There’s a big difference between spiritual milk and solid food. As spiritual newborns, we were instructed to desire pure spiritual milk that we might grow. But later on, we’re expected to desire solid food – spiritual meat, as it were. But I wonder, can we always tell the difference?
For about 30 years, I attended a church with an excellent preacher, almost an orator, who never failed to impress me with his solid sermons that were filled with clear, carefully-crafted language, relevant scriptures, and humorous yet relevant anecdotes and examples. His messages were often quite deep, digging into the rich meanings of Bible passages and extracting wisdom that was previously hidden to me. They were complex, often pulling in many relevant passages to weave a careful tapestry that often seemed unshakable, but required a lot of careful thought to fully internalize.
It was so deep, in fact, that it was fairly common for people to move on to other local churches after a half a year or so at our church. Such folks typically ended up at another church with a very bucolic, down-to-earth speaker and a much simpler message. When I asked them why they’d left, they said some version of the following: “Pastor is a great speaker, and his messages were really deep, but honestly, it was just too rich for me, too complicated to figure out what he’s saying. We need some more basic teaching in the fundamentals. Nothing against Pastor, but it’s just too much for us.”
Of course, as a long-time member at our church, I actually felt pretty good about this! Sure, we’d just lost someone to that simpler church with the simpler sermons, but it meant that I had a pastor teaching us REAL SOLID FOOD from the Word, just like Paul talked about in Hebrews 5:14,
“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (NASB)
When I thought about those who were leaving, surely they were those to whom Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, saying
“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?” (NASB)
In short, I really felt like I was blessed to be among those mature Christians who could handle solid food – the steak dinner of the Christian church, if you will. And I quietly pitied those who couldn’t handle it, but I figured I understood – they needed a bit more time in spiritual grade school or high school to mature before they could “handle it” in our graduate-level church.
Maybe – I hope – you’re picking up something here already, but before I get down to the real point, let me tell you a story from this weekend.
I had lunch on Saturday with very spirutally-mature friend who I trust deeply, and who’s been a spiritual mentor to me for many years as we attended this church together. He’s patiently walked with me through a lot of change in my spiritual life, and been extremely gracious as I came around to recognizing that he’d been right all along about a lot of things about which for years I foolishly told him he had to be wrong.
Lately he’s been wrestling with whether to stay at this church that I left a few months ago. On Saturday he observed to me that in the last few years, he hadn’t heard a single impactful sermon; it was all meaningless content.
Even though I left that church because of differences in the church’s handling of COVID and racism, feeling as if it had lost its salt, maybe lost its way with the Spirit, I never felt as if the sermons I’d heard for literally decades were anything but solid meat. So my immediate thought, when he said that, was “eh, I’ve heard LOTS of deep sermons at our church” and I discounted what he said in my mind, although I was probably nodding my head politely.
But then Sunday came along.
As I said, I no longer attend the church, and I’ve been serving at a local homeless shelter on Sunday mornings. I’d already attended that service, and was out shoppping, when I saw a Facebook notice of the livestreamed Sunday service of my former church. The messages at the homeless shelter are somewhat simple by comparison to that high level of preaching I was used to, and I thought, it would be nice to hear a solid sermon, even if I’m not sure I’ll agree with the doctrine. So on a whim, I tuned in and listened to the pastor’s message.
It was a great sermon…. it really was.
But fifteen minutes into it, finding myself thinking “this is actually pretty good preaching; I might actually get something out of it”… I suddenly realized I abruptly understood my friend’s comment. Listening with his perspective in the back of my mind, despite the presentation quality, I realized I didn’t hear anything other than “here’s how to improve your own walk with God.”
So in saying “it was a great sermon” I have to admit that I mean it only in the sense of “it was well presented, very erudite, with plenty of solid scripture references.”
Because it was really pure milk.
It was milk, but it was presented as steak, with all the trappings of a fancy restaurant dinner. It sounded so professional and smooth, and was so complex and thought-rich, that I never noticed the underlying message was just milk.
And now that I think about it, that’s been largely true for years. I was too entranced by the presentation quality to notice the fundamental lack of Kingdom content. By that, I’m referring to what Jesus so often taught about the nature of His Father’s Kingdom. In our church were no calls to action outside the church’s doors. No call to reach the community. Nothing missional at all. Thinking about it, it’s been almost all self-improvement disguised as spiritual maturity… even the frequent “how to be a spiritual son” content was more about self-improvement than about reaching our world. With few exceptions, there been very little really dealing with anyone outside the building… such as Jesus’ central message of healing the injustice and oppression in the world outside the synagogues.
For decades, my former church has proudly proclaimed that its mission was being a field hospital: wounded people cross our doors, and we work with the Lord to see them healed, matured, and sent out to their next mission field. (We live in a military town with high turnover, so our church also sees a lot of folks for just three years before they move on to their next tour of duty.) I mean, that’s great, right? Fellow Christians raised up to be the servants they should be, prepared for great works wherever God sends them next.
What it ISN’T is missional. We talk about their mission field wherever they go next, but what about OUR mission field? What about our community? That was conspicuously absent from our own sense of mission.
In a nutshell, our teaching was never about reaching the lost and oppressed all around us.
So this observation about meat and milk really shocked me. It means that fundamentally I’d been arrogantly listening to these sermons week upon week, proud that I attended a church that preached deep and rich sermons, looking down on those folks who’ve left because they found the content too complex, mentally belittling churches with simpler modes of preaching and teaching – the very churches who are out there doing Jesus’ work all week long.
This realization was a real – and very well-deserved – slap in the face of my pride.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus is speaking to a crowd.
Now He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and began praying this in regard to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, but was beating his chest, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other one; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (NASB)
I think there are two messages here.
One is pretty obvious, perhaps: maybe what you think is solid food, that spiritual steak, is actually just milk. Maybe what looks to you like milk is far more meaty than you think.
The other is maybe less obvious, but pretty important: The Bible is simply loaded, both the Old and New Testaments, with missional language. Nearly a thousand verses reference oppression and justice and God’s extreme care for those victims – and His condemnation of those who fail to serve them, especially the leaders who don’t use their authority and power to make a tangible difference in their lives. Yes, there are plenty of verses about spiritual maturity, but they’re completely overshadowed by verses like Jesus’ story in Matthew 25:31-46 about the sheep and goats, where He ties His acceptance of the righteous to their concern for the hungry and thirsty and stranger and prisoner – not to the quality of their spiritual maturity or their ability to understand professorial sermons.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (NASB)
Maybe, just maybe, we need to recognize that we may not in fact be as mature as we think just because we can comprehend a fancy sermon. Rather, let’s revisit 1 Peter 2:2-3 and ask if maybe we are in fact, at some level, “newborn babies” who should “long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” – perhaps that salvation, in fact, of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 25, that comes from pouring our lives into the needy around us.
I’d invite you to join me in asking God to reveal those matters of our hearts, those attitudes that keep us from recognizing how we’re missing the mark – how we’re sinning – and be willing to repent of those attitudes as He exposes ourselves to us.
Be blessed – we’ll talk again soon.