Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 You've Lost That Loving Feeling

When we were much younger, we used to go visiting one of mum’s friends. As we walked from our house to theirs, there was a wee tiny shop beside the bridge. We couldn’t all have fitted in it. Each week, we would call in to the shop, and mum would buy sweets for my brother and me, and her friend’s four children. We each didn’t like the same sweets, so it was always a careful balancing act, to make sure that we all got roughly the same. Otherwise, the cry would have gone up: ‘It’s not fair!’

From an early age, it seems, children know all about fairness, especially when they themselves are on the wrong end of unfair treatment. One would be delighted if they got more sweets than another; the one who got less would be heartbroken. But it’s not something that you easily grow out of. If anything, the feelings of envy and boasting intensify - depending on which position you’re in.

Facebook is a great way of keeping in touch with friends (you can even stay updated on the church’s page). There are people I haven’t seen since leaving Primary School 24 years ago and High School 19 years ago, but every so often, a friend request appears and we are reconnected. It’s fascinating to see where some of them have ended up - America, Sweden, and also how things have been for them since we were knee high to a grasshopper.

Sometimes you get what is known as a ‘humblebrag’. It’s where they try to appear humble, but they’re really bragging. You can imagine... ‘Lying on this Californian beach is such a struggle day after day.’ ‘Having to pack up all our stuff as we move into a bigger mansion is such a drag.’ You get the idea. They sound humble, as if they’re disappointed, but they’re really going - look at me, how great things are going for me.

Boasting and envying are the two opposite reactions to success. For those who are achieving, boasting is the way to go. For those who aren’t, envy is the natural reaction. They both relate to how we relate to other people. And both are deadly when it comes to getting on together, especially in a local church.

As we’ve seen, Paul is writing to the church in Corinth. It’s a messed up church, on so many levels, but one of the biggest problems is boasting. It seems to impact on just about everything that is happening in Corinth, and not in a good way either. In the opening chapters, Paul has had to deal with boasting about church leaders. You see, some people were following Paul, others Apollos, or Cephas (Peter). They were arguing about which one was the best preacher or the best pastor. They were focusing on shows of wisdom, but God’s gospel of Christ crucified cuts right through all that.

But they were also boasting about their spiritual gifts. Chapter 13 comes right in the middle of 12 and 14, where Paul is dealing with spiritual gifts. The Corinthians were taken by the showy gifts - things like speaking in tongues and prophecy, because they would get you noticed. So those who had them boasted, and those who didn’t envied.

How could Paul deal with this ragtag bunch of enviers and boasters? He brings them face to face with what love looks like, so that, as they look in the mirror, they realise how far short they have fallen. Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

The disciples in Corinth needed to hear that. It’s the message we need to hear as well, as we live in community together as the body of Christ in this place. How do we know? Because the very first disciples of Jesus also needed to hear the same message.

In our first reading, James and John come up with a brainwave. They ask Jesus to grant them whatever they ask. They want to have the prime positions in the kingdom, on either side of Jesus in glory. Their desire is to be the top dogs, to be in close with Jesus. That would be something to aspire to. The boasting potential would be huge.

When the other ten hear it, ‘they began to be indignant with James and John.’ (41) They’re not just cross that these two asked for it, but they’re also cross that they didn’t think of it first! They’re all aiming to be most important - just as they argued along the way about who was the greatest.

Jesus turns things upside down. He shows them the way of love - not of aiming upwards, but of giving downwards. The rulers of the Gentiles might lord it over people, but in the kingdom, things are different. ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.’ (43-44) It’s not what they wanted to hear. It’s not what we want to hear either. But it is the way of Jesus. He came, not boasting because of who he was, but demonstrating his servant kingness.

In Mark 10, they are on the way up to Jerusalem, but when we flick over to John 13, it seems that Jesus’ message hasn’t been heard by the disciples. [Have you ever noticed that sometimes we need to hear something a few times for it to make an impact on us?]

It’s now the Passover. It’s the very night that Jesus will be arrested. He will be crucified the next day. The twelve are with him around the table, and there’s an awkward silence. In the upper room, there doesn’t appear to be a servant. No one to wash the feet of the guests. It’s the role of the lowest slave. No one moves. Everyone waits for someone else to do it.

The awkwardness grows as Jesus himself makes the move. He takes off his outer garments and wraps a towel around his waist. He pours the water. He kneels and washes their feet. It’s unthinkable! But this is the expression of his love. Look at verse 3. Jesus knows who he is. He knows his position - and he rose from supper. He was the only one in the room who could have boasted, but he instead follows the way of love, because he is love. He loved them to the end (2) or, as the NIV puts it, he showed them the full extent of his love.

Jesus on his knees washing the disciples’ feet is the opposite of the boastful, envious Corinthians. They strive for power and prestige and prominence; he puts on a towel and serves lovingly. He calls us to follow his example - of self-giving for the good of others.

What are the areas of our life where we are tempted to boast? What do we glory in? What is it we are envious of others? What has become the idol that someone else has that we desperately want?

Love recognises that everything we have is a gift. We don’t deserve it; we can’t earn it; we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves.

This sermon was preached in the 'A Portrait of Love' Lent series in Aghavea Parish Church on Wednesday 19th March 2014.

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