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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

The Rev. Catherine Foster

September 30, 2012

Growing Up Into Christ

John 6:22-35

Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16

              First Presbyterian Church, let me begin by saying that it is a true joy to join you in ministry.  Reports of this congregation’s faithfulness, generosity and innovation stretch all over the country and beyond.  Your staff is well respected for its expertise and professionalism.  Perhaps Paul said it best as he opened his letter to Christians in Ephesus: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”1  I am, indeed, blessed that God has called me to this vibrant and faithful community.  And I want to say thank you for welcoming me and helping me feel so at home here. 

             As many of you know, I am stepping into a new position: Associate Pastor for Young Adult Ministries.  And perhaps my greatest surprise as I have started this work is the difficulty of explaining and defining just what a “Young Adult” is.  When I was examined on the floor of Presbytery, the one question that was posed to me was: “Are you replacing Mark DeVries?”  Thankfully, my new colleague Stuart Gordon piped up and explained that Mark had not “run out of gas” but rather that my ministry picks up where Mark’s leaves off.  Which is to say that, Mark oversees high school and undergraduate ministries.  Young Adult Ministry, on the other hand, embraces people in myriad life situations, including those who go straight into work, graduate students, those in the armed services, full-time volunteer and mission workers, young professionals, and many just trying to figure out their next step. 

             Now, if the starting line of “young adulthood” is difficult to define, the finish line is all but impossible to draw.  The PC(USA) softly places the line at age 35.  Others have suggested that young adults have children under age 5.  Still others draw the line between adulthood and young adulthood professionally, i.e. when the word “intern” or “resident” is dropped from your job title, you’re an adult. 

            In my first two months of preaching the 5:30 service, we have studied some young adults in the Bible, including Samson and Hannah.  And we have discussed the question, “how do you know when you’ve made it.”  For some young adults it was moving out of their parents’ house.  For others, it was being able to afford going out to eat whenever they wanted.  For some, it’s getting married, having kids, buying their own car, throwing out their futon, discovering a gray hair, or owning dishes that match.  For me, it was the combination of purchasing a full-sized washer and dryer and buying my very own Kitchenaid mixer.      

             However you define it, one thing is for sure.  A lot changes in young adulthood.  The difference between 23 and 33 is monumental.  It might be the difference between a roommate and a spouse.  Between a hand-me-down sedan and a mini-van.  Between Ramen Noodles and a wholesome dinner for two or even three.  Adolescence isn’t just for teenagers anymore.  There’s a whole lot of decision making and growing up to do in young adulthood.  

             Both of today’s scripture passages address maturity – more specifically, spiritual maturity.  And their messages are not directed exclusively toward “the young people.”  Their messages are for all of us. 

             At the heart of today’s passage from John is the question “What are you seeking?” or “What are you working for?”  As the crowd scrambles to understand Jesus, we can easily hear an echo from the third chapter of John “that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light.”2

             For the scene to make sense, we have to know that just before today’s passage, Jesus had begun attracting huge crowds because of the signs, or the miracles, that he was performing.  About 5,000 people had come out to see Jesus.  By comparison, the total membership of First Presbyterian Church is 4,200. 

             Starting with just five loaves and two fish, Jesus fed all of these people, the scripture says, “until they were satisfied.”  And then there were twelve baskets of food left over.  The people were so excited about Jesus’ power that they “were about to take him by force to make him their king.”3

             Jesus escapes to a mountain, and the disciples decide to go ahead across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum.  About three miles in, the sea gets rough and windy.  And then the disciples see Jesus walking on water toward them.  And Jesus says to them, “I am.  Do not be afraid.”  In other words, Jesus uses those same words that Yahweh spoke to Moses when Moses asked for God’s name.  Jesus identifies himself as God to his disciples as he walks across the water.  

             And then the scene quickly flashes to the next morning, and we find out that the crowd, who had seen the disciples embark without Jesus, could not find Jesus.  So some of the crowd takes off to Capernaum where they catch up with Jesus and the disciples.   The author includes all of these logistical details to support the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. 

             So when the crowd catches up to Jesus, they ask a series of four questions.  First, they are just curious about the logistics of Jesus getting to Capernaum.  They ask, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”  Jesus does not answer their question but questions their motive.  He says to them, “You are not seeking me because you have seen miracles but because you ate bread and were satisfied.  Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of man will give you.”  In other words: We are all seeking something, and many of us are seeking God.  But are we seeking God because of what God can do for us, or do we let what God has done for us lead us to greater faith in the living God?  John Calvin put it this way: “Christ does not reply to the question put to him when we seek in Christ something other than Christ himself.”4

             So the crowd comes back with a second question, which, for the record, I think is a really faithful question.  They ask: “What may we do in order to work the works of God?”  The NRSV says, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 

             Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  Which is to say, step number one toward spiritual maturity is to believe in Christ, not because you have mastered all the theology and not because you understand all the signs, but because you have encountered and understood Christ as “the way and the truth and the life.” 

             Jesus is asking for a full vote of confidence from these folks, so it is not surprising that they come back with a third question asking for proof.  They request a sign, like Moses gave the people manna in the wilderness.  At one level, the crowd is using their best religious tools of Scripture and tradition to check out Jesus.  But at another level, you kind of have to laugh because the crowd seems to be trying to trick Jesus into making them bread again. 

             But Jesus will not be tricked.  In fact, he “reworks” the essential elements of the crowd’s statements about Moses and manna.  He says it was God, “my father,” who gave the manna, not Moses.  He tells them they have their verb tenses wrong.  It is not that God gave bread, it is that God is giving bread right now.  The true bread from heaven does not perish every day like the manna did but instead comes down from heaven once and gives life to the world.  And finally, it is not the Israelites’ ancestors who received the true bread from heaven but you, the crowd, are receiving it right now.  These corrections combined make the important point that Jesus is the sign the people seek. 

             In awe, the crowd responds with its fourth and final statement, “Lord, give us this bread always.”  To which, Jesus poetically answers, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  

             The statement leaves us with the imperative that we must feed on Christ, savor him, ingest him.  We can try to consume other things, but they will always ultimately leave us hungry and thirsty.  According to John, spiritual maturity originates not in seeking Christ to see how he might help us, but in seeking Christ because he is the Son of God.  If we approach Christ clutching our own agendas and needs, Christ cannot place his gifts and graces into our open hands.

            This summer, the lead article in Christianity Today was entitled “When Are We Going to Grow Up?: The Juvenilization of the American Church.”5  In it, Thomas Bergler noted that as American teenaged pop-culture became popular in the 1930s and 40s, churches and youth groups began to teach an emotionally satisfying, theologically light version of pop-Christianity to our youth.  Now, developmentally appropriate Christian education for teens is fine.  But what happened was, in our culture that idolizes youth and avoids growing up, more and more churches began to cater to and encourage adolescent Christianity in their adult congregations.  Ultimately, Bergler argued, this “Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.”6

             Rather than allowing our churches to become glorified adult youth groups, Bergler argues, “I believe one key is to renew our commitment to the church as an intergenerational family, in which each person has a unique role in helping the others toward our shared goal of maturity in Christ.”7  The benefit of that intergenerational model is that youth and young adults have adults in their lives who model vibrant spiritual maturity, even as those youth and young adults bring enthusiasm and fresh perspectives to the rest of the congregation.  Bergler concludes his article: “Churches full of people who are building each other up toward spiritual maturity are not only the best antidote to the juvenilization of American Christianity, but also a powerful countercultural witness in a juvenilized society.”8

             Though Christians in first century Ephesus certainly faced a different culture from twenty-first century American Christians, I believe Paul’s words of encouragement to the church at Ephesus should still encourage us today.  “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” Paul says.  In other words, it is by God’s grace that we are equipped with many different skills and vocations.  And then Paul starts an embarrassingly long run-on sentence: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”9

             For Paul, the goal of all members of the church should be having unity of faith, knowledge of the Son of God, and a lifestyle like Christ’s.  The sentence goes on: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”10

             Now any self-respecting English teacher would have broken that sentence up, but back in the day, this was really eloquent writing, and Paul was on a roll.  What I don’t want you to miss is that growing up into Christ is something that involves the church community as a whole.  Each member is a ligament in the body of Christ, and the gifts of each member equip the church to work and to grow.  If one part fails to function, our growth is stunted.  

             A perfect illustration of this scripture is the work that is taking place, even as I speak, on FPC’s Habitat House.  I would wager that very few of us have construction skills.  Yet over the course of a few weeks, hundreds of us have combined our gifts for organizing, fund-raising, praying, volunteering, cooking and cleaning to build a home for one of our very own staff members.  Talk about building the body of Christ up in love!   

             In a culture that defines adulthood as independence from everyone else, as financial autonomy, as freedom to do whatever you want, the church has a countercultural message to share.  Paul defines adulthood as Christian unity and peace, knowledge of the Son of God, and living out the calling of the faith.”  None of us has fully arrived as a spiritually mature adult, but together we can support the church body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

             And it is in the spirit that we turn to today’s Symphony of Service.  We celebrate the ministries of those who have built the church up in love: those who have taught us the faith, those who have walked with us in our difficult seasons, those who have shone Christ’s love to the world, and those who worship our God with us.

             As one young adult on that lifelong path to spiritual maturity, I thank you for, as Paul put it, “Leading a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”11  Halleluiah and Amen. 

 1.      Ephesians 1: 15-16.

2.      John 3: 19. 

3.      John 6: 19. 

4.      Feasting on the Word Commentary., Year B. Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

5.      Bergler, Thomas, p. 18 “When Are We Going to Grow Up?” Christianity Today. June 2012. Vol. 56, No. 6

6.      Bergler p.23

7.      Bergler, p. 24. 

8.      Bergler, p. 24.

9.    Ephesians 4:11-13

10.   Ephesians 4:14-16

11.   Ephesians 4:1

 

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