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Love Never Fails
Fall Quarter: Love for One Another
Unit 2: Inclusive Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of October 25, 2020
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:27-14:1
Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Learn what love can do, and what it cannot. Learn why love is necessary for the effective functioning of spiritual gifts and graces. Learn how our personal spiritual gifts can express God’s love in a redemptive manner through Christ.
Corinth was the perfect location for Paul to discuss in great detail the important task of exploring the church as the body of Christ. The letter to Corinth was written from Ephesus. The letter to Corinth allowed the early church to understand the purpose and mission of Jesus’ church. Not only did the letter reveal a profound understanding of God’s love in the church for Corinth for Jesus and the gifts employed to empower the Corinthian church, the church at Corinth made no attempt to hide its “feet of clay.” Their ability to serve Jesus through spiritual power and human weakness are employed to reveal the church as divine and human. However, the church at Corinth made no attempt to hide its humanity and their feet of clay. Like all sinful people, the church at Corinth struggled with destructive issues like arrogance, pride, power, and a desire to possess the power overseeing a church hierarchy. There were some who valued spiritual arrogance so strongly they even wanted to undermine Paul’s authority. Any issue could become a struggle to possess more spiritual power than another.
Of course, most of us are acquainted with the pride in the church related to spiritual gifts that are treated as having greater value than other gifts. Many argued, “Who has the greater spiritual gift?” Is it the one with tongues, the one who can prophesy, interpret tongues, or heal? The list can be extended. Sadly, at Corinth they seemed always prepared to judge one Christian as possessing more important gifts and power than another. As we will read later, Paul will speak clearly that there exists one power that reminds all that we stand on equal ground before Christ. Love is the power that declaws pride’s vicious ability to wound and hurt another. Love does matter, and its use as an instrument of service has a direct bearing upon the spiritual functioning of the church of Jesus. If the love of Jesus on the cross saved us from ourselves and egotism, it continues to possess that same power of redemption. It is the love of Jesus that still possesses the mighty power to empower us to stand on equal ground at the cross. All of us are equal in sin and the need for forgiveness. Only Christ can empower us to overcome pride and arrogance in a manner that glorifies God through his holy church. In Christ, true humility is the genuine power that can teach us mutual respect and godly love.
From the beginning of the church, it has been our spiritual unity in Christ that empowers us and expresses Christ as living and moving in our world. Though the Corinthian Christians seem to desire arguing and debating over spiritually edifying matters, their debates and arrogance are really about our human desire for possessing greater human power, especially expressions of human power others lack and place them in positions of weak authority. Thus, Paul couches one of the metaphors about human lust for power by using a metaphor still common today. He speaks of “moving mountains.” It is really an expression of hyperbole; an exaggeration. After all, what man or woman can truly move a mountain? In verse 13:2 Paul uses a metaphor intended to set up a major contrast between human and spiritual power. What greater power is there for man and woman than to move a mountain? The question is hyperbole. No person, other than God, can move a mountain. At best Paul is revealing the weakness of the human creature in contrast to the Lord who made heaven and earth.
For Paul, every part of the body of Christ was and is important as he addresses the omnipotence of the church of Jesus. One is not more important than another, and one is not unnecessary. In chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians Paul clearly states the important need for every facet of church life, and that without all ministering together in the Holy Spirit we fail to witness to the world that God is present in the world through Jesus saving us from our sin. Just as Jesus was literally present in the world for redeeming all, Jesus is still present in the world, saving and redeeming. The historical book of Acts begins by reminding the church that it was to offer “convincing proofs” that he was and is alive in the world as he was from the beginning. Paul understood very clearly that he was not a Christian on his own, nor did he believe he was more important that the other followers of Jesus. Paul knew the Holy Spirit had birthed him into a unique all-powerful community. Thus, for the early church there was no long debate as to whether Jesus was resurrected and in the world. For the church, he was in the world and would remain until the fullness of the Kingdom of God was permanently fulfilled. This issue was settled. For the first Christians, Jesus was alive. The church was the convincing proof that the very one who gave all for the redemption of the world was alive as the resurrected Christ.
I am always moved when I read the opening paragraphs of Acts 1. Luke uses the expression that the church was the expression of all that Jesus “Began” to do and teach. What is so fascinating in this paragraph is the one word “began.
” Luke had included almost every event in the gospel of Jesus in his gospel. Luke recorded the birth, early years, the temptation, the life, the teaching, the arrest, trial, death, and resurrection. Luke even included the ascension. Thus, Luke could have written that “In my first gospel, I wrote to you, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus DID.” Why use the term “began?” He uses this beautiful term to let his reader know that Jesus wasn’t finished. He had recorded what Jesus began to do and teach. But there was so much Jesus was still doing in the world through his church. For Luke, the church was and is the body of Christ, literally alive in the world. Thus, the church wasn’t a metaphor of the body of Jesus. It was an accurate description that Jesus lived in his church, through every follower, using every gift and grace the world needed to experience the Living Lord!
It is a painful mistake to define the church, or try to measure its importance over other churches through its size. I, like most, am excited at churches that are growing and revealing Christ in their communities. And belonging to a large church in no way diminishes the power and importance of that church in the Kingdom of God. However, I on occasion grow concerned at the high place some assign to numbers and size. Some of the most powerful churches with whom I have ministered consisted of about 100 members. Yet, the members of that community knew each other, and who was gifted to perform one gift as another was used of God to offer a different gift in that community. There was a clear sense that their pastor had educated them well about the church being one, united community. They knew they existed in their community to be used as the real authentic presences of Jesus in the world.
Paul will use the church at Corinth to reveal the power of the church united in Christ. He will also use its weakness and missed opportunity when it failed to intentionally value each person as a child of God with a unique, necessary ministry within that local community of faith.
Just as the human body consists of a multitude of necessary parts, so does the church. Each part is dependent on all other parts and is equally important. Though the functions of ministries and gifts within the church are bound together in the strongest bond in the world, if the parts of the spiritual body in the church are not bound by one power they are ineffectual and the sharing of the gospel suffers. It is the love of God in Christ that gives each part its life, its purpose, and ensures they do not operate independently.
It is upsetting and alarming that many facets of the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 are created and nurtured through spiritual arrogance. Love recognizes that every gift is equal in importance and power. And the mission of the church cannot be fully employed unless all are held together by the love of God in Christ and his selfless love. It is the love of God which holds all spiritual gifts together in purpose, meaning, and fullness of power.
The early church began as a Jewish community proclaiming that Messiah has come in Christ Jesus. Like many Jewish traditions, spoken words possessed active, creative power. The world was spoken into being, and Jesus the Messiah in the first chapter of John’s Gospel was defined as “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The gift of the Holy Spirit was acknowledged as God’s presence in the world through language. Tongues as of fire rested upon the early Christians in the upper room. These were manifestations of various languages from all over the known world, revealing the nature of the Gospel of Jesus to all. These were, according to Acts 2, the tongues of men, speaking the heavenly language that powerfully described the arrival of the Gospel and empowering the church of Jesus. Pentecost indeed involved the speaking of the tongues of men and angels. The vocabulary might differ and be expressed in a variety of ways. However, the message was unchangeable and its power irrevocable and unchangeable.
The proclamation of the Gospel at Pentecost had little to do with dialects and vocabularies. It was the content of the Gospel message itself that empowered the words with the spiritual language that transforms the ears of men, women and the community of Jesus and his church.
The early churches’ means of speaking a variety of unlearned languages that conveyed the same gospel was miraculous and could be described as the tongues of men and angels that revealed and expressed the meaning of the gospel of Jesus. The Pentecostal language revealed the universality of the gospel of God’s redemption in Jesus. This universal language’s source of power had little or nothing to do with the actual vocabulary, dialect, etc. and had everything to do with its holy, spiritual life-changing content and redemptive meaning.
In 1 Corinthians 13, love is the nature of a person’s character. Love is the character of Jesus that describes and defines his spiritual, Messianic personhood. Love is who Jesus is, the behavior by which he lives, his motivation for his every activity, and the transcendent inner nature of his character that defies description or even comes close to accurately defining who he is as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Without the authentic presence of Love, the word and behaviors of Jesus are little more than sounds that draw attention and transform little or nothing in life of substance.
The gift of tongues was a highly valued spiritual gift, not simply because of the power of their ministry, but because they draw attention to themselves. Many desired the gift of tongues because they were observable and noticeable. But God’s love is not to gain attention for the one possessing the gift. It is more concerned with the power of God’s love as the instrument of redemption, changed lives and expressions of ministry many never considered.
Paul would be among the first to ask us to live in generosity, for God has been so generous to us. However, Paul also would be among the first to warn us that true generosity loses it power when it is treated like an investment. It is not the amount we give for the good of another or a church. It is the nurture of the Christian faith within us that further shapes us into the image of Jesus and empowers others to see Jesus within us as the natural fruit of heartfelt generosity.
I find it very difficult to describe our “God-given-self” as NOTHING. The entirety of the gospel functions according to one all-important truth. A child in Jesus would never say “You are not mine.” What Christian would say, “I am nothing.” We, as those redeemed by the cross, are of such infinite worth it defies our description. Paul is writing that we cannot understand who we are as the children of Jesus. Does our inability to speak in heavenly language and human vocabulary make our worth horrible diminished? The only occasion when our self-worth as God’s children would suffer would occur when we fail to speak in the holy language of heaven itself. Yet, even then, if we could speak in the tongues of men and angels, but do so for any reason other than God’s eternal love, we are no longer speaking the “holy language” of 1 Corinthian. We are speaking languages that draw attention to the self, and away for the all- important message of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus.
Though speaking the eternal language of heaven itself would draw distinction and importance to any person. However, if this language is more concerned with drawing attention to itself it has lost and sacrificed the grand source of its spiritual power. It isn’t our ability to speak that holds our power, it is use of that language as the means of proclaiming the gospel that makes speaking in a holy language the powerful instrument of evangelism it truly is. Paul would affirm that even if we could speak in this holiest of languages, if it is not spoken in love it sacrifices its power to share the gospel.
The latter section of this lesson contrasts what the language of the Holy Spirit may speak, and what it cannot. First, love will always act in Christ-like kindness. It will always sacrifice as Christ gave his own life, not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of his brothers and sisters in need. Christian love will always refuse to envy or covet the belongings of another. It will always refuse to dishonor the sacred value of one of God’s children. It will never seek its own way over committing an act of sacrifice on behalf of another. It will never seek is own benefit even if it is personally costly. It will keep no record of wrongs. There will be no journal of how you might have hurt me and thus deserve “payback.” Because the life in Jesus is holy and truthful, to tell a falsehood violates the very nature of holiness. Christian love will always protect another from harm, always trust one, even when trusting another is difficult. It will always hope that no matter where the Christian finds themselves, they will be accompanied by God and their circumstances used of God. It will withstand pain, suffering and difficulty if it furthers the kingdom of God in the world.
One of the all-important attributes of love is its inability to exhaust itself. There will always be a sufficiency of love that reflects the highest love and ideals of Jesus.
Even when we gaze upon the holiest expression of God’s kingdom and cast our eye upon its most glorious expression, when the fulness of God’s kingdom arrives, we will enjoy the highest, holiest expression of God’s Kingdom, more beautiful, profound, transcendent and beyond human comprehension. Love is eternal, for it has no beginning and no end. We walk into what has always been, and what will always be.
Almighty God, we recognize that we gaze upon that which our eyes cannot see or ears hear. It is too great and marvelous for these human ears and understanding, yet through grace God blesses us with the holiest expression of love that defies all attempts to fully define it. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.