Sermon: Love Never Fails (Based on 1 Corinthians 12:31 - 13:8)
Rev. John Knight
Community Outreach Pastor
RiverCross Church, Saint John, NB
Preached on May. 18th, 2014
So guess what? Tomorrow is a great day in history. But not because we’ll be celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday, though I’m sure that’s important too. Tomorrow is historic because it’s May 19th – the day my wife, Karen, and I will celebrate being married thirty years. I wish I could tell you that I can recall every detail of our wedding day. But the truth is that my fifty-two-year-old memory has a few gaps in it now that our wedding album has to fill. But I do remember the Scripture we chose for the ceremony: We looked at Genesis chapters 1 and 2, where Adam and Eve are described as made in God’s image – as companions who are called to share life together as they work side by side, caring for God’s creation. For us, it was a reminder that we were coming to our marriage as equals in God’s sight, and that we promised to be there for each other – to cooperate in everything we did together – “so long as we both shall live.” We also looked at 1 Corinthians chapter 13, to remind us that love – that building each other up through patience – kindness – respect – peace – truth – trust – was the only sure way to make our lives together be a blessing from God.
God is Love.
You know, love really does make the world go round. Or so the Gospel of John claims, as it opens with some dramatic words that just grab our attention: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1). It takes us back to yet another “in the beginning” in Genesis, where a majestic God speaks all Creation – the world as we know it – into being through a word brimming with power.
And that’s what the Apostle John wants us to see again – this vision of a Creator God, the Sovereign of the Universe, whose power and knowledge is so vast, whose ways are so mysterious, whose presence is so holy, that we can’t possibly draw near and know him. We’re too small, too insignificant, too imperfect, to come into God’s presence. But then the miracle happens: What we can’t do in our feeble humanity, God can do in his power and majesty. If we can’t draw near to God in our failure and sin, God can draw near to us in all his holiness. And he does! Just a few verses on from “in the beginning was the Word,” John’s Gospel declares: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14).
Folks, the Apostle John is telling us that the same word of power through whom God made the world, has now taken on human form in Jesus Christ. He’s proclaiming that God’s up-close-and-personal love story with people – with us – has begun! Because through Jesus we meet a God looking for a relationship with each one of us – we discover the love that’s at the very heart of God.
Just take a look at Jesus: his deep connection with the crowds, as he taught and showed them God’s way; his compassion for unclean lepers and blind beggars, the paralyzed and the demon possessed, as he restored them all to wholeness; his keen interest in the ignored and excluded – corrupt tax collectors, half-breed Samaritans, and women (of all things!) – showing them all that they mattered to God; and finally, his lonely death on a Cross, carrying the burden of our sin, so that we could start with a clean slate in God’s great company.
No wonder the Apostle John, looking back on all this, wrote these wonderful words in 1st John: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:7-11).
God calls us to love each other.
Look folks, when all is said and done, love holds the Gospel Good News of Jesus together. So love should hold Gospel people together too – people like you and me.
But let’s be honest. This isn’t easy. Karen and I have been married thirty years, and there have been many blessings along the way – great kids, fascinating experiences, wonderful opportunities. But there have been challenging times too and even bleak moments. Moments when sin triumphs over love – and any thought of being equals before God and obeying his call to share life together has kind of gone out the window for a while. And in those moments, we’ve been called back to our vows before God, the promises we made to love each other as Christ does: to be selfless, sacrificial, redemptive; to build each other up through goodness and generosity. And we’ve had to repent – to admit that we were going about things all wrong and it was time to do a “Spiritual 180” in our lives back to God.
Now I’m sure I’m not alone in “‘fessing up” this morning. What does the Apostle Paul say? “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So let’s be real here: we all have bleak moments in our intimate relationships with each other. Whatever that relationship might be – a close friendship, a dating relationship, a marriage, a long-time bond with a brother or sister in the faith – we simply must “‘fess up and face up’” to the fact that sin is always nearby. Sometimes selfishness gets the better of us. Sometimes anger and harsh words disturb the peace. Sometimes we play “power games,” delighting in evil, as we lord it over those closest to us.
But guess what? God can fashion something beautiful and alive out of even the worst possible mess we could imagine. If you don’t believe me, well, take a look at the church in the city of Corinth in the early days of the Christian faith. Corinth was the New York of the Roman Empire: booming with business; host to sporting events and live theatre; multicultural, with people from everywhere living side-by-each; and socially diverse, with rich and poor, masters and slaves, tradesmen and merchants, salesmen and philosophers, all thrown together and trying to get along. And it was a religious city, although “worship” often crossed the line into something entirely different – as the “priestesses” at Aphrodite’s temple plied their trade at night.
So Paul comes and starts a church there – a church about as diverse and chaotic as the city. It was multicultural and socially diverse. It also had members from the seedy side of life – people who, Paul says, were now “sanctified [and] justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” but who once were sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, prostitutes, and drunkards (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
No big surprise, then, that these church folk had a tough time holding it together. They broke into factions – squabbling over church doctrine. There were social divisions – rich and poor were treated differently around the Lord’s Supper. Church members were suing church members. And there was some wild sexual stuff going on – “of a kind,” Paul says, “that does not even occur among pagans” (1 Corinthians 5:1).
But in spite of all that, Paul, who believed in a loving God, still had faith in the church folk in Corinth. That’s why he reminds them that, as “Jesus followers,” they’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit and equipped with spiritual gifts to be used, as it says in 1 Corinthians 12:7, “for the common good” of their church’s ministry.
And then to really bring it home, he gives them a word-picture: each person using their spiritual gifts in the church is like all the different pieces and parts of a human body working together to create something beautiful and alive. Actually, Paul says that the folks in Corinth are more than just any run-of-the-mill human body. “You are the body of Christ,” (12:27) he says. He’s telling them – pleading with them – to recognize that God, in Jesus, has redeemed and formed them into something glorious – the living, breathing presence of Christ in the world. He’s saying to them, plain as day, “You are as Christ to your world, working to redeem it!”
It’s inspiring stuff, isn’t it? But then Paul draws a line in the sand, and tells them they won’t be able to cross it, unless they also all share together in that “most excellent way” – LOVE. They won’t get beyond the chaos and conflict and keep it together as Christ’s Body unless they learn to practice love in their home lives and church life. Paul uses high drama to get his point across: In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 13, he kind of sets himself up as the perfect “Jesus follower.” “Imagine-if,” he says, “I have some amazing spiritual gifts – tongues, prophecy – and a miracle-working faith, and give everything to the poor, and am even willing to sacrifice myself for Christ’s cause. Imagine if I am a perfect “Jesus follower” and yet – here’s the kicker – ‘have not love.’ Well, then, I’m really no follower at all, am I? I’m just ‘a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’ – I’m just making noise. ‘I am nothing.’ ‘I gain nothing.’”
And with those words this great Apostle points us to a great truth that we need to take to heart in our home lives and our church life too: Look folks, if we at RiverCross are Christ’s Body, we need to look like Jesus. And if we’re to look like Jesus, then love is where we start. Love as Christ practiced it in his ministry and death – a love that’s selfless, sacrificial, and redemptive. A love that reflects Christ’s character as it brings freedom and hope and new life to others. A love that shows up in attitudes and actions that build people up into all that God intends. A love revealed in virtuous living that has the power to change people and bring them together.
“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. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
What about when love fails?
“Love never fails.” But what about when love does fail? Or to put it more accurately, I suppose: What happens when sin triumphs over love? What happens, for example, when domestic violence and abuse prevails in our home lives and impacts our church life? Look folks, this is a troubling reality that affects all of us here – through friendships, or family relationships, or even church connections.
Maybe you’ve heard it called other things – spousal abuse, intimate partner violence, family violence, dating violence. But whatever you want to call it, the reality is the same: domestic violence and abuse happens in intimate relationships – typically, between a husband and wife or common law partners or two people who are dating. And guys listen up: studies confirm beyond a doubt that 85% of the time, the abuser is a man, and the victim a woman. Sure, it can be the other way around the other 15% - and that does happen. But it’s time for all us guys to face the facts. And it’s also clear that domestic violence and abuse happens throughout society – it shows no respect for how educated people are, how much money they have, or even if they go to church or not. And it takes many forms – physical violence, verbal assaults, manipulation, cruelty, isolation, unreasonable demands.
And the abuser uses all these for one purpose alone: power and control. Domestic violence is calculated behaviour the abuser uses to dominate another person. It’s the abuser’s way of saying, “I own you, and I’m going to make you so afraid of me, I’m going to humiliate you so badly, that I can get you to do anything I please. But whatever you do still won’t be good enough for me.”
You know, it should make us weep that from the year 2000 to 2005, 653,000 Canadian women reported being a victim of spousal violence. For 26% of these women, the assaults had happened more than 10 times. And the highest reporting rates of violence came from young women, ages 15 – 24. In fact, in 2011, the rate of dating violence was 60% higher than the rate of spousal violence.
And in case we think that life is different in New Brunswick, just know that we have the 3rd highest provincial rate for police-reported violent crime against women in Canada. And in case we think that life in Saint John is different, just know that our province’s rate is so high because our city has the 3rd highest city rate for violence against women in this country. And the 2nd highest city rate for criminal harassment of women. A few weeks ago, I happened to be at “Emergency” at the Regional Hospital, when a young victim, the right side of her face cut and bruised, was brought in by her parents. Not a pretty sight.
And let’s not pretend that this is a “worldly” issue – a problem “out there” that doesn’t touch the church. Did you know that a survey revealed that 25% of women – that’s one out of every four women – in Canadian churches report that they’ve been physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend? And another survey revealed that 83% of pastors have responded to and counselled victims of violence and abuse. And I can assure you, from a conversation I had with the Executive Director at the local women’s shelter, women of faith who are active in churches stay there. Folks, this is a church issue – it’s real – it’s happening in our congregations.
And let’s be clear about one more thing: domestic violence and abuse is sin. It offends God – it grieves his heart – it’s the opposite of what Jesus modelled – it’s contrary to what we’re called to, as his followers: LOVE. Domestic violence and abuse controls and dominates – hits and hurts – name calls – plays mind games – practices cruelty –– humiliates – blames – is never satisfied. Do you hear any echoes of 1 Corinthians 13 in all that? Of course not! Because love is Christ’s way; domestic violence and abuse is sin.
God’s love calls us to serve each other.
Back to John’s Gospel for a moment – to that big idea that the same word of power through whom God made the world, takes on human form in Jesus Christ. Think about that: it’s a picture of a humble God, who’s willing to bring himself down to our level so that we might know what real love looks like. And the Apostle John continues to show us this humble God throughout his Gospel.
We see it again in John chapter 13, as Jesus gathers with his disciples for Passover in Jerusalem. For them this was a Passover like no other, because it took place in the shadow of the Cross. Jesus knew that the hour had come to fulfill God’s will by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sin. But he also knew that his death would generate incredible pressures that could well break his disciples apart.
So in this final Passover together, Jesus prepares his disciples, his special friends, for his death. He does it by showing them what love ultimately looks like – or as verse 1 says it, “he now showed them the full extent of his love.” And how did he do this? Verses 3 and 4: he stripped down to his skivvies, wrapped a towel around his waist, filled a bowl with water, and washed and dried his disciples’ feet. He became a servant to his disciples. Then he turned to them and said, verses 14 and 15, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example.”
Think about that: the great God of the universe, the Word through whom the world was made, the One who is Lord and Teacher, the One in whom all power in this world actually resides, and who controls all Creation, became the most humble human imaginable to show us what God’s love really looks like. And also to leave us an example to follow – that we too should be servants to each other in love.
This is so completely the opposite – so dramatically different – from what drives an abuser: the lust for power and control, the craving to dominate other people. To this Jesus responds – to you and to me – to the abuser and to the victim: “A new command I give you, love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Daniel and Martha
Let me close with a true story about a middle-aged Christian couple named Daniel and Martha. I came across their story in a book entitled No Place for Abuse. Daniel and Martha were a dynamic and successful couple who lived in “the burbs” outside a large city in the United States. And they were every pastor’s dream. Martha was an office manager at the headquarters for their denomination. And they were both active in the local church. Daniel in fact was the Sunday School superintendent. And they both sang in the choir. And their home often hosted church meetings. They were a hardworking, committed Christian couple who had it all together – except that behind closed doors, Daniel beat and abused Martha.
It began when Martha was pregnant with their first child. No surprise, by the way, to those who study all this. Did you know that one-third of abused women are battered during pregnancy? It often begins or escalates during this time. And that’s certainly what went on with this couple. It happened one evening, when they were returning from a party with friends. On the ride home, Daniel accused Martha – wrongfully – of spending too much time with the men at the party. Then when they arrived home, he called her a whore and slapped her across the face.
The violence continued for years, even as they raised four children, and looked to everyone else like a “happy Christian family.” Throughout this time, Daniel victimized Martha in other ways too. If she talked about leaving, he reminded her that she couldn’t possibly support herself and the kids in the manner to which they’d become accustomed on just her salary alone. By the way, studies show that many abusers use economic power to manipulate their victims.
I wonder too if he sometimes spiritually abused her. I think you know what I mean: using his Bible knowledge – while totally disregarding theological truth – to “sanctify” his sinfulness. Telling her things like, “Sure I might’ve got rough with you, but Jesus says you must forgive me seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Or “I can do whatever I want with you because Ephesians 5 says I’m the head, I’m the boss, of this house” – while totally disregarding that everything in this passage flows from “submit yourselves to one another – [in other words, humbly serve each other] – out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).
Of course, there were moments when Daniel apologized for everything and Martha began to believe he might actually change. But what Martha probably didn’t realize is that abusers go through a cycle of violence: as tensions build, the verbal and emotional abuse escalates, the jealousy increases, and the blame games begin; eventually there’s an all-out violent explosion; then a time of peace – calm – flowers – gifts – apologies – promises to change. And then it starts all over again.
But something happened one evening as they prepared supper together: What an idyllic picture, don’t you think, preparing supper together? Except that Daniel went into a rage about the vegetables, grabbed Martha and began pounding her head into the kitchen cupboard – being careful, mind you, to make sure she didn’t hit where bruises would show. Except this time, their teenage daughter, Carla, walked in on the beating, apparently curious about the noise. But maybe this time she just chose to intervene. Maybe she’d had enough. Who knows?
What we do know is that studies show that 90 percent of children in violent homes, even if they don’t actually witness it, are aware that their mother is being battered – they sense the cycle of violence, they observe the bruises afterwards. And this can cause profound trauma in their lives – they can potentially become very broken adults. I wonder what Martha would have done if she were aware of all this. Would she have kept the family together at all costs, thinking that’s what good Christian parents should do, even though Daniel’s sin had so clearly triumphed over God’s call to love – even though Daniel had repeatedly broken the marriage covenant? Well, in any case, this time, the police showed up, Daniel went to jail for the weekend, and their marriage ended.
Folks, I know that’s a hard story to listen to – it’s a good long ways from a “feel good” Sunday morning message on a lazy long weekend. Because it deals with realities we’d much rather ignore or avoid. And yet there is GOOD NEWS here, because God is present in this story too.
I wonder what would happen if Martha and Daniel were part of our fellowship here at our church. How would we respond? How should we respond? Well, I think we know – don’t we? LOVE! Folks, we are Gospel people who are called to follow Jesus by practicing a love that “never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8).
If Martha were part of our fellowship, I would hope and pray that we would surround her and we would serve her with a love that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” – that she might know abundant life in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 13:7).
But what about Daniel? Well, God’s great love story is for him too. Daniel needs to discover up-close-and-personal that God can fashion something beautiful out of the worst mess imaginable. And I’ll be honest with you, speaking very frankly as a pastor this morning, Daniel’s present predicament – his arrest and the break-up of his marriage – is right where he needs to be. Because now there are no more excuses – now he must face his sin alone before God – not for judgement – but to receive grace. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Daniel needs to meet and know Jesus Christ – to come clean before God – and the moment to do that has arrived. It’s here! It’s right now! No more excuses!
Friends, we live in a broken world where sin plays out in the lives of people all around us – and quite honestly, in our lives too. In the midst of all this, let’s choose to be Gospel people who reveal Christ’s way through a love that “never fails.”