Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 2/12/2017
6th Sunday after the Epiphany
Brothers and sisters, I couldn’t talk to you like spiritual people but like unspiritual people, like babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet. Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual. When jealousy and fighting exist between you, aren’t you unspiritual and living by human standards? When someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and someone else says, “I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. Because of this, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together, but each one will receive their own reward for their own labor. We are God’s coworkers, and you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:1-9, CEB)
I’d like to start by recapping my life for the last two months for those of you who weren’t here last week. On Sunday, Dec. 11 while I was here at the church early, I had a seizure, fell, and broke a bone in my skull that caused a traumatic brain injury. Because of that, I was in the hospital for about a week. Now, I can’t remember anything from the morning of until about a week and a half later. So I know that some of you visited while I was in the hospital, and I am beyond grateful for that, but I can’t remember it.
So anyway, after I got out of the hospital, I lived at my parents’ house in Findlay for 3 weeks to a month, then I moved back home to Alger. So I was basically absent from church life here for about a month and a half. But now I’m back and I am beyond grateful for this congregation allowing me the time and space necessary for me to heal. My recovery continues and I won’t be able to drive for a while, but I’ve started the spring semester at my seminary again, and I’m obviously back into church work here.
Now, one of the reasons I stayed at my parents’ house for so long, besides the fact that I was recovering, was that I was getting physical therapy from a place in Findlay three times a week and two hours per session. And I discovered something – physical therapy is some hard stuff! Many of you have been through physical therapy and are probably nodding your heads in agreement.
When I first started therapy after I got out of the hospital, I had a lot of weakness in my left arm and leg because the brain injury was on the right side. So my physical therapist had me doing all of these strengthening exercises for my left side and all of these exercises for balance. And it was actually some really hard stuff. It took a lot of concentration and a lot of energy
So God gets the ultimate credit for my healing process, and that’s not a cliché. The ultimate reason that I’m standing before you today is because of the healing power of the Holy Spirit. But this wasn’t any kind of spontaneous healing like we see Jesus doing in the Gospels. It’s been a lot of work – therapy, doctor’s appointments, general disruption of life.
And a lot of people participated in this work of healing. The doctors and nurses at Lima Memorial get a lot of credit. My parents invested a lot of energy, especially in the first two weeks in caring for me and helping me with everything that I needed help with. And my fiancé Lauren spent so much time at the hospital when I was there and when I was at my parents’ house, on top of her two jobs. And now she’s my primary driver.
And you as a church get a lot of credit in this healing process for giving me all that time and space so that I could heal, and for doing so well with an absentee pastor for a month and a half.
So here’s what I’m saying – the Holy Spirit gets the ultimate credit for my healing and my health. But so many other people participated in the Holy Spirit’s healing work.
Now I know so many of us here have experienced this, either as the person needing the healing or as the person participating in someone else’s healing.
Maybe you participated in your own healing through therapy, medicine, following the doctor’s orders. Maybe your spouse and your family participated in your healing by driving you to appointments, taking care of you at home, adjusting their schedule so they can be there for you, however that happens.
And doctors and nurses participate in healing all the time. They went through years of schooling so that they could be fully trained to help you and people like you get through the healing process.
So it’s like I said – the Holy Spirit gets the ultimate credit for the healing of our bodies and minds. But so many other people participate in the Holy Spirit’s healing work.
That’s what I was thinking about this week when I came to that passage from 1 Corinthians that I read for you a few minutes ago. The Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for any kind of growth in a congregation, in a church community. But the people themselves are called to participate in that Spirit-driven growth.
The Apostle Paul was writing to the Christian community in Corinth. He’d planted this church on his second missionary journey, around 51 AD. Now the city of Corinth was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. It was a flourishing city with industry, shipping, all the works. So Corinth had very rich people and very poor people. And the Christian community in Corinth reflected that – there were very rich members of the community and very poor members of the community. They didn’t handle that well, and there was a good deal of strife and conflict from that.
So Paul addressed various aspects of that conflict throughout this letter, but at the passage I read earlier, Paul is specifically talking about these factions, these rival groups within the church, that had sprung up after he’d planted the church and left.
One faction said that they followed Paul as the founder of the community. Another faction said they followed a man named Apollos who had come after Paul and led the community for a while.
So the Corinthian community was divided because they were lifting the work of Paul and Apollos over the Holy Spirit’s work among them. They were divided because they were sticking with their own factions instead of finding unity in the Holy Spirit’s work among them all.
So what we see here is the same idea that I’d talked about earlier. The Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for any growth within a congregation. We see that in this passage.
It’s what Paul’s trying to establish – It was the Holy Spirit who was ultimately responsible for the founding and growing of the community, not Paul or Apollos. And Paul talked about this earlier in the letter. He asks the question “Was I crucified for you? Were you baptized in my name? So why have you formed this camp around me?”
And because the church has these factions, Paul calls them babies in Christ. Paul talks about giving them milk and not solid food because this Corinthian community was still holding onto these divisions and old loyalties instead of realizing that the Holy Spirit was ultimately responsible for the growth.
The Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for any kind of growth within a congregation – this is something we must realize. God’s prevenient grace has been at work in this community and in this church for years and years before any of us got here.
In January last year, we celebrated this church’s Centennial, and we remembered that God has been at work in this church building for 100 years, and even longer in this congregation. Now I know that was long before any of us were born, no matter what stories you tell me. God’s grace comes before anything we could ever hope to do and prepares the metaphorical ground for any seed we hope to plant.
BUT – we’re not let off the hook. That doesn’t mean that we just have to sit back and do nothing. The Holy Spirit does get the ultimate credit for any growth, any success within a church, but the people – that’s you all – are called to participate in that Spirit-driven growth.
In that passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul uses this really cool metaphor from agriculture that I love. He’s talking about the Corinthian church as a field, a crop, and he says that Paul planted, Apollos watered and tended the crop, but God made it grow. So God – the Holy Spirit – gets the ultimate credit for the growth of the crop – the church – just like I’ve been talking about.
But we’re surrounded by farmland. Many of us come from farming families, and we know that the work of planting crops, irrigating and tending the crops – that’s not easy work, even with all the modern machinery. That’s back-breaking sweaty work, right?
So Paul was saying that he and Apollos are not ultimately responsible for the existence and the growth of the congregation – they’re just the field hands. So there shouldn’t be any camps claiming loyalty to one of them, that just doesn’t make sense. But Paul isn’t saying that he and Apollos didn’t work because I’m guessing that the Christian community in Corinth was not instantaneously created by the Holy Spirit. No, Paul and Apollos had put blood, sweat, and tears into this because they participated in the work of the Holy Spirit.
Think of Alger First’s longest-lasting ministry, the Missions Conference. The Holy Spirit does get the ultimate credit, but the congregation participated in the work of the Holy Spirit for 40 years and still continues in it today. You as a congregation are still participating in the work of the Holy Spirit – many of continue to sacrifice money for Faith Promise giving to various missionaries and projects; Mike and Patti Vollmar and a bunch of other people still sacrifice time every year, especially during the weekend of Missions Conference, to put everything together.
So the Holy Spirit gets the ultimate credit, but a lot of people have participated with the Holy spirit in the growth and continued work of the Missions Conference. This was not an instantaneous creation, and the continuing work of the Missions Conference takes a lot of effort on the part of this congregation. We’ve put our blood, sweat, and tears into this.
So what I’m saying in all of this is the same thing I’ve been repeating over and over again – the Holy Spirit gets the ultimate credit for any kind of growth within a church congregation, but the people of the church – each of us here today – are called to participate in the Spirit-driven growth.
Because it doesn’t happen instantaneously without effort. The growth and vitality and life of a congregation rely on the blood sweat and tears of the congregation and all of its pastors participating with the Holy Spirit.
The growth and vitality of this congregation has never ultimately relied upon the leadership of pastors – not on Pastor Frank Smith, not on Pastor Casey Irwin, and not on me. I know many of you were a part of this congregation for all of those former pastors, and you probably have mixed feelings for at least one of them. But it ultimately doesn’t rely on them and their leadership. The growth and vitality of this congregation, of this church, ultimately relies on the work of the Holy Spirit. But the pastors and the congregation are called to participate in that growth. We’re called to put our blood, sweat, and tears into it.
And this is important to understand. Some of you probably know this, and some of you probably don’t – in our denomination, the United Methodist Church, the bishops appoint each pastor to each local church within their Annual Conference. So you as a local church haven’t chosen any of your pastors because they’ve all been appointed here by the bishop – you haven’t really hired them, that’s just how our system works. Now some might be bitter about that and don’t like it – I get that – but we have to understand that the Holy Spirit gets the ultimate credit and is the ultimate force behind any growth and vitality of any congregation, no matter who the pastor is. But both the pastor and the congregation are called to participate in that Spirit-driven growth.
Now, there are different ways to think about growth. When I think about growth, I normally think about numbers. And I think a lot of us probably have that tendency. So that means when we talk about church growth, it’s a difficult conversation for smaller churches in small communities like Alger First. But growth means more than just numbers.
Think of growth in discipleship. How is this congregation growing into the image of Christ? How is Alger First, as a congregation, following the call of the Holy Spirit? How is this church ministering to this community?
How is each of us, as individuals, growing spiritually? How is it going with each of our personal prayer life? How is each of us becoming more like Christ and serving our community?
Now, like I’ve been saying, the ultimate credit for any growth like this, whether applied to the congregation or to the individual, goes to the Holy Spirit. BUT growth will not happen without our participation in that growth. We will not experience any kind of new life or growth in any direction unless we lay down our own individual agendas, unless we surrender our own individual visions for how we want this church to operate, our own individual ideas for how I think this church should look.
We must be on the lookout for where the Holy Spirit is already at work in our community and in our life. We must discern God’s call to this congregation, to your family, and to you yourself, and then participate in that work already going on.
So I have a question that I’d like you to ponder – How are you called to participate in Spirit-driven growth within this congregation and in your own personal life?
We can trust that the Holy Spirit is already at work in this village of Alger, in this congregation, in your family, your job, and in your life – the Holy Spirit’s already there. So how can you participate in the work already going on?
I invite you to keep that question before you throughout this week ahead of us. How are you called to participate in Spirit-driven growth within this congregation and in your own personal life?
Now, I will say that to really engage with that question and dig in, we must, each of us, have an active prayer life – how are you bringing your whole self before God each day so you can discern where God is at work in your congregation, in your community, in your family, and in your life?
Just like last week if you were here, you should an insert in your bulletins titled “Prayer to the Holy Spirit.” Could you get that out? It’s on the back of your “Daily Scripture Readings.” Could we say that together?
Oh Holy Spirit
Who calls us to greater maturity
And empowers us to grow into greater holiness:
Challenge us to depend ever more
Upon your grace and mercy,
Instead of upon the strength of humans,
For the growth of this congregation;
So that we may be participants in your mission
Within the community surrounding us
Which you have been carrying out since the beginning of time.
In your holy and merciful name,
AmenIf you were here last week, I asked you to take that home and pray it each day throughout the week. And I’m inviting you to do the same thing with this. Each day throughout this coming week, follow the Daily Scripture Readings and pray this prayer so that we may be more and more open to how we can participate in the Holy Spirit’s work among us.
If you were here last week, I asked you to take that home and pray it each day throughout the week. And I’m inviting you to do the same thing with this. Each day throughout this coming week, follow the Daily Scripture Readings and pray this prayer so that we may be more and more open to how we can participate in the Holy Spirit’s work among us.
So how are we called to participate in Spirit-driven growth? How are we all as a congregation called to participate in Spirit-driven work in this community?
That’s a scary question to ask. Because the Holy Spirit is this wily, uncontrollable force, and we never quite know what’s going to happen.
But that’s the great thing about being part of a church like this – we aren’t alone. The Holy Spirit has a calling for this church and is calling for all of us to participate together. If we can do that, then I promise you, the Holy Spirit will do great, marvelous, amazing things through us.