Picks from the Pews: “Love Will Keep Us Together”

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

1 Corinthians 13

No doubt you know this text well. When you hear this text, what pictures come to your mind? I think I know. I know what comes to my mind. Weddings: white dresses, rented tuxedos, bouquets, unity candles, brides, bridesmaids, and all of that.

So some you might be surprised to learn that these words were not spoken at a marriage ceremony in the early church—Paul did not have weddings in mind at all when he penned this in his letter…

Rather these words arose out of a pastoral crisis… a crisis and controversy in the church so deep that it threatened to divide and destroy the life of that young, adolescent church before it even got off the ground.

So let’s understand why Paul wrote those beautiful words:  The Corinthian Christians seem to be having an old fashioned church fight.

Of course some good things come out of church fights… a friend pointed out to me that if we wouldn’t have any letters from Paul if it weren’t for fights and controversy in the early church! Which is another good reminder how God CAN and DOES bring good out of difficulty. Where would we be without those letters?

So what were our Corinthian brothers and sisters fighting over?

It seems they are enjoying one of the oldest church fights known to Christians: they are in the midst of worship wars:  worship wars over use of tongues in worship… expressive worship… fighting over  how much time to give to the prayer and how much time to give to the preaching. High liturgy and scripted worship or spontaneous worship. Fighting over whether clapping is okay or not?

 Whether you should wear coats and ties or polo shirts or shorts to worship?

Praise songs or not? Organs, guitars, drums, dancing – are they okay? Screens in the sanctuary or bulletins? (well, I added those last few ones! To help you get the point)

He is writing what looks to me to be a bunch of Christians who have locked down their views and positions on what is right and wrong… and few are willing to budge on their firmly held positions and prejudices.

It’s a trap we seem to fall into quite a bit.

I think of a sad story I heard of two women who encountered each other in a working class town about 100 years ago. Jean worked in a local bottling factory and attended a Bible class for working girls; Helen was the wife of a local Presbyterian minister and the Bible class leader. They both believed in God and longed to be faithful Christians, but they disagreed about the right ways to express their faith. Jean loved to dance: in the midst of her difficult and toilsome existence, dancing was a source and expression, of friendship, excitement and pleasure. Helen believed that dancing was dangerous-even wicked. She told Jean that she must choose, for she could not have both Christ and the dance. Jean replied that she could not give up the dancing. “then” said, Helen, ‘you must lose your soul.” Very soon after, Jean contracted smallpox and died. [1]

I think this is the kind of attitude Paul was encountering in the church in Corinth… it was an attitude that led to people fighting over whose gifts are God given gifts… and whose are not… they are fighting over theology, ideology and leadership.

Today they likely would have been fighting over politics too—posting all of their feelings on facebook or blogs.  Thank God they didn’t have the internet or facebook—they never would have made it.

And it is becoming in the words of the great North Carolina theologian Barney Fife: “a mess.”

Be honest now. Are you surprised by their behavior? Have you ever seen any Christian acting this way?

I’m not surprised… at all– not after growing up in the church… not after over 30 years of ministry in 6 congregations… not after serving congregations with great diversity of members…  not after 5 years of serving on the Committee on Ministry and working with conflicted or stressed out congregations… I’m not surprised at all that Paul discovers this church having all sorts of difficulty… and division.

So I say, let’s give the Corinthians a break. Let’s cut them some slack.

Because this is what happens when God puts you in a church filled with people who have all sorts of wonderful gifts and passions and ideas and a variety of ways to express faith. Life gets interesting! And sometimes messy.

We all know that life together in any diverse group is difficult… especially when everyone thinks they are right.

Everyone is fighting over whose contributions are more important and should be recognized. Today they would be fighting over which mission or ministry or program or group in the church is most important. And you know the answer: it is whatever ministry or mission or program or group you care about the most!

This seems to be what Paul saw when he visited the church in Corinth. A church filled with egos and spiritual pride.

So, what is Paul to say to Christians behaving badly?

First he seems to say: Grow up. It is time to grow up. You heard him say it, didn’t you? He told them, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Implying, it is time for you to do the same thing. It’s time to put an end to your childish ways.

It is time to grow up in your faith, tone down your talk, lose your pride and ego and grow in humility—It is time to acknowledge that what we see, know and understand is only partial— that none of us understand God and God’s ways completely: “for now we see in a mirror dimly, THEN we will see face to face. Now I know only in part,; then I will know fully even as I have been fully known.”

Until that time comes, Paul says we would be wise and faithful indeed if we pursued the more excellent way – which when you think about it, is the way Jesus modeled for us… it is the way of love… agape love… self giving and humble love… servant love.

He wants them and us to know… that if anything is to help us deal with our differences and diversity… if any one thing will help us enjoy these gifts… if anything will help us get the most of all of the gifts God has given us in the church…  and not tear us apart… it is love that will keep us together…

Love that is patient and kind… Love that is not envious or arrogant or rude… It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (everything else will but not love)… and remember, Faith , hope and love abide- these three, and the greatest is love.”

How do we forgetting this in the church? William Sloan Coffin was right when he said:“Too many religious people make faith their aim. They think ‘the greatest of these’ is faith, and faith defined as all but infallible doctrine. These are the dogmatic, divisive Christians, (I would add both liberal and conservative dogmatic Christians)  more concerned with freezing the doctrine (or being right) than warming the heart. If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive…”

He says,

“Make love your aim, not your biblical (Interpretation), nor purity nor obedience to holiness codes. Make love your aim, for
‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of  angels’- musicians, poets, preachers, you are   being addressed;
‘and though I … understand all mysteries and all           knowledge-    professors/intellectuals your turn
‘and though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor”- progressives take note
And though I give my body to be burned’- the very stuff of heroes (and martyrs)
And have not love, I gain nothing. “[2]

When we forget this, the body of Christ suffers. And the cause of Christ suffers.

But when we remember this, oh how we flourish. Imagine a church where love was the goal. Love was the aim of every member.

What would that church look like? A grown up and mature group of people who embraced their diversity… a church where people belonged because differences were appreciated and seen as God’s gift to them… something to be enjoyed and celebrated!

Imagine what life would look like in that kind of Church that pursued the more excellent way of love in their life together.

Someone once asked Brian McLaren what would it take to transform a congregation into “a school of love”. Can you suggest any resources? Any suggestions?

McLaren offered this powerful suggestion:  Have every group, every committee, every class (every choir rehearsal and youth meeting)  read aloud 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a and 13:13-14:1 before every meeting, with these words:
“Our main goal in this meeting is to practice the way of love. Every difference, every tension, every vulnerability, even every mistake will provide us an opportunity to grow in love.’ Then at the end of the meeting, you could re-read the passage, inviting a time of prayer: “Let’s confess where we have not walked the way of love, and let’s celebrate where we have. “

I want to close by celebrating where we have walked the way of love and embraced one another.

I want to celebrate the fact that the Kirk is made up of a wonderfully gifted and spirit led group of people who have passions for so many good things where the gifts of the spirit are celebrated in so many different ways among you:

In the ways we pray… in our passions for community mission, international mission and partnerships…At the Kirk,  some have passion for the refugee and to help the stranger… some want to make sure we take care of those who live among us who are hurting economically in this environment and the homeless in our midst… Some among us care deeply for  justice ministry or the environment… or for a life of virtue and moral integrity that pleases God… some have passion for Bible study… others love theology… some love the arts… God has placed in the hearts of our members a love for Stephen Ministry, Small Groups, Christian Education… God has placed in the hearts of some the passion for evangelism and hospitality… People around here are given passions and gifts that lead them to work with children, youth, young adults and older adults…  In our worship we have members who love traditional music, others praise music, others of us a blended form like those from Taize or Iona…

Friends, I don’t have time to tell you how many gifts and passions God has given this church… and we need them all here… every one of them!

So yes, I want to close by celebrating the gifts God has given us… and by reminding us all, that none of them matter… not a one of them… if we forget the greatest gift… the gift of love.

At least that is what Paul said: “If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal… And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Amen.

 


[1] Month 2, Day 15 Living Letters of the Word by Neil Paynter

[2] From Credo- quotes adapted


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