Wise preachers and teachers in every age understand that growth in faith happens gradually, one step at a time. Today we turn to the apostle Paul, the most successful Christian preacher of all time.
Paul’s life and message can be summed up in one word: conversion. He experienced a profound conversion to Jesus, not only once on the road to Damascus, but each and every day of his life.
Paul boldly proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ; I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20-21). For Paul, every day was a dying and rising with Jesus: Christ living in him and he living in Christ. Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. He took on a new name and new identity, and his life would never be the same.
This new identity is not simply a “me-and-Jesus” existence. We become fellow members of the one Body of Christ. Notice what Jesus says to Saul on the road: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). He does not say “my followers” or “my friends” but me. To be a disciple of Jesus is to co-exist in Christ as one whole person.
We exist organically as members of the one risen and ascended Body of Christ. Little by little, we become fully alive as members of that Body. It is a gradual and lifelong process. Paul understood that point. His primary task was always his own conversion: “It is not that I have received it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may receive it, since I have indeed been received by Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12).
The Letter to the Ephesians speaks often of the “fullness” of Christ. There is a gradual and dynamic growth into that fullness, until at last God’s plan of salvation comes to perfect completion. The entire human race (those willing anyway) and the whole cosmos will be brought into perfect unity under the headship of Christ. He will become all in all.
In the meantime, conversion is all about growing reception and receptivity. We earnestly strive to receive more and more from on high. We receive and give help from and to each other. And most importantly, we are received, taken up into this heavenly Body of Christ that is always beyond us, beckoning us daily to come further up and further in.
At any given moment, each of us receives and is received into this fullness as much as we can. But our capacity for reception depends upon our depth of desire, our freedom, and our willingness to cut out the things that are blocking our receptivity.
That means that we need different kinds of care and different moments. Paul explains the gentle nurturing that is so often needed in the early stages of conversion. While we are still spiritual infants, we need milk rather than solid food (1 Cor 3:1-2). And hopefully we remember the same when it is our turn to nurture the faith of others, whether our own children or the adult members of our churches who are only just beginning to relate to Jesus as a real person. Paul explains to the Corinthians that he guided them, not “with a stick,” but “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21), for he is their father in Christ Jesus through his preaching of the Gospel to them.
But notice the next point. As Paul proceeds in a spirit of love and gentleness, he urges them to use a stick – figuratively anyway – by casting out from their midst the man who is living with his father’s wife. And he urges them not to associate with the sexually immoral, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers. He concludes pointedly, “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).
This whole “gradualness” thing is complex! On the one hand, our shared membership in Christ constantly impels us to receive one another as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7), and to be receptive to those who are weak (Romans 14:1, 15:1). Yet there are also moments when we have a duty to hold others accountable and impose consequences.
Remember the lessons learned from Gregory the Great regarding the evangelization of Kent: some attitudes and practices (idols, idolatrous prayers) must be cut off at once; others are to be tolerated patiently with a view to full maturity. Discernment is key.
Paul often draws a distinction. Some Christians are “mature” or “spiritual” while others are “immature” or “fleshly.” We need patient tolerance for those who are immature or still in the flesh – but we also need to keep nourishing and caring for them so that they do not get stuck there!
We can ask an obvious question: What distinguishes a “mature” from an “immature” Christian? For Paul, it is simple: the mature Christian has embraced Christ Crucified, and is willing to sacrifice himself with Jesus. Paul warns strenuously against those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “minds are set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).
Sadly, some of the approaches to gradualness by some Church leaders today have become the equivalent of avoiding the Cross. Yes, patience and gradualness are important, but so is finishing the journey, fighting the fight, running the race to the end! We are wise to begin with gentleness, sweetness, and patience. But in due time, full conversion is the goal. We must never forget that! With Paul, may we all truly take on this attitude of constant conversion and inspire others to embrace the same: “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).