Sermon Love and Unity in the Church, Psalm 133,1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and John 13:4-17, 34-35 Revd Tudor Vaughan Roberts.
The 1st C Greco- Romano world could boast about many things but one of them was not quiet cities. Most cities were very noisy. Their towns were a bit like 17th Century London, so Corinth would have been a bustling noisy centre of commerce, government, education, trading, and people just trying to live a life. A lot of banging would have gone on as iron, copper and gold were beaten. Furnaces needed charcoal so there was heat and smoke. Add religion into the mix with messy sacrifices, chanting priests and banging drums, the people would do anything to get some quiet. By contrast Christian worship must have seemed peaceful with readings from scripture, prayers said and listened to, and the teaching of the Word and singing of psalms and hymns. Mind you we are talking about Corinth here, ‘Brash Corinth’ pushing forward to make waves, so there might have been prophecy, speaking in tongues, and spontaneous praise and utterances.
One Roman city dweller in the First Century wrote this to a friend:
“There is no place in the city where a person may have a quiet moment of thought. In the morning school teachers won’t let you live, before dawn bakers disturb you and the whole day coppersmiths jar your nerves. Over here a money changer idly jingles Neronian coins on his filthy table. Over there a man hammering Spanish gold dust, pounds his well-worn stone with a shiny mallet, the frenzied band of Bellorios priests never stop chanting, nor does the beggar whose ship was shipwrecked, he never stops crying out for money, So Sparcus, whenever I am weary of these torments and wish to sleep I go to my villa”.
Now, that is the context for our reading from 1 Corinthians 13 which was written for and read by a noisy go-ahead congregation who thought they were really good. Paul’s message starting as it does by saying if “you have not love you are like a clanging cymbal” would have resonated with his listeners and hearers. You can preach well, know lots of stuff, but if you have not love you are basically a not attractive and somewhat annoying noise!
But Paul has a message for ‘noisy action-packed experience seeking’ Corinth and its fledgling Church. Paul has the joy and hassle of writing to an active Church which though full of gifted people has many problems, looming large amongst them is their lack of love; it really is a key Issue.
So firstly let’s look at the negatives’ In 1 Corinthians 13 verses 4-7 Paul lists envy, boosting, pride, dishonouring others, self-seeking, being easily angered, keeping a record of wrongs, delighting in evil, as a list of things that must not be given house room in a church that loves and is loved.
Now, did the problems in Corinth over a lack of Love disappear when Paul spoke and wrote to them? It appears sadly that that was not the case. In 2 Corinthians 12:20 Paul wrote “I am afraid that when I come to you there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. I am afraid when I come again I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they indulged” 50 Years later Clement of Rome again had to write to the Church in Corinth and remonstrated with them for their lack of love for one another, so despite all the wonderful words in 1 Corinthians 13 it appears that Pauls words fell on deaf ears, may it not be so for you and me.
Paul says nothing new in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. Most things he mentions have been mentioned already in the Letter. For instance as to jealousy see 1 Corinthians 3:3 “For since there is jealousy and quarrelling amongst you are you not worldly” Showing off is echoed by 1 Corinthians 4:7 “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do You boast as though you did not”? Now I haven’t mentioned Incest (chapter 5) nor lawsuits amongst believers (chapter 6) Reading 1 Corinthians must have been painful reading for its recipients, those noisy disruptive, immoral people, who had now met Jesus Christ, been washed (1 Cor 6:11) justified and sanctified, and now had to live to a new tune under new Lordship, that of Jesus Christ.
So, let us turn from the negative to the positive:
Love is patient
Love is kind
Love rejoices with the truth
Love always protects
Love always hopes
Love always perseveres.
This sermon is written within the series on the Church and is focussing today on love and unity in the Church. I have been a Christian over 35 years I have witnessed and been the recipient of my fair share of love, kindness, protection and truth, but I have also witnessed the opposite and as I have prepared this sermon I realize how far I have fallen short ( you too maybe?) of what Paul is talking about so what can we do?
Frederica Matthews Green a writer said “The main evidence that we have that we are growing in Christ is not exhilarating prayer experiences but steadily increasing humble love for other people”
The Apostle St John wrote “Dear Children let us not love with words or speech but actions and in truth”. 1 John 3:18
So maybe there is a clue there in those two quotes Love is not just what we believe its what we do (or do not do)
We need to realize that we are called into the Body of Christ as Tricia taught us last Sunday. Being part of the body of Christ is not some bright spark idea or a whim of God one day its God’s divine action which comes with its own invitation to love. As ever Lesslie Newbiggin puts it so well:
“The gospel is good news of a very different kind. It is news of the actual fact that in Jesus of Nazareth crucified in Palestine under Pontius Pilate, God was reconciling the world to himself. It is he who is the elect of God, his beloved, his chosen one. Our election is only by our incorporation in Him. We are not elect as isolated individuals but as members in His body. The instrument of his choosing is precisely the Apostolic mission of the Church. “I chose you” says the incarnate Lord to his apostles and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit” In other words God has no other plan. I realize the Church has a bad press recently a lot of it with good reason (tell example from Twitter) but the Church is God’s A1 no 1 choice of demonstrating his Glory on earth, but only if the Church puts Christ first. Love said Martin Luther King Jr is “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” John Owen the Puritan Pastor and writer said “Christ will try your love at the last day by your deportment in that Church wherein you are”
So how can we live in that love of Christ that Paul talks about in this letter to the Corinthians? The answer is we have to dive into the Body of Christ!
Lesslie Newbiggin again:
“We share in Christ’s anointing as we share in His body in the baptism wherein we die with him and are raised with him, and in the common life wherein by the manifold gifts of the Spirit the body is built up in love and furnished with all it needs for the protection of its divinely given mission”
That building up of the body in love is I believe what St Paul is talking about in his great letter, Corinth was a very gifted Church. They had people with Charismata; speaking in tongues, prophecy, teaching, leading, admin you name it they had it! But there were gaps in that list
Rejoicing with the truth
These were the things that the Church in Corinth (and the Church in NW Swindon and Lydiard Millicent) needs and the very things the Holy Spirit delights in giving out Alleluia! He gives them in great big dollops, but here is the rub; these are also things that we have to work at too.
Permit me then not as an expert, but as a learner to say this:
1 Corinthians seems to say You can have all the knowledge, you can fathom mysteries you might be able to move mountains by faith but if you do not have love then we end up with a zero mark.
Read the whole of Corinthians and realize that 1 Corinthians 13 is not about a fuzzy feeling of love it isn’t written just for weddings if at all, it is written for a disobedient raucous Church, with people who had backgrounds of sexual immorality, pagan worship and infighting They are told there is a better way.
St Bernard of Clairvaux said “What we love we shall resemble”
Richard Foster said “ Love is not communicated in the big event but in the small acts of kindness”
What we all need is to grow up, we are no longer children! if you are a child listening HI! We ought to be able to point you to ourselves, to adults and say “be like us!” Being adult in the Church is not being old in years, its somehow reflecting the Glory of God in our humanity.
One thing is this. The whole matter of loving may be that we need to go lower to go higher. Seek to be like Jesus in John 13 who washed the feet of the disciples. As I have said recently what God has being saying to me is “Tudor seek God in the ordinary things of life and then by my Grace I will in my time show you the extraordinary”.
Always, says Joni Erickson Tada “love is a Choice, You come up against scores of opportunities every day to love or not to love, You encounter hundreds of small chances to please your friends, delight your Lord, encourage your friends delight your Lord, encourage your family. That’s why love and obedience are intimately linked.”
That is it , is it not? Love is a choice.
Lastly aim for Unity, its messy its like oil going down the beard of Aaron its overflowing as the Psalmist says in Psalm 133 it is when you get this oily mess, you get Unity, brothers and sisters together under the banner of Christ, so Go for it Church. But do not be too noisy as you do it! I.E. do not let your love stay in books or just be words in your head
Go Hug (With all social distancing rules of course, and decorum too)
Go be generous
There is says St John “no fear in love But perfect love drives out all fear because fear has to do with punishment the One who fears is not made perfect in love”