Sermon audio here.
Lent is a season for reflection. We might ask, “What is the Christian faith all about?” and “How do we practice it?” These are good questions to ask as we journey with Christ to the cross, and ultimately, to the empty tomb and the restoration of all things. But we’re not there yet, so in the meantime we keep striving, lest through disobedience we fail to enter God’s promised rest.
There was no lack of striving on the part of the apostle Peter. But he kept going wrong because he was treating the Christian faith the way a bodybuilder treats lifting weights. He thought he could bulk up his faith by pumping spiritual iron, so to speak. A few prayers and a little quality time in Scripture, and Peter was ready to prove his devotion to Christ and show Satan who’s boss.
Now practice might make perfect with everything else. But when it comes to Christianity, perfection is found only in Christ. Every effort you make to strengthen your faith will have the opposite effect.
Peter didn’t realize this for a while. He thought his faith was strong. He forgot that if he took his eyes off Christ for even a second, he’d start to sink. Jesus told Peter that if he were to go up against Satan on his own strength, he would be sifted like wheat. That rash boldness for which Peter’s famous for stemmed from false confidence in his own spirituality. As the Proverb says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” (16:18).
Eventually Peter got this figured out, but it took a lot of falling on his face to get there. Graciously, the Holy Spirit moved Peter to share the secret to Christian spirituality in the hopes that we might learn from his mistakes.
And so the apostle writes:
“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good,” (1 Peter 2:2–3).
This is pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect. You’d think Peter would have said you need to put in long hours of praying, studying God’s Word, and doing the right things. Then you’ll be a really good and strong Christian.
Now these are important things to do, but they do nothing to make the flesh less sinful. The only way to get rid of the Old Adam is death. Peter figured out that the stronger he got, the less he needed Christ. St. Paul delighted in his frailty, because he knew that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. He said,
“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10)
So when Peter describes growing in the faith, he doesn’t tell us to strive to be spiritual bodybuilders, but to become like helpless little babies. If you want to see what the most mature Christian looks like, Peter says, look at an infant. After Christ, they are the best illustration of faith. They trust others to do everything for them.
The Christian faith isn’t about becoming strong, it’s about confessing your helpless and relying on Christ. This is why our Lord Himself took up an infant in His arms and told His disciples to take a good, hard look, because the only way they’d get into His kingdom was by becoming like one of these.
Growing in the Christian faith is the opposite of growing up. Babies start out helpless and dependent, and as they grow, they become more independent and start doing things for themselves. Growing in Christ is about relying less and less on yourself and coming to depend on Christ for everything, just like a newborn infant.
Like Peter, the Corinthians thought that they were pretty good Christians. They began to overestimate their abilities and thought they were better than they were. So Paul writes, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (4:7)
Everything you have and everything everybody else has is from God. All things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him we live and move and have our being. Should He withdraw His gracious hand for even a second, we would perish instantly.
We borrow it all from Christ. If this is true of physical things, that goes double for spiritual things. Holiness, access to the Father, and the working of the Holy Spirit are all gifts that are given to you by Jesus and passively received, beginning with Holy Baptism and continuing with preaching and the Sacrament. The secret to Christian spirituality isn’t doing anything at all: it’s receiving everything from Christ.
Jesus isn’t about making us strong, nor does He expect us to build our own Tower of Babel and climb our way up into heaven. He joins us in our life on earth so that we might join Him in His life in heaven.
But we want to contribute, and so people have tried to harness the power of God in three main ways: through rationalism, moralism, and mysticism. But neither the mind, our efforts, or our emotions can help us become better Christians.
So how do you grow in the faith? You don’t. Your faith is only as strong as your connection to Christ. He is your strength and your life. Jesus isn’t about pumping you up into a spiritual bodybuilder. He promises no chiseled, 6-pack spirituality. There’s nothing glamorous about following Jesus in the very ordinary life of faith. This faith is exercised in prayer, resisting temptation, loving those around you, and above all, by repenting when you fail.
And that last part, repentance, is what Ash Wednesday’s all about. Like Peter, it’s not a question of if, but when you’ll fail. But in Christ, you are not a failure. You are a beloved child of God, precious and holy in His sight.
Soli Deo Gloria