There is an old, corny story – and please don’t stop me if you have heard this one – a story about the young man who was the first in his family to go to college. In fact, he was the first in his small town to go to college. And so when he came home after his freshman year, he was the apple of his father’s eye. His dad, who had never in his life read a book from cover to cover, was astonished at how many volumes were on his son’s bookshelf. The old man, who knew only what he had learned in the country one-room school, could not even imagine what laboratories and libraries looked like. And so, in August, just before the boy was to go back to the university and begin his sophomore year, the old man decided to show him off. One morning he insisted that they go up town to the corner store, where all of dad’s cronies hung out. “Let’s go meet my buddies. I want them to know what you’ve learned.” They gathered around the cracker barrel, all these rough and ready men, capable enough in their own ways, but without much education. “This here’s my son. He’s a college student.” They all looked, and smiled. The young man smiled back. His dad wasn’t satisfied. The boy had not demonstrated his knowledge. “Go ahead, son, say something.” “Say what, dad?” “Oh, I don’t know, that’s up to you. Just say something. Speak college to ‘em. Talk the way you do at college.” So, racking his brain for something that would sound sophisticated, the student offered up his piece of wisdom, “Pi r squared.” They all waited for more, but that was it, “Pi r squared.” They nodded, they nudged each other, they stroked their beards. So that was what it sounds like to speak college. Dad, however, turned a deep red and pushed his son out the door, angry as he could be. “What a waste of time and money to send you to that college. Everybody knows that pie are round.”
Now, brothers and sisters, may we analyze this little story? May we pick it apart a bit? What’s wrong here? Obviously, the dear old gentlemen, lacking any knowledge of geometry, had no idea what the youngster was talking about. They were ignorant, and there is no other label to put on it. Nor, I suppose, did they ever have any reason to calculate the area of a circle. But what of the young man? Did he do anything wrong? Yes, he did. Indeed he did. He chose to parade his little knowledge, without explaining it or bothering to understand his audience. He had a little scrap of knowledge, and chose to get arrogant with it. He could have helped them understand; instead he demonstrated that he was a sophomore, or literally, the word means, “a wise fool.”
And that is a parable of who and where we are, many of us. We know enough to be dangerous. But we do not know in depth, and with love. We are sophomores, when we could be on our way to be saints. We hold half-truths in our minds, when we could be in touch with Him who is truth Himself, and could share Him with those who need Him. We learn a little, but become stuck in a shallow spot, and worse: we bludgeon others with our little knowledge. We are spiritual sophomores, when we are called to become saints.
I’ll tell you a trade secret: ministerial students take their little scraps of information and inflict them on others. My grandmother Hattie Miles Smith was still alive when I first made a commitment to enter the ministry. I was a college student and was reading everything I could get my hands on about the Bible. So I attempted one day to dump that information on my grandmother. I told her about source criticism and redaction criticism. I enlightened her about evolution. I announced to her that she did not need to think of Adam and Eve as individuals who lived six thousand years ago and who were formed out of the dust of Eden, but that human beings evolved out of the ooze. We needed to read the Bible in a different way. After my sophomoric speech to this eighty-eight year old lady, who had more wisdom in her little finger that I will ever have in my whole existence, she looked at me with piercing eye and said, “I have known the Lord all my life, I have read this Bible all my life, and I believe everything it says. Go back to school and learn some more.”
Thank God I did go back to school and learn some more. I learned that the information I had gathered about the Bible was substantially correct. But, better, I learned that it is the Word behind this word that I truly need to know. For Christ calls us to be saints. Not sophomores, but saints, rooted and built up in Him.
Paul knew his audience of Colossian Christians, and knew that they loved to dabble in the marketplace of ideas. Nothing wrong with that, on its face. Intellectual curiosity is a good thing. But clearly Paul is a bit worried. He speaks to the Colossians about philosophies that will capture them and about deceits that are empty. Paul teaches them that to be rooted and built up in Christ is to know a truth that will stand up, whatever the cultural winds that blow.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition … and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him”
To be rooted and built up in Christ is to avoid the captivity of the culture because you know Christ. You know the one in whom you come to fullness, the one in whom you leave behind sophomorocity and come to sainthood.
When I was a young Christian, I had some litmus tests I measured people with. I was eager to determine, if I met you, where to categorize you. Were you saved or unsaved, and if you were saved, or said you were, were you really a Christian or were you defective? And so I applied my litmus tests. First, did you drink alcohol? If you did, you were out, no question. More on that later. Next, was your speech laced with four-letter words? If so, obviously a hypocrite. Saying “Damn” damned you, in my sophomoric mind. And, worst of all, most unforgivable of all, were you a Biblical literalist? Did you read and believe the Bible, cover to cover, including the maps and the covers? If you were a literalist, you were, in my mind, an ignorant, unenlightened, benighted fundamentalist, worthy of scorn! For some while I was on a crusade to teach the whole world about J, E, P, and D; and if you don’t know what those letters mean, ask me after worship and be prepared to stay for an hour or so, because I can still do the lecture! As a young Christian, I judged you mightily by whether you could pass my tests.
So I went to the occasional Billy Graham crusade or movie, largely to scoff and to be skeptical. I cringed every time Billy said, “The Bible says …”. I wanted to shout back at him, “Not so fast, Billy. Things are not that simple.”
But I needed to hear Paul. I needed to hear Paul warn me about being taken captive to a philosophy and being snatched up in a tradition. For what Paul says is that it is in Christ personally that the fullness of God’s truth has come, and that I come to fullness only in Him. In Him. In personal relationship with Him. In fellowship with Him. It is not just what I think I know about Christ that counts; it is whether I know Christ Himself. It is not the amount of information I can store up in my brain and spew out to others that matters; it is whether I have stored up in my heart an ongoing relationship with the living Christ. I can have all kinds of sophomoric information rattling around my head, but at the end of the day, I want to know Him. I want to be in fellowship with Him. I want to be confident in Him. And until I get to that place, Billy and his “Bible says …”, spoken in simplicity and sincerity, will bring more people to Christ that all my smooth sophistry.
To be rooted and built up in Christ is to avoid the captivity of the culture. It is to know a truth that will stand up, for that truth is personal. That truth is not simply intellectual. That truth is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as near as my heart and as steadfast as His love.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, … and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him”
But now notice also that Paul not only teaches us that it is sophomoric to go with whatever the culture brings, when we could go on to sainthood in fellowship with the One who is the fullness of God. Paul not only teaches us not to be captive to the culture, but also he urges us to find a way out of legalism. He calls on us to grow out of the judgmental spirit. And how do we do that? Again, by being rooted and built up in Christ.
“… do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”
Wow! We can only begin to imagine the issues they were dealing with in the Colossian church. Everything from what to eat to how to worship to self-discipline. And, says Paul, the whole business was “puffed up without cause”. It was sophomoric, this thing of pushing one another around. It was sophomoric because it focused on behavior and not on relationship. It focused on what people did and not what they were in Christ. To be rooted and built up in Christ, to be saintly and not sophomoric, is to love Christ and Christ’s people, and then let behavior flow from that.
Let me try to illustrate. I have already told you about my litmus tests when I was a young Christian. Do not use alcohol, or I would write you off. Do not utter profanity, or I would stop speaking to you. Do not batter me with what the Bible says, because I know it better than you do. Oh, and did I mention that you had better be a Sunday night service and Wednesday prayer meeting person, or else I would have questioned your commitment? Oh, I did have my laundry list of behaviors as a sophomoric but sinful soul. But I began to wake up one day. I began to see things differently.
I was Baptist Campus Minister at the University of Kentucky in the late 1960’s. We had a monthly meeting of all the campus ministers – Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, and so on, plus one other brand that we don’t see much here in Maryland: the campus minister of the Independent Christian Churches. Not Disciples, not Church of Christ, but approximately in that tradition. I saw Charlie Garrison as a brother and as a good minister. I liked and respected Charlie Garrison. Well, one day, we were to have our campus ministers meeting, and we decided to meet at a restaurant. Fine; except for two things: one, Charlie Garrison couldn’t come that day; and second, all the others, without exception, ordered alcohol. So here am I, alone with my iced tea, sweetened Kentucky style, and a half dozen other ministers, all imbibing freely. I wished for Charlie. He and I could have had such sweet tea fellowship.
The next day, Charlie stopped by, and said, “Tell me what happened yesterday.” I said, “Charlie, I was surprised and disappointed. Christian ministers, drinking alcohol. I was the only one who did not. I wish you had been there.” Charlie, the conservative Christian, whose spirit I cherished and whose heart was devoted to Christ, looked me in the eye and said, “If I had been there, you still would have been the only one.” That rocked me. That startled me. For a while, that disappointed me. But it also helped me. It helped me get over my sophomoric way of judging people by what they did. I could not discount Charlie Garrison’s commitment to Christ, but he used alcohol. And I learned then that to be rooted and built up in Christ is not to be caught in particular behaviors, nor is it to criticize others for their behaviors. I learned that to be on the way to sainthood is to live in Christ, love Christ, be centered in Him, care for Him more than for anything else, and then let the behavior flow from that. Let the way of life just emanate from the relationship.
Now don’t go off on a tangent here. I still do not use alcohol. I never have and I am sure I never will. If you do, I wish you didn’t. It’s not healthy and it has ruined lots of lives. But using it or not using it is not the measure of spiritual maturity. What matters is whether we love the Lord Jesus Christ, whether we live in Him. What matters is “holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”
Spiritual sophomores condemn people when they do not behave the way we want them to. But it is not our calling to police other people’s behavior, or to worry about their style of worship, or to look for them to use the right buzzwords, or anything else so superficial. It is our task to cultivate a relationship with the One who is able to make us into new creations and to love our brothers and our sisters. That way lies maturity. That way lies sainthood.
So, sophomore or saint, which will it be? Do I spend my time and my energies learning new things? Yes, great, wonderful; but it would be sophomoric indeed if I used those new things only to show off, only to bludgeon others and make them feel ignorant. Saints use their knowledge to share Christ, for their knowledge is not only about Him, it is knowledge of Him, in Him.
Sophomore or saint, which will it be? Do I vent my emotions calculating behaviors? Yes, great, wonderful; but it would be sophomoric indeed if I then measured others by superficialities and did not help them to know Christ, for behavior is not what makes a relationship. Behavior is what flows out of a relationship. Let us come to Christ first, and He will shape us according to His way.
Sophomore or saint, which will it be? I only know that to be rooted and built up in Christ is the foundation of life. To be rooted and built up in Christ is living as a forgiven believer. To be rooted and built up in Christ is living forgiven and forgiving. To be rooted and built up in Christ is forgiven, forgiving, and free. To be rooted and built up in Christ, for Christ, with Christ, belonging to Christ, Christ, Christ, Christ! For to us who seek to be saints and not mere sophomores to live is Christ and even if we should die, that will be more Christ.
Grandma Smith never got it about Biblical criticism. She never figured it out about evolution. She didn’t use alcohol, though she suffered much from a son-in-law who did, nonetheless loving him. A few weeks ago, I stood in the little Lutheran church in Cromwell, Indiana, where she worshipped. I could almost hear the walls whisper, “She gave you a Bible. She asked you to play her favorite hymn before she died. She told you she was praying for you. She knew you were a stupid sophomore, but she loved you. She was a saint. She knew Christ.” Go back to school and learn some more.
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.