Recently I read that Leonard “Nipper” Read died last month. He was one of the team of detectives that caught the Great Train Robbers in 1963 and then went on to bring the Krays to book. He earned the nickname “Nipper” because of his height – or lack of it. He was only five feet seven inches. In fact the first county force he applied to join rejected him but he kept trying elsewhere until he managed to persuade the Metropolitan Police to admit him. He claimed he was “still growing” and promised that he would do regular stretching exercises! (Read was 21 by then and it is generally reckoned that males do not grow any taller after about age 18.)
When it comes to the Christian life, it’s no bad thing to claim that we are still growing. We are all a work in progress. According to St Paul, continual growth as a disciple of Christ is more capable of being a fact than the wishful thinking of a would-be police recruit. Using one of his favourite images for the Church, that of the living body, he likens the individuals within it, each having a different gift from God by which to serve him, to its several limbs and organs. Each of those bodily members itself continues to grow and so enables the whole to do so.
As to whether this growth is possible by performing spiritual stretching exercises, I don’t know, but the target St Paul sets us is certainly a challenging one, and not one we reach overnight. Words like humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love feature in his list – qualities that many of us struggle to display despite years of practice, at least with any consistency. He speaks of making “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”. Unless we tie ourselves together in the peace of Christ, we tear apart the work of God’s Spirit, who binds us into one, and stunt the growth of his Church.
What we are aiming at, says St Paul, is not the six feet required when Leonard Read applied to join the police, but “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”. A tall order (pardon the pun) but thank God we are not expected to do it on our own (as if we could); it comes from letting Christ set the agenda and offering ourselves to play the part God has called us to.