In this week’s Epistle, St Paul tells the new Christians at Corinth that, when he first preached to them, he had to treat them “as infants in Christ.” “I fed you with milk” he says, “not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”
It is easy to imagine some of them bridling at this remark, just as a modern congregation might take serious offense if a priest or preacher spoke to them in this way. ‘Who are you to assume such a superior tone?’ would be a natural reaction. Contemporary churchgoers tend to be very egalitarian. They think that everyone's experience of faith is equally 'valid', and individuals need no special qualifications to be Christians.
Yet, the passage from Matthew’s Gospel reads like exceptionally solid food – very hard to swallow, or even comprehend, on a first hearing. To understand these verses, we must first make allowance for the extreme Middle Eastern hyperbole that sometimes Jesus’ sometimes employs. He is not literally requiring his disciples to undergo bodily mutation. Still, the hyperbole is there for a purpose. Discounting it too quickly runs the risk of minimising the challenge with which we are presented. Jesus means what he says. But what exactly is he saying?
In addressing the Corinthians, Paul assumes that there is such a thing as spiritual and moral development. Christian discipleship is not a once and for all response. In the Gospel, Jesus is using powerful rhetoric to confront us with the highest ideal on which discipleship should set its sights. In the Old Testament lesson, Moses tells the Israelites “obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by . . . observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances”. We need not doubt that the commandments against murder, adultery, swearing falsely are all to be obeyed, while at the same time acknowledging that simply observing the rules is not enough for those whose minds are set on the things of the spirit. God is a spirit. Those who worship God must worship God in spirit, and the human spirit involves a perpetual struggle of thought and imagination, as well as obedience.
There is a very important lesson to be learned here. In our spiritual and moral lives, striving for excellence is no less important than it is in professional life, in sport or in music. Religious mistakes are possible and one of those mistakes is moral complacency. Kind-heartedness, good intentions and everyday decency are all part of what it means to be a Christian. It is tempting, however, to rest content with these, and make morality of this kind the heart of the Gospel. Jesus’ seemingly excessive demands run counter to this tendency. They point us to a far higher ideal. We cannot expect, and are not expected, to realize them literally, but we are challenged to strive for the sort of excellence that will bring our hearts and souls closer to the reality of God. As we approach Lent, this reminder takes on special relevance. No one can be argued into faith, but for those who believe, serious study and sustained reflection open up the possibility of greater spiritual wisdom.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Christ Church Morningisde
6a Morningside Road
Edinburgh EH10 4DD
Tel: 0131 229 0090 or
07718 278 145
OFFICE HOURS: MON-FRI 9AM-3PM
* service not yet resumed