Love: Christian Maturity
3/14/2018 3:57:52 PM
March 11, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Imagine that you’re going to die. Imagine that you are in the hospital, machines connected to you, beeping and hissing. You know your days are short. What is going to matter to you on that day? What would success at life look like when you’re lying in the hospital, waiting to die?
What is success? What does it mean to win? If you were to draw a line from today to that day in the hospital, what path would that line take? What would you start doing today to ensure that on that day you are successful, that you “win” this life?
I have two things to tell you that you may not like. First- you’re going to die. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But you’re going to die.
Second, after you die, you will face Jesus, on the throne of judgment and he is going to decide if your life was a success or not. Determining if your life is successful, if you “win” at life, is not actually up to you. It’s up to Jesus.
So what are you going to start doing today to ensure that on that day, the day you come face to face with Jesus, that he says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!” rather than “Depart from me, I never knew you!”
I realize this might come across as a little heavy to open with on a Sunday, but ultimately this is the truth we need to come to grips with. Let me put this is context for us. For those who are working, what does success look like for you at work? Maybe a successful career means being able to retire? Many people work extra hard to retire. We all have part of our pay set aside for CPP. Others put aside extra money in an RRSP, mutual funds or savings bonds for the sake of having money to retire.
Or maybe success looks different? Maybe you’re a student and success these days looks like graduating. Maybe you want your degree, so you work hard, every day, to get your degree. That’s success. But the point is, each day you shape your activities, thoughts and resources towards getting that degree.
Or maybe your goals are about your family? Maybe your goals surround raising your kids. What does success look like then? You want your kids to be self-sufficient, to have good manners, to do well at school and eventually at work. That’s success, and to that end, each day, you interact with your kids, teach them manners, help them be self-sufficient, etc.
So we can think about success in the big picture. It’s important we do that. Maybe we don’t have to think about that every day, that might be obsessive. But we should think about success and life goals at some point, and probably more often than most of us do. But our long term goals, conscious or unconscious, shape our daily activities. They shape what we do day by day.
We can also think about success in the small picture. Maybe thinking about retirement, graduation, or our kids leaving the house is too distant for us this morning. That’s ok too. We need to think about little, daily successes too. What brightens your day? What feels like a “win” on a daily basis?
For many people, they get a thrill when somebody likes their post of Facebook. Others grab their phone when Twitter sends them a notice that somebody retweeted them or liked their post! Others would be thrilled to have a video on YouTube hit 1,000 views!
For some people, new parents, a success is getting 4 hours of sleep! Or getting through a feeding without their baby spitting up. I remember those days! Maybe a successful trip to the toilet is reason for celebration in your family.
At work, maybe a good day means you make an extra sale. Or you get a new client, or a big contract. Imagine yourself at work, what is a good day? What is a win at work?
As a student, maybe a win means passing that exam, getting an A on a paper, or finding that key research result.
Imagine what a “win” means on a daily basis for you. Whatever stage of life you’re in right now, what
would make tomorrow a successful day? What sorts of things make an individual day a “win”? In what ways do you shape your activities around achieving those wins?
As Christians, we need to think about what a win looks like for a Christian. We began by thinking about a successful life. We began with the sobering thought that Jesus will one day decide of our life was a win, a success or not. What does a lifetime of success look like for a follower of Jesus?
Similarly, what does a daily success look like for a Christian? What should our individual daily, weekly or monthly goals be as a believer?
Paul planted a very successful church in Corinth. Corinth was a city filled with successful people. A century before, Corinth bad been wealthy, but because they rebelled against Rome, the city was destroyed. Then, because it was such an important location for trade, the city was rebuilt. People flocked to Corinth from all over the Roman Empire to make their fortunes. And they did!
The church in Corinth, then, was filled with very successful people. They were wealthy, powerful and cosmopolitan. The church in Corinth was also successful. It grew dramatically. They had powerful gifts of the Spirit, including speaking in tongues and the gift of prophecy. They had powerful, charismatic leaders, who were developing new theological views. The church was on the rise!
But this lead to conflict among the Christians in Corinth as well as between Paul and the Corinthian church. It also allowed for some very questionable behaviour in the church that Paul was forced to address in no uncertain terms. Paul wrote two letters to this successful, but troubled church. In the passage we are reading today, Paul is having to set the Corinthian Christians straight on what success means, on what is truly important, on what ultimately matters. He had to set them straight as to what is success for a church and what is success for an individual Christian.
Read with me 1 Cor 13:1-3
What It Says
This is a familiar passage to many people. Often it is read at weddings. While it is true that marriage needs this kind of love to be rich and successful in Godly terms, marriage is not the original context for these words, nor is it talking about romantic love!
This is the love and character of God Paul is talking about. This is agape love, that divine, self-giving love primarily concerned with the wellbeing of others, in particular, their spiritual wellbeing. When John says, “God is love,” this is the word he uses. A few weeks ago, when we spoke about being rooted and established in love, this is what we were talking about.
So what does Paul have to say about love? What does Paul have to say about success as a Christian and as a church? Paul is actually contrasting two different views of what it means to be “spiritual;” what it means to be a successful Christian. [Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 630] In the first three verses, Paul addresses many commonly held marks of success for Christians and churches. He speaks of the gift of tongues, which at least one faction in Corinth was very proud of. He speaks of the gift of prophecy, which Paul says elsewhere is more important than the gift of tongues. He speaks of having the gift of knowledge, the gift of faith (miraculous faith even!) and goes on to speak of supreme acts of service and self-sacrifice. In verse 3, Paul speaks of literally converting all one possesses into food and giving one’s body in martyrdom (or, possibly, selling oneself into slavery to buy the freedom of another person![Fee, p. 634]). All of these are tremendous markers of Christian success!
Think today of churches marked with spectacular charismatic gifts. Not that long ago, the airport church in Toronto was featured in the news because of their spectacular gifts! It made them famous and they grew dramatically. Or think of some of the famous preachers in the States these days. They have best-selling books, famous radio shows or podcasts, small group curriculums and the like. They all have large congregations. Some even have whole networks of churches modelled after their own! These are churches many people wish their church could be like. Many people compare their own church and pastor to these churches and pastors, and find their own church or pastor lacking.
Or think of pastors on TV who claim to be able to fathom all mysteries, including the return of Jesus. They
have large ministries, they’re famous, thousands of people tune in to listen to them. Or, if that’s not your cup of tea, think of leading Christian thinkers who are writing books, speaking at conferences and attracting the best and brightest students to their graduate programs. These are people with gifts of knowledge who are held up as successful in their circles.
Conversely, think of churches where people are giving generously. Could you imagine if year after year our church had a budget surplus? Wouldn’t that be awesome? We would be held up as a successful church! Imagine if people in our church were so generous that we could develop a comprehensive program to address poverty in our city, and with our ministry partners in Kenya, and have so much left over we could redo our roof, add an extension to our building, expand the sanctuary and hire two more full time pastors! We would be a successful church! Wouldn’t we?
Paul says no. No, these are not the marks of success in the Kingdom of God. These are not the marks of success Jesus will look for on the Day of Judgment. These are not the criteria by which Jesus will say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
They’re not?!? Yikes! Then what is the mark of success?!? Paul says the mark of success is love. He says that if you have amazing spiritual gifts, but have not agape love, you are just making noise like in a pagan temple.
Paul says that if you can preach to the masses, inspiring them each and every week to live for Jesus, have a dozen people come forward at your altar call every Sunday, have a shelf full of best-selling books, effectively see what God will be doing in the years to come, and plant an entire network of churches across the country, but have not the actual character of God living inside you, reshaping all that you do, desire, feel and think, then you are nothing. If you can understand the deepest doctrines, if you can explain those doctrines easily for all to understand, and mentor a generation of scholars, have the ear of government and shape public policy, but have not agape love, you’re zip, zilch, nada.
Maybe you’re not looking to be famous. Maybe you just serve like crazy. Maybe you give tens of thousands of dollars to the poor, maybe you sacrifice yourself daily for the needs of others, but if you are not driven by God’s self-giving love reforming and reshaping your character from within, then you gain nothing.
Why It’s True
Why is that?!? Why is it that what we would see as obvious signs of success are not, in and of themselves, success? To see why, we need to look down at verses 8-13. Paul says that these things we call success are temporary. Spiritual gifts, like tongues, prophecy and miraculous faith are all temporary. They will no longer be needed when Christ returns. We just finished a series on Christian hope- that our hope to which we look forward is not an eternity living as spirits in Heaven, but the resurrection. Our hope is for when Jesus returns to earth, redeems creation and gives us new bodies. At that point, there will be no need for the gift of tongues, the gift of healing (not mentioned here by Paul), the gift of prophecy or miraculous faith.
Remember that diagram I keep putting up? The one with the two ages? This is what we are talking about. While we are living across two ages, the Age to Come and the Present Age, the Spirit gives gifts as evidence of the truth of the gospel. Spiritual gifts are for the Present Age to show that what Jesus said is true. But, when perfection comes, to use Paul’s words in verse 10, the imperfect disappears.
Funny thing, in Greek, the word for perfect is also the word for complete. So Paul is saying in verses 9-10 is that we know and prophesy in part, that is, our knowledge and prophecy is incomplete, or imperfect. But when Jesus returns, that’s the perfect and complete coming. Jesus will return to complete or perfect what he began on the first Easter. Then we will know completely, perfectly just as we are fully known (v. 12).
Faith, hope and love are greater than spiritual gifts. But faith and hope are for the now times. They are looking forward to the return of Christ. Once Christ returns, there will be no need for faith because we will have the complete, perfect relationship with God for which we were designed and saved. We will have no need for hope because that which we hope for will have come true. But we will still have love. Love will continue past the return of Christ into the Kingdom of God, the Age to Come. Love never fails. The character of God never fails. The love of God, being created in us, is what will last into eternity. This is why God’s goal for us is to submit to the Spirit so that we can be reshaped by love to know love and be filled with love- because that is what eternity with God will be all about!
So, since love is eternal, since agape love will last into eternity, it is far more important than any of the other markers we may look to for success in this life. Preachers will no longer need to preach in the Age to Come. Faith will no longer be necessary when we are with God. Tongues will be obsolete too. Acts of self-sacrifice and service, acts of generosity that exhaust our resources will not be needed. There will be no hungry people on the redeemed earth to feed! We will all have plenty!
Our churches will dissolve. Our books will be thrown away. We will all know and be fully known. We won’t need church buildings, books, networks, podcasts and the like. Those things that we see as marks of success will be obsolete. Only love, divine, self-giving love primarily concerned with the wellbeing of others will continue on. So that’s what matters now too. “Without love one quite misses the point of being a Christian in the first place!” [Gordon Fee, p. 635]
So if love is eternal, and all these other things will become obsolete, this determines what really matters for the Christian. What matters, what makes for success, is love. At the end of our life, if we look back and see that we lived a life of agape love, we will be successful. If as a worker we look on our career and see agape love lived out at the workplace, we will have had a successful career, regardless of the numbers in our bank account or our standard of living in our “golden years.” If, as a student, we live out love on campus, in the classroom and with our fellow students, then regardless of our marks, we are successful. If, as a parent, we model agape love for our kids, we are successful, even if our kids don’t choose to live a life of love themselves! (Although having it modelled at home makes it more likely they will.)
So how then do we apply this? If love is the criteria for success, how do we be loving? How do we measure our progress? What is our goal? This is where verses 4-7 come in. Paul lists a variety of things that love is and isn’t, what love does and what love doesn’t do. It’s interesting that up to this point in his letter, Paul has used the terms for what love does (the positive terms) for himself and the terms for what love isn’t or doesn’t do to describe the Corinthian Christians!
Love is patient and kind. These are the passive and active responses to other people when they are difficult or annoying. Patience means you passively put up with a lot without negative reaction. Kindness means going out of your way to demonstrate love to a difficult, annoying or draining person. So our first test or maker of success is how we respond to difficult, draining, annoying or needy people? Are you patient with them or impatient? Are you kind or mean, or petty, or non-responsive?
Second, love does not envy. How do you respond when somebody else is blessed, has success or is rewarded? How do you respond when somebody else has something you don’t have but want? This can be very subtle! If, for instance, you’re single, how do you respond when you hear about a friend getting engaged? Can you be glad for them? Or are you bitter that you’re not in a relationship?
Or, what if you hear somebody else gets a raise at work for doing a job similar to yours? Can you be happy for them, or are you jealous, wondering why you didn’t get a raise? Or what if you see somebody posts on Facebook pictures from a tropical vacation, but you can’t afford to even take a few days off work? How does your heart respond?
Paul goes on to say that love is not prideful. How do you take criticism? What if it’s offered well? Can you admit when you’re wrong? Love is also not rude or self-seeking. The very nature of love is to be other-centred, the opposite of self-seeking. Do you look out for your own needs, or the needs of others?
How quickly do you get angry? Maybe your anger is a quiet anger. How quickly are you offended? What are some things people have done to you? How have people harmed you? Do you come up with a quick list? Or do you have to really think about it? Love doesn’t keep track of what it is owed. It keeps no record of wrongs. If you can quickly come up with things people have done to you, you’re keeping record of wrongs!
Do you delight in the things of our culture that do not conform with Jesus’ character? Do you like to chat about other people’s failures? Do you delight in gossip? Love does not delight in evil. Instead, love rejoices with the truth. Can you rejoice when another person has their prayers answered but yours are not? Can you delight when another person is rewarded but you are not? Can you delight when another church grows, but yours does not?
Frankly, we all need to grow in love. We all need to check our priorities for success. We all need to
re-examine what we are aiming for in life, what we are aiming for in our Christian walk. We need to think about what we can do daily to learn to be more patient, more kind, more generous with our celebration, cheer and to be satisfied with salvation, even if we don’t have all the things of this life we want. We all need to do some cleaning up of our hearts, getting rid of pride, gossip, delight in evil, grudges and anger.
But the great thing about God’s economy of success is that it is easily accessible to all of his children. You don’t have to be able to understand deep theological truths to be kind to a needy person. You don’t have to be a great public speaker or preacher to be patient with a person who is awkward, helpless, or rude and belligerent.
Love is being willing to have your life complicated by the needs and struggles of others without impatience or anger. [Paul Tripp, “23 Things That Love Is”, https://www.paultripp.com/articles/posts/23-things-that-love-is] Love means taking time to be patient and kind to people in need, whether they be people at work, at school, at church, in your neighbourhood, or even your family. Who is a person you know who is needy in these ways? Who is a person who complicates your life? What is one thing you can do the next time you see them to practice patience and kindness with them?
Love is being unwilling to do what is wrong when you have been wronged, but looking for concrete and specific ways to overcome evil with good. [Paul Tripp.] We are all faced with opportunities for this one. We are all wronged by various people in various ways, whether is be a driver on the road, a boss or co-worker, a family member or neighbour. How will you respond when you are wronged? Will you seek to fight fire with fire, to get what you’re owed, to even the score, to take offense? Or will you fight fire with water? Will choose to use the tools of Jesus instead of the tools of this world to overcome evil?
Love means taking time to learn about a person, to hear them, to understand who they are so that you can understand what their needs are, even if they don’t understand themselves. Then, love means coming alongside them to either meet that need or help them carry the burden of that need. Who is a person in your life who is needy? Can you become a student of that person? Will you take the time to hear their need?
Love means giving up your freedom and autonomy in order to serve other people. Love means making others your top priority, not yourself. Being self-focussed is what our culture celebrates. It’s also the opposite of godliness. How can you give of yourself today, tomorrow or this week?
Love, success in the Christian life, is very hard because it goes against our very nature. But agape love is a divine gift. It is God’s love living in us. We just have to cooperate with what the Spirit is doing. We have to submit and go along, we don’t have to generate it ourselves. So the great thing about agape love, about Christian success, is that it is easily accessible to all who call on Jesus. You don’t have to be a great thinker, you don’t have to have great ability, you don’t have to have tremendous resources to be successful as a Christian. Jesus even said the greatest will become the least, and the least will become the greatest! The first will be last and the last will be first!
What do you see as you limitations? These are not limitations to love. They may be limitations to worldly success, but they are not limitations to Christian success. So think about how you can demonstrate love to people you know. Think about how you can cooperate with the Spirit to practice being loving. Be alert to opportunities to love others, to submit to the Spirit, to cooperate with Him to learn how to love. Be alert, and be cooperative. Be pliable in the Spirit’s hands. Rethink what your goals are. Rethink what makes you happy in a day.
I may get a dozen likes on Facebook, but if I have not love, I am nothing. I may get a raise at work, and land 3 new clients, but if I have not love, it is worthless. I may serve and give and sacrifice my all, but if I have not love, I gain nothing. My bank balance may have six digits, but if I have not love, I am poor. I may have letters after my name, but if I have not love, I know nothing. My kids may grow up to be doctors and lawyers, or hockey players and movie stars, but if I have not love, I have failed as a parent.
What can you do in love today? Who can you love this week? How can you grow in love this month? What are you going to do to be successful? What are you going to do that will matter when you’re dying, that will matter when you face Jesus on the day of Judgment?
These three remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love. Amen.
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