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Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Still More Excellent Way

1 Corinthians 13
Preached Sunday morning, November 19, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In this section of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is dealing with pride among the Corinthian Christians. Throughout the letter we can find hints of the various ways they were proud of themselves. In chapter 12 it was their spiritual gifts. The first century church was blessed with miraculous gifts such as prophecy and speaking in tongues, but they were far too proud of these powers they had simply been given by God.

Pride is one of the easiest sins for Christians to fall into, and one of the toughest to overcome. For one thing, the standard antidote for pride doesn’t work for Christians. I’m talking about the “You really ain’t nothing special” argument. Yes, Christians really are something special. We’ve been adopted into the royal family and given God’s own Spirit. Some of what the Corinthians were proud of was clearly evil (such as sexual sin). Others were good in and of themselves. Knowledge is good, but the Corinthians used knowledge as an occasion for puffing up and dividing. Prophecy is good but must be kept disciplined and in order. Tongues are good but should be used for building up, not showing off. Paul therefore counters their pride with a little perspective. In response to their pride in knowledge, Paul gives them Jesus Christ crucified. Here, when they are puffed up over their gifts, Paul reminds them of the ultimate gift from God: not spiritual performance, but love.

Paul’s solutions to the Corinthians’ problems are by no means unique. Whenever the church is in trouble, a little perspective and a little love usually do the trick. But if we look carefully at this chapter, we may find that neither of those two qualities are what we would naturally expect. First of all, love is more than a sentiment or emotion. Love is the big picture because, rightly understood, it summarizes the Word of God. As Paul told the Galatians, “ the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”’ [1]. Or, as he told the Romans,
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom. 13:8-10)
We can focus all our attention on strictly following all the hundreds of instructions in the Bible and still miss the point of discipleship. We can focus on obedience and still run the risk of being lost, or we can love God and each other and so truly fulfill the law.

When a lawyer asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, our Savior pointed to love:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt. 27:37-40)
Jesus’ words were nothing new. God had revealed these same truths to the Israelites through Moses more than a thousand years earlier (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). God has always called his people to love more than anything else.

With our modern-day understanding of what love is, this exaltation of love may not make a lot of sense. Why is love the foundation of discipleship? What about repentance? What about right doctrine? What about godly actions? Well, in God’s eyes, it seems, loving hearts are more important than either words or actions. That’s the whole thrust 1 Cor. 13:1-3; without love, all the good and even miraculous works we may do are worth nothing. Paul’s strong words in these verses bring to mind Jesus’ teaching in Mt. 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” [2]. And what is that will? To love God and our neighbors. Did we prophesy, cast out demons, do mighty works? God really doesn’t care what we do if our hearts are empty of love.

Jesus explained what love in action looks like in his parable of the sheep and goats (Mt. 25:31-46). For every soul it will one day be fire or feast, depending on how we put love into action: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting the oppressed. As Jesus showed us in Mt. 7, it’s love in our hearts, not our grand works, that he cares about. But as he reminds us in Mt. 25, love does take action in good works.

Love is not simply a friendly feeling or a pleasing emotion. It’s the heart of the Word–in the sense of both Scripture and Savior. In other words, it’s about as important as you can get—so important, in fact that the Apostle John was so bold as to say, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). In our culture, of course, “love” is a frivolous word. We associate love with desire, sexuality, and especially sentimentality. But if we’re paying attention to what the Bible says, particularly here in 1 Corinthians 13, we find a radically different idea of what love really is.

Love is much, much more than a sentimental emotion. It’s more than “Kumbaya” Christianity or “Precious Moments” faith. In fact, real love is not at all sentimental. Sentimentalism makes love out to be about niceness rather than gentleness, acceptance rather than kindness, cowardice rather than patience. Sentimentalism is deadly to the church. It means looking not for service and truth to God, but for a good-vibe feeling, for everybody to just be happy and get along. But who says discipleship will make us feel good and happy? Do you think Paul felt good and happy being flogged? Was Jesus all warm and cozy while he hung bleeding on the cross? Love takes action, and sometimes that action isn’t very pretty. At the same time, love is not all will and work, either. Love will warm our hearts. Notice how many of Paul’s descriptions of love involve peacefulness? If we really love our neighbor as ourselves, we’ll have peace like nothing else could give us: not cheap and fragile but deep, world-changing peace.

As Jesus told his disciples, by our love the world will know we belong to God (Jn. 13:35). God’s love is an identifying characteristic of Christians. Everybody, saint or sinner, can have warm sentiments. Radical jihadists get along with one another and feel warmly toward their friends and family. Gangsters can be very affectionate toward their own. But not everyone has the Holy Spirit of God. It is the Spirit Christians each receive at our baptism (re. Acts 2:38) and the Spirit of God among us when we gather (Mt. 18:20; Jn 14:17). Love is fruit of that Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Christians don’t receive God’s love just by acting patient, kind, etc. Yes, we do need to act like we love one another. But love doesn’t come into our hearts through pretending. That’s hypocrisy. Love is a gift from God, and it wells up from the heart to energize us for good works.

At this point, a reasonable question is how Christians can cultivate love in our hearts and in our midst. Of course, acting loving isn’t enough, but it may be the first step in priming the pump, getting the habit of love going. If we are truly the church, we have the loving Spirit of God among us. But we may simply be out of the habit of letting that light of that Spirit shine. So we must begin by giving up old habits and begin acting loving. Love rises up from the heart and enlightens our actions, but sometimes we have to stop blocking the flow.

Second, let’s remember that love is the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). We can’t force our hearts to love any more than we can force a piece of fruit to grow. Love’s the greatest fruit the Spirit grows in our hearts. The Corinthians seem to have been distracted by the razzle-dazzle of miraculous gifts. But they needed to learn that love trumped the gifts of prophecy or tongues or any other gift of the Spirit. We don’t talk much of the Holy Spirit in Churches of Christ. Maybe that’s because other Christians group think about the Spirit entirely too much. But let’s not let the excess of others lead us to neglect the Holy Spirit. As the Corinthians Christians needed to remember, God doesn’t give the church his Spirit just so we ourselves can be saved, or to give us power in spiritual manifestations. The Church has been given the Spirit not only to protect and build us up, but to serve God and our neighbor.

Putting God’s love into practice is not automatic. It’s something we have to learn and practice. There’s no shortcut to discipleship. Paul’s words here about love are really a description of Christian maturity. And there’s no secret to it. Maturity arises from the same kinds of things we do from the very first steps of discipleship: studying the Scriptures alone and in the community of faith, worshiping God in the assembly, giving up selfish and sinful practices, beginning to do good for others. Those may be boring activities, but they bring about very unboring results: joy, peace, patience, kindness, and most importantly, love.

Love is the preeminent quality of God himself. Therefore when the world looks at a loving church, they don’t merely see a bunch of flawed disciples. In a very real sense, when the world looks at a church that loves, they see God. And what they see has the power to change the church and the world. Therefore, let us pursue love. That’s what the Apostle calls us to do. And as our Lord Jesus told us, what we pursue, we’ll find (Mt. 7:7). Christians, let’s pray to live what we proclaim. Visitors, there’s still time to join the quest.

PRAYER
INVITATION

NOTES
1. Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
2. Loader, William. “First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary: Epiphany 4.” Online study at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/CEpEpiphany4.htm.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley

4 Comments:

Blogger elman said...

Milton said: "Putting God’s love into practice is not automatic. It’s something we have to learn and practice. There’s no shortcut to discipleship. Paul’s words here about love are really a description of Christian maturity.
And there’s no secret to it.
Maturity arises from the same kinds of things we do from the very first steps of discipleship: studying the Scriptures alone and in the community of faith, worshiping God in the assembly, giving up selfish and sinful practices, beginning to do good for others. Those may be boring activities, but they bring about very unboring results: joy, peace, patience, kindness, and most importantly, love."

If there's no secret to discipleship, why are the elders in your ministry have not yet come up with one stand regarding the tradition of head covering?

Because as a disciple, a woman's head cover represents that she's under an authority.

If it is not a secret, why you haven't known it and yet I understand that you read Paul's writings all the time.

And Milton, the word "alone" should be used carefully because of using that word, you are insinuating that you are denying other factors that might be needed in the study of the Word of God. Like what you said: "studying the scriptures alone." What do you mean by this phrase?

Anyways, would you agree that there is a process that we must undergo before God can appreciate what you mentioned above, that is, to be a part of the Church of God which Paul mentioned in his writings?

Can you say something about your church, like the name, how and when it was created, and who is the presiding minister?

Thanks for your time. I appreciate your command of english language, it is execellent!

5:44 AM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Elman, thanks for your interaction with the work here and for your kind words about my writing. I don't really have anything right now to add to the head covering discussion, but I will continue to look into the issue as time allows, and perhaps in the future I can respond more intelligently to your concerns.

In the context here "alone" refers to one Christian studying the Scriptures by himself or herself, as opposed to studying it with a group in a class or assembly.

Yes, I agree that to be a Christian, one must be a member of Christ's church. For the past several years I have been preaching for Churches of Christ. We try not to be a denomination but to simply be the church as God originally established it. In that sense, it was created at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples. The modern Churches of Christ movement began in the late 18th century when Christians began giving up denominational names and loyalties and began trying to restore the church to the simplicity and purity of the first century. That's easier said than done, of course, but we continue to work toward it, by God's grace.

Churches of Christ have no single presiding minister. Our congregations are governed by groups of elders who have the qualities as described in 1 Timothy and Titus.

Right now I am worshipping in a house church while looking for a congregation to work with full-time.

Peace.

7:45 AM  
Blogger elman said...

Sorry, I deleted my last comment above and posted it instead on your next topic. I think it would be more relevant there.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

No problem.

12:30 PM  

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