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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Mike Fargo

Copyright © 2015 by Mike Fargo

(Psalm 34:1-8, Lamentations 3:19-33, I Cor. 13:1-8, John 15:9-17)
August 9, 2015

            Today is the conclusion of a two-part sermon I began last week on “Growing into Community.”  But it’s also the final Sunday of Pastor’s Steve sabbatical, so I’ve intentionally tried to make today’s sermon a kind of wrap-up to the whole seven weeks he’s been gone.  During the first five weeks we learned that we need to be a praying church, a proclaiming church, a hopeful and obedient church.  Then last week we saw that all of this can only happen as we learn to live together as a community. 

            I chose the topic of community because not only is it a difficult thing for Americans in general to achieve, but as Christians we are called to become a very specific kind of community. We have been given the high calling of becoming God’s community, the “Body of Christ,” the Church.  We are called to be this alternative community in an otherwise contentious, violent, and fragmented world.  In fact, Jesus taught that the manner and quality of our life together will be the primary evidence to the world that our calling from God is authentic.  When a Christian community is healthy, it is one of the brightest lights in the world; but when it becomes sick, there is nothing more odious

            Now I know this can seem like an overwhelming, impossible goal.  But fortunately God has not only called us, but he has equipped or “gifted” all of us by his Holy Spirit, which is why last week I began this topic with the 12th chapter of First Corinthians, where Paul talks about spiritual gifts.  The Corinthian church was the poster child of the sick church.  Divided, immoral, confused, and yet at the same time highly gifted and blessed.  Their problem was not that they lacked the ingredients to be a healthy church.  Rather, they did not understand how all the different gifts within their community fit together.

            For example, some people within the church were overly impressed by the gifts of knowledge, prophecy, and various “charismatic” manifestations.  These are the high-visibility, high-impact gifts that gave specific individuals within the community instant status.  Over time the possession of these gifts became an end in themselves.  This was “true spirituality,” to be someone who had knowledge or could prophecy or speak in tongues.  Unfortunately, this also created competition, envy, spiritual elitism and egotism of the worst kind.  Tragically, the gifts of God had become a curse instead of a blessing.

            But as we listened to Paul in the 12th chapter, the correction is not to dismiss the need for spiritual gifts altogether, but to affirm that all of us have gifts, and that all of our gifts are absolutely indispensable.  It takes literally all of us to become a healthy community of faith.  None of us can kick back and think, “Since I don’t have a high-impact gift, I can slide.  After all, I’m not essential here.”  This is a lie of massive proportions

            Consequently I tried to show last week that 99% of the truly important ministry that goes on in a healthy church every day does not involve professional clergy or highly visible gifts.  What makes a community healthy are the gifts of compassion, wise counsel, generosity, service, loyal friendship, the courage to hold someone accountable for bad choices, the faith to forgive a hurt, and so on.  The gifts of God are as varied and individual as there are Christians in the world, and the greatest gifts he gives are the mundane, pedestrian, hidden gifts that offer a cup of cold water to a thirsty soul when no one else is around to notice.  This is what binds a community of faith together.

            Which is why it’s not surprising that people who are most effective in the use of their spiritual gifts are usually those who are the least conscious of their doing so.  The gifts are not what’s important to them.  They care nothing about status or visibility or where they fit on the ecclesiastical pecking order.  They are driven by something else, by an impulse from God that truly defines what it means to be spiritual, and that “something” is what concerns me today.  As Paul put it at the end of last week’s text in First Corinthians 12, “And now I will show you the most excellent way.”

            And in giving us his famous 13th chapter, Paul is merely restating a core teaching of Jesus, that what defines us as the people of God is whether our community is truly shaped by the uniquely Christian concept of love.  This has been (and always will be) the single most important characteristic of God’s people.  To the extent our actions are motivated and directed by love, we are truly a community of Christ.  That’s easy to say, but not easy to grasp in practical terms, and so Paul opens chapter 13 as he does:

(13:1) If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 

            Not only profound gifts such as knowledge or faith, but even the willingness to apply them in dramatic and self-sacrificing ways (such as moving mountains, giving up all my material possessions, and yes, even becoming a martyr), all these seemingly noble things mean nothing, are nothing, if they are barren of Christian love.  Without love we can do all the right things but make no lasting impact.  

            I suspect you have all been on the receiving end of this.  We have all been in the presence of someone who has remarkable gifts of knowledge and insight but who may also exude an arrogance or indifference or lack of compassion for others.  It becomes apparent that all their learning is an end in itself, and not a means by which to love people.  The same can be said for people who are incredibly generous with their time or money, but who are motivated mostly by a sense of duty or compulsion or to look good.  Tragically their efforts end up doing more harm than good.

            And if we’re honest, we would all have to admit this describes everyone of us.  We have all, on occasion, thought we were doing the right thing but instead were only creating problemsSomething was missing, something we talk a lot about but often don’t really understand.  What is missing is love.  But like so many important words, “love” is difficult to define.  In fact, I find it interesting that if you search the scriptures for an abstract definition of love, you will come away disappointed.  Instead, we discover that Jesus, Peter, John, Paul, and others prefer to describe what love looks like.  And so Paul adds next, in verse 4:

(13:4) Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

            Now at this point it would be customary for me to take each of these characteristics and expound upon them, thereby leaving you with a sense of how to be loving.  And then you would all be expected to go out and imitate these behaviors.  But that would completely miss what Paul is doing here.  He has already said in the opening verses that love is not primarily a set of external behaviors, but rather love is something that precedes and shapes our actions.  Paul is giving us these adjectives because in the aggregate they help us identify what that internal orientation actually is.

            And so when we hear Paul say that love is patient, kind, humble, not self-seeking, etc, before we attempt to go out and emulate this, we need to first ask ourselves, “What kind of mental and spiritual orientation—what kind of heart—would it take to generate behavior like this?”  Frankly, this is the only way to understand all the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus.  It was always upon the heart that Jesus focused.  If we pay attention to what is happening on the inside of ourselves, Jesus taught, then our external behaviors will largely take care of themselves.  That is why both Jesus and Paul said on various occasions that to love as God loves is to fulfill the whole law.

            For example, when Paul says “love is patient,” we need to ask, “What kind heart does a deep, genuine patience spring from?”  Obviously, at a minimum, it springs from a heart that is painfully aware of how much it still needs to grow itself.  It’s a heart that knows only too well its own deep struggles and how others have had to be patient with itself.  It understands that God’s work takes time, sometimes lots and lots of time. 

            This same process applies when we think about Paul’s words, “love is kind.”  Real kindness, as opposed to that patronizing pat on the head that imitates kindness, emerges from a heart that has been broken itself and is sensitized to how difficult life can be and how fragile we all are.  It knows personally how even small hurts—a callous word, a small neglect, a simple omission—can produce great pain.  True kindness grows from such an awareness and becomes increasingly sensitive to everyone around itself.

            And when Paul writes, “love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud,” what kind of heart is he describing here?  This is a heart that has been humbled by its encounter with God, that has learned that every bit of good we encounter in life is a gift from God.  As Paul puts it in this same epistle, “What do we have that we have not received?” 

            Or as he preached in Athens, [God] himself gives all people life and breath and everything else.”  Every heartbeat, our very capacity to think and create, everything comes from God, and we can take credit for none of it.  And this crucial discovery can create a heart that finally lets go of its grasping, competitive grip on life.  Over time it becomes freed from our chronic discontent, jealously, and greed.  It becomes a heart that doesn’t care if it’s first or last or in between.  It knows it lives within the sovereign, gracious care of a wise and holy and powerful God.  It is a heart at peace, and therefore it can look at others not as competitors but as broken, needy people like itself.

            And when Paul says, “Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs,” he is getting closer to heart of what defines love.  Rude, selfish, angry, and unforgiving people are the virtual antithesis of love.  They are the people who have no tolerance for the failings of others, but who expect others to put up with their behavior no matter what.  Such a person has a deep and pathologically self-absorbed heart.  And the only cure for such a heart is to be confronted by the Living God, by his holiness, sovereignty, and goodness.  We awaken to how destructive the ego-centered life really is.  Only when egoism is replace by a God-centered life can we begin to taste what real love is all about.

            Finally, Paul reminds us that “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”  The biggest difficulty, I believe, in getting a handle on the Christian notion of love is that our culture has its own powerful but twisted notion of love.  Books, TV, movies, radio, magazines, billboards, everything around us bombards us daily with images and sound bites that love is essentially making people feel good, which means love is alternately erotic, impulsive, sentimental, romantic, or blindly “nice.”  Our culture’s definition of love has no transcendent values associated with it.  Instead, love is primarily a subjective, personal, completely fluid impulse that any individual can use to justify their behavior by calling it the “loving thing to do.”

            But Christian love, God’s love, begins and ends in truth.  As the prophets remind us, God loves us so much he is willing to hold us accountable for our sin.  People are often quick to quote from the apostle John’s first epistle that “God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.”  They use that verse to imply that as long as we are nice, humanitarian people, we are okay with God.  However that verse comes toward the end of John’s epistle.  But there is another “God is” statement the whole letter opens with.  Let me read it to you:

This is the message that we have heard from him [that is, Christ] and proclaim to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

            In other words, God’s love it realistic and candid about true and false, right and wrong.  In fact it was to save us from all the death that sin brings that compelled God to suffer in our place through his son.  All of which means that the loving thing to do is not always the pleasant thing, or the simple things, or the thing that will bring us instant pleasure or the applause of others.  But love always takes the long view, the view that in the end truth produces life, and non-truth produces death.  Therefore loves always chooses to do the right thing as opposed to the expedient thing.

            In short, love creates a heart that cares about holiness, ethics, virtue, and morality not because love is priggish or judgmental, but because it knows God.  It’s a heart that understands that Christ died to rescue us from sin, death, and disobedience.  It knows that ethics and morality are virtual synonyms of love—they describe where God’s love is taking us.  There is a great lie in the world today that says love is never holding someone accountable for their sin, but to be always accepting of people’s choices.  But Christian loves says, No! A thousand times no!  To love is to speak the truth with humility and compassion, but to speak it nonetheless.

            Now if you take everything Paul has aid thus far, I think a fairly clear picture of love emerges.  First, love is an orientation in the deepest core of who we are, an orientation that begins with God’s love for us.  As John puts it in his first epistle, “This is love: not that we love God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  We cannot begin to know love until we really grasp what God has already done on our behalf and be changed by that knowledge.

            Second, love is not an occasional grand gesture or sacrifice.  It’s not a benign tolerance or positive feelings toward someone or all humankind.  Love is practical.  It lives in the here and now.  It’s a life continuously lived for others, a life that seeks to love others as God loves others.  In short, it’s a love that is sacrificial, holy, and never-ending.  Which is a good place for me to honest with you.  I personally do not find this kind of love easy.  It involves a very real kind of dying—dying to my agendas, my ambitions, my rights, and submitting them in faith to the God who wants to use us in ways that don’t always fit the plans we’ve made.

            But if we trust him, slowly, over time, there begins to emerge a love that actually becomes a reflection of God’s love, which Paul describes next:

(13:7) [Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

            Wherever there is love, life is being nurtured.  People who live out God’s love are people you want to be around.  No matter how messed up I may be at any particular moment, no matter how many times I stumble in the same area, no matter how little response or hope I may give them, people of love are always there for me—protecting, trusting, hoping, persevering.  Make no mistake: they will hold me accountable.  But they are also people who take the long view, who know deeply God’s patience in their own lives, and who extend that to me.  They are convinced God is in the business of making broken people into something new.

            This is why Paul calls love “the most excellent way” to live in community.  Our individual differences and gifts are meant to be channels through which the love of God can flow.  In the end, our gifts cease to have any permanent existence, as Paul writes next:

(13:8) But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 

            It seems odd, doesn’t it, that we spend all our lives cultivating an image, a persona, a reputation, an educated mind or an aesthetic taste.  We train and tan, primp and pose, and in the end it all gets flushed.  The only thing lasting from this mortal life will be the character of our hearts—the quality of our love.  And so Paul closes this wonderful chapter with these famous words:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

May this be what Valley Covenant is all about.  Amen

Last updated August 30, 2015