September 20, 2020 Sermon
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Love”
1st Scripture Reading – 1 Corinthians 13:1-7
13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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 do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
2nd Scripture Reading – John 15:12-13
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
“Pursuing Change for Christ: Love”
What does it take to effect great change in the world? Too often, I imagine we think the way to effect change is to be right, to have science on our side, to have what the Apostle Paul called “power” and “mysteries” and “knowledge”. If we are RIGHT; if we can PROVE we are right, people will follow us and we can change the world. Or maybe, just maybe, if we have enough faith to remove mountains, we can change the world. But notice what God told us through Paul. None of these things we value so highly is what will get the job done of pursuing change. The true requirement for effecting change is not truth…or power…or faith…but rather love.
Four Sundays ago, we began a sermon series that seeks to answer one of the most fundamental questions of our faith: given that we live in a world that God desperately desires be transformed into something different, something BETTER, the kingdom of God, HOW are we supposed to pursue change to and in this world? Are we supposed to pursue change the way people around us are pursuing change, or are we supposed to pursue change in ways that are DIFFERENT – meaning, what kinds of strategies and tactics should we be employing?
We spent the first two Sundays of this series considering Paul’s letter to Philemon. In that book, we discovered that God desires our general approach to pursuing change to be an approach of love instead of hate, love instead of anything else, really, especially love for the people who are most DIFFICULT for us to love as a result of their sins. We even discovered some specific strategies we could, we SHOULD, employ for pursuing change. And for the rest of the sermon series, we’ve been looking beyond the book of Philemon for other specific strategies God offers us through the scriptures. So far, we’ve considered reconciliation and God’s model of and call to continue to engage people who disagree with us.
Today, we move onto a new strategy, even if not exactly a new topic. The strategy is LOVE. Since we’ve already considered that Paul used the approach of love to pursue change with Philemon, you might wonder why a whole separate sermon is necessary for love as a strategy for pursuing change. The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that Jesus gave us a new commandment to love others as he loves us. When Jesus gives us something as strong as a commandment, we should give it some time and attention. The complex answer involves our reading from 1 Corinthians. The love Jesus commanded us to offer is not a simple thing. Paul describes it using a great many descriptive words that should guide EVERYTHING we do to pursue change…which means that if all I had said about love in this sermon series was to pursue change with the general approach of love, I doubt many of us would really be equipped for that. Worse, we might have incorrect notions of how exactly to pursue change with love.
So, for today, we’re going to dive into Paul’s description of love from 1 Corinthians 13 and apply each description to our efforts to pursue change.
“Love is patient.” When you think of patience, especially when it comes to pursuing change, I wonder what you think about. I would imagine most people think about pursuing change that is NEEDED and then waiting, waiting, waiting for the change to take place. For a current example, let’s consider the push for an end to perceived systemic racism in our society. This understanding of patience – and therefore of love, remember – suggests that Christians who believe this change needs to be made should highlight the change, maybe keep emphasizing it periodically, but not push TOO hard while waiting for the needed change to take place. As we look around at what’s actually happening, I’m sure you can see that there are some people who are taking this patient approach and there are those who are not – there are those who are FED UP with waiting and demand change NOW. So I ask: which is the loving way Paul recommends with his words, “love is patient”?
As it turns out, the word that gets translated as “patient” in our reading from 1 Corinthians isn’t about a general waiting, at all. It’s about waiting – or more accurately DELAYING – in ONE very specific way: it’s about delaying or deferring action out of ANGER. In other words, with regard to pursuing change, love is patient in that it doesn’t respond out of anger when the needed change doesn’t happen soon enough. So, again, using the example of what’s happening in our current society, love dictates that we not loot or set fires or hurt people or in any way respond out of hatred, anger, and violence because the righteous change we pursue isn’t happening as fast as we want it to happen. Why? Because anger and violence are human ways, are unloving ways, whereas deferring action that stems from anger is the Godly way, the loving way.
“Love is kind.” If we asked everyone in this sanctuary to define “kind”, I’m guessing we’d get about as many different definitions as there are people here. Some would define kindness as “nice”. Some would define kindness as “authentic” or “honest”. Some would define kindness as “warm-hearted” which I guess is like a combining of nice and authentic. Some would define kind as “gentle”. Some might even define kindness as something involving fakeness…because it denotes a certain kind of action toward others that might be inconsistent with what we’re actually feeling. So…if we try to apply these definitions to pursuing change, what do they look like? Is it about being “nice” while we tell people or society they need to do things differently?
Fortunately, we don’t have to worry so much about how to apply all these different definitions…because our task is to figure out what Paul meant, and what Paul meant is very different from any of these things. The word Paul used that gets translated as “kind” is very different from the definitions I’ve suggested WE might propose in that Paul’s word is an ACTION word, not a feeling word. Paul’s word means “full of service to others”. So…love is kind such that loving people seek to perform actions of usefulness on behalf of others.
What could this possibly have to do with pursuing change? Actually, it’s CRITICAL. It means the changes we pursue must be changes that would be beneficial and useful to OTHERS. If you ever find yourself pursuing a change because it’s what YOU want, but it won’t be particularly helpful or useful to those upon whom you’re seeking to impose the change, you’re not being loving…and in the context of pursuing change, you’re not being Christian. Oh, and this also means that our APPROACH must be beneficial to others, as well. Which means, no killing people, no torturing people, no locking away people who oppose the change…all in the name of pursuing a righteous end. Just…NO, NOT LOVING.
“Love is not envious”, which some translators also translate as “love is not jealous”. Now we get to a part of the list that’s a bit frustrating for me. Paul spends more time defining what love is NOT than defining what love IS. Oh well; at least this will be helpful for us in knowing how to NOT pursue change.
This word that gets translated as “envious” or “jealous” has two interesting nuances that will be helpful to our understanding of pursuing change for Christ. The first nuance is that the word suggests a desire to possess something. As we pursue change, we need to be sure we’re not trying to acquire something for ourselves, particularly power. How often do we see people SAY they’re pursuing change for the common good when they’re actually pursuing change to acquire power (or wealth, or something else.) We must avoid this temptation as we seek to pursue change for Christ. The second nuance is that the word’s origins suggest it’s about being heated to the point of boiling over (envy, hatred, or anger)…so it’s more than just a feeling, a desire for something; it actually manifests itself in the action represented by the boiling over. As we pursue change, it’s important to pay attention for the presence of these emotions that could lead to a point of “boiling over”; if you start to feel these things, it’s time to prayerfully seek a calming, prayerfully ask for guidance on how your pursuit of change is moving away from change for Christ and toward change for something else. Which…by the way, is easy to see in so much of the changes we see people pursuing around us. Look at the signs of protestors, listen to the language of protestors, watch the actions of protestors: it’s so easy to spot the difference between the protestors who are pursuing change in a loving way with regard to this word and those who are not. And, of course, we can even look closer to home for examples. Think of any congregational disagreement EVER, and I’m pretty sure you can recall instances of people boiling over to pursue the change they desired. That’s the wrong approach.
I’m going to skip past several of Paul’s descriptors; there’s just not time to address all of them.
“Love does not insist on its own way.” This might be the single most important aspect of love as we pursue change for Christ. Remember Jesus’ commandment – and the words that follow it – from our second scripture reading: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Love does not insist on its own way. Jesus didn’t insist on HIS own way. Jesus’ desire – His way – was something OTHER than dying. We know that; he told God so much in a prayer in the garden. And yet, there is no greater love than to give one’s life for others…which is what Jesus actually DID, regardless of what he wanted.
What does this mean for us as we pursue change for Christ? Well, it gets to the “for Christ” thing. If you find yourself pursuing a change that YOU want, it’s time to take a step back and start doing some serious reflecting. Just because you want the change doesn’t make the desired change bad or unloving – because one of the goals of the Christian life is to get our will in alignment with God’s will, with Christ’s will, which, as we get more and more successful at doing this will mean we desire the things God desires and so it will feel like the changes we pursue for Christ are changes WE desire. HOWEVER…most Christians aren’t anywhere CLOSE to being at this place. Which means…we should be skeptical when WE WANT the change we are pursuing. ANYTIME that happens, I encourage you to pause and pray…discern whether you’re pursuing change for you or for God.
This can be particularly problematic in democratic denominations like ours. If you’ve attended one of my Bible studies or Sunday School classes, you’ve likely heard me say this. In democratic denominations set in a democratic society like the USA, we tend to believe that when we take a congregational vote, our task is to do what we do in societal votes: vote for what WE want. If there’s a vote about the color of the carpet or the color of the roof or resurfacing the parking lot, our task as individuals is to vote on what WE want as individuals, and when we add up all the votes, we have the collective will of the congregation to act upon. Ya’ll, this is NOT what a congregational vote is supposed to be AT ALL! For the Church of Jesus Christ, a congregational vote should entail each person voting on what they perceive CHRIST’S will, GOD’s will, to be…so that when we tally the votes what we’re counting is the discerned will of God, not the cumulative desires of the members of the congregation. Since we’ve spent literally hundreds of years in our denomination believing congregational votes are about OUR will, that pursuing congregational change is about OUR desired change, we’ve lost sight of one of the most fundamental claims of love with regard to pursuing change: love does not insist on its own way.
“Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” In English, these two concepts – wrongdoing and truth – don’t seem like the kind of opposites to be contrasted. I mean, wrongdoing is about sinfulness and truth is about something like factualness – you know, things like 2 + 2 = 4. They’re not exactly in the same sphere.
But in the ancient Greek culture, and especially for ancient Christians in the Greek world, these two concepts were more closely related. The word that gets translated as “wrongdoing” could also be translated as “injustice”; indeed, it is the same word that gets translated in other places as “injustice”. And the concept of “justice” in the scriptures is about what’s right and wrong in the eyes of God, not people. And while “truth” CAN be about facts, facts represent only one kind of truth, one sphere in which there is truth. There’s another sphere that includes truth – the religious/moral sphere. In the religious/moral sphere in the ancient world, truth was about what God believed to be the reality of right and wrong, as opposed to the illusions of right and wrong propped up by the world (by people). So…truth was about justice.
And do you recall what was considered wrongdoing in terms of God’s justice versus what was considered truth or right-doing in terms of God’s justice? It was all about taking care of the people who couldn’t take care of themselves: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and imprisoned. While the ways of the world out there might do their best to tell you these things are NOT what love is about – the opposite of truth – right-doing in God’s eyes, LOVING in God’s eyes, means taking care of these kinds of needs, as well as any other needs of people. So, when it comes to pursuing change for Christ…love means pursuing changes that will meet people’s needs.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” There’s quite a lot going on in this sentence. For today, I want to focus on just one word: “all”. Paul repeats this word with every phrase in the sentence. The point of Paul repeating this word so many times is that there’s nothing in life to which Jesus’ command to love does not apply. Meaning, while you pursue change for Christ, you can’t decide that it’s ok to take an action or position that would be unloving. You can’t decide to pursue change by killing some people or shouting some people down or destroying stuff. Love applies to ALL as we pursue change for Christ.
As I reflect on ALL Paul had to say about love, especially as it pertains to a strategy for pursuing change for Christ, while all these words from1 Corinthians 13 can make love sound confusing as a strategy – there are just so many things Paul says we need to consider to pursue change with love – as I consider this passage in its totality, it’s really not that confusing at all. Almost all of Paul’s words point to the same kinds of characteristics of love. As we pursue change for Christ:
- We must work for the best interests of others, not ourselves;
- We must genuinely be working to meet the NEEDS of others, not manufacturing “needs” to work toward our own best interests;
- We must NEVER act out of anger, hatred, or violent desires to pursue change for Christ;
- We must not seek to serve ourselves;
- We must be willing to sacrifice;
- We must ACT – not just feel;
All this stuff, it sounds like it fits together pretty well. But I wonder, does it sound like it’s consistent with the efforts being undertaken right now across our nation to pursue change? If not, I would suggest there are far too many people pursuing change for something other than Christ, too many people pursuing change out of something other than love, too many people pursuing change that will result only in the continued in-breaking of the kingdom of people instead of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Which means, it’s time for us, followers of Jesus, to ACT. It’s time for us to LEAD by example, pursuing change for Christ out of love, so that before too long, others will follow our lead, and we WILL experience the in-breaking of God’s kingdom instead of something else. If we don’t, if we allow change to be pursued without love, Paul told us what would happen: we will gain nothing. Amen!