Sermon \ Pastor Terry Defoe \ Stewardship Initiative \ I Cor 13:13 \ Building Relationships
My message is based on these words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Christians, chapter 13. I’m reading verse 13:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (N.I.V.)
Today, we begin a month-long discussion of stewardship here at Mount Olive. My message is based on a devotion that’s included in an initiative many of our congregations have participated in called “The Lifestyle of Faithful Stewards.” This material has been provided by our friends in the Alberta-British Columbia District of our Lutheran Church – Canada. My message this morning is an adaptation of a message titled “Love Builds Relationships.” I pray that God would bless our consideration of His holy Word this day – that he would enable us to hear His Word, understand it, and put it into practice.
I begin with these familiar words – a greeting made famous for all time by the Apostle Paul:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We turn to the 13th chapter of First Corinthians – what has come to be known as the love chapter of the Bible. We focus on words first penned by the Apostle Paul – words addressed first of all to the Christians at ancient Corinth – words that also apply to us as Christians today. The author of our devotion this morning says that love – the God-kind of love – is the solid foundation for building all kinds relationships. Without the God-kind of love, relationships don’t develop properly and often don’t last. Relationships are the source of life’s greatest blessings and also the source of our greatest sorrows. By virtue of our baptism and our God-given faith in Christ, we have a vertical relationship with our Triune God and many horizontal relationships with our families and friends. Because of the relationship that God has established for us with His Son Jesus, we are enabled to build relationships with others and to live out “The Lifestyle of Faithful Stewards.”
Consider again the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:
Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Evidence of Paul's Christ-like love – a love the New Testament calls “agape” love - was that no matter how people treated him, he still had them in his heart. The Apostle Paul’s life and ministry was a living illustration of this special kind of love. If he was the self-centered hypocrite the false teachers in Corinth claimed he was, he would have been angry and bitter, self-justifying, and aggressively hostile toward his accusers. But he wasn't. Paul’s heart was open and he loved them, and the negative things they did and said didn't change him at all. He wasn't angry; he wasn't bitter. His wounded heart continued to love them. This is the power of agape love in a Christian’s life. The Apostle Paul, before he met Christ, was not at all like this. Before he met Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul – his name was Saul then – was hateful and self-righteous, more than willing to use violence to achieve his religious goals. This attitude lives on in the religious fundamentalists that are in the news every day.
The Apostle Paul is a good example of what agape love looks like in real life. It's a refreshing reminder of the nobility and character of the highest virtue to which all Christians are called, this Christ-like, agape love. As dear children of our Heavenly Father, we seek, by God’s enabling, to love one another in this way. This special kind of love – seen so clearly in the life, and death, and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is the cornerstone for the building of our relationships with others.
Let’s take a few moments to analyze what Paul says about Christian love. A primary characteristic of this kind of love is honesty. This kind of love doesn't hold back when it comes to what God wants for us and for the world. This love doesn't hold anything back that’s beneficial. As the Apostle Paul said to the Ephesian elders in Acts chapter 20, verse 20,
I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you.
Christ-like love holds nothing back. And when a heart is filled with the love of Christ, that love will prompt the heart to speak words that need to be heard. As Jesus Himself said in Matthew, chapter 12, verses 34 & 35:
Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.
Christ-like love prompts Christians to speak honestly to others about God. So, if I really love someone, I'm honest with them about my faith. I'm honest about what God wants me to say. I'm honest with the other person. And I'm honest with myself. That's what real love looks like. Christ-like love motivates us to fulfill the Great Commission. Christ-like love is the solid foundation of our baptizing, and teaching – everything we do in the name of our Savior.
Christian evangelism is speaking the truth – but always speaking it in the context of this love we’re talking about. Christian evangelism – reaching out with the Good News of Jesus – always speaks the truth – but does so in love. It speaks the truth, but always with gentleness and respect. Christ’s love is courageous. It doesn’t hide its light under a bushel. It knows what people are missing when they don’t know Christ and his love. This special kind of love is a great blessing in any relationship. That's true in a family. That's true in a friendship. That's true in the church as well.
This special kind of love speaks the truth, unvarnished and complete. It speaks the truth about God. It speaks the truth about sinful human nature. It speaks the truth about ourselves. And about others. It’s honest, but it’s also circumspect. It always seeks to build bridges, not to tear those bridges down. This kind of love makes us vulnerable, because it pulls back the curtain so that we can see things as they really are, not how we want them to be.
Another characteristic of Christ-like love is affection for others. Real love never loses its affection; it doesn't matter what you do to it. You can hurt it, you can wound it, but you can't kill it. It can be wounded profoundly and deeply to the point of tears. But it still loves deeply. It turns the other cheek. It walks the extra mile. In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul tolerates their sin of misjudging him. It doesn't mean that he tolerated their errors. He didn't. He was rightly critical of sin and error wherever he saw it. He was committed to discipline and correction, but he never let those things stand in the way of his affection for the people there.
It's no different, really, than what we find in the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 6 which reminds us that "The Lord disciplines those He loves." Because of God’s affection and love for us, He disciplines us. But what else would you expect a loving Heavenly Father to do? When you love someone, you feel empathy for them. Even when the love of others turns cold, we continue to love them, as our Savior has done for us – and not just for us, but for the whole world.
A third characteristic of love is the desire for fellowship – for human community. Love longs for a response. Nothing in life . . . I say it again . . . NOTHING in life is more painful than unrequited love. There are times in life when we give love, and it’s not returned. There are times when we speak, and get only silence in return. There are times when we seek to establish a friendship with someone and that friendship wasn’t reciprocated. There were times when parents invest their heart and soul into our children and see nothing in return. Christian love can be painful. Just take a look at the cross for a moment. But that pain makes it even more important. Jesus’ love is unconditional. It doesn’t say, “I’ll love you IF…” it says, “I love you BECAUSE…”
Another characteristic of love, according to the Apostle Paul, is purity. A Christ-like love doesn't corrupt. It doesn't wrong others. Neither directly or indirectly, neither by his teaching or by his example, did the Apostle Paul ever led anyone into impurity. Paul never encouraged any kind of immoral conduct. That was evidence of his love. Love always enriches its object; it always elevates its object; it always seeks the purity and the goodness and the godliness of its object. Christ-like love manifests itself in honesty, in affection, in a desire for fellowship and a healing community.
A Christ-like love is humble. It turns the focus from itself to the other. This kind of love cares more for the other than it cares for the self. A sinful heart, on the other hand, often manipulates others for selfish goals. The Apostle Paul said, "I've given my life for you. I face death every day for you. I've been beaten and shipwrecked for you. With rods, with whips, stoned three times, left for dead for you."
A Christ-like love is humble, self-effacing, and sacrificial.
This special Christ-like love is marked by forgiveness. Peter said to Jesus in Matthew 18:21,
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that love “keeps no record of wrongs.” So here's a characteristic of Christ-like love that you can count on: it’s always eager to forgive. It seeks reconciliation. It rejoices when a broken relationship is restored.
Christ-like love is loyal. It’s as if the Apostle Paul is saying to the Corinthians,
I want you to know something. I want you to know that I’m serious about this love. This wasn’t always true in my life – but it is now. You folks are special to me. We’ve got some problems to deal with – that’s true. But, by God’s gracious enabling, we can deal with them. By God’s gracious enabling, we will be victorious.
Paul’s love, like that of Jesus before him, was loyal to the end.
It is also characteristic of Christ-like love to be trusting. This kind of love is eternally optimistic. It believes all things, hopes all things, it always looks for the best outcome. Paul said to people, "Great is my confidence in you." In spite of your problems, I'm still confident. Please be assured that I’m not going to give up on you. I’m not going to let go of you. Paul has great confidence in the Corinthians because that's how love is. It puts the best construction on things – always.
One more thing. Christ-like love is marked by joy. When we think about others, there is that undercurrent of joy, no matter what the struggles, no matter the problems, no matter what the issues. That's how love is. It’s marked by joy. It’s as if Paul is saying, “In the midst of my sufferings, I experience peace based on the joy you bring to me.”
I close with this. In Christ, in the cross where Jesus died for our sins, and in the empty tomb where God raised Jesus for our justification, our God demonstrates all these characteristics of love. In Christ, God’s love for us is honest and rooted in deep affection. He loves us so much that He graciously establishes ongoing communication with us through our prayers. He loves us so much that He graciously establishes fellowship with us through the Sacrament of Holy Communion. He loves us enough to forgive us when we fail. He forgives our sins. He loves us enough to be eternally loyal to us despite of our defections. He loves us enough to entrust us with His very own Gospel. He loves us enough to be proud of us and to boast about us as His children. And we love Him in return, empowered by His presence in us, made real through Word and Sacrament.
I want to emphasize that the strength that enables us to do these things – to exercise Christ-like love - is not our own. It is only in our God-given relationship with Christ that we exhibit these characteristics of love. The truth is that we are sinners, we are far from perfect, but, by God’s own strength in us, we love Him – and others. When we fail, God forgives. We live with confidence knowing that Jesus lived and loved perfectly for us — in our place. As forgiven and redeemed people, we live each day in God’s love which over flows through us to other people. As we live out The Lifestyle of Faithful Stewards, we build relationships with others because God first built a relationship with us through His Son. Amen.
Let’s pray. Dear Heavenly Father, we thank You for loving us so much that You sent Your Son to suffer and die on the cross for our sins. We pray that Your love for us would flow through us to others. Empower us to be instruments of Your love. Enable us to be people who live out “the lifestyle of faithful stewards.” We ask these things in Jesus, our Savior’s name – for our good and for His eternal glory. Amen.