Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 13:6 Pure Love

What is it that causes you to rejoice? What are the things that make you glad? Perhaps it is spending time with family or friends that you rejoice in. Time spent with the people you love. Or perhaps it's sports that brings you joy (although, with often equal or even greater proportion, sorrow). When your team is winning, things are great, you rejoice. Perhaps it's the opportunity to get out to church, or even just to be able to be out and about, that makes you glad, especially after illness or changing circumstances. Lots of things to rejoice in, lots of things to make your heart sing. What might yours be?

But what about rejoicing at wrongdoing? It doesn't sound right, in fact, it sounds very wrong, to rejoice at wrongdoing. That wouldn't happen, would it? Could it? And yet, it must have been happening in Corinth. We're working our way through chapter 13 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. But it's good to see how chapter 13 fits into the letter as a whole. We've been getting a flavour of it through our confessions and our prayers, and we quickly come to realise that the church in Corinth was far from perfect. There were muddles and mixups and messes. Just as in every church, really. It's why Paul wrote the letter, to try to sort the church out by bringing God's correcting word to change us.

It was needed in Corinth. Over in chapter 5, it seems that the Corinthians were indeed rejoicing at wrongdoing. You see, there was a member of the church who was publicly engaging in sexual immorality. He had taken up with his father's wife - not his mother, but still a wife of his father. It was scandalous, indeed, so scandalous that Paul says it is 'of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.' (5:1). The Corinthians were rejoicing in this - maybe as an expression of their tolerance and diversity and being welcoming of all lifestyle choices. They were boasting about how great this was.

There are many in the Church of Ireland today who are similarly celebrating sinful lifestyles, who go out of their way to proclaim that they are a welcoming, open, inclusive church. It sounds great, but if it's a cover for celebrating sin, then it's not something we want to be a part of. We can't sanctify sin, just declaring that things are great when they are not. It might seem like a loving thing to do, just include everyone with no need for repentance, no need to change, just come and be who you want to be (not who God has made you to be). But Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit writes that 'love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.'

As we've been working our way through our series on love, we've been seeing that to see what love looks like, we need to look at the Lord Jesus. His life and person and work is the perfect demonstration of what love looks like. And tonight we turn to see what this aspect of love looked like in his life.

Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem. It's one of the festival times in Jerusalem when everyone came to the city to celebrate what God had done. He's stirring up a crowd, but also stirring up opposition. Not everyone likes what he's doing. Into the middle of the crowd, the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman. She had been caught in adultery. Now we're not told any other details, but imagine the scene. The sounds, the sights, as she is brought, against her will, into the temple, dumped at Jesus' feet in front of this crowd. She's humiliated. Fearful. Ashamed.

The Pharisees set out the problem. 'Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?'

Now pause for a moment. It looks like they are rejoicing with the truth. They are certainly not celebrating wrongdoing. They're out for blood, ready to condemn the sinful woman. It's as if they're ready at any moment to pick up stones to throw at her.

But look at what John tells us in verse 6: 'This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.' They're using the woman to get at Jesus. She is just a pawn, someone who doesn't matter to them, who they can use to condemn Jesus for what he says, no matter what it is.

You see, if Jesus were to say that they shouldn't stone the woman, then they'll attack him for failing to uphold the Law of Moses, the Old Testament standard of holiness for the people of Israel. But if he says to stone her, then he'll be accused of creating a riot, by disobeying the Roman authorities. You remember that when the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders eventually try Jesus, they can't kill him themselves. They no longer have the power of the death penalty. They have to take Jesus to Pilate. They've put Jesus in a catch 22. They are rejoicing in wrongdoing, not rejoicing with the truth. They are the opposite of love.

Jesus does a most remarkable thing. He bends down and writes with his finger on the ground. They're looking an answer, pressing him, but he just resists, concentrating on his writing. They keep asking when suddenly he gives his answer: 'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.'

The angry mob melts away quicker than snow off a ditch. They realise that they who accuse also have sinned; that they too deserve to die. They aren't in the position to throw stones at this woman. You see, despite what they have done in the rest of their life (and they would not have been perfect), the very fact that they had set up the woman was evidence of their sin. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to commit adultery. But where was the man? He may have set her up. She was dragged to Jesus to trap him, not her.

There was no one in the angry mob that day who was without sin. Yet there was someone there who was without sin. The Lord Jesus, who after resuming his writing stands up, looks around, to find no one left, but him and the woman. 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' No one, Lord, she replies. The only one who could have thrown a stone that day instead declares words of grace: 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.'

The love of Jesus rejoices with the truth - he doesn't condemn her, instead he rescues her, giving her a new start. It's only in Jesus that we find 'no condemnation' (Rom 8:1), as we rejoice in the truth of what Jesus has done for us. But it's not just that it doesn't matter what you're like. The love that rejoices with the truth doesn't rejoice in wrongdoing. That's why he also says: 'Go and from now on sin no more.' You have sinned, yes. All of us have. But don't go back to it. We're not free to carry on sinning. Love refuses to rejoice in wrongdoing; but it rejoices in the truth.

It's only the love of Jesus for us that can change our hearts, to turn us from the love of sin to the love of the truth. As we realise what he has done for us, so our hearts are turned towards him, like a magnet pointing towards the North Pole. May his love for us and in us change us, for his glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached as part of the 'A Portrait of Love' series in Aghavea Parish Church Lent Midweeks on Wednesday 26th March 2014.

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