August 30, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
SUMMER OF LOVE: IT CHANGES US
I Corinthians 13:1-13
The fourth in a series of four.
It is a profound experience to sit next to someone who is dying. Especially when it’s your mother. Helen was holding my mother’s hand when she breathed her last breath.
All through life, do-overs are permitted. It’s how we learn. We make mistakes. We learn from those mistakes. And we do better the next time. But there comes a time when do-overs are no longer possible. Such is the case when we die.
Hospice nurses are experts on dying. They have a lot to teach us. One of them said this: There are two questions everyone asks as they approach their death.
Am I loved?
Did I love well?
Today we conclude our August series on love. I usually start these sermons with a touch of humor, but I guess this time I didn’t. Love is nothing to take lightly. Nothing is more important. When my mother died she knew that she was loved and that she had loved well. I hope she knew that, because there was no doubt as to the answer to either of those questions for her. But can you think of anything sadder than reaching the end of your life and that’s when it dawns on you that no one really loves you? And that you have been an utter failure at loving others?
Paul wrote the 13 verses of the 13th chapter of I Corinthians. We call it the Love Chapter. As we saw last week, it was part of a letter he sent to a church that needed help. They were not very loving. They were worldly and boastful and puffed up. They were divided and suspicious of each other and angry with each other. So when Paul gave them this beautiful description of what love is supposed to look like, his purpose was not to teach them something new. His purpose was to change them into something new – new people who were becoming better and better at loving and being loved.
Today we reach the end of the Love Chapter and the end of this series. There is so much here.
First, love never fails. That’s quite a statement. Can you think of anything or anyone else who never fails? How about God? God never fails, and since “God is love” (I John 4:8), therefore “Love never fails.”
To understand what Paul is getting at we have to go back to the chapter before, I Corinthians 12. This is the chapter about spiritual gifts. Paul is telling this dysfunctional church how God wants them to function. Different people in their church have different gifts. You take these gifts and put them all together and they had everything they needed to become a healthy, Christlike church. Some had the gift of administration. Some had the gift of teaching. Some had the gift of prayer. And so on. Many gifts. One Spirit. One body. The body of Christ.
Then he comes to the end of the chapter and says, “And now I will show you the most excellent way.” It’s the way of love. He begins by listing several of these spiritual gifts – tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith, giving – and he says that without love, these are nothing. He ends the chapter by returning to this same theme. “Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away” (13:8).
In other words, all these God-given gifts, wonderful as they are, important as they are, are nothing compared to love. And when they are gone, love will still be left. Love never fails.
As I was working on this, trying to use the spiritual gift of teaching so I could teach you all about love, I got a phone call from someone who needed help. I often tell people that I’m sorry but there is nothing we can do. We can’t help everyone. But this time, I felt this nudge in my heart that I had to do something for this person. It wasn’t much. But the timing was so interesting. It was like God was telling me that sermons aren’t that big a deal. Sermons will pass away. Sermons will be forgotten as soon as they are preached. But a simple deed of love will last. In the end, all else fails. But not love.
Second, love is personal. Paul takes us on a personal interlude near the end of this chapter.
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 childish ways behind me (13:11).
It looks to me like Paul wants to let us in on some personal stuff about his past. Like he’s saying, you know me now, but if you could have known me then, you would be able to see what love can do to change a life.
We first meet Paul in Acts chapter 7. It’s a long chapter. A man named Stephen preaches a long sermon to the Jewish Sanhedrin. He is basically on trial for preaching about Jesus. He is defending himself. He goes on and on talking about Abraham and Moses and David and the Exile to Babylon. They’re probably drifting off but he gets their attention at the end by insulting them. He calls them “stiff necked people” who “resist the Holy Spirit.” They’ve heard enough. That’s when they drag him out of the city and stone him to death.
We meet Paul for the first time in verse 58. He went by the name Saul at the time. We are told he approved of Stephen’s execution (8:1). And then we’re told that Paul (Saul) started his own rampage against Christians. He was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus” (9:1). This is the same man who wrote the Love Chapter.
What happened? How do we explain the change? Paul met Jesus. He was on his way to Damascus to hassle the Christians some more when he saw a blinding light and he heard the voice of Jesus. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4) Thus began one of the greatest changes in a human life that has ever been recorded.
So when Paul writes this chapter about love, it’s not just poetry. It’s not just theory. It’s real. He lived it. And so can we.
Third, love is eternal. Last verse: “So now faith, hope, and love remain, these three, but the greatest of these is love” (13:13). In other words, the one that lasts is love. Love goes on and on and on.
We learn about love from Paul. We learn that it never fails and it’s personal and it’s eternal. But we learn about love most of all from Jesus. He taught us what love is. Most of all, he showed us. So even though you already have the three points of a typical three-point sermon, I have three more for you today. These last three come from Jesus.
Fourth, love is inclusive. Jesus made it a point to include people in his circle of love that got left out by others. He didn’t start with the religious professionals and work his way out. He started out on the margins and worked his way in.
The religious professionals noticed this and they did not approve. They called him a “friend of sinners.” They said he was spending too much time with prostitutes and tax collectors. A little more time with decent, respectable people would be a good idea. People who have earned God’s love, not people who deserve God’s judgment. But Jesus taught, by word and deed, that God’s love is way wider than ours. It is inclusive to the point of being scandalous.
If we know anything about Jesus at all, we know that. It is well known that he spent a lot of time with disreputable people. People on the margins. You probably think Jesus was right and his critics were wrong. God loves that one sheep that has gone astray and leaves the 99 behind to go find it. We love that story.
But do we live it? Who are the people you would have a hard time spending time with? We would not all answer that question the same way. Who is beyond the circle of your love? Who is so far beyond your circle that you really have no interest at all in expanding your circle to include them? Fill in the blank: I cannot stand ___________________.
It might be that God is calling you to grow in love by leaving the comfort zone of people who are like you, and intentionally reaching out to people who are not at all like you. Even people who make you real uncomfortable.
Fifth, love overcomes hate. Jesus chose a strange assortment of disciples. For example, he invited Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector to join his inner circle. Why in the world did he do that? Simon was basically part of a terrorist group that wanted to overthrow of the Roman government. Matthew earned his living working for the Romans and ripping off his own people. Their deepest convictions were poles apart. They were bitter enemies. They couldn’t stand each other. Picture Joe Biden in the same room with Donald Trump.
Simon and Matthew had nothing in common. Nothing. Except Jesus. You know what a Venn Diagram is? Here is Simon and here is Matthew and here is their only common ground. Jesus. But that is enough. Jesus chose them on purpose. He knew they hated each other. But he wanted to prove that his love could overcome their hate.
Then Jesus chose James and John. They were brothers. They were called “sons of thunder.” A better translation of the Greek would be “sons of anger.” They had anger management issues. Worse, they had a mother who tagged along and kept saying, “Jesus, pay attention to my boys!”
He chose Peter, who was publicly rebuked more that the rest of the disciples put together.
He chose Judas who betrayed him. There is debate about whether Jesus knew in advance what Judas was going to do, but even if he didn’t, he had to know that Judas was probably not the kind of person he could count on. He could trust him about as far as he could throw him.
So why assemble a team with all these misfits? All these people at each other’s throats? I can think of only one reason. He knew that love can overcome hate. He wanted to demonstrate that. Because if you only love those who are easy to love, it’s not really love.
Here’s how he said it:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:32-36).
As we have been on this journey together, growing in love, this is where it gets hard. This is where many turn back. This is where we know we’ve reached the big leagues. When we can truly love even our enemies.
Sixth, love suffers. We talked about this in the first sermon in this series. I told the story of that young couple with the storybook marriage. Then out of the blue she developed a serious mental illness. It would have been easy for him to leave her. It was hard, very hard for them to battle through this together. They both suffered – a lot. But that’s what love does.
Jesus suffered before he died on the cross. There are hints of this all through the gospels. Loving hard-to-love people had him so worn out he had to catch up on his sleep in that boat. That woman touched him in the crowd and he felt power go out of him. Again and again he would go missing because he just needed to get away and recharge his batteries. And of course his determination to keep loving and serving and doing what God had called him to do is the reason he died on the cross. Love is not easy. Love is hard.
But love is worth it. Suffering love changes things. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ”Unearned suffering is redemptive.”
As we keep trying to figure out how to be a church during this pandemic, I’ve been reviewing some early church history. There were plagues back then too. Ancient people did not know about viruses, but they knew enough to leave places where people were dropping dead. Especially if they had the means to do so. But one group of people did not leave. The Christians stayed. They served. They loved. Many of them died.
There’s a book by Rodney Stark called The Rise of Christianity that makes the case that the growth of the church during this time was largely because they didn’t leave, they stayed and they cared for the sick and the dying. When the plague was over, people remembered that. They were drawn to these people and to their Jesus who had taught them this kind of love.
In 1903 Teddy Roosevelt saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. He wrote in his journal, “I was completely gobsmacked by it.”
He’s not the only one. My son, Collin and I visited the north rim of the Grand Canyon a few years ago. The girls were busy. It was a father-son trip. When we saw it we were “gobsmacked.”
A dad who took his son to the Grand Canyon as a present for his 9th birthday. This dad made a big production out of the moment his son first saw it. He asked him to keep his eyes closed as he was led to the viewpoint. When they got there, the dad said, “Go ahead now, open your eyes.”
For about 90 seconds the boy said nothing. Then he looked up at his dad with tears in his eyes and said, “Dad! I had no idea! I had no idea!”
I think it might be something like that when we get to heaven. When we meet Jesus. “Now we know in part, then we will understand fully.” Then we will understand fully that the love of God is so much bigger and better and more wonderful than we ever realized during our few short years on this earth. And we will be gobsmacked.
God, we have no idea how much you love us. No idea. But we know enough to know that love is what life is all about. Help us to grow in love. And to keep growing. There is no finish line. And when the time comes for the next phase of our journey to begin, may we know with absolute confidence that we are loved, and that we have loved well. In Jesus’ name, Amen.