The Greatest of These – August 23, 2009
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, I Corinthians 13
August 23, 2009
If you were here last week, you’ll remember that I introduced this series on the “Fruits of the Spirit.” I mentioned then how these were the characteristics that a person would have if they were “Walking by the Spirit,” as Paul put it. Since he told us then that the “Law” – the Ten Commandments – was not to be the ultimate guide for life the Gentile Christians, this then became the guide. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the Ten Commandments are not in force. They are. But I hope you’ll see how this “law of love” Paul talked about is an even higher calling.
So, here we have these “fruits of the spirit,” these results, these outward signs that we are living our lives walking by the spirit of God. Again, the fruits of the Spirit are, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” They’re found in Galatians chapter 5. And I’m glad Paul put “love” as the first of these fruits. It is certainly the most important.
The writer of Deuteronomy would agree. He tells us in this great “Hear, O Israel!” passage, which we read again this morning, “…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Jesus called that the greatest commandment, loving God. Then he said, “And the second is like it. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And I think it’s no surprise that the example he gave at that point was the story of the Good Samaritan. That’s a story that points out how love is sometimes a difficult thing. We’re going to talk about that in just a little bet.
I choose for my New Testament reading today I Corinthians 13, which is perhaps the most often read passage about love ever written. And I wanted to start today by saying that love indeed is “the greatest of these.” But also want you to hear again something that I’ve often heard said. That is, that love is also one of the most misunderstood words ever. I want to tell you why that is. And then, I want you to see why “the greatest of these [really is] love” And the best way to do that by going to the greatest source of love ever, Jesus Christ!
Let me start with the first thing I just said. I know I’ve often said this, but I think it’s good to hear often – maybe every day – that the word love is misunderstood. Well, the reason for that is, that the world thinks love is a feeling. Maybe you’ve seen one of those cutesy coffee mugs or wall plaques that say “Love is a warm fuzzy feeling.” Usually they have a picture of a cute little kid – with big eyes! And there’s usually a puppy, too! Actually, I hope you haven’t seen them! (Though some of you probably have one, don’t you?!) Well, I’d like to gather them up in a big warehouse somewhere and lock the door! Because that is not true! Love is not a feeling! Now, love has feelings associated with it. Yes! And they are wonderful feelings. Don’t get me wrong here! Feelings are certainly part of what makes this life rich and beautiful. But love is not simply a feeling. (or an urge!) Love is a choice of behavior! Love is a way of treating someone.
Think about that. When Jesus said, “love your enemies” he wasn’t saying that we need to have “warm fuzzy feelings” toward them. He was saying that we need to treat them with respect. He was telling us that we shouldn’t nurse ill will toward them. (And that means dwelling on or obsessing about that ill will.) He was saying that we shouldn’t plan revenge, or return evil for evil. And that kind of thing is not easy, is it? It’s much easier to let our ill feelings loose. It’s much easier to lash back at someone. It’s much easier to nurse those angry feelings, especially when our feelings have been hurt! But Jesus wants us to make the difficult choice of love. And that means treating people with respect and dignity. Do you see?
If you aren’t sure, let’s listen to some more of Jesus’ words. He said, “if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even the tax collectors – those who you don’t think very highly of – even they do that!” In other words, that’s the easy path! There’s no hard choice there. There’s no sacrifice in that! And love is often about sacrifice! Love is about making those choices to treat with respect and dignity even those who do not do so to us! “Holy cow, Jesus, you can’t be serious! Can’t we just shun such people? Can’t we take an easier road?” Jesus wants for us to take the hard road!
Are you still not sure? Listen to these words of Jesus. These are some of the most difficult words he ever said about love. He said, “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for another!” I’ll just let that sink in for a moment. “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for another!” Those are tough words! You couldn’t even fit the words “warm fuzzy feeling” into that sentence and have it make any sense at all! But that’s what Jesus said was the greatest love! And then he went out and proved it!
Now, I could go on and I could share stories of sacrifice and people making bold choices of love. But I think there might be a danger in making the greatest kinds of sacrifice of love our ultimate goal. And I’m kind of worried that we might just strive for love only as a great and lofty goal that we work on sometimes, and maybe some day we’ll achieve.
I don’t want to do that. I want us to think today about the simple (if we can call it that!) every day choices of love that show we are being guided by and “walking in” the spirit. And at the same time, I also want us to see that love really is the greatest commandment. Because if we are truly walking in the spirit, if we truly understand and exhibit this first fruit of love, we will be and do all the others as well! (So, if all the law and the prophets is wrapped up in loving God, as Jesus said, then all the fruits of the spirit are wrapped up in this first one!)
So now what I want to do is to focus on the practical part of this love chapter, which is found in verses 4-7. I think these are the characteristics of a person guided by the spirit, and exhibiting this “fruit of the spirit” called love.
Look at this first one. Love is patient and kind. Actually that’s two of them. But that’s ok. And how about that! Those are two of the fruits of the spirit! (And maybe you’ll recognize others as well!) So, I’d like you to ask yourself, then, are you patient and kind? You see how this works?
Part of what it means to be patient is to accept someone else’s timing on things. That’s not easy, is it? We’d rather have things in our time! And how about God’s timing? Accepting that can be hard, too! Instead, you might find yourself praying like the one woman who said, “Please God, give me patience. And hurry!”
Along with patience, are you kind? Kindness is a hard choice in our world. It is an abandoned choice by many. That’s because there are many who don’t have a loving regard for others! At least now we have the catch phrase that encourage us to “practice random acts of kindness.” That’s great! But that requires random acts of caring about the needs of others, doesn’t it? That’s not easy. We people tend to be all about our own world and our own needs – as well as our own timing of things! We’ll talk more about those two in the weeks to come.
What about this next part? “Love is not jealous or boastful…” How about it? Are you jealous or boastful? Do you envy things about other people. Do you flaunt things about yourself. Or do you take the path of another characteristic of love, which isn’t mentioned here, but which is described in many ways. And that is humility! Are you a humble person? If not, you might be having trouble with the last part of this sentence. “It (love) is not arrogant or rude.” Are you either of those things? If you find you are sometimes, then you should give some thought to patience and kindness.
How about this next one. “Love does not insist on it’s own way.” That’s a real tough one for some. Do you always insist on your own way? Does everything always have to be done the way you think it should? And again, if you do, that could be what leads to the next part of this. “Love is not irritable or resentful.” That’s hard to avoid in a society where “being offended” is such a huge thing. Nobody can do anything these days without “offending” someone else! Many people are resentful these days! And they think it’s ok to harbor that resentment.
Then it says, “Love does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the right.” That one sounds relatively easy, doesn’t it? Who would rejoice in what is wrong? Well, we all do, from time to time, don’t we? We do so when we focus on the bad in people rather than the good? We do so when we give in to the urge to say “I told you so!” Oh boy do we have to bite our lip when that temptation rises within us! How good are you in seeing and encouraging the good in people?
Then I love the way Paul ends this section. This is so positive! He says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” “Wow! Do you mean that love gets us through crises and conflicts? Really?!” “Do you mean when we love we get along with people better?” “And when we love, we grow in our faith and our hope?” The answer is “Yes” to all the above!!
As we wrap this up, let me remind you about walking in the Spirit, and seeking the “fruits of the spirit.” And as you think of this first one, love, let me suggest that you take some time today to do this old exercise where you use your own name in these verses 4-7. Read them again and put in your name in the place where you see the word “love.” “___ is patient and kind, ____ is not jealous or boastful, ______ is not arrogant or rude…” and so forth.
And let me ask you to continue to pray for each other, that we all may seek to grow in every way in these fruits of the spirit.
Lord, help us to know that we are walking in the spirit. Help us to be in closer relationship with you each day, so that we may feel you guiding us, molding us, and changing us. Show us daily the choices and the ways of love. For we pray in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and for the sake of his kingdom in our midst, Amen.