Mission: Grow 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
2/2/2019 2:19:23 AM
January 27, 2019
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Imagine you have a baby girl! She is born heathy, but small. Over the coming months, your pediatrician measures her against charts for her age, comparing height and weight. Your daughter is always small on these charts. You doctor becomes concerned that your child is “failing to thrive.”
You get a referral to the Children’s Hospital in Toronto! They do even more tests as you anxiously sit in the waiting room. Finally, the senior pediatrician emerges with a big smile on her face! Your daughter is NOT “failing to thrive” she is just “naturally petite!”
This is what happened to Tom Bandy and his wife as he describes in his book “Kicking Habits.” [Thomas G Bandy, Kicking Habits, p. 12] Bandy’s book is about churches growing. One of his foundational points is that there are multiple ways to think of the word “grow.”
There is an “industrial” use of growth which refers to numbers and statistics, such as how many units have been sold, how many widgets have been produces, how many items are stored in the warehouse. This understanding of growth, while good for industry, does NOT fit the church!
When used as a pediatric metaphor, “growth” refers to the healthy development of a child- to the “expansion of activity and interest of a living organism.” In a living organism, growth occurs when it thrives- a measure of increased activity and interest.
Some churches are naturally petite or small. They will never be large numerically, but they can “thrive” in terms of health, activity and interest. They can thrive in terms of the impact they have on the community and on the individuals who make up the church.
In a Christian, thriving refers to being more like Jesus in character, rather than numbers or statistics. The church is made up of Christians. The church is the people- not the building. For a church to grow or thrive means for its people to grow and thrive. That means for its people to become more like Jesus in character.
Great. So what, then, does it look like to grow to be like Jesus in our character? Does it mean walking around in sandals talking in parables? No. Of course not!
Jesus is God. We see in Jesus God’s character. What is the character of God? God is love- agape love! Learning about agape love means learning about God’s character. Growing in love means becoming more like Jesus.
This is why I’m always going on and on about agape love! Because it is the very character and nature of God. If we are to grow as Christians, it means to grow to be like Jesus, which means to grow in agape love, for agape love to come to define our character and nature.
OK, so growing as a Christian involves agape love. What’s that all about?
Let’s turn to the most famous passage on agape love, but one that is often misunderstood- 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Often this passage is read at weddings. It’s thought to be a poetic “hymn to love.” But it’s not about romantic love at all. Nor is it an uplifting “hymn.” Rather, Paul is writing to a very successful church in worldly terms, but a church that is in conflict amongst its own factions and in conflict with Paul! It’s not a successful church in Paul’s eyes at all!
What It Says
Paul begins his discussion on agape love with a few stark statements about the ultimate value of wonderful church/Christian activities if those doing them do not have agape love. Paul talks about several impressive spiritual gifts, like speaking in other languages, the gift of prophesy, the gift of knowledge and miraculous faith.
The gift of tongues or speaking other languages was at the heart of the conflict in Corinth. Some were making it the key marker of Christianity. But Paul says that without love this gift reduces you to a resounding
gong and clanging cymbal- instruments used in pagan worship in Corinth! The gift of prophesy is more important to Paul, but even this gift is worthless without agape love.
It doesn’t matter what you know, if you don’t have agape love you are nothing. Even miraculous faith that can move mountains, and presumably heal people, or even raise people from the dead, is worthless if you do not have agape love! Similarly, acts of tremendous sacrifice, like giving your possessions to the poor or suffering martyrdom are worthless if you don’t have agape love.
We must take note that these were all things happening among the believers in Corinth- the Corinthian church had these gifts and these self-sacrificial actions going on! Yet Paul says they’re not growing, they’re not thriving. Why? Because their character was flawed which lead to broken relationships.
Outward success does not replace a transformed character. What does that transformed character look like? It shows up a lot in our relationships with others. Love is a relationship word and the description that follows contains a lot of other relationship words!
Love is patient and kind – patient with people who are annoying, rude or even mean to us. Kind in activing doing good for others, even people we don’t like.
Love does not envy- when other people have or receive or accomplish what we wish we could, agape love, godly character celebrates with them and is happy for them, even if it is a painful reminder of what we don’t have. I’ve known a lot of people over the years who resent it when God blesses others in a way they wish to be blessed. It ruins their lives! Yes it can be painful if we are waiting for something, and we don’t need to deny that longing or loss, but agape love doesn’t allow that sorry to become envy!
Love is not puffed up or proud about what has been received or accomplished. Just as love does not envy what other receive or accomplish, it is not puffed up or proud of what it receives or accomplishes. Agape love is neither rude, nor self-seeking, nor easily angered. Love doesn’t keep score. Agape love doesn’t delight in evil- whether evil gossip or evil activities- things that break God’s heart! Love rejoices with the truth! It protects others, trusts others, hopes for the future and perseveres.
The description Paul gives of love is the exact opposite of his description of the Christians in Corinth! All the things Paul says love is not, like boastful and proud, Paul has already told the Corinthians they are! All the things Paul says love is – like patient and kind – Paul has already said he had been with the Corinthians!
What It Means
The church in Corinth had everything going for it, at least from outside looking in. They were rich, they were experiencing powerful gifts of the Spirit. They were growing in numbers really fast. They knew a ton, the Holy Spirit was moving in their midst. They had all the outward trappings of a successful church! They were serving the poor, sharing the good news, demonstrating God’s power, healing people and everything!
But there was a serious problem. These are NOT the measures of growth for a Christian! These are not what God is looking for in his people. These are not the marks of thriving for a child of God!
Thriving for a Christian is not about outward actions, but how we have been transformed inwardly. People with a toxic character can do things that look Christian. People with a toxic character may even have powerful gifts of the Spirit! But if they have not love, they’re nothing. They are dead inside. They are failing to thrive. They are not growing.
Why? Look at verses 8-12. Gifts of the Spirit are for the Present Age, not the Age to Come. Gifts of tongues, prophesy and knowledge are not going to be needed in Heaven or when Christ returns and redeems creation. Similarly, although Paul doesn’t state it explicitly, gifts of healing, acts of self-sacrifice, giving to the poor, and miracles won’t be necessary either! There will be nothing to heal, no poverty or hunger to alleviate!
We’ve seen this diagram before. It’s very helpful! And it’s remarkable how frequently it sheds light on a passage of Scripture. In v. 8-12 Paul says that these spectacular gifts will pass away. They are temporary. He speaks of when the perfect or complete comes. That’s the Age to Come, the Kingdom or Rule of God. That’s the part to the right of Jesus’ return.
Gifts of the Spirit are for the “in between times” when the two ages overlap- the difficult time when Christians are citizens of Heaven but residents of a sinful world.
In contrast to gifts of the Spirit, Paul says that faith hope and love are the best, but of these love is the greatest! Why? Because faith and hope are also for this present age. When Christ returns our hope will have come! Our faith will be made complete. Faith and hope are complete in the Age to Come and no longer necessary.
Love, however, is the very character of God. Love will continue for eternity. In the Kingdom of God we will all be loving one another and loving God with perfect, complete agape love for ever and ever!
What matters now in our Christian growth is what will last for eternity- agape love. This is what matters in our spirituality. This is what matters in our relationships. This is what matters in our character.
So what are we to do about this?
We’ve been talking about our vision and mission over the past few weeks. Our vision is to see broken people becoming whole through the love of Christ. Our mission, how we will go about accomplishing that grand vision, is (in part) to build a community in which to belong, grow and serve. Last week we looked at the importance of belonging, of being in relationship. Today we’ve been exploring what it means to “grow.” This is what we mean by a community in which to grow.
Our mission includes being a community in which to grow in agape love. We want to be a community in which we practice agape love- we practice being patient and kind, not envying, boasting or being proud. We want to be a community that champions not being rude or self-seeking and not being easily angered or offended. We want to be a community in which we don’t keep score. We want to rejoice in the truth, not evil. We want to be a community characterized by people who trust, hope and persevere.
Love is a relationship word. It grows best in a community in which we belong. This is why we want to belong! So we can practice agape love, learn about agape love, experience agape love and grow in agape love. We’ve been talking about small groups lately- these are an excellent way to build relationships in which to learn agape love first hand!
Agape love is self-giving. It is exercised in serving others. So we want to be a community in which to serve. We don’t want 20% of the people doing 80% of the work! We don’t want people to come, warm a chair on Sunday, soak it all in but never serve, never give to others, never use their gifts.
At the heart of sin is self-centredness. Agape love is other-centred. So growing in agape love is literally and directly becoming whole through the love of Christ! It is being healed of our self-centredness and the effects of others’ self-centredness. Growing in love directly contributes to our vision.
This is what it means to thrive as a Christian! We may always be naturally small or petite as a church, or in our sphere of influence as a Christian, but we can always thrive!
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