March 30, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: LOVE
I Corinthians 13
We have all been under construction these last few weeks. I could say the construction will soon be over, but that’s really not true. This series will soon be over, but God will still be patiently and lovingly working on the construction project that each one of us is. Every day of our lives, God is at work on us. And, if you remember the first sermon, God enjoys this. It may be work for us but it isn’t work for God. It’s play. God made us by playing in the mud and God is still playing in the mud with us. Our creation by our Creator is very much still underway.
(And if that part about God playing in the mud made no sense to you, you probably weren’t here on March 9. That sermon is available on our church website, as are all sermons in this series.)
We’ve been under construction also as we’ve been sharing in a church-wide study, “40 Days of Community”. I hear many of you saying how much you’ve been enjoying this. Helen and I have been looking forward to our small group each week. The “Under Construction” sermon series and the “40 Days of Community” small groups have dove-tailed nicely.
Especially today! I apologize to those of you who have already heard this, but it was so good, I want to just open with what Rick Warren said about I Corinthians 13. He asked the question: What matters most in life? Then he answered his own question. What matters most in life is not our achievements, not our fame, not our wealth, not anything else that many of us would say if we were honest matters most to us. What matters most is love. That’s what God says matters most. Or should matter most. Nothing in life is more important than learning how to love.
Then he preached a great sermon on I Corinthians 13. I could have just played it for you on the big screen and taken the week off. Don’t think I wasn’t tempted. But I have a few other things I want to say about love today, so let’s just quickly go through Rick Warren’s main points.
(1) If we don’t live lives of love, nothing we say will matter. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol” (vs 1). Great words spoken without love are worthless. Great words spoken without love are nothing but noise.
(2) If we don’t live lives of love, nothing we know will matter. “And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing” (vs 2). You could be the only one on earth who knows the answer to the mystery of Malaysian Flight 370, but without love in your heart, who cares?
(3) If we don’t live lives of love, nothing we believe will matter. “If I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (vs 2 b). We talked about faith last week. Jesus said faith the size of a mustard seed will move mountains. Faith is important, faith is foundational, but without love, not even faith can stand. I must say, these are all pretty radical statements, but none is more radical than this. Love matters even more than faith! Jesus once was asked what mattered most. He gave a very clear answer. Nothing matters more than loving God and loving our neighbor.
(4) If we don’t live lives of love, nothing we give will matter. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I am nothing” (vs 3). Next week we will talk about giving. We will talk about generosity. God wants us to be generous. But generous people who give with a motive other than love are missing the whole point. It really doesn’t count, it really doesn’t matter, without love.
(5) If we don’t live lives of love, nothing we accomplish will matter. For this one, we’ll use Eugene Peterson’s wording in The Message. “No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (vs 3). We live in a success-driven culture. We crave success. But what if we get there? However we define success, what if all our wildest dreams come true? God says if we never learn to love, we can reach the pinnacle of success, and it won’t amount to a hill of beans.
So here’s how Rick Warren summarizes all this: “I can have the eloquence of an orator, the knowledge of a genius, the faith of a miracle-worker, the generosity of a philanthropist, and the achievements of a superstar, but if I don’t have love in my heart, it all amounts to zero.”
In other words, what matters so much to us doesn’t matter at all to God. What matters most is love.
We like to think Paul is writing this love letter to us. We need it. And maybe God knew we would need it and so God inspired Paul to write it. But originally Paul wrote these beautiful words not to us but to a church that was driving him crazy. It was the most unloving group of people you could imagine. They could not get along with each other. They were divided, rich against poor. They were divided over spiritual gifts. Speaking in tongues, in particular. They were always fighting. They were not tolerant at all of each other but they had no problem tolerating strange and twisted forms of immorality. They were a mess! They were in the messy phase of construction and by all appearances even God wasn’t making any progress with them.
So Paul gave them this vision of what God wanted them to look like. They were so far from this, but maybe if they could see what the end result should look like, it might help them at least start moving in the right direction.
They weren’t at all patient. So Paul told them that “love is patient”. They weren’t even kind. So Paul told them that “love is kind.” They needed help in the area of generosity. So Paul told them that “love does not envy.” They needed humility. So Paul told them that “love is not proud; it does not boast.” They needed to just learn to be polite. So Paul told them that “love is not rude.” They were selfish. So Paul told them that “love does not insist on its own way.” They needed to be gentle. So Paul told them that “love is not easily angered.” They needed to be merciful. So Paul told them that “love keeps no record of wrongs.” They needed sincerity. So Paul told them that “love does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.”
It was kind of like the picture on the box of a 1000 piece puzzle. Paul was saying, this is what God wants you to look like. It may seem impossible to get from where you are now — all those tiny pieces, most of them sky — to where God wants you to be. But don’t despair. Don’t give up. Look at the picture. When God sees you, this is the picture God sees! This is the person you can become.
It’s been suggested that we write our own eulogies. Not to save the preacher from having to go to the trouble, but to get down in words what we would like people to say about us after we die. Not necessarily what they would say about us right now. That’s one reason we don’t want to die now! But remember, God is not finished with us. Writing a full eulogy might seem a little much, but how about just six words? How would you fill in these blanks? ______ ______ ______ ______ ______ ______ . I’ll come back to this. I’ll give you a choice. You can either work on your six word eulogy or you can listen to me. Or maybe the multi-taskers among us can do both!
The risk of telling people the truth about themselves and about how far they are from where God wants them to be is that they might give up. They might lose hope. It just seems so impossible. So why try? But that is not what Paul is doing here. Paul casts the vision not to shame the Corinthians. Even though they probably deserved a little shaming. He painted this beautiful picture of what love looks like not so they could try real hard to change their behavior. I think Paul was smart enough (or inspired enough) to know that telling another person to be more loving almost never does any good.
There was a PBS special recently on the year 1964. It showed Christian people travelling to the American South to tell other Christian people to be more loving. Maybe in the long run it did some good, but in the short run it just stirred up more hate. Things got worse, much worse, in the South before they got any better.
Telling people to please try harder to be more loving is not the way to get people to be more loving. It has to come from the heart. It has to come from God speaking to your heart, softening your heart, changing your heart. And so this love chapter is not about what you can do. It’s about what God can do. It’s about what God will do if we will open our hearts and let God in.
So what is your six word eulogy? I’d be interested in hearing what you came up with. Here is mine: He loved people like Jesus loved. I’m not there yet. If I die today and somebody uses those words at my funeral, it would be a lie. But that’s the person I want to be. That’s the person I want to become. That’s the person I believe God is creating in me. And in you!
You and I are incomplete right now. We are under construction. The ending of I Corinthians 13 puts all this into perspective.
Our knowledge is incomplete; our prophecy is incomplete; but when completion arrives, the incomplete fades away. When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know, even as also I am known (vss 9-12).
If God were to give us our grade right now in this class called “love”, that grade would be an incomplete. Our love is not yet patient and kind and all the rest. We have a long way to go.
And that’s what I like most about I Corinthians 13. It doesn’t shame me by telling me what I’m not. It encourages me by holding up a picture of what I might be. It is realistic about how far the Corinthians were, the ones who first read this letter, from who God wanted them to be. It is realistic about how far you and I are from who God wants us to be. It just comes out and says that in the closing verses. We are incomplete human beings right now. And that’s OK. Because we won’t always be this way. God is at work in us. The love described in this love chapter is not our duty. It is our destiny. It’s not something we try real hard to emulate. It is something that will happen in due course if we open our hearts to the life changing power of God’s love.
I can’t wait for Easter, so I’m going to close today by jumping ahead to a little of what I can’t wait to say on that day. In three weeks it will be Easter and the scripture I’m planning to use will come two chapters after the scripture we read today. I Corinthians 15. It’s what Paul has to say about the resurrection. It’s what Paul has to say about our ultimate hope as Christians. In I Corinthians 13, the love chapter, Paul says we are not yet complete. In I Corinthians 15, the resurrection chapter, Paul says that one day we will be complete. One day, “God who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6). One day all those confusing puzzle pieces will come together to form that picture of the love for which we were made.
Nothing matters more. We are loved. We are loved by God with a love that is everything I Corinthians 13 describes and more. And by the grace of God, we are growing in that very kind of love. We are becoming the people God wants us to be. We are learning how to love. And one day it will be a true statement when someone says of us, “She loved people — he loved people — like Jesus loved.”
God, we just need to confess that no matter how hard we try, we will never love as you love. We need to confess that whether we’ve tried really hard or hardly tried at all, we’ve made a mess of things when it comes to love. But God, thank you that it’s not about what we can do. It’s about what you can do in us. So we invite your Son, Jesus, into our hearts right now, to do the work that only he can do, to change our hearts, to change our human nature, to allow your love to take root and grow in us. Amen.