Saturday, May 23, 2015

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 - When the Church FAILS (a sermon)

When does a church fail? When its numbers begin to dip? When its leaders fall into immorality? When it teaches false doctrine or becomes worldly??? According to the Word of God, a church begins its slide into irrelevance, when it fails to love. It doesn’t matter how RIGHT a church might be in matters of doctrinal truth – it doesn’t matter how ACTIVE it might be with all its fellowship groups – or how WEALTHY it is ... the nice things it can afford … the number of missionaries it can support – without love – biblical, self-sacrificing love, the church has failed.

In a selfish society - we often need to be reminded that real love sacrifices itself for the good of another… a hard lesson to learn. It crosses our grain to put others ahead of ourselves. It is not natural to sacrifice – but that is exactly what the Lord called us to do. In the gospel of John, chapter 13, He said, “A New commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another as I have loved you – by THIS shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.”

Years later, John offered “Love” as THE primary attribute of the born-again believer – going so far as to say that if we don’t love each other, we are not… truly… saved.

In the first section of the Book of Revelation, Jesus gave His assessment of the 7 churches of Asia Minor and told the church at Ephesus – one of the strongest, most active churches of its day – that they were on the verge of losing the blessing of God because they had forgotten the love they had at the FIRST.

While we tend to be impressed by a church’s size, facilities, programs, and budgets, Paul shows us that without love – none of that stuff matters!

The kind of love we find in this text cannot be found outside the church. WHY? Because it comes from God. When we are saved, not only are our sins forgiven, we are re-born – and the Spirit of God takes up residence IN us and fills us with God’s love. The Greek word for this kind of love is AGAPE.

When the natural man thinks of love, he thinks of romance or emotion. But the love of God is so much MORE than that – it is action – sacrificial action. As was so wonderfully displayed by our heavenly Father, of Whom it is said, “SO loved the world that He GAVE His only begotten Son…” It is only through a personal relationship with God that we can experience AND SHOW that kind of love.

Though very successful in worldly terms, the Church at Corinth had a LOVE problem. You can see it on every page of the book. Though they were gifted, though they had been successful in winning people from all walks of life, they were failing to love each other. They had found that it is a whole lot easier being religious than loving. It’s a lot easier to be active in attendance than it is to actively sacrifice self for another. But THAT is what God demands. That’s why Paul, takes a break from his discussion on Spiritual gifts - to teach them of the importance of love as they use those gifts.

Though he makes three primary points about love in this chapter, today we we only have time to consider his first point:

1. Notice, then, the Excellency of Love. Without love, our talents and gifts, all that we do in the name of Christ and the Gospel, is meaningless. Listen to the passage once again, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have ALL faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away ALL I HAVE, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Too many times, we pull this chapter out of context and use it as wedding material or the sticky sentiment of Valentine’s Cards or love songs. But THIS CHAPTER has NOTHING to do with romance and EVERYTHING to do with how Christians should treat each other. As we serve the Lord and His Church, everything we do must be motivated by love - love for God… love for each other. While gifts ARE important to the life of a church, it is God’s will for love to be the guiding principle behind all we do in church-life.

Notice 3 different types of service that takes place in church and WHY love is so important to them:

First, he refers to our Messages in verse 1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

A man may be a great speaker – a talented preacher – he might have tremendous charisma and have his audience eating from the palm of his hand – but without LOVE, his speech is worthless - nothing but irritating noise. The great message of the cross – of forgiveness of sins – of grace and mercy – of heaven and future reward – loses its ability to touch hearts if those who claim to believe it are self-centered and abrasive. All that God LONGS to do in the hearts of people is impotent when those who claim to know the Lord are anything less than loving.

As a church, we can be right on all matters of doctrinal significance – and we may hold in our possession a message that changes lives and eternal destinies – but if we aren’t loving - people won’t hear what we have to say.

The gospel was born from the love of God – so when we fail to love, the message of the cross is lost.

I have a preacher friend whom I have known for 28 years. I’ve always been amazed by his abilities. I have always viewed him as one of the most talented preachers I know. A few years ago he called me and asked me to pray for him because there was a church that needed a pastor and they had invited him to interview with the leaders and to preach a couple of messages. They were excited to have him try out. But after the sermon, the church didn’t hire him, because, and I quote one of their leaders, “He didn’t like us very much.”

I know this is hard to understand, but sometimes we can say the right thing in such a way that people cannot hear us. We have a mandate… not only to speak the truth – but to speak it in love. People NEED the Gospel. This country needs Jesus. But sometimes, our unloving ways make it impossible for the message to get through.

Put this in the crock-pot and let it simmer for a while - we never have the right to be unloving as Christians. Age doesn’t give you that right. Church membership or the fact that someone has mistreated you does not give you that right. Sadly, some of the ugliest things I have ever heard said have come out the mouths of Christian-folk.

Take that bunch out in Kansas as a perfect example. You know the ones – they show up at the funerals of our military and hold their signs of hatred. They are very sincere people I’m sure. They are only doing what they are convinced is right – standing up for their convictions – calling people to repent. But their message is lost because they are hateful.

They aren’t the only ones. They ARE wrong, but no more wrong than us when we leave here saying hurtful things about each other. When we talk behind peoples backs… claiming we are only stating the TRUTH… as if the accuracy of the statement is the ONLY THING that matters.

I have been around the block a time or two. And when I hear people in leadership positions saying hurtful things to or about people, I have to fight back feelings of distrust. And if I feel that way – then certainly we can understand how LOST people feel.

Our message, as great as it is, is lost, when our love isn’t right.

Not only does he talk about our Message – he also mentions our Ministry when he says in verse 2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” The ability to teach the great principles of God, having knowledge and a faith that can move mountains - serving others with the gifts of God - ALL so desperately needed in the church. We need people who will stand before us and unashamedly declare “Thus saith the Lord!” I want to go to a church where I will hear the truth and will be challenged to believe God for big things. I don’t want the preacher to make me feel good… I want him to have the courage to tell me what I need to know and to challenge me to be more faithful. BUT he must do it in love. If I know a person loves me, he can say the hard things because I know he cares about me and wants what is best for me.

I need Sunday School teachers who will study the Word of God and FROM their studies show me how to apply it to my life – to challenge me to greater faith and faithfulness. But they need to do it in love or what they teach will be lifeless and petty.

As important as spiritual gifts ARE, they are useless IF our love isn’t right.

And after our messages and ministries, he then talks about our Monies in verse 3, “ If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” One of the most personal things you can do – giving financially to the work of the Lord – can be done in a way that fails to honor Him. Whether we are giving for SHOW, in order to RECEIVE, or out of a BEGRUDGING spirit - if our gifts are motivated by anything other than love – we are missing God’s blessing.

SO, in all that we do in this place – from the offerings that are given, to the specials that are sung; from the classes that are taught, to the sermons that we preach, LOVE for God and for one another must motivate all that we do. Without it, we are wasting everyone’s time. But WITH it we will see life-changing results.

For an example of the power of love - consider the story of Ted Stallard. As a young boy in 5th grade, Ted hated school. He was sloppy in appearance. Expressionless. Unattractive. Even his teacher, Miss Thompson, enjoyed bearing down her red pen as she placed Xs beside his many wrong answers.

If only she had studied his progress reports more carefully, she would have been more compassionate.

They read:

1st grade – Ted shows promise with his work and attitude, but has a poor home situation.

2nd grade - Ted COULD do better. Mother seriously ill. Receives little help from home.

3rd grade – Ted is a good boy, but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year.

4th grade – Ted is very slow, but well-behaved. His father shows no interest in him whatsoever.

His was a sad, sad situation.

Christmas came. The children piled elaborately wrapped gifts on their teacher’s desk. Ted brought one too – it was wrapped in a brown paper sack - held together with duct tape. Miss Thompson opened each gift, as the children crowded around to watch what each gave. .. they were most interested in how Mrs. Thompson reacted to what they gave.

Out of Ted’s package fell a gaudy rhinestone bracelet with half of the stones missing and a bottle of half-used perfume. The children began to laugh at him until she splashed a little on her wrist and let them all smell it. She put the bracelet on too and bragged on its beauty.

At the end of the day, after the other children had left, Ted came by his teacher’s desk and said, “Miss Thompson, you smell just like my Mama. And her bracelet sure looks pretty on you too. I’m so glad you like my presents.” Then he left. Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her and to change her attitude.

After the holidays the children were greeted by a transformed teacher – one committed to loving each of them… especially the slow ones. Especially Ted.

Surprisingly, or maybe NOT so surprisingly, Ted began to show remarkable improvement. He actually caught up with most of the students and even passed a few.

Time came and went. Miss Thompson heard nothing from Ted for a long time. Then one day, she received a note:

“Dear Miss Thompson, I wanted you to be the first to know… I will be graduating high school next week, 2nd in my class! Love Ted.”

Four years later, another note arrived: “Dear Miss Thompson, they just told me I will be graduating FIRST in my class! I wanted you to be first to know. College was hard, but I liked it. Love Ted.”

6 more years passed and another note came: “Dear Miss Thompson, As of today I am known as Theodore Stallard, MD. How about THAT? I wanted you to be the first to know. I am getting married next month and I wanted to see if you would sit where my mother would sit if she was still alive. You are the only family I have now. Love Ted.”

Miss Thompson attended that wedding – and sat right where Ted’s mother would have sat. Looking back over all those years, who would have ever realized the incredible impact her love would have on a troubled boy’s life?

That’s what love does, folks. It will open the hardest of hearts and make them receptive to the Gospel that changes lives. May we all do what that teacher did: step back, evaluate our attitudes and repent before God, asking Him to use us to be a blessing to someone in need…to help us… love.