this mean that we can just “let go and let God?” Is this a case of “Jesus take the wheel?” If God’s going to give the growth then I don’t have to do anything? Right? No. That’s exactly not the attitude which St. Paul has here. Instead, Paul says that pastors are God’s co-workers. The Church is the field and pastors are God’s fellow farmers. Elsewhere Paul says: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Ro 10:14–15). And Christ our Lord said, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth labourers into his harvest.” (Mt 9:37–38). This means that pastors have to work hard in preaching and teaching the Word. 

But, it also means that you have something to do as well. As you live your daily lives, as you go to work, or go to the store, you encounter people. God has placed people into your lives. They might be friends, family, acquaintances, or strangers. While you go about your daily life you can share the good news of the forgiveness. You can invite others to church or Bible study where they can hear God’s Word. You don’t have to worry about getting the right words or methods. God will work through his Word wherever it is proclaimed. 

If we want to grow spiritually, we cannot do it ourselves. God however, will grow us through his Word. Pastors don’t grow the Church. Fancy techniques or programmes don’t grow the Church. Only God, through his Word grows the Church. He uses pastors to bring his word to his people. Even this day, God has prepared for you a feast of forgiveness, life, and salvation. He declares his Word to you. He feeds you with the very Body and Blood of Christ. Through his Word he grows you and he Grows the Church. Instead of being anxious about the future, let us entrust our selves, our whole lives, and his holy Church into his very capable hands. God surely knows how to grow his Christians and his own Holy Church. 

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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