Dear church of God, sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have a long way to go, a lot of growing up to do.
It would be easy to take the words of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 3:1-9), and the words of Jesus (Matthew 5:21-37) in today’s readings and simply to say that they are directed to someone else and not to me.
Paul was dealing with the Christians in Corinth who had divided up into factions and were arguing with one another over various issues in the life of the congregation and its members. Because of their jealousy and strife, Paul declared that they were still “people of the flesh” and he could not deal with them yet as “spiritual people” (1 Corinthians 3:1).
Jesus was talking to Jews who revered those who seemed to be able to keep God’s commandments and who were zealous to make sure that any who transgressed them were punished (Matthew 5:20). They wanted to know what they must do to inherit eternal life just to make sure that they had done it and all was well.
Do we fit into either of those groups addressed by the Word of the Lord today? It is too easy for us to say: We are not Jews; We don’t take part in the arguments within the church; We are the spiritually mature that Paul was hoping the Corinthians would become; We are ready to put the milk aside and to dig into the meat of spiritual things; We are Lutherans, fully aware that we are saved by grace alone apart from the works of the Law, and so have no need for Jesus to explain the commandments to us.
In the Old Testament reading, Moses said, “Choose between the LORD with His commandments, and other gods with the sins of the nations” (Deuteronomy 30:16-17). We have made our choice, haven’t we? Isn’t that why we are here? Yes it is, but perhaps not in the way that we think. We are not here because we are above all of those arguments within the Christian Church. We are not here because we have mastered the Ten Commandments and their meanings and are looking for something meatier to chew on. We are not here because we have chosen God and kept His commandments. This is not why we are here, no matter what we might think of ourselves.
It is quite the opposite. We might think we have come before the LORD because we have made enough of the right choices for Him to bless us with prosperity and long life. We might think that we have come to worship because we have kept the commandments to a level where we no longer deserve judgment or hell. We might think that we have come to church, not to take part in the arguments, but to show others how tolerant we can be, and how spiritual we are. But how wrong that would be.
There is nothing here for those who always choose the right and never the wrong. There is no worship of God from those who do not fear His judgment and know what they deserve for their sins. What can be given to those who are perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48)? There is no meat here for those who are entirely spiritual in their own way of thinking.
The edible meat that is here is for the carnal sinners, “people of the flesh,” those “behaving only in a human way”. It is not for those who do not murder, but for those who get angry with their brothers and insult them (Matthew 5:21-22). It is not for those who have never committed adultery, but for those who look lustfully (5:27-28). The meat that is offered is the flesh of Christ for those who have not mastered their own sinful flesh.
Christ did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. We like to abolish the Law by saying that the commandments don’t really apply to our situation: I haven’t murdered anyone, or it was in self-defense, or it was an accident, or there were extenuating circumstances. Jesus does the very opposite of what we do. He doesn’t narrow down the Law so that it will only apply to very few people.
Rather, Jesus fulfills the Law, first by filling it out to its fullest extent. The commandments are not just about what our bodies have done, but what is in our heart and mind and thoughts and desires and intentions and wishes. Jesus, the Christ, Jesus the LORD, is the one whose Law it is. He gave it to Moses on Mount Sinai and He expounded it to His followers in the Sermon on the Mount. He filled it out to its fullest extent so that we would see that no one has kept the Law. We all stand condemned. We all are deserving of God’s wrath and judgment and condemnation and the punishment of hell. We are all “people of the flesh… behaving only in a human way.”
What St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians does apply to you. “You are still of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 3:3). If there was no jealousy within you, you wouldn’t protest his statement. You want to be better than those he wrote to in Corinth. If there was no strife among you, you wouldn’t have to assert that you are more spiritual than others. You are truly “behaving only in a human way” (3:3). You are breaking those commandments, committing murder by insulting your brothers, committing false testimony by making spiritual vows that you are not able to keep, choosing not to follow the LORD and His commandments, but to follow the gods of a higher spirituality where you can be exalted above the Law of God and above His children.
If you want meat, recognize that it is true meat that you need, not the “beyond beef” of pretentious people claiming a higher spirituality. You need the true meat of the incarnate Christ. You need the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. You need the true flesh that was crucified and that rose from the dead to conquer death: “God in flesh made manifest” (Lutheran Worship, 88).
In His physical life, death, and resurrection Christ Jesus fulfilled the Law. Having filled out the meaning of the Law to its fullest extent, Christ Jesus, in true human flesh, fulfilled that Law by not transgressing any of its boundaries stretched as far as they could reach. He was perfect, as His heavenly Father is perfect.
And then, He fulfilled the Law by suffering the just punishment for the sins of the whole world. In His flesh He fully drank the cup of God’s wrath against sin, filled to the brim with all of the punishments that we deserve. And having suffered its fullest extent unto the death of God in the flesh, He rose again showing that all had indeed been fulfilled.
As a result of the physical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, there is meat to be given to you. It is the true body and blood of Christ, given for sinners who know that just as they cannot abolish the Law, nor can they fulfill it. There is true meat here for sinners who know that they are “people of the flesh… behaving only in a human way.” There is true meat here for those who confess that they have broken God’s commandments and not followed His ways. There is true meat for those who have a lot of growing up to do, and this meat is Christ Jesus who gives forgiveness, life, and salvation.
God gives us this meat so that we do grow up in Christ. In this way He answers the prayer we prayed in the Collect of the Day, “that we who justly suffer the consequence of our sin may be delivered by [His] goodness to the glory of [His] name.” He delivers us by the meat of Jesus, the body of His own dear Son, sacrificed for sinners. He truly does feed us according to our needs, milk or meat, as we are able to swallow it. He feeds us, not as a reward for good behaviour, but in order to save us from our sins.
This is what gives us true growth, spiritually to see our condition as the Holy Spirit sees it, and also physically as the only preparation for eternal life, raised in the flesh to live forever with our flesh and blood Saviour. It was a great comfort for St. Paul to write to those arguing factions in the Church at Corinth: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Despite their arguing and insulting and breaking of God’s holy commandments, God was giving growth. They would not have grown otherwise.
So it is for us. God is giving growth, even when we are set on being “people of the flesh… behaving only in a human way.” He gives us His holy Law to condemn our sins, and He gives us the holy Gospel in Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness we need. We grow not by acting mature, but by being humbled by the Law and exalted by grace alone, totally undeserved and unearned.
God is causing our growth in His Church, despite the sins in the church. Through the forgiveness of our sins we are growing as God’s field. His ministers plant and water, but He is causing the growth. He is giving the life. He is giving, giving, giving, that you might grow, grow, grow.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.