Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (January 31, 2016)

Epiphany 4 – Series C (January 31, 2016)
“A Still More Excellent Way” (1 Corinthians 12b-13:13)

Striving for excellence in all that we do is a good thing.  In Colossians 3, St. Paul writes, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus … Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:17, 23).  We don’t want to do things in a sloppy fashion, especially when it is done to God’s glory.  As we bear the name Christian, we want to uphold God’s name, God’s reputation, as people who do things heartily as for the Lord.
            As a pastor, that means striving for excellence in preaching, liturgy, pastoral care, and being sure that the doctrine I proclaim is true.  For each of us, that means in our parenting, in our school work, in our relationships, we are to be the best we can possibly be.  In the installation of our church officers last week, we heard from 1 Corinthians 15:58, “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
On the other hand, the quest for excellence can be burdensome.  It can feel like you are in a pressure cooker.  The air around you presses down upon every square inch of your body.  It’s hard to breathe.  You feel like something is about to blow.  It is especially burdensome when you begin to believe that your status before God based on the quality of your performance.
Ted Engstrom, former president of Word Vision and Youth for Christ Internation wrote a book titled The Pursuit of Excellence.  Here’s the description from the back cover:
“He cuts a swath through mediocrity – ‘get angry at your own mediocrity’ – to promote a way of life that says ‘you don't have to be average.’ … Engstrom calls people to stretch themselves, to give up their small ambitions, and to pursue the path of excellence, using examples from Scripture to show how God's people down through the ages have followed this mandate. Each chapter includes workable steps for a strategy for excellence in every area of life.”[1]
Wow.  Does that sound like a book that might put you in that proverbial pressure cooker?  Another book was written a few years ago entitled Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism.  In this book, Christian counselor Richard Winter compares the positive desire to strive for excellence, while warning against “the seductive nature of perfectionism” that can lead to “debilitating thoughts and behaviors” such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression, fear of failure, and so forth.[2]
And yet here we have Paul today talking about “excellence.”  Our reading begins with these words, “I will show you a still more excellent way.”  He has been explaining that God has given spiritual gifts to each of us in the Church.  He has been illustrating this with the example of the way the body works together.  Likewise, the Body of Christ works together as God has arranged it.  With Christ as our head, with Christ at the center of all that we say and do, there is no dysfunction.  Even the smallest of tasks are important because they are all empowered by the same Spirit.
            But what can be more excellent than this?
            The “still more excellent way” is love.
You can do everything with excellence, but if you have no love, you are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  As a matter of fact, some of the Corinthians’ neighbors used cymbals in the worship of Dionysius, the god of wine.  Paul mentions gongs and cymbals here to suggest that the use of spiritual gifts without love makes the worship of the Corinthians no different than the pagans around them.[3]
You can say the truest things in the world, but if there is no love behind it, you sound like this [BANG CYMBAL].  You can prophesy.  You can understand all the mysteries of the universe, peering into the deep things of God.  You can move mountains with the strength of your faith.  You can live like a monk and die like a martyr.  But if you have no love, you are nothing.  If you have no love, you gain nothing.
The pastor can stand in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday.  He may be the most orthodox of theologians.  He may be the most eloquent of preachers.  But if he shows no care or concern for people, he sounds like this [BANG CYMBAL].  Some of the best advice I ever received came from the Rev. Walt Reese, interim pastor here at Messiah when I was called to be your pastor.  All he said was, “love these people.”  Not long after that, another pastor echoed that advice when he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Love your people, love your people, love your people.”  I pray I’ve lived up to that to the best of my abilities, with the help of the Holy Spirit, of course.
Paul’s Spirit-inspired description of love is one of the most poetic and beautiful descriptions ever written.  It’s often used in wedding services, but it is about so much more than romantic love.  It is a description of the self-giving, self-sacrificing love that we are to have for all people.  Patient.  Kind.  Not envious or boastful.  Not arrogant or rude.  Not insisting on its own way.  Not irritable or resentful.  Does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Bears all things.  Believes all things.  Hopes all things.  Endures all things.
So how are we doing?  Measured up to this standard, not so hot.  We can be impatient, unkind, envious and boastful.  We can be arrogant or rude at times, if not outwardly, certainly in our thoughts.  We can be very irritable and resentful when we don’t get our own way.  We may not rejoice at wrongdoing but we certainly revel over wrongdoers when they get their just deserts.  Of course, we want justice served.  But sometimes our brand of justice becomes revenge.  Someone wrongs us and hatred boils up in our hearts.  Maybe we even wish they would rot in hell.
We must repent of this.  We must instead see each person as someone for whom Christ Jesus also died to save, even as he died to save you and me.  We must repent of all the ways we have failed to love, and turn in faith and trust to the one who loved us in the most excellent way.
·         The One who spoke not in the tongues of men and angels, but with the very voice of God himself.
·         The One who has all prophetic powers to speak with authority to both demons and disease and to cast them out, and whose authoritative Word in his Church today still works to deliver from all evils of body and soul.
·         The One who truly does understand all the mysteries of the universe, because he created the universe.
·         The One who, when he walked and talked here on earth, lived in perfect faith and trust in his Heavenly Father.
·         The One who lived in poverty and delivered his body up to be crucified while bearing all the sins of the world upon himself.
Romans 5:8 says, “God shows his love for us in this, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  That’s the most excellent way in which you are loved.  Jesus is the One who did all this for you and for your salvation.  Forgiving you for your failure to love.  Forgiving you for all the ways you have sinned against his holy commandments.  Empowering you to love as he has loved you … self-giving, self-sacrificing.  “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Jesus is love incarnate.  He is eternal.  He never ends.  And because Jesus never ends, that means love never ends.
And yet we still ask this question:  “I know Jesus loves me today, but will he love me tomorrow?  What if I sin tomorrow?  I probably will.  I’m so weak.”  Yes, of course, Jesus will love you tomorrow.  His love never ends.  His forgiveness never ends.  His work on the cross was effective for you yesterday and will be effective for you always.  He loves you the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Paul says that one day prophecies will pass away, tongues will cease, knowledge will pass away.  These are all things that were present in the first century early church in miraculous ways.  Some were given the gifts of prophecy, speaking in other languages, and special words of wisdom.  Those gifts seem to have faded away after the apostolic age, especially after all the books of the New Testament were written and God’s written revelation was complete.  Paul probably mentions this in conjunction with the problem in the Corinthian congregation, that is, people with more spectacular spiritual gifts pridefully considered themselves better than others.  It’s like two children arguing in the playground over silly little things:  “My backpack is cooler than yours” … “I have more pencils than you” … “My dad can beat up your dad” … “I can throw this rock farther than you” … Neener neener.  Paul says there comes a time to give up those childish ways.  That’s why he had to remind his hearers that the same Spirit gives gifts to each member of the Body of Christ to work in coordination with each other and to edify the Church … no one gift is better than another.
And as he says immediately before our text today, “eagerly desire the higher gifts.”  What are those gifts?  I assume he is referring to the gifts of faith, hope, and love.
Faith is trust in God’s promises.  There will come a day when faith will no longer be necessary.  All of God’s promises will be fulfilled.  We will see him face to face.
Hope is confidence that God will keep his promises.  There will come a day when hope will no longer be necessary.  We will see with our own eyes the fulfilment of all those promises.
Love is putting the needs of others before yourself, willfully acting on behalf of others, showing genuine care and concern for their well-being.  Every need of every baptized believer will finally be met in the resurrection on the Last Day.  But the love of God that binds us all together will never cease.  In eternity, there will never be a moment when love is not necessary, for God’s chief attribute is love.  God will love you forever.  We will love each other forever.  And that is why of faith, hope, and love … the greatest of these is love.
It truly is the more excellent way.  God help us to be excellent in this way.

[3] Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible (1 Co 13:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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