Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
As parents of a 21 year old and a 23 year old, Warren and I have had frequent conversations about what constitutes adulthood. Is 18 the magic year? It is according to military recruiters, voting registrations and law enforcement officers. Is 21 an adult? Well yes, according to state drinking laws. But recent brain research tells us that the human brain is still developing, maturing, past the age of 18, 21, even 25. So when is someone grown-up? I know plenty of adults that are still adolescents emotionally, and I know a few teen-agers who are wise well beyond their years. Still, the legal system has to establish standards so, in spite of brain research and some profoundly adolescent adults, depending on the issue, adulthood comes at either 18 or 21. When I think of the experiences I’ve had since the age of 21, thinking of 21 as adult is a frightening thought.
So what constitutes adulthood spiritually, emotionally, personally? Is it an ability to grasp seemingly contrasting truths and holding them both as valid? Is it an ability to see context as significant as results? Is it to have pared down one’s needs, so as to recognize that wants are not the same as needs? Is it to be selfless in one’s generosity? Is it relinquishment of stuff? Opinions? Self?
We know that really smart people are not necessarily mature people. We know that moral maturity is not the same as intellectual sophistication. We know that the more mature an individual, the more relative are the truths she once held. We know maturity is not measured by anything visible – perhaps it cannot be measured at all, except by deeds, or perhaps perspective.
This passage from Ephesians describes, in many ways, the basic tenets of Christian discipleship. It is a kind of back-to-basics primer, a passage that reminds us of the essential expectations of the Christian faith. Though it was probably not written by Paul, it contains and expands some of his strongest and most vibrant desires for Christian discipleship along with his description of Christian community - the Body of Christ. And it simply states the hopes of the writer that those who assume the life of Christian discipleship will live in a way worthy of that calling.
Believe me, I know how easy it is to over-complicate what it means to be a Christian. Over-complicating Christian discipleship makes many of us want to duck and run. Ironically, over-simplifying Christian discipleship also makes people turn away, me included, since over-simplification suggests that life is uncomplicated, that challenging, ethical dilemmas can be quickly resolved with just the application of a few poetic little Christian sayings. I find that approach frustrating because it seems so often to be applied by persons who haven’t done the heavy-lifting first. I don’t mind hearing brilliant theologians or social activists simplify their faith, but I shudder when I hear lazy preachers and facile moralists do it.
So, back to my question, what makes us morally, spiritually, personally adults? I’m going to assume for the moment that I’m speaking this morning to people who want to grow up in your faith. And I’m going to suggest a simple process for determining a spiritually mature Christianity. First, think carefully about who Jesus was and make a mental list of those characteristics that sometimes get lost in our 21st century noise. He was a Jew who identified with the poor, the ostracized, the edges and boundaries of his culture’s people. And his people, his community, were living in uneasy subservience to the larger, more powerful Roman culture. He saw that too often the rules of his religious community had become more important than the suffering of his people so, when the occasion called for it, he broke the rules. He despised acquiescence to the Romans but his concern was not so much with Rome as it was with the compromises his religious leaders had made to get along with Rome. Now, using all the gifts of the mind God has given us, imagine an actual encounter between Jesus and someone we’ve read about in the gospels - actually picture it behind your closed eyes - Jesus and the rich young ruler, Jesus and the poor widow, Jesus and the priests, Jesus and the bleeding woman, Jesus and the demoniac, Jesus and the ten lepers, Jesus and Pilate, Jesus and Zacchaeus, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Jesus and Judas, Jesus and Peter… Then, having fully imagined that encounter, having listened carefully to the words and voices, having imagined the heat and smell, and pictured the dusty road, the clothes, the faces, the eyes, then choose to behave in a way Jesus would find acceptable.
I wonder if Jesus himself might not lead us into adulthood. Would we choose our words more carefully? Might we not be gentler or perhaps more courageous? Might we not then be living in ways worthy of the name Christian?
Christian maturity calls for us to be humble and gentle, patient, bearing with each other in love. It calls for us to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit, committed to the obligation of peace. It calls us to be courageous because we love. It calls us to be strong and flexible, and encouraging and confrontational. It calls us to be quiet more often, attentive always, loving without exception, forgiving in all circumstances. It calls us to trust God. Such a Christian faith calls us to be grown-up.
During communion this morning, which allows time to think, may I suggest that while the bread and cups are being passed, we all bring to mind one encounter we’ve had recently, one decision we’ve made, one conversation, one activity, one moment that might have gone differently had we brought to mind first, an image of Jesus. I know for a fact I have some growing up to do in that regard. Perhaps you do too. Amen.