Paths of grace: Love
(Sunday, August 20, 2017 sermon — 1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Even though the church tries to makes a lot of noise, it seems like no one is listening. We work hard to communicate spiritual truths and church activities in every way we can, from social media to texts to phone calls to plain old letters in an envelope with a stamp. Yet it doesn’t seem like anyone is paying attention. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard, “I didn’t know anything about that!” How can that be?
And even though we have learned so much in all of our different Bible classes, I wonder how much actually sinks in. I witness those who never miss a class struggling with the same worries, doubts and sins as those who have never been to a Bible class in their lives. How can that be?
So many give generously, even sacrificially of their time, abilities and even wealth in the context of the church and our life together. Yet where has it gotten us? The needs are still so great. We don’t seem to be making any progress. In fact, it seems like we’ve lost ground. There seems to be more hungry, more hurting, and more lonely than ever! How can that be?
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul knew then what we experience now. Something is missing. He wrote
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
The missing ingredient is love.
It happens. It happens to the best of us. Yes, it happens in the church. Jesus mentioned that when he spoke to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2. He said, “I know how hard you’ve worked and all that you’ve done.” “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:2,4). Did you hear what was missing? Love.
What’s the difference between making a lot of noise and actually saying something? Love. What’s the difference between knowing and believing lot of things and actually being something? Love. What’s the difference between giving generously and sacrificially and actually doing something? Love.
If love is missing, we’ve got a big problem. Jesus called that church in Ephesus to repent and come back to where they need to be. Loveless noise, knowledge, faith and sacrifice is sin for which we much seek forgiveness.
How can that be? How can we be doing all the right things and yet still be so far off the mark?
Well, if we aren’t motivated by love, then we must be motivated by something else. So what is our motivation? Why do we do the things we do?
In our context, we want to grow. We want more people to come to our church. We want to be bigger. Why? Because we want to be solvent. We need the cash flow. (And I want a paycheck.) Plus, we want to be as big and popular as the other churches in town. We want people to notice us, so that more people will come, and we’ll have more volunteers to do all the things that need to be done. When you boil it down, our motivation is greed, selfish ambition and pride. All of which Jesus said we should be careful to avoid.
Loveless motivation amounts to nothing. No wonder no one’s listening. No wonder we’re not getting anywhere. Something’s missing. Love.
I guess we better figure out where we dropped the ball. We better go back and learn from Jesus what it means to speak and learn and believe and give with love. We are blessed to have a Savior who shows us that path.
When a rich young man approached Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him to obey the commandments. When the young man insisted he had kept them all, Jesus looked at him, loved him, and said, “You need to sell what you have.” (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus’ words were simple and challenging but also came from a deep love for that man. Jesus knew what that man was struggling with and cared enough to call him away from that into a different relationship with God.
When Jesus was in the upper room with his disciples, before his prayer in the garden and his arrest, he washed their feet and spoke prophetically of what was to come. He said that one of them would betray him, another would deny him and they would all desert him. Yet through it all, “he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). His teachings, his insights into the kingdom of God, his humble service, and his predictions of what would happen to him, all came from the one who loved them with an everlasting love. He knew how hard it would be for them, and he wanted them to know that when things got crazy, his love would always be there for them.
And then Jesus gives up all he had, humbled himself and gave up his life on the cross. It is the single greatest expression of love ever. No other expression of love compares. Period. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Jesus leaves no doubt how he feels about the world and about you and about me.
That’s why Jesus isn’t just more noise in this world. His words are different. His words make us pause. His words make us listen. His words stick in your mind. His words prompt us do things differently. His words are infused with love.
Don’t you find it interesting that the wisdom and the words of Jesus are woven into our literature, conversations, music and news? Without realizing the source, even unbelieving people speak of loving your neighbor. They advocate doing to others as you would have them do to you, They will insist that you not judge others. They speak of a city on a hill. Jesus said all those things. And because his motivation was a love for the whole world, his words speak powerfully in many contexts.
That’s why Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is so powerful. It expresses a love that defines who God is. It defines our relationship to God. It gives worth and meaning to our lives. You might not think your life is all that significant. But he does. His great love speaks loud and clear about the treasured possession you are.
If love is missing from the things that you do, there is only one who can supply that critical ingredient. Christ’s love alone makes our efforts meaningful and effective. That is exactly what happens when we gather for worship. This is where we hear of God’s great love for us and the forgiveness of our sins. This is where we remember in our baptism that we are his dearly loved children. This is where we to eat and drink the sacrament, Jesus’ great gift of love to us. This is the place and this is the time when our lives are infused with love.
You know what happens when you infuse your water or your olive oil or your vodka with different flavors. It makes a big difference, doesn’t? What will happen when our lives are infused with God’s love? It makes an amazing difference.
For one thing, you won’t just hear what God has to say, but you’ll do it. Jesus said, “If you love me you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). Our love for God is expressed in following Christ’s example, that is, conforming our lives to him and his word. When we do that, our message isn’t a bunch of noise. The world is watching, and when they see that his words mean something to us, that we believe them and we trust him enough to do them, it makes an impact.
Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love for others is a powerful message to the world of who we are and what he has done. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). The gospel is seen and heard in the love-filled life of his church.
When our lives are infused with love, even the smallest things we do are not a waste of time, but have great meaning and worth. Lives infused with his love are aligned with God’s plan and purpose that “all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4)
There will be times when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. Spinning your wheels. Spitting in the wind. Wasting your time. When that happens, come back to these verses, and listen as God reminds you what’s missing: love. Confess your lovelessness, and hear his words of forgiveness. Pause at the font and remember that you are his dearly loved son or daughter. Kneel to eat and drink his loving sacrifice for you. And be infused once again with the gift of his love. On this path of love you can be confident that you’ve got something important to say, you make a difference and you have much to offer.