“Little Children” — A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13
Preacher: Erik Herrmann
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 (Epiphany 4C)
In Nomine Iesu
So we are going through the children’s toys and thinning them out. It’s usually an annual event which my wife and I attempt to carry out in secrecy, but inevitably the children see what we are up to and intervene, objecting to our choices that are designated to go to the resell it shop or–if broken (or disgusting)–to the trash bin. “But I love that toy!” cries out one … “you haven’t played with it for years,” replies reasonable parent … “well I would have if I hadn’t forgotten about it.” And on it goes.
So many toys, so many things–almost all of them gifts. Christmas and birthday gifts mostly–some from us–many, many from the grandparents (the loudest and most annoying from uncles). We engage in the annual purging of the playthings for two main reasons: first, just to manage mess and keep from drowning. But the second and more important is our efforts to teach our children–perhaps vainly–a certain detachment from these gifted gadgets. Many of them will wear out, break, or get lost, and even if they remain, the children will outgrow them in the end. The brightly colored Baby Einstein bendy ball with a rattle inside that so captivated them as infants just collects dust now. So will it go with all the stuffed bears, transformers, trains, and plastic dinosaurs.
In the meantime, our mantra to the kids has been “toys are tools”–“toys are tools for playing with people.” “Give me that” — “no, it’s mine”–“he’s not sharing”–“she’s not playing fair”–when these echo throughout our house then we require the recitation of the mantra memorized by all and mumbled in unison: “toys are tools,” and we explain it again. It’s not the toys themselves that are important, it’s people that are important. Toys are just tools to help you play with your brothers and sisters and friends. When the toys become more important than people, when they get in the way of having fun with others or enjoying your play companion, then the toy turns tyrant, the plaything an oppressor, then the gift–against its intention and purpose–brings division instead of unity, discord instead of friendship, selfishness instead of sharing, conflict instead of community.
You all know what I’m talking about don’t you? Not just kids but Corinth; not just children but the church. Paul is amazed and overwhelmed with thanksgiving that God has granted the church in Corinth such a fullness of spiritual gifts–not lacking in anything. Gifts of knowledge and eloquence, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, various kinds of tongues, interpretation of tongues, and on and on the list went. Paul exclaimed: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!” In contrast to Paul and the other apostles who remained destitute, persecuted, suffering, the church in Corinth is like the child of a millionaire father who dotes on her, giving her everything she could ever need or want.
But in this blessedness, in this inundation of gifts, the people of Corinth boast and brag, they quibble and quarrel, they puff themselves up and put others down, they withhold and hold over. Earlier Paul remembered how at the beginning “I could not address you as spiritual people, but … as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready!” Like children they claim the gifts for their own–“Mine!”–not sharing with the whole body for building up one another. Happy with their own pile of cool spiritual gizmos and gadgets, they assert to others who have less–“I have no need of you.” Corinth seemed to embody the bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
(I know that all of this sounds so odd and strange–that you all are having difficulty seeing any similarities between the church in Corinth and the church today–hardly ever to we hoard the treasures that God has given us at the expense of others in the body of Christ. When it comes to church today, I know that we all play nice. But do try to at least pretend with me that there may be some relevance here.)
So what does Paul say to all of this? Enough! You have shown me all these gifts but even more so all these divisions. Let me show you a still more excellent way. There is one gift that can’t be abused as the others. There is one gift that you cannot hoard, cannot possess, cannot use to divide and tear down. It will not break, it doesn’t grow tired or old. It does not wear out but continually supports, continually trusts, continually hopes, persists without limit, without exhaustion. It’s love. And love never ends. And this love is not just some sappy, sentimental subjective thing wasted in too many wedding sermons and slow dance songs. It is an eternal gift that has entered into our lives from the eternal God, from the last days, through the eschatological in-breaking of God’s beloved Son. And in his life and death he embodied this love– bearing burdens without limit, faithful without wavering, hoping without despairing, suffering all things–the via crucis is the via caritatis–the way of the cross is the way of love. And it is a love that conquers even death itself.
Yet this eternal, inexhaustible gift is already here among us. Baptized into Christ, love is embodied in his body, the church. And though we have been given many other gifts, it is love that binds them all together for the building up of the body. Love makes “toys tools,” and gifts of the Spirit instruments for service. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” The fullness of our growth in Christ is not yet here. In many ways, as we await our Lord’s return, we are still children. But even a child can love. As another apostle put it so well, “Little children, love one another.”
Editor’s Note: In the daily worship in the chapel on campus, we often have opportunity to look ahead to texts that are part of the lectionary in the weeks to come. This sermon might aid in your preparation for worship and preaching on Epiphany 4 (Feb 3, 2013). There is also a homiletical helps for this text in the most recent Concordia Journal.