Sermon for Epiphany 4, preached Sunday, January 31, 2010.
When I became a man, I gave up childish ways – oh, did you think that was me talking?? If you knew me, you would laugh at the audacity of me saying “I'm all growed up.” My family would laugh, for sure. I wish I could say them with some shred of truth but St. Paul is the one who spoke these words in the midst of the familiar chapter on love. Me? I have not grown up. When I look in my heart and I see staring back at me a childish person – and that is not flattery. I am immature, immodest, self-centered, judgmental, and weak willed. Every day is a battle for control of my heart, reigning in those childish ways and attempting under the guidance of the Spirit to become the mature son of God our Lord desires of me... does that sound familiar to you, too??
St. Paul writes “when I became a man...” Now when was that? How old were you? But St. Paul is not speaking in the context of the maturity that manifests itself in worldly wisdom or the esteem of others. What Paul has in mind is becoming whole, complete, fully human... This is not the result of experience or lessons learned from the world. What St. Paul speaks about here is the maturing love of Christ who leads us from sin's childish ways to becoming a true child of God.
The goal is not earthly maturity but becoming this whole and complete person in Jesus Christ. It was His incarnation into my flesh and blood that made it possible for me to become the son of God He has declared me to be. It is His incarnation that reveals to me what my humanity was supposed to be. From my Incarnate Lord I have been given the call to be made anew, made complete, in baptism. In baptism the rebellious, self-willed, self-centered, self-serving child of sin died with Christ, into His death, so that the new person might arise. A mature son in Christ.
This is no call from the Apostle to learn the wisdom of the world or to control yourself to maturity. What Paul is speaking about is the wisdom of faith and the maturity, the fruit of the love planted in us by the Holy Spirit, which gave birth and direction to a new person, a new child of God – no longer carried about by every wind of change but anchored in the cross of Christ and secure in the arms of His love enfolded around us.
This love planted within us teaches us not to seek our own way, but the way of Christ, the way of His love. This is a voice alien to our sinful natures and this is the love that must be taught to our rebellious hearts. In this still, more excellent way, we give up the clanging gong that shouts out ME for the still quiet voice of love and service, to God and neighbor. In this maturity, prophetic utterance and knowledge over all the mysteries of this life give way to Christ and His love. In this adulthood, He grants us the power to give up our captivity to the childishness of sin to become the true child born of the Father’s love for us in Christ and the power to renounce our old sinful, childish ways.
In this call to grow up, we leave behind all boasts of pride, possessions and accomplishment in order to live within the contented peace of Christ, where sins are forgiven, lives reborn, and love is the greatest of all. In this life from God, patience and kindness do not get in our way but become the pathway to live out our faith. In this humility of heart and life, arrogance and rudeness flow from weakness and insecurity but not from the strength and safety of being the Lord’s own child by baptism and faith. This love does not resent or resist the hand of God in Christ but rejoices in how He leads us to restrain what has become the natural way of our sinful lives. What was natural to us has been revealed as unnatural and now He grants us a new nature to live the fully human lives only our Incarnate Lord can impart.
This love manifests its maturity in its delight in truth, in its willingness to bear all things for self and for others, to believe when there is no evidence but the cross to hold on to, to hope when the circumstances deny hope, and to endure when we are convinced we can go no further.
What of this love? Where do we learn it? How do we get it? St. Paul points us to Him who is this love embodied and incarnate, our Savior Jesus Christ. It is an amazing thing when you think about it. He who was alien to our sinful world comes among us in our flesh and blood to teach us for whom this world is our domain how to be fully human. What a paradox. The humanity we know is the unnatural humanity that took the place of what we were created to be and to know. Jesus comes in our own flesh and blood to restore the humanity we were meant to know and to be.
This mature and sturdy love does not end -- just as He who is the source of this love is Himself eternal and everlasting. Prophecies pass away, tongues go silent, and knowledge comes to its own limits... but this love continues. It is as if St. Paul is pointing us to all the lines we draw in the sand – the stuff we insist we will not do, we cannot endure, we refuse to accept, and we won’t tolerate... and then points us to the cross where He did what we would not... where He endured what we refused... where He accepted what we would not... where He bore for us what we refused to bear... in the face of such love in arms outstretched for us... He calls us to stop our childish, sinful ways and learn of Him, learn from Him, learn in Him to become fully human and mature.
Sin has left us partial and incomplete, the gaping hole of sin leaves us the walking wounded until the Perfect One comes to make us whole and complete us with His grace. So the child sin made us to be, the childish reasoning we learned from sin, and the childish words born from our sinful hearts... they give way to the mature men and women Christ makes us to be.
For now we see ourselves in Christ only dimly, in shadows. The through the mirror dimly imagery does not refer to all the questions we have that we hope He will answer in the life to come. I am not sure we will ever get those answers because when He comes again to draw us to Himself these very questions will become irrelevant. No, I believe it is how we see ourselves that is a dim reflection of what we were meant to see. We look at ourselves and sin screams back at us. What Christ has come to do is to give us a new image of ourselves, seeing ourselves through the eyes of our God. Here on earth we see this image of who we are only dimly and in the shadows so for us the path of life is always by faith and not by sight.
We look in vain within us for maturity’s progress in our daily lives, as if we might graph the growth of our lives in Christ the way our parents marked our growth in height on the wall of our homes growing up. What we can only see dimly, we must trust and see through faith alone. At least until that day when we see face to face, leaving behind the last of our tattered rags of mortality to become the immortal children of God our Father in the place Christ has prepared from time’s beginning.
I gave up childish ways?? I did?? We do when the Spirit leads us through the Word of God and not by the impulses of our sinful hearts... We give up childish ways when we walk in the ways of temptation and desire and learn from Christ not to give ourselves over to their enticements... We give up our childish ways when our Lord leads us to say “no” to self and “yes” to Him whose love never ends and to live lived out in His love...
Maturity does not come with age. It is not the fruit of longevity but the fruit of living in Christ, of being near to Him through His Word and Sacraments, of prayer and practice, hearing and heeding the voice of the Spirit every day. In confession we come. We are not merely children. We are childish, unruly, self-serving creatures of our sins and marked with death. In absolution grace comes to grow us and to grow us up, to mature us in Christ by granting us freedom from the unruly child within. To the table we come, not the dancing children whose childish desires have taught them to sit first, eat first, and then run away... but the humble whose maturity of faith teaches us to take the lower seat, to wait for others, and then refuses to leave but cherishes every wonderful moment there is in the presence of our Savior.
Growing up does not mean becoming an equal with God but living the contented life of His children, whose life comes from Him and is dependent upon Him. It means leaving behind the rebellious child of sin so full of self, and learning to live as the new creature born of baptism's life-giving waters. It means growing up in Christ and into Christ, into the love so richly revealed by the cross and so generously bestowed upon us in the Word of the Cross and the Sacraments of Life and worship. So, dear friends in Christ, once we were children, unruly and childish, selfish and self-serving... but now in Christ and by baptism we have been called the children of God. Come and learn the contentment of this new life and rejoice in the love that found us as we were but refused to leave us there. Come and delight in the humanity once lost to us and now learned from Him who became human for us and our salvation. Amen.