Growing Into God

SJF • Proper 12b • Tobias S Haller BSG
Elisha said,“As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
Has anybody here ever been annoyed with someone pestering them in what seems a childish way? Maybe a co-worker won’t stop humming an irritating tune, or stop with the practical jokes; or a friend just won’t stop chattering in a movie theater. And perhaps you’ve found yourself saying to this person, “Will you please grow up!” Now, the interesting thing about this expression is that you would never say it to a baby. Nothing could be sillier than to shout, “Will you please grow up,” to a crying baby — even if that is how we might feel! Because what we really mean when we say, “Will you please grow up” is that the person should act their age! We don’t so much want them to grow up as to act in accordance with who they already are.

So growing up is about becoming who you are meant to be, realizing your potential. We all start small and dependent, full of promise but devoid of performance.

Leo Ravenhill tells of a tourist group visiting a quaint little village. One tourist sees an old man sitting by a fence, and asks him, “Were any great people born in this town?” The old man looks him up and down before replying, “Nope; only babies.” For no one starts out as a great person — we all start as babies and need to grow up.

This growing up, becoming all that we are capable of becoming, requires letting go — the child needs to let go of its parents, the parents need to let go of their child. If we are to grow to complete maturity we need to be let go, and to let go in return. A bird that is never pushed from the nest will never learn to fly.

I’m not sure how many of you may have seen the film The Last Emperor. It tells the story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. Now if anyone ever needed to grow up it was Pu Yi. Through his childhood he was sheltered and protected, constantly restrained by the protocol of the forbidden city. He was still being breast-fed when he was 13 years old! He always seemed free to have his own way, but in truth he was completely controlled by the careful manipulation of his chamberlains and servants, who directed him like master puppeteers with invisible cords. So when his world fell apart as the Japanese invaded in the 1930s, and then again in 1949 when the Communists took over, poor Pu Yi had a lot of growing up to do — and it was a very painful process! It took war and revolution, the destruction of an empire and a nation, to bring this man to true freedom and the knowledge of his true dignity — not as the Emperor, but as a human being. He had to let go, and he had to be let go.

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Our scripture readings this morning tell us a good bit about growing up — this process of letting go, of being let go. Mark’s Gospel shows us Jesus the patient teacher trying to nudge his disciples out of the nest. They are all at sea, straining against the wind and water, and Jesus strolls out, not to rescue them, but as Mark notes, intending to pass them by. He is giving them a chance to grow up, to trust that he who chose them can also be trusted to preserve them; that he who fed five thousand with a few loaves and fish can lead them to safe harbor. But the disciples aren’t ready —their hearts are too hard — and instead of steering the boat to follow him to safety, they collapse in terror. I can surely imagine the tone of voice with which Jesus must have said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” — like a patient math teacher whose pupils just can’t grasp an equation. The disciples simply aren’t ready to let go, even if Jesus is.

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When we look at our reading from the Old Testament, the situation at first seems similar. Elisha says he’ll never leave his beloved teacher Elijah. Elijah just can’t get rid of him! Three times Elijah tells him to let him go, and three times Elisha refuses. Finally Elisha accepts that Elijah will be taken from him, and he asks for a double share of his spirit — no easy request. But in this act of willingly letting go, accepting that his master and teacher must leave him, Elisha shows that he is mature enough to receive the gift, that he has faith and trust in God and in his master, and he inherits the promised double portion of the Spirit.

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And it is with the Spirit that I will end this meditation, by turning to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, picking up a theme I began two weeks ago. In today’s passage Paul talks about what it means to grow up — to be no longer a child blown about by every wind of doctrine, but being firm in the truth that God has provided us in the person of Christ. The wonderful thing about growing in unity in Christ is that it isn’t about uniformity: the various members of the church are completely united but individually gifted: as they grow they diversify!

This is what lies behind Paul’s baptismal language — beginning with unity, passing through universality, and ending with diversity: there is one body and one Spirit, one call, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father — of all — who is above all and through all and in all. But to each — to each — he gave grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift: and each individual’s gift is different yet works together for the unity of the body.

There is a biological reality to this movement from one to all to each: every human being starts as one single cell, a fertilized egg. As it divides into additional cells they specialize under the direction of that amazing DNA molecule that is identical in all the cells but directs each in its own way — this one becomes a nerve, another a blood cell, another skin, another bone. If all of the cells were the same, we would not and could not be what we are: we would be like the Blob — a giant amoeba that can only digest. But instead the body grows with differentiation — different cells equally part of the one body, all directed by the same DNA, but each doing different things for the good of the whole body, knit together in every ligament and joint, each part working together as one. Maturity requires differentiation as much as it requires unity.

So part of maturity means being an individual — as a psychologist would say, being individuated — not being tossed about by what other people say or think or feel. To be mature is to have one’s own sense of self, and the ability to exercise one’s own gifts but not tokeep them for oneself alone, but for the good of the larger body, and its growth towards the end that God intends. Rabbi Hillel, who was the teacher of Saint Paul’s teacher Gamaliel, once said something along these lines: “If I am not for myself, who will be; but if I am only for myself, what am I. And if not now, when.” Each individual will have the maturity to stand for him or herself — but not to stand for him or herself alone, but in unity with all — and this happens in the now that is given to us anew each day. Perhaps Paul learned this lesson from his spiritual grandfather Rabbi Hillel.

For what is important in all of this is the direction of the growth: it is not growth away from God or from others, but growth into Christ, and for the good of the whole church. For while I’ve talked today about growing by letting go and being let go, that is not the same thing as abandoning or being abandoned. A loving mother will let her child take its first few steps by letting go, but those supportive hands are never very far away. A loving father will teach his son to drive, but will sit right there in the passenger seat, ready to assist when needed. And God, when God wants us to grow, lets us go but does not abandon us. God’s Spirit is always near, dwelling within us in the many gifts the Spirit gives: gifts that help some to grow to become apostles, some prophets and evangelists, some pastors and teachers, equipped for the work of ministry with spiritual tools and spiritual resources. It is the one Spirit working in all that gives this growth to each with many gifts.

God does not abandon us like children in a storm-tossed rowboat, but speaks the truth through the Spirit poured into our hearts, helping us to grow up into him who is the head, into Christ. It is the love of God working through the Spirit that lets us grow by letting us go without abandoning us, letting us become what God wishes us to be.

Jesus has his eye on us even if it may seem from time to time as if he intends to pass us by. And if we truly are not strong enough to pull the oars of our little lives into his wake, and follow where he leads, he will as a patient teacher turn back and board our boat. But if his Spirit working in us gives us strength to bend our hands to the task of ministry and mission, and the courage to trust in him and follow him, what joy is his, and what joy is ours! A child knows the joy of riding a bike the first time without training wheels, and a parent knows the joy of watching that child gain that feeling of freedom and maturity. Christ has made us free, but he has not abandoned us. On the contrary, Christ has his eye on us; he is waiting for us to take up the work he has given us to do — has equipped us to do through the Spirit — so let us do so, sisters and brothers in Christ, to the honor and glory of his name.+