TEXT: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Ah. First Corinthians, chapter 13. It’s one of the greatest pieces of poetry ever written. Which explains why it’s so often recited at weddings. Here, the apostle Paul waxes eloquent about that crazy thing called love:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
The entire chapter is like that—filled with magnificent, beautiful words. No wonder it’s called “Paul’s hymn to love.” But you know, Paul includes some other words here—words which are perhaps not as romantic as the others; yet all the beauty of his poetry resides within them. That’s what I think, anyway.
It’s the eleventh verse of First Corinthians 13 I’m talking about: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Based on that verse, I want to say to you that love—at least, the kind of love Paul means here—is for grownups!
Now, you may be thinking: “Wait a minute! Didn’t Jesus say we’re supposed to be like children?” Yes, he did. He said, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
But then—and here’s why it’s worth having a good study Bible—the footnote in The New Oxford Annotated Bible says: “Change and become like children” means “to turn away from self-chosen goals and relate oneself to God as to a father. Childlike relations to a parent, not childish behaviour, are in view.”
You see? We are to believe like children—not behave like children. There is a huge difference. And there is a difference between being infatuated with the idea of Jesus and living the love he teaches in the Gospel. Living that love is a grownup matter. And it is not easy. We live in a society which says you’re only young once, but you can be immature for a lifetime! We hear it said, “The one who finishes with the most toys, wins the game.” Living for Jesus, though, is supposed to be different from that.
If you’ve ever spent any time around small children, you may have noticed that most of them love the word, “mine.”
That toy is mine. All this candy is mine. That’s my doll, not yours … my friend, not yours. Over and over again, they say, “Mine, mine, mine!”
For the grownup Christian, however, there is no such thing as “mine.”
There’s only what God has shared with me. Some of you may remember the old prayer of dedication: “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee …”
Truly, this is an unpopular idea in our world. Our society urges us to “look out for number one.” We say, “I got mine—you get yours.”
The grownup Christian, however, knows that every heartbeat is a gift; every breath is a gift. The portion of faith we enjoy is a gift. Every nickel we have is a gift. What do we have that is not God’s gift? That’s the question that always gets me. Thanks be to God, not even my sins are mine any more!
Because everything is God’s gift, we blaspheme when we cry out, “mine!” Or at the very least, we sound childish. Just think about the church in the Book of Acts. They shared what they had; and—by sharing—they distinguished themselves as a different kind of community (see Acts 4:32).
Consider once again Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child …”
In other words, “When I was a child, I understoodas a child.”
Now, as grownups, we know that understanding comes through listening (at least, some grownups know that). A grownup love listens. It listens to God, and it listens to the world. It hears what is said—and what is not said. It hears with the heart. It hears the Spirit’s groaning, which is too deep for words. Sometimes just listening is the best expression of love.
In my worn-out old King James Bible, I notice that all of Jesus’ words are in red ink. And compared to the words in black ink, Jesus says quite a bit less than everybody else! I used to think that was because Jesus was so deep!
You know what I mean? I thought he was so brilliant that he only needed to say a little in order to teach his listeners. But now, I think his few words in comparison to others might mean something else. It might mean that he was just really good at listening.
Real understanding comes from real listening. And real listening—grownup listening—is not about simply waiting for an opportunity to speak. No. Grownup listening takes courage. It takes guts. Why? Because we might hear criticism. We might find out that we’ve been wrong. Or insensitive. Or maybe just plain stupid!
If, in our listening, we apply defensiveness when we should apply courage… well, then, we will miss what the Spirit is trying to tell us.
We’ve got to listen for God, and to each other. That’s the only way we’ll grow as Christians.
It takes a real grownup to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” And it takes a real grownup to hear an apology, and accept it, and move on. It is childish not to use your voice and speak words of reconciliation to a brother or sister when something is on your heart. And it’s childish to brood and pout, waiting around for people to notice what you yourself are not grown up enough to say!
In another love letter to a church, Paul says that the signs of maturity are unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God (Ephesians 4:13). In other words, as we live and learn from Jesus, our childishness will be replaced with maturity, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s an important promise in Scripture. It’s important not just for ourselves, but also for our witness as a church. It’s important for Christ’s ministry in the world.
Think about that for a moment.
We all say we want our congregations to grow. We want to see new faces at worship on Sunday morning. We wish we had more young people. And we wonder why that isn’t happening, because we’re such a friendly bunch … and, you know … for the most part, we are! I think that—at most churches—when visitors arrive, that is usually their first impression.
It’s only when they get to know us better that they get a sense of the true quality of our love … and of our maturity. And maybe it’s worth asking ourselves what they see, and what they hear.
How do we handle disagreements? How do we resolve conflicts? Do we demonstrate patience? Kindness? Love? Are we envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude?
When new ideas, new gifts, new ways of doing things are offered to us, do we insist on our old, familiar ways? When we are challenged by the idealism and enthusiasm of a new believer, are we irritable or resentful?
When someone we dislike gets caught in a lie or a big mistake, do we rejoice in their wrongdoing? When the truth turns out to be different than we thought—when the truth demands a change in us—do we rejoice in that? Or are there strict limits to what we will bear, believe, hope for, and endure?
The point, of course, is that—as we grow “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13)—Christ’s ministry in the world is multiplied. And as others see that we are no longer like children, “tossed to and fro” (Eph. 4:14) by this world, they just might want to hear about how we’ve achieved this growth.
We hear it said that the church is in a season of upheaval, with the ultimate question being: “What do we believe, in the face of a changing world?” Maybe the apostle’s paradigm applies here, also. Maybe the whole problem has to do with … growing up!
May God hasten the day when we cast aside childish things.