The Greatest of These is…

There’s a word that the apostle Paul uses to describe the
truth of the gospel that doesn’t get a lot of use in our modern context,
perhaps because of the negative connotation it has.  The word is “scandal.”  Paul calls the gospel of Jesus
“scandalous.”  There is a truth to that
word that I think we ignore because we all like a clean, happy faith where
nothing ever goes wrong and we never have to deal with hardship.  The truth is that as soon as we begin to live
out the gospel, people are going to notice and many of them aren’t going to
like it.  But the gospel lived out is
scandalous.  The gospel lived out causes
heads to turn and eyebrows to be raised.
The gospel lived out leads to changed lives.  Some might argue that it’s the only thing
that leads to truly changed lives.

For the past few weeks we’ve spent a lot of time talking
about community and small groups.  Today
we’re going to take that just one more step.
I hope that as we’ve done this you understand what it is I’m talking
about.  Life is better when there are
other people.  Last week we read a
passage from Ecclesiastes.  Solomon told
us that two were better than one.  Other
people simply make life more bearable.
Without each other there is despair.

Today I want to walk through a New Testament author’s
opinion of this.  To be sure, he was
acquainted with Solomon’s writings.  As a
Pharisee he probably knew them better than we do.  In a letter to the church at Corinth, Paul
sought to correct some of their practices and teach them the true nature of the
church.

See, Solomon didn’t know about the church.  He didn’t have the knowledge that we
have.  He didn’t know about Jesus.  Last Tuesday night at our small group we
talked about how we see things through the lens of the New Testament.  Perhaps life can be more tolerable for those
of us who know how it all ends.  Knowing
that Jesus is King can bring some comfort.
Solomon didn’t have that knowledge, however, so Paul brings Solomon’s
wisdom into the context of the church.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

This passage gets quoted at unfortunate times, so I think we
might miss the boat on what it really means.
We tend to hear this chapter quoted a lot at weddings, which is peculiar
when you consider the context in which it’s written.  Now, hear me, I’m not saying it shouldn’t
necessarily be scrapped from all weddings.
There are truths about love revealed that are necessary in
marriage.  “Love is patient and kind; love
does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.”  These are certainly admirable qualities of
love and hopefully your marriage echoes these truths.

I want us to look at the broader context of the church,
though, as we read through this passage.
I think there is much to be gained from our analysis of this text.

As we read through this chapter, I think we can see some of
Solomon’s influence on Paul.  Look at the
first three verses.  What’s he talking
about?  He mentions 5 specific spiritual
gifts (which we will come back to in a minute) and then says that if we have
those gifts without love, then they don’t mean anything.  Each of these spiritual gifts in itself is
really cool.  He mentions tongues,
prophecy, knowledge, faith, and giving, which are all manifested in
supernatural amounts through the power of the Holy Spirit, but then,
shockingly, he says that they’re worthless without this other thing called
love.

I want to come back to this Spiritual gift thing in a few
minutes, but I just want to point out here that all of these are good
things.  It’s good to have these
gifts.  What matters is how we use
them.  What matters is whether we love.

So Paul built the case that love is necessary or nothing
else matters.  Then he tells us some
characteristics of love and this is where we get into the wedding scene.  I think we’ve all been caught up by Hollywood
and Shakespeare and Lord Byron into believing that love is some sort of fluffy
pink marshmallow emotion and the only kind of love that exists is passionate,
romantic, erotic love.  I prefer another
sentiment, oddly enough also from Hollywood.
I saw a movie a while back that was a fine movie.  There wasn’t anything remarkably sensational
about the movie, but it also wasn’t a bad movie.  Anyway, there’s one character who has just
had his heart broken and he’s sharing his frustrations with a friend who says
these words:  “Love is devastating.”  I liked that phrase so much I saved it in the
notes on my phone.  You can still go into
the notes section of my phone and find it.

Love is devastating.
What a brilliant thought!  Let’s
read through the rest of chapter 13 and I think I can build a case for this.

1 Corinthians 13:4-13

We love verses 4-7 because they remind us of that romantic
sort of love and the truth is that Love really is patient, kind, doesn’t envy or boast, isn’t arrogant or rude.  Love doesn’t insist on its own way and isn’t
irritable or resentful.  All of these
things are true about love, but they aren’t the only things that are true.  Love bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, and endures all things.
This is where Hollywood love falls apart.

Love is eternal.  I
think we have such a hard time with love sometimes because we are not
eternal.  It’s easy to throw the words “I
love you” around without thinking much about them.  After all, aren’t we supposed to love each
other?  But there is something special
about those words, something that says “I bear all things about you and will
endure with you.”  Can you hear the
Wisdom of Solomon in this?  Instead of
everything being solitary, instead of me being concerned with my own gifts, I
now connect myself with someone else, tie myself to them and declare that I
will endure with them through hardship and pain, even when I don’t like them
very much.

The first part of verse 8 is key in this whole passage.  “Love never ends.”  Everything else will end.  The spiritual gifts you have will pass away
some day.  When we sit together at the
wedding feast in Heaven there will be no more need for prophecy or faith, no
more need for knowledge or giving.  But
there will always be love, perfect, enduring, all-surpassing love.  Then Paul throws in something that relates
perfectly to what we’ve been saying for the last few weeks.

Verse 12 is the ultimate as far as community goes.  We long for you to place yourself in a
situation where you can know and be known.
One day there will be perfect union between us and our King.  Paul says that now we know in part, but then
we shall know fully, even as we are known fully.  To know and be known is the goal.  To experience life with another, to have real
community with other believers, to love.

The greatest of these is love.

So where does this fit in the context?  Why is this chapter so important?  Obviously if we’re talking about small groups
I can see how love is supposed to be a part of it, but how about as it relates
to the church?  This is where it gets
fun.  We’ve mentioned on a couple of
occasions not only the unity of the body of Christ as it is manifested locally,
but a universal community of believers and how we are all united in Christ.  We’ve mentioned how each of us has spiritual
gifts and how we’ve been designed to use them to benefit the Kingdom of
God.  This unit of scripture including
chapters 12 and 14 I think is one of the definitive passages on the Body of
Christ.

If you remember, I said that Paul was trying to correct
behavior that existed in the Corinthian church.
It seems that there were some real problems with this group of
people.  Corinth was a city located on an
isthmus that connects the mainland of Greece with the Peloponnesus.  For those of us who are geographically
challenged, an isthmus is a small strip of land joining two larger land
masses.  Because of its location, Corinth
was a popular port city that became a melting pot of civilizations and
cultures.  When you think about it,
Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church have great meaning for us because if
there was ever an ancient civilization like ours, it was probably Corinth, even
more so than Rome.  What better place for
us to learn about unity in diversity?

Because of this melding of cultures, the Corinthian church
had probably developed some rather interesting practices.  It seems from this passage that Paul wanted
to correct their behavior regarding Spiritual gifts.  Like many of us, it seems the Corinthians had
placed a value system on the different gifts and were parading their abilities
around as a show that they were more special than other believers.  Paul denounced that belief and stated “Now
there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of
service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is
the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”

He goes on to tell the Corinthians that each person has been
gifted by the Spirit for the “common good.”
Every believer has been given spiritual gifts so that the whole
community might benefit.  I think that in
the United States this makes us a little wary.
When we hear phrases like “common good” and “benefit all of society” we
get nervous and we run to our local polling place.  Paul is not making a political statement
here.  In fact, Paul seems to be rather
apolitical.  Instead, he is making a
statement about Christ, about the Kingdom of God.

After an 11-verse discussion on the value and types of
gifts, he steps further into the discussion of the common good.  This all relates, and I want you to see it,
so hang with me for a few minutes.  You
see, we tend to think (like we mentioned last week) that we are all in this on
our own.  We think that we’ve got to
figure life out on our own and make the best of what we’ve been given.  To many people I think it seems that life is
rather arbitrary and no one can determine their own course, so they just have
to muddle through it all and hope for the best in the end.  For others, I think they think that if they
just work hard enough and long enough, that anything is possible.  This is the American Dream, right?  If you just apply yourself and work really,
really hard, you can be whatever you want.

The dangerous thing is that, to a degree, this is the
truth.  You can do whatever you want.
The fallacy comes in, though, when we think that we’re in this
alone.  Hear me, now, because I think
this can be a little confusing.  What’s
the only perspective that you can see?
Your own.  You can never truly see
anyone else’s point of view.  You can
kind of understand it a little bit.  You
can maybe see how they arrived at some of their conclusions and you can make an
effort to understand their line of thinking, but you can’t get into their
head.  You can’t see their thoughts; you
can’t read their mind.  Because of this,
it creates in us a mindset that we’re all really alone and we have to make the
best out of what we have.  If we look at
Paul’s writings, however, I think we can debunk this myth.  Paul, using the metaphor of a body, tells us
that we are really all connected, that everything is connected.  If you remember a couple of weeks ago we
talked about just that, that everyone and everything is connected.  Life is not arbitrary or random.  We are connected.  We are a body.

If you read on in this unit of scripture and get to chapter
14, Paul admonishes the Corinthians for their line of thinking concerning two
gifts, prophecy and tongues.  I think
this is the same with individual talents and abilities.  There are abilities that are easier to see
because they’re public.  Superstar
athletes are very visible.  We know about
their talents.  We can see them.  To a degree, authors are less visible because
you actually have to read their work.
It’s less public.  The gifts of
prophecy and tongues are visible.
Everyone can see them.  For that
reason, in the Corinthian church, people with these gifts were getting more
recognition.  Paul chastised the church
because they were putting emphasis on the person with the gift rather than the
Spirit who gave the gift.

This isn’t so hard to understand.  In a modern church, who are the people who
get the most attention?  They are usually
the ones who are on the stage the most.
But here’s the truth:  being on a
stage doesn’t mean anything as it relates to usefulness or giftedness.  It simply means that we each have abilities
that are designed to benefit the whole body, the whole kingdom.

Here’s the point to the whole thing:  Why would Paul, in the middle of his discussion
on Spiritual gifts and the body of Christ put in 13 verses that speak of the
nature of love?  It seems obvious to me
that this passage is necessary because people in general are selfish people who
don’t consider others.  Paul put this
passage in the middle to emphasize the fact that for unity to happen, love must
be present.  Love is essential.

In our context we are talking about small groups, but there
is a larger consideration.  True, there
must be vulnerability and love within our small groups and we hope that you
will join one of these and allow yourself to be challenged and shaped by
others, but for us to function not only as a local entity but also a universal
body there must be love.  Far too often
the church is as hurtful a place as the rest of the world.  Far too often people who are searching come
into a church setting hoping to find something different and find the same
problems they find in the rest of the world.
Some of this is to be expected since we are all people and we’re all
messed up.  But some of this can be
remedied if we will learn how to love.

This is why using 1 Corinthians 13 as a wedding passage,
while not necessarily bad, is incomplete.
Romantic love is not the only kind of love there is.  In the context of these 3 chapters I think we
do a disservice by mentioning it.  In a
world that selfishly seeks its own glory, isn’t love a better way.

If you look back at the first 3 verses of chapter 13, the
gifts Paul mentions are each individually manifested.  “Look at how I can speak in different
tongues.  Listen to my prophecy.  Look at my faith that can move
mountains.”  But love is communal.  Love necessarily is inclusive, not
exclusive.  For real love to exist there
must be a receiver of that love.
Individually I can prophesy, but that prophecy is worth nothing unless
there is one to hear it, and for that to happen there must be love.  Individually I can have knowledge, but that
knowledge is of no benefit unless there is one with whom I can share it.  Love is inclusive.  It requires others.  Love is truly the “more excellent way.”

Hebrews 10:19-25

This is where our faith meets our practice.  If 1 Corinthians 13 is the ideal, if love
really is the answer, then the author of Hebrews gives us the practical measure
of our faith.  In verse 24 he tells us to
spur one another on to good works.
Encourage each other to live the way we’re supposed to live.  Exhort other believers to live like they say
they believe.  This is where the scandal
comes in.  What do you think it would
look like if we actually lived out the gospel?
What would it look like if when we say “love your enemies” we actually
loved our enemies?

I ask this because I don’t think many of us really get it,
and I include myself in this.  We don’t
really get it!  We understand the words,
like, we get that Jesus died for our sins so that we could stand clean before
the Father.  We get that he rose from the
dead.  We might even understand that the
resurrection is the thing that calls us to live a new life.  But we don’t have any clue what that looks
like.

I think that’s why we look at people who give their lives to
missions and think that they’re wonderful and really great Christians.  We look at people who make millions of
dollars in business and then fund charitable work with their money and marvel
at their benevolence.  We think of them
as Christian supermen.  But we never
recognize that perhaps they’re really just regular Christians.  Most of us are so scared to death that we’re
going to lose everything in this life that we don’t do anything.  But the author of Hebrews suggests that we
find ways to encourage each other to good works, to live the lives we’re
supposed to be living.

Then the author goes one step further.  He reminds us to not forsake the assembling
together.  Most pastors use this passage
to try to make people feel guilty about missing a church service.  I don’t think that’s what this verse is
about.  It’s not about missing church
services.  It’s about not surrounding
yourself with people who are going to challenge you.  It’s about not making time to meet with other
believers in Godly community.  It’s about
not being available and vulnerable with other brothers and sisters in
Christ.  It’s about not having love.

You see, Paul told the Corinthians that the greatest thing
was love.  Love is what creates the bonds
in relationships.  Love is what holds us
together at all.  Love is what allows us
to know even as we are known.

I think all of us want to be known.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t
really like being alone.  We don’t really
like not having people near.  If we’re
really honest with ourselves, most of the time we would really like to be able
to tell someone everything we’re thinking, if for no other reason than simply
to get it off our chests.  Confession is
human.  I think the thing we’re sometimes
most afraid of is really the thing we long for the most.  We want to be known.

That’s why verse 12 of 1 Corinthians 13 is such a beautiful
verse.  Paul says that right now we see
things dimly.  We don’t really see the
world that well.  We don’t really
understand that much.  But then we will
see clearly.  Right now we don’t know
very much, but then we will know fully, even as we are fully known.  God knows us.
He knows everything about us.  Two
weeks ago we walked through Psalm 139.
We are known.  And yet we are
loved.  That’s amazing!

Being loved and being known are connected.  In fact, you can’t separate the two.  What’s remarkable is the very reason most of
us try to hide things about ourselves is that we want to be loved.  What’s even more incredible is that the path
to real love is knowing and being known.
The path to real community is knowing and being known.

Let us spur one another on to good works and let us not stop
meeting together.  Now there are faith,
hope, and love, three things.  But the
greatest of these is…

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About Cornerstone Fellowship

Cornerstone Fellowship is a new church that started on September 5th and currently meets Sundays mornings at 10 a.m. Our location is 206 Main Street in the heart of Downtown Kilgore. If you are searching for a church home come check us out!
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