Epiphany 4, 2016, Bunker Hill, I Cor. 12:31b-13:13
13:13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
The last three weeks we’ve read in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians how the church, inspired by the Holy Spirit proclaims, “Jesus is Lord.” From this same Holy Spirit, comes a variety of gifts. Gifts, like wisdom, knowledge of the things of God, healing, working miracles, preaching, distinguishing between helpful and destructive spirits. Many of these are gifts spread throughout every congregation of Jesus’ followers; evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of these many and varied gifts are to build up the church that it may continue to grow until it reaches the maturity of Christ. Empowered by the Spirit each person using their gifts is like the parts of our body working together to allow us to walk, and talk and hear and see and live a life of thanksgiving and service. To see the church functioning in such way would really be something to behold and what a witness to the world it would be. Such a church would be a living testimony that “Jesus is Lord.” How much better can life in the church be than that? Nevertheless, St. Paul thinks that the church needs one more gift. The gift and practice of love.
“Now I will show you a still more excellent way.” St. Paul writes. He has an even greater vision of what the Spirit led church can be.
However, he begins his prescription for the way of the church and we as individual members describing something sounds more like a piece of machinery gone terribly haywire, emitting the loud screeching sound of metal grating against metal. I’m paraphrasing Paul’s words from our epistle lesson, “If I speak with soaring language that lifts crowds to the ecstasy of angels round God’s throne in heaven, but have not love, I am a nothing more than a monotonous and annoying bonging gong or a loud clashing cymbal. If I speak God’s word with power, revealing all of God’s mysteries and make everything as plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain “jump” and the mountain asks, “How high?”, but don’t have love, I’m nothing. Even if I dole out bit by bit all I have, to feed the hungry and readily give up myself for any cause, but don’t have love, it doesn’t help me.” Rather than building up the church; I’m building up my own prestige; and that serves no good purpose.
What is this love which we assert in the folk hymn, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love?” It’s the love which according to Jesus command to his followers prior to going to the cross to, “love one another.” An example of that love of which Jesus speaks was shown by the school principal in Indiana who pushed school children out of the way of a bus, but gave up her own life in doing so. Its love patterned on and powered by the love of Jesus. We read of that love in the Gospel in a nutshell, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God’s love in Jesus is such that whoever believes in him will be saved. Whoever believes in him! It’s the love of which Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “But God showed his love in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
During deer hunting season in November, my younger brother’s son- in – law, saw deer but couldn’t hit one. My brother said he should try shooting at a target in order to line his sights up right. Well, God didn’t wait for us to line up our sights on his word, so that we might hit the mark twenty-four – seven in the way we live, because we are never going to manage that. He showed us his love by sending Christ to death for our failures. The love Paul is writing about is the love of God that loved us first and our self-sacrificing love is a response to his self-sacrificing love. It’s the love that took on the demons in our Gospel lesson, rebuked the fever in Peter’s mother-in-law and went about Galilee preaching the good news of the kingdom of God.
This sort of Love is patient, writes Paul. Maybe we could put our own name in place of love. How about “Ron is patient.” Well, there was that woman yesterday walking slowly across the street in front of Bed, Bath and Beyond talking on her cell phone while we waited. Fortunately, Becky was driving. So let’s not do, “Ron is patient.” Let’s instead insert Zion, “Zion is patient, long suffering, or long tempered.” Being a congregation where the pastoral office is vacant can wear on our patience. And then to be lovingly patient with one another and the fine grinding gears of the synod, district and seminary can be a challenge. We find such patience in Jesus who says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Consider the loving patience of Christ with you and me as His church, while he waits to return and take us to His Father in heaven. Little wonder the bible ends with, “Come Lord Jesus.” In the mean time we live under his grace.
Love is kind. St. Paul wrote to his student Titus, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared he saved us” not because we were patient and kind “but according to his own mercy.” He also cautioned the Christians in Rome not to take for granted the “riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience” in which he created us, provides for our daily life and buys us back from sin, death and every kind of evil. Some years ago I filled in at the congregation in Cuba Missouri a week after their pastor had suddenly died. I assured the congregation that the word would continue to be preached. I have done much the same thing when I started to serve in vacancies. So for Zion, God’s word continues to be preached and taught, Holy Communion celebrated, children baptized, the dead in Christ receive Christian burial, hymns are accompanied, Sunday school children taught, confirmation classes held, ushers usher, the altar guild prepares the chancel for worship, bulletins are printed, the offerings counted, bills paid, etc. All of this according to the loving kindness of the Lord whose Holy Spirit continues to grant gifts for our service to our Lord, who uses us each according to the gifts we have received.
St. John tells us, “God is love.” Just as the Word became flesh in Jesus, so God’s love became a person named Jesus. Jesus is God’s love in the flesh. Jesus is God so loving the world that he gave himself so that whoever believes in him has eternal life. I want to read some of Paul’s words about love from our text. Only this time I will insert the name of Jesus. Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind. Jesus is not envious or boastful. Jesus does not insist on his own way. Jesus is not irritable or resentful. He does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things that his heavenly Father spoke. Jesus lived in the sure hope of his resurrection and our salvation. Jesus endured all things until he called out from the cross, “It is finished.” Jesus never ends.
These are things that we will not fully understand until we come face to face with our savior and see the full glory of God. Then we will recognize how well he knows us and be eternally thankful for his grace. So now faith in Christ, hope in Christ and the love of Christ abides. But the greatest of these is the love of Christ.
This is the more excellent way and the greatest gift we can receive from the Holy Spirit as we say, “Jesus is Lord.”