Sermon delivered on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2010, at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to hear the audio version of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! In today’s Epistle lesson Paul pauses for a moment as he deals with the manifold problems in the church at Corinth to give them a context for all his advice about the nature of Christ’s Body, the church, and their use and misuse of spiritual gifts. In doing so, it is almost as if he is telling them the overarching reason he has taken the time to write them, even when he has had to say some hard things to them—because he loves them and he wants them to act likewise toward each other.
To read 1 Corinthians 13 out of its context is to strip it of its power to help us better understand how our Lord wants us to behave as members of his body here at St. Andrew’s. This morning I want to look at what is the biblical notion of love and how we might be faithful to that notion as we live life together as Christ’s Body. Just as we are expected to grow to Christ’s full stature as individuals (Ephesians 4:13), so we as his church are expected to do likewise (Ephesians 4:11-16). To grow to Christ’s full stature is to mature, to grow in our ability to love.
But loving God and each other is not easy because we are sinful and rebellious people. In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts living life in the flesh versus living life in the Spirit. The behaviors he lists for each are not comprehensive but instructive, and we quickly see the contrast between the two. When we live according to the desires of the flesh, i.e., our fallen nature, we show all of our darkness and ugliness. Living according to the flesh manifests itself in selfishness and hatred. Among other things it results in sexual immorality, jealousy, envy, strife, anger, dissensions, and factions. A word of caution is in order before we proceed. Anger and jealousy are not always bad. We can be jealous or have zeal for God, just as God was jealous for his people (see, e.g., Exodus 34:14). There is also a righteous anger that can be aroused in us as when we read of horrifying stories like the one yesterday where a dad set fire to a puppy in front of his children. The kind of anger produced by this story is not the kind of anger Paul was talking about. Instead, Paul was referring to the kind of anger that issues forth from selfish motives and hurt pride. In other words, anger that is not motivated by love.
On the other hand, when we live by the Spirit we enjoy the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Paul reminds us in Galatians and elsewhere that as Christians we are to put to death our sinful nature and live by the Spirit. This is a difficult and life-long process, which will only be fully achieved at our Lord’s Second Coming. But that does not mean we are exempted from working at it.
So before we look at the biblical concept of love, let us remember this critical point. Our ability to love is primarily a gift of God’s Holy Spirit working in us; it is not of our own doing. We see this poignantly echoed in today’s OT lesson in the call of Jeremiah. God calls the young Jeremiah to be his mouthpiece and Jeremiah balks. He knows the cost of being a prophet in a hostile and apostate land, and is justifiably afraid. He tells God that he is only a boy and is not a good speaker. What was God’s response? He tells Jeremiah to stop talking nonsense. It was nonsense because since God had called Jeremiah, God would equip him to do the work to which he was called. He reminds Jeremiah that he would be with him and protect him. That didn’t mean Jeremiah would be immune from danger. To the contrary, he eventually found himself persecuted, arrested, and thrown into a cistern, left to die. But God protected Jeremiah so that he could accomplish the work God called him to do.
Nor is this an isolated story. We see a similar dynamic in Genesis 17-18 in the story of Abraham and Sarah. God promised them a son, even when they were both near 100 years old, and both laughed at the notion. God’s response? He reminded them that nothing was impossible for God and he delivered. And because both Abraham and Sarah laughed in temporary disbelief at God’s ability to deliver, what did God tell them to name their son? Isaac (“he laughs”). Not only does God have a sense of humor, he also apparently had the last laugh (no pun intended).
I could cite several other examples, but the point is clear. When God calls us to the faith he equips us. We must keep this truth always in the forefront when we talk about our ability to exercise love. Love comes from God, not fallen human beings, and God always delivers on his promises, including the promise to equip his saints to love and do the work he calls us to do in his church and elsewhere.
Where is God’s Grace?
So what does the Bible mean when it talks about love? While the OT talks about many kinds of love, the kind of love that best parallels the NT use of the word is hesed. Hesed is not an emotional response to beauty, merit, or kindness, but a moral attitude dedicated to another’s good, whether that person is lovable, worthy, or responds positively to our love. Hesed has within it kindness, tenderness, and compassion, but its chief characteristic is an accepted moral obligation for another’s welfare, which no ill-will or lack of gratitude on the part of that person will extinguish. Hesed has the other person’s back, regardless if that person has ours. In the OT, it is usually translated as “steadfast love.”
Likewise, the Greek term that the NT uses primarily for love is agape. Like hesed, agape generally means we want for others and ourselves that which is morally good and right, that which is based on God’s truth, not our own concoctions. It is motivated by a sense of acting out of principle or duty, rather than attraction or charm we might find in others (you know, like you all find in me). Though agape has more to do with moral principle than with desire or liking, it never means the cold religious kindness shown from duty alone. Human beings are not objects nor should they ever be treated like ones. To desire the moral welfare of others means that we will have compassion for others and seek the best things for them, just the way our Lord did. Agape means to love the undeserving, despite disappointment and rejection. Like its OT counterpart, hesed, agape means that we have the other person’s back, even at the risk of our own, regardless if that person has ours.
Clearly, then, when the Bible talks about loving God and each other it is not referring to a moral indifference or some kind of schmaltzy sentimentality. Rather, love is manifested in action. The biblical notion of love is not equivalent to allowing others to do anything that is pleasing to them because not everything we do is good for us. But this is hard for us to do because we do not want to appear to be moralizers or legalists, nor do we want to offend others or hurt their feelings. Love, however, is willing to risk offending for the welfare of the other. We don’t have to look any farther than today’s Gospel lesson or Jesus’ seven woes against the Pharisees and teachers of the law to see this illustrated. In the latter, Jesus excoriated them because they were killing others and themselves by their false teaching and our Lord surely wanted them to repent, especially given what he said at the end of the passage. To love requires an inner strength that only God can provide. It requires that we be humble and keep everybody’s welfare in mind, not just our own, although we should not exclude our welfare from consideration.
Where is the Application?
Using these criteria, then, let us go back and review some examples from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to put this chapter in its context and see whether the Apostle practices what he preaches. Let us first look at chapter 5. Here Paul takes the church to task for not only condoning an incestuous relationship among its ranks but for actually being proud of how open minded they were about it! Paul gives the man over to Satan so that his spirit might be saved and he tells the church to repent, to stop living according to the desires of the flesh and start living according to the desires of the Spirit (note the parallel with Galatians 5). Paul ends the chapter by telling them to excommunicate the man and have nothing to do with him.
Is this loving advice? At first blush, it sounds terribly harsh. But looking at our criteria for love and at what Paul wrote in today’s Epistle lesson, we must answer yes. First, Paul loved the man enough to recognize that his very soul was in danger of being lost. The man was engaged in sinful behavior and Paul reminded the Corinthians that love does not rejoice in unrighteous behavior. Note carefully that Paul defined unrighteous behavior based on God’s law (marriage), not Paul’s own sensibilities. Giving the man over to Satan sounds quite harsh to our modern ears but we must look at the goal Paul had in mind. By subjecting the man to Satan, Paul desired for him to repent and be restored, both to the Lord and to the broader community of faith.
In calling for the man’s excommunication, Paul also realized that if left unchecked, this kind of behavior would likely spread through the church at Corinth like a cancer and be destructive for Christ’s Body there on multiple levels. Factions would likely develop, some supporting the man, others supporting Paul’s position. Quarreling would surely ensue. There would be moral confusion about the very behavior itself. Was it acceptable or not? In saying what he did, Paul clearly had the moral good of everybody in mind, not just the man’s. Paul loved the man enough to want to see him repent and be restored, and he loved the church enough that he did not want to seen it torn apart or disintegrate further into moral laxity and chaos.
In chapter 10, Paul addresses the issue of eating meat sold in marketplaces, meat that might have once been offered in sacrifice (but not used) before it was sold. At its essence, the issue Paul was dealing with here was how some Corinthians viewed such food. Although he acknowledged there was no reason not to eat it, he also urged those who did to be careful in doing so because some of their brothers and sisters in Christ found the practice to be scandalous.
Was this loving advice? Yes, because here we see Paul telling the Corinthians to put others ahead of themselves in matters of moral indifference. Eating meat sold in the marketplace was an issue of moral indifference for Paul, i.e., the behavior was itself neither right or wrong, and here he counseled discretion in exercising Christian freedom. He warned the more mature Christians to be careful not to scandalize the less mature ones on this particular issue. Since eating meat sold in the marketplace was a morally indifferent issue, he told those who ate it to watch out for the welfare of those who were opposed to the practice or might misunderstand it and be led astray from the faith. Here we see the Apostle’s love and concern for everyone manifest itself. He warned the more mature Christians not to be puffed up in their knowledge about eating this kind of meat but to use that knowledge to help the less mature Christians grow in their faith. They could do this best by being circumspect and refraining from eating this kind of meat in front of those who might be scandalized by it. This is consistent with what he wrote in chapter 13 when he tells us that love is patient and kind, that it bears all things.
And before we are tempted to blow this off as an irrelevant example, how many of us are scandalized by the actions of others here in this church? The lesson here is this: if the issue is not one of moral imperative, i.e., something that is clearly right or wrong, then we must refrain from behaving in that manner if we are aware we are offending others. And how do we learn this? Those whom we are offending must love us enough to tell us, not in some haughty, self-righteous manner, but in humility. In doing so, they must also be willing to hear us tell them why we do what we do and both must ultimately seek to please the Lord by pleasing each other. This is hard work, folks, but this is how we are called to love each other. Are you willing to allow Christ to live in you and help you become like him when it comes to tolerating each other in matters of moral indifference?
Last, in the latter half of chapter 11 Paul addresses abuses that were occurring during the Lord’s Supper. Some Corinthians were apparently gorging themselves while the poorer members of the church went hungry. Paul first reminds them that the Lord’s Supper is no ordinary meal and that if they are hungry, they should eat at home before gathering together as Christ’s Body. Paul also takes the wealthier Corinthians to task for humiliating their poorer church brothers and sisters by rubbing their noses in their poverty by being gluttons and drunks in front of them.
Is this loving advice? It is harsh but it is loving. Here Paul was telling some of the Corinthians they were acting in an unbecoming manner and causing their brothers and sisters in Christ to be humiliated. Instead of watching out for each other and sharing food with one another, the wealthier Corinthians apparently were looking out for themselves. This was not love in action. This was acting according to the desires of the flesh and Paul wants better for them. He wants them to imitate their Lord.
We can also find other examples of biblical love in the OT. Read again the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, about how Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son to obey God. Think of the faith and trust that required! Think of the temptation Abraham must have endured!
Read the story in 1 Samuel 24 and 26 of David sparing Saul’s life not once, but twice because Saul was God’s anointed king at that point. This despite the fact that Saul was actively seeking to kill David. Think how hard that would have been for David. No wonder God called him the man after his own heart, this despite the fact that David was an adulterer and murderer.
Read the story of Queen Esther risking her life to save the lives of her people, the Jews, living in exile under the Persians. Think what courage this would have required of her, knowing that if she offended the king, she would surely join her people in death. There is real life stuff in these stories and we should learn from them.
Then turn to the NT and read Acts and Paul’s letters. Read how he faced death and persecution to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout a hostile Roman Empire. Think of how hard that would have been and the love for the Christ who claimed him that must have burned in his very soul. In all these examples, we see love manifested. We see a desire to please God by doing his will. We see an abiding desire for the moral welfare and good of others based on God’s law and truth, even when it is costly to the person involved.
And of course we see the supreme example of love manifested in God himself. You see he loves us so much that he took on our flesh and suffered a terrible death for us so that we could live with him forever. We only have to listen to the cry of dereliction on the cross to get a glimpse of the terrible price God in Jesus endured for our sake. While we will never be able to fully comprehend the height, breadth, and depth our Lord has for us, we can certainly see in his death love made manifest for us. Are you practicing this kind of love as a member of St. Andrew’s? Are you loving others because God loved you first?
We Christians have been given a great gift in Jesus Christ and we are called to become like him. That means we are to love others as he loves us. Such a love cares for the welfare and good of the other, a welfare and good that is based on God’s truth, not our own. We are concerned for others and work on their behalf because we have the very Spirit of our Lord working in us and we remember that we are the beneficiaries of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ. Loving others is not easy because we are profoundly broken. But we have confidence that we can grow in our ability to love because we know that when God calls us to be his, he equips us to do the work he calls us to do. This calls for faith and hope, prayer, Scripture reading, and fellowship to grow in the knowledge of God so that we can love better, because now we only see as in mirror darkly. However, when he comes again in great power and glory to finish his redemptive work, then we will see clearly because we will see him face to face. That, folks, is good news, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.