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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Love Bears All Things

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Corinthians 9: 19-26
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 3, Year (B),   January 25th, 2015

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. (1Co 9:24 NRS)

When the apostle wrote these words, organized Sports were as important to the culture then, as they are in ours.    If you are going to win the race, Paul writes, you will have to ‘run in such a way that you may win it.’    He explains further that to win this race, or any race, you need not only special gifts and abilities, but you will also need ‘discipline. ’  “Athletes need self-control in all things.”  (9.25).

It is quite an interesting thought to consider that Christian love, a love that ‘bears all things’ (1 Cor. 13.7) requires both strength and stamina beyond our ordinary life not unlike the kind of endurance required of a professional athlete.  Visualize someone like Atlas, the mythological Greek god who bore the herculean burden of the world on his shoulders.   More importantly, think of Jesus bearing ‘all things’ for us on the cross.    

Both impressionable images tell us something of the demanding ‘load-bearing love’ that is called for so in our lives,  so that we can win the race of faith, hope and love, no matter what situation we face in life.

The challenge of running the race of life, all the way to the finish line, is poignantly exposed in the emotional story of the Brittney Maynard, the 29 year old woman who had to face the unspeakable burden of a malignant, inoperable brain tumor.  

Experts told her that Stage 4 Glioblastoma was a terrible, terrible way to die, so she decided to move to Oregon, where she could legally kill herself by lethal medication.  She was quoted telling USA Today that ‘not a single cell in her body was suicidal or wanted to die,’ but ‘to choose to go with dignity was less terrifying.”   Brittney had fearlessly ran marathons and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro”, but even against her own mother’s promise to take care of her, she could not bear what was to come.’   

While it’s impossible for most of us to even contemplate Brittney’s decision, we can understand that it’s not only death, but also life that can be difficult to bear.  How will we have to face the unspeakable or the undesirable?    While we may disagree with Brittney’s decision, we can understand some of the pain she was afraid to go through.

How will we ‘hold on’ when the tests of life come to us?  To bear the burden of life and to bear the burden of love will come to all of us in some form.   Either the test will come to us as we are challenged to ‘bear the burden’ of others, or it will come to us to ‘bear our own load’, but however it comes, we can be sure that the test will come.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the call to ‘bear all things’ can be related to the advice Paul gives about marriage.  Certainly, any kind of serious, lasting, enduring human relationship will put love and life to the test.   While Paul has several things to say about marriage and divorce in 1 Corinthians chapter seven, some that is still very applicable for us today, and many of which cannot be easily applied to us,  the one word that stands out is the advice he gives to those who are married to unbelieving spouses.  

It is not just the advice Paul gives, but confidence that the believing spouse has a great opportunity to influence the unbelieving spouse that is most encouraging.   Notice how Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7: 13-14, that the unbelieving spouse (both husband or wife) is sanctified through the believing husband or wife).   This is incredible, because most people think it would be the other way around, that the unbeliever would have more power to pull the believing spouse down, but this is not how Paul sees it.  Paul believes that the believing spouse should not seek a divorce, but should seek to bear with the other for the hope that the unbelieving spouse might be brought to faith. 

The point we need to take for this is not that a spouse to keep themselves in a destructive situation, but that they should bear with the unbeliever in a constructive marriage that is full many more positives than negatives.   The point Paul is making is that Christians should be able to ‘bear’ and ‘hold on’, even better than anyone else.   Who knows what good can come out of our differences, our struggles, and even our faithfulness to the other when we bear each other and we bear with each other in ‘all things’.    This is what love does, isn’t it?  Love bears.  Love believes.  Love hopes.  Love endures.  It is the nature of love not to insist on anything except love; and when there is true love, not just anything, but even better things are possible.

To bear all things not only requires ‘holding on’, even when things get tough, but it also requires us to let go of certain things, we might otherwise hold against someone, hold each other, or even hold against ourselves.  One translation put it: “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”

The situation where Paul reminds us how love must bear all things by ‘letting go’, is not just in a marriage, but also in a church, where people come together with very different interpretations, ideas, politics, and persuasions.   Paul’s major concern was the struggle between the religious customs of pagan world around him that did not fit with the beliefs in the church.   Whereas most all Christians had to buy meat that had been prayed over by a pagan priest and dedicated to an idol,  some would refuse to eat meat and become vegetarian, and others saw it as no big deal, since idols weren’t real anyway.   The ones who did not eat, Paul considered ‘weak’ Christians, because they thought eating meat would weaken their faith.   The ones thought it OK to go ahead and eat meat, Paul considered the stronger Christian.   His recommendation however, was that the stronger Christian, when in the presence of the weaker, not eat meat, for the sake of the weaker Christian.     Paul’s reasoning was that if the stronger Christian was really stronger in his or her faith, they would be able to give up meat for the sake of unity, at least until the weaker brother or sister gained maturity and wisdom.

My Barber says that when he cuts hair, that the two things he can’t talk about are politics and religion.   If he wants to keep his business going, he must let these things go.   But what about at church, when we come together to worship God?   We can be from the same family, the same community, or the same congregation of faith, but we can still see or interpret things (life, politics or religion) very differently.  How do we stay together?  The truth is, that we can’t, and many don’t, unless we bear all things by letting go of some things for the sake of unity, agreement, witness and sharing our service to God.   

Once I was in a home and the folks told me that I needed to watch more Fox News, if I wanted to be the preacher I needed to be.   I let that go.   Other times, people have told me what I needed to preach on, or what I didn’t need to preach on, or that I could even preach the way they thought I should be preaching.  I let that go too.   Sometimes, as a preacher, when I preach, I let things go that I probably ought to say.   Some Sunday’s some of you avoid coming to shake my hand, because you don’t want to hurt my feelings.   Thank you very much for letting that go.  

We all let go of things, even things that are obviously true, so that we can love each other.  Didn’t you see the Film with Jim Carrey,  Liar, Liar?   It’s not that any of us want to be liars, but it would be a cruel world if we always told each other exactly what we think.   Every Sunday when I preach, I let go of the things I believe to be true because I us to be together.   I want us to learn together through what the Holy Spirit says to us together, not just from what I say.   To do this, to listen, to love, to bear with each other, we always have to let some things go, even letting go some things we fully believe to be true.

To do this, as Paul told Christians Corinth, we have to bear with each other.  And to bear with us, God too, gladly let’s certain things go.  Isn’t this part of the message of the cross, that through Jesus, that if we will confess our sins, God is willing to forgive and forget them and also to remove them, as far from us as the east is from the west?   It is ironic, that the sin or problem that most needed to be let go was not a real sin, but a perceived sin?  I guess you could say that Paul’s point is that, if we want to love or we want to have a love that bears all things, until all come to know, at least for now, the stronger one will have to let it go.

This brings us to our reading for today, which is a summary and great challenge Paul gives to any who would keep their faith, fellowship and love going, even when life or others are hard to bear.   

We are in a ‘race’ Paul says.  To be a Christian, whether you are a Christian in difficult marriage, or your are a Christian is a difficult church, or you are a Christian in difficult world, we should hear Paul’s challenge to keep on running, keep on going, and keep on keeping on, until we all reach the finish line in front of us.

It’s a powerful image isn’t it?   The Christian life that is filled with Christ-like love is quite an impossible assignment that is not at all a quick sprint, or a walk in the park, but it is more like a long distance run.   We won’t make this kind of long distance run without some training, or discipline, or knowledge of God’s limitless love.  

When I came to realize I had some ability and the lungs for long distance running,  I joined the Cross Country Track team.   Our coach had little time to train us, so we were all on our own.  I had no idea what kind of strength was needed to run 3.5 miles until the first track meet.  The runners from the other school were much better trained than most of us, a lot better than me, and before I got to the end, I ran out of gas.

After the race was over, I was embarrassed to tell the coach what had happened.  But it was then that I realized that if I wanted to stay in the race, I needed to have much more endurance.   Isn’t this what Paul is also saying to us?  If any of us want to stay in the race, we have to ‘run in a way that (we) may win’.   The only way to run, Paul says, is not to run ‘aimlessly’, but to run with the finish already in our minds.

I think this is the big question we all must consider, whether we are bearing the weight of a difficult diagnosis, bearing with a difficult person, or dealing with any a difficult decision or situation is this:  We shouldn't only think of how to relieve our own pain in the moment.   We also have to think of the bigger picture, the bigger purpose, or the bigger issues, that  also and always surround us, no matter what weight we are having to bear; no matter what race we have to run.  

 If our goal is only the relief of pain, we will decide one way.   If our goal is the good of another or the good of the community, we will decide another way.   If our life ends in the love of God and the hope of all that God promises, then, we gain a different strength to hold on, to let go, and to keep on going, when the load is heavy.   If I’m only thinking of now or me, I can’t but bear that much, but if I’m also thinking of those around me,  or I realize I don’t bear the load alone,  I can do more.    If we know we are loved with unlimited love, I believe any of us can keep running the race and bearing our load.   We can bear all things, Paul says, because we know a love that bears us in all things.  This is what love does.  Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Love Behaves

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Corinthians 6: 12-20; 13: 4-7
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 2, Year (B),   January 18th, 2015

All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything. (1 Cor. 6: 12b NRS)

All things are lawful for me…”   When you think about this, Paul’s statement is quite remarkable.   It comes from a man who was once very legalistic, who grew up on, was schooled in, and was once completely dedicated to living under the law----God’s law.   This man also believed that the moral and religious laws of God should not only be enforced, but should be forced upon other people by God’s people.   He also believed only the right religion could enforce it, which was, of course, his own religion---his very Jewish faith.   This man, with the Jewish name Saul, once believed that the way to save the world was to save God from the world, and if you are going to save God you will have to hurt people. 

Unfortunately, there are still those who believe like Saul once did.   We hear about it on the news almost every day.   As a country, we have sent thousands of military soldiers and spent billions of dollars trying to try to stop some of these people from hurting us.  Somehow life has inured and radicalized them to believe they too have to save their own version of God by hurting other people who differ or lack their faith. 

Sometimes dedicated, legalistic, religious people like Saul, still believe that God only cares about those who observe God’s own strict rules and commandments.    Sometimes, even Christians mimic that religious form and revert to insisting on and enforcing their own set of rules and laws which hurt more than help.   Most unfortunately, there are still religious zealots in our world, who, even as some Christians have done in the name of Jesus,  have beheaded or burn, or sought to destroy every so-called infidel who does not have their form of “true” religion.   We all now know how dangerous and destructive this kind of narrow-minded, unloving, bigoted, hate-filled form of religion can be.   It is still with us, and it can, and has already, hurt us.

Then, why be religious at all?  Is this lack of tolerance by religious people also part of the reason even the Christian faith is in decline among us?   Will we Christians have to revert to a faith that is enforced by law with the sword?   Or is there anything so radically and dramatically different within Christianity that can save, heal, and help?   If religion of ours or any religion becomes a religion about what we must do to save God, then why believe in a god who needs saving?   Isn’t God supposed to be saving us?   When religious truth becomes so narrow-minded, so ignorant, so unloving, and so full of hate, why believe in anything or any God at all?  

This question of how faith should behave is more necessary now, than ever.  But it is not a new question, and it’s not just a question about how other religions should behave.  

When the famous Hindu lawyer of the last century,  Mahatma Gandhi, first began search for a religious and moral pattern for resisting the political and social oppression of his day, he greatly admired the teachings of Jesus, especially the ethical patterns found in Jesus’ sermon on the mount.   But while on a train ride in South Africa, as Gandhi first encountered people who claimed to be Christian, they treated him with as much selfishness, prejudice and snobbery as he had encountered elsewhere in the world.  He is famously remembered for saying, “I like Your Christ, but I do not like Your Christians”.  Because of so-called Christians, Gandhi became convinced that he should not, need not, and could not convert.   Gandhi’s resistance should remind us what Paul also knew, that without love, without love being put into practice in any faith, even the Christian faith, faith, no matter how true, will still mean nothing (

As Paul wrote this letter to instruct Christians on how they should behave by putting love into practice, it is important to realize that he was encouraging them to put love into practice among themselves, before they would ever dare to take Jesus’ message of love into the world.   When Paul describes this priority of Christian love in chapter 13, verses 4-7, he uses 15 verbs--- action words, not nouns.   These are words that show us what we should or should not do, not words that simply tell us who we are.   There is a big difference.  Paul means that we can’t be loving, or say we are loving Christians, until we do and show love to each other.  That’s Paul’s point.   

But how do we do and behave in loving ways?   If you consider all these 15 action words, you will also note that seven of them are used to encourage positive behaviors in the faith community.   More interesting is that eight of the 15, a majority of them are verbs used to discourage negative actions or damaging behaviors.   Paul’s point seems to be that without having enough love in us to overcome the negative within us, we cannot create a Christian community who reveals and shares God’s love.   When love behaves, it is just as important to realize what we shouldn’t do, when learning to behave like Jesus.   

Behaving and being like Jesus?   That’s a tall order isn’t it?   How can we do that?   It is certainly not something we can take for granted because who knows precisely, or can do exactly as Jesus did.   Besides, what Jesus did, in his own life and death on the cross, was a once and for all sacrifice that cannot and needs not be repeated.    But how Jesus lived, how he lived and the actions he took to share and reveal God’s love as he bore his cross, and how Jesus also called his disciples to also to daily bear their own cross--- a cross which also calls us to live by a new commandment to love one another, can be, and must be repeated and revealed in us.  

This kind of active, Christ-like, loving behavior Paul describes is not a love Paul is idealizing or theorizing about .  Paul is repeating and revealing to us what he also received and experienced as love from Jesus himself.   

On the Damascus road, Paul was arrested by love, yes I said arrested, he was not arrested by the law, but arrested by the spirit of Jesus, who confronted him for his wrongdoing (murdering Christians).  But it was how he was confronted and how he was challenged by Jesus’ love that is most remarkable.   If you read Acts 9 closely, you will see that Paul was not struck down by lightning or given death sentence for those murders.   Rather, Paul was struck by the light of God’s grace and was given a new life sentence.  You might not see the difference, but I’ve preached to prisoners in prison and they see it.   It was only through the firm, but loving resurrected Jesus and the acts of his followers, that Paul was changed and challenged by God’s patience and kindness.  Through the power of forgiveness and love he was rehabilitated and re-commissioned to serve a life sentence of sharing God’s love with the world, rather than trying to save it with a religion of hate. 

Don’t miss what is being changed and challenged in Paul.   It is exactly his own hate and judgment of other people based on his own religious, legalistic, and self-pious viewpoint that was confronted by Jesus Christ on the Damascus road.   It was not Judaism or anyone’s religion or lack of it that was being judged, but Paul’s own view of Judaism and his view of unbelievers.   Paul was not a hardened criminal being let off the hook, or being released without taking responsibility for his actions, but Paul is a sinner, a sinner like everyone else, and he is being shown the kindness of forgiveness, while he was also being patiently challenged and changed by God’s love and grace to live a new life, to behave a new way, and to answer a new calling for going on a mission of love, not hate.  

These details in Paul’s conversion story are essential to understanding what writes.   How Paul describes love in this well-known text is nothing less than the loving and forgiving response Paul himself received from Jesus on the road he took to hate and kill.   When Paul says love is patient and love is kind, this is how God was with him.  Even though Paul was a religious, legalistic, sinner, who was primarily against any other viewpoint; even though he was intent on murdering those who preached love; even while Paul a sinner like this: hostile, hating, snobby, stuck up, and stuck on himself, Jesus died for him and did for Paul, what Paul was not doing for anyone else, not even allowing for himself.  

When you encounter love like this, and you are suddenly struck by the light of this kind of unconditional, redeeming, reconciling love, you will also be changed from having a religion that carries out laws to trusting in a faith that gives people grace.   The experience of such extravagant love will cause you to seriously reflect upon and realize the kinds of behaviors that a Christ-follower should have, and should not have.   When the fullness of God’s love shines into your life,  you will want to be patient and kind with others, even if it kills you.    And this is exactly what a Christian discipline and ethic calls for, doesn’t it?   We are to lose ourselves, even sacrificing our feelings and our own opinions, for the sake of showing a love that is a new kind of patience and kindness given to others---even when they are in the wrong. 

Paul makes this point very clear when he says love does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in the truth  (13.6).   Love behaves patiently and kindly, even when it saddened by wrong.  But it will respond to wrong, but it will respond to wrong in a loving way,    

To understand how love should respond, especially when others are wrong, or when we believe we are in the right, is not always easy to answer.   That’s why we always need love.  This became classically expressed in a disagreement between two brothers in 1932, not long before America entered the war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.   These two brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr were German-America citizens and also well-known teachers of religion, who disagreed over how America should respond to the evil of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.   Reinhold argued for a desirable military response, believing that the most loving response was to take up arms and attempt to aid China in fighting the Japanese threat.   H. Richard Niebuhr, on the other hand, called for restraint, and for, at least a temporary, prayerful and patient ‘grace of doing nothing’.   When theologians and historians now look back on this historic debate, they don’t see a clear winner or loser, but take good points from both sides.   They also see that whatever response we have to wrong, it needs to be accompanied by patience, kindness and hope (See James Wm. McClendon, Jr., in Ethics,  Abingdon Press,  1986, p. 319).

In this description of how love should behave, Paul also gives two sides to love.  Paul says that love can be found in ‘the grace of doing nothing’.   This means  that sometimes love is  best expressed in what we don’t do or refuse to do.   In Paul’s own description of love, he spells out 8 very negative behaviors that we must resist, negate, and overcome, if we want to behave like Jesus and become a more loving church community.   Most interestingly, is  that Paul is probably listing his own negative behaviors he had before Jesus.  Paul says:  Love is not jealous, like he was once jealous over Christians.   Love is not boastful, as Paul was once boasting about how many Christ-followers he had killed.  Love is not arrogant, rude, insistent, irritable or resentful, as when Paul claimed that only he was in the right and spent all his energy proving how everyone else was wrong.   

These are very bad human behaviors, which Paul had to wrestle within himself, because they are behaviors we all have to wrestle with.  These are feelings and actions Paul had to negate or overcome to be a part of a loving community.   Understanding that Paul was once a ‘chief of sinners’, as he called it, meant he was an unfortunate authority on religious hate, which is a pertinent description for us to consider in this time of rising religious hatred in the world.
If we want to be Christian, and if we want to be like Jesus; if we want to show that only a God who is love can save us all, we too will have to learn to change and challenge our own negative behavior too.   Paul could not participate in God’s call for his life, in his calling for the world, nor could he find a loving community in the world, until he realized that faith us to love.   We cannot discover God’s call or blessing (for ministry or life) until we learn from Jesus want it means to behave with patience, kindness and love toward each other. 

Not being negative can be very positive, especially when it comes to living with and loving those not like us.   When we don’t hold on to our negative behaviors, there is something greatly positive that love can and must do.    We not only learn how to not to rejoice with wrongdoing, he says, but we can also learn to rejoice with the truth.   

How does love learn to rejoice in the truth?  Can we do that too?  Can we behave lovely in our rejoicing in the moral truth God reveals to us?   “It is time for judgment”  Peter once said, but judgment, is  to begin with the household of God?”  (1 Peter 4.17).  Peter and Paul agreed that if moral judgment is done by the church, or by any church, it is only to be done in the church and for the church, and it is only to be for those who also bear the name brother or sister to each other (5.11).   When it comes to moral questions, moral pronouncements, or even making difficult moral judgments, Christian morality can only be answered or declared in a context of people who care about each other and care about showing and sharing Christ’s love.

Most of the time, when it comes to any kind of immorality taking place within the church, a separation or dissociation happens naturally, as darkness cannot bear being into the light.   Rarely, in an open and free society,  where the pulpit is free and church attendance is voluntary,  must we physically separate from each other, even if we disagree with each other.   Paul only recommended separation at Corinth, because the immorality in the church community was clearly open, clearly public and such an indecent kind of immorality even pagans did not normally put up with it (5.1).  Instead of dealing with, or being ashamed of it, some in the church at Corinth had become arrogant and strangely proud, instead of grieving over or being offended enough to oppose openly immoral behavior.   Because it was like a moral cancer to the whole body, which Paul saw as a leaven threatening to ruin the whole batch, it needed to be decisively dealt with.    

There is a time when a church must respond positively to immorality within its own spiritual family so that it can protect its witness to the world.   Sometimes the church body must act, but when it acts, it must still acts with love and overwhelming agreement, so that our unity, our mission and our morality of love is not damaged.    We can only do this as a family and we can never do this to condemn, but to release, as Paul says, to hand over a person, so that eventually, “their spirit may be saved.”   Such a painful surgical procedure can only be done when a spirit of love permeates the body, and there is a unifying trust in God’s irresistible and undefeatable reconciling purpose.

What I find even more fascinating about showing love, is how Paul tells the Corinthians that they, nor he, have any kind of calling to deal with the immorality of the world or among unbelievers.   When Paul told the Corinthians “not to associate with sexually immoral persons” (5.9), he clarifies that he does not at all mean removing themselves from the immoral of the world.   With tongue in cheek, he says that if they ever really tried to disassociate from this immoral world, it would mean they would have to go out of the world (5.10).   How could they ever answer Jesus’ Great Commission to go into the world, if being church means we have absolutely no association with immoral, worldly, persons?   “What have I to do with judgment outside?”   Paul asks. “Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge  (5.12).  

But who is outside and who is inside?  Do we have to always answer this?   Paul said it only has to be answered when the immorality becomes a threat to the integrity of the body.   This seems to be the point Paul makes when he says,  “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial… to the body, he means.   All things are lawful for me, but I will not let (my body) nor (Christ’s body) be dominated by anything.  It doesn’t matter whether the issue is food or fornication, immoral sex or an immoral spirituality, or any other sin or any other shortcoming, there is to be only one Lord over the church.   When something else, or someone else tries to dominate the church, then it is up to the church leadership to lead the church back under the only lordship worth having,  the lordship of Jesus Christ, who only dominates us with his love.  

Recently, CBS Morning News covered a story of one of the fastest growing global Christian faith movements, especially among youth, that was now in New York as it is in the world.  It interviewed two of the main preachers of Hillsong Church and they spoke about how they preached the gospel truth at their church meetings, which also included the twin biblical messages that life is sacred and that marriage is only to be between a male and female.   I found it very interesting how one knee-holed jean, leather wearing, tattoo stamped preacher answered: “In our church we call it like the Bible says it.  But we don’t force the truth on anyone and we respect everybody’s right to their own decisions and viewpoints.  While we call it like we see it, we let the chips fall where they may.” 

Can we understand today what Paul means when he says, love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth?  We can only understand this when we also understand this kind of love when our love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and enduring all things.   Only when trust in the power the truth of love,  will we behave with love, both for the sake our body, and for the sake of His body—the church.    When you realize your life is not your own anymore, that you are bought and paid so that you don’t have to be a slave to sin or the world, you can live to glorify God and behave as Christ’s body of love in the world.  Amen.   

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Love Builds Up

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Corinthians 3: 10-17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Baptism of Jesus, Year (B),   January 11th, 2015

Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? (1Co 3:16 NRS)

As we continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we need to be reminded that we are studying how to be a loving church and a loving people.   When we study how to love, we should also be learning how to be the kind of people who build each other up so each and every one of us can be the people we are meant to be.   Why should we build each other up, rather than tear each other down?   The answer, says Paul, comes in understanding who we are:  “We are God’s temple,” Paul says.  But what does that mean?

There aremany ways to try to understand what it means for a human being to be a ‘temple’ or ‘sanctuary’ where God’s Spirit dwells, but I don’t think there any way better way to begin to grasp it than when I first heard Chuck Swindoll quote Margery Williams’ classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit:   “Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse (to the Velveteen Rabbit).  'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
        'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
        'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
        'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
        'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.   But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”   (

Today we have a lesson on how to become the ‘real’ people God has created us to become.
Our focus will be on this text from 1 Corinthians 3: 10-17, but our goal is to learn what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 8.1, when he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  Today we want to learn more fully what it means to be built up so that we all can be living sanctuaries that reveal and display God’s instructive and constructive love.

The very first lesson Paul has for us is that our temple, the real me and the real you, where God dwells in us, is a sanctuary or temple that is built ‘according to the grace of God that is given…” (3:10).   This means that the way God builds his house is not the way we might build one.   When Paul says we are built ‘according to grace’, he refers to everything he has just said.   He has said that he did not come ‘proclaiming the mystery of God with lofty words or wisdom’  (2.1).   He said, he ‘decided to know nothing... except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (2.2).   He said, …. we do not speak....with a wisdom of this age….but we are…taught by the Spirit…” (2.6,13).   The love that builds us up,  is a love that is  ‘beyond’ the normal or natural capacity.    The ‘Spirit’ that builds us up in love, rather than puffing us up like a hot air balloon, deflates us in order to make us real Christians as it makes us real people.  

When we encounter God’s Spirit which is expressed in unconditional love, we also encounter the potential to be challenged and to be changed.   It is this very love, a love that is ‘according to grace’, apart from the law (even God’s law, as Paul made clear in Romans 3.21),  is the kind of love that builds us up.   This does not mean that there are no laws worth living, or that God’s moral laws have become null and void through grace, but it means that only a love that goes straight to the heart, based on the heart of God that is for, not against us, is the kind of love that can transform us into the people we are meant to be.

Christians legalists, just like the Jewish legalists, Paul confronted in Romans 2 and 3, cannot build each other up nor can they built any kind of lasting ‘temple’ or people, who will be able to withstand the evils of this world.   Even when the legalists are right, they still lack the one thing God uses to build us up:  love.   We can only become God’s temple, God’s eternal sanctuary, when we base our lives upon the unlimited gifts of God’s love and grace.  

In an recent article about the signs of our times, Biblical Recorder editor Alan Blume and others were reacting to a troubling decision made by Houston courts on October 15th of last year, when a Houston attorney issued subpoenas demanding certain pastor’s turn over any sermons dealing with homosexuality, gender identity or with the city’s first openly lesbian mayor, Annise Parker.   (Biblical Recorder, October 25, 2014, p. 2).    In response, Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,  rightly said that ‘a government has no business…bullying the preaching of any church, any synagogue, any mosque, or any other place of worship’ unless that place of worship intends to bring bodily hurt and harm.   “Houston, We Have A Constitution!”  Moore wrote.    The article went on to advise Christians and pastors to launch into full-fledged political mode, using all the political power they could muster, to vote out all the evil doers, as if Christians, by being salt and light, could achieve the moral salvation of our country. 

I agree much of this analysis of America’s moral problems, and I am concerned about them too.   But it is what this encouragement to join a strong-handed political approach leaves out that bothers me.   A couple of years ago, another North Carolina Baptist State Convention consultant visited our Pastor’s conference and he reminded us, that people who are struggling need our love, compassion, and understanding rather than our condemnation, our denunciation, or hate.  He rightly said our major battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and against matters of the heart and Spirit, which cannot be defeated with mere political strategies or organized votes.   I think there is some great wisdom here which the church needs in these days of moral decline and decay.

The way I see it, as Christians, we are not called to be custodians of the state’s morality, which is a kingdom of this world that we cannot save, but we are called to be stewards of the gospel, which is a kingdom that is eternal and belongs only to God.   Salvation is something only God can give to people or to a nation.  And it is a salvation that can only be won through the truth that comes from God’s forgiving love and grace.  

While I believe it is important for Christians to be good citizens, and that we should express and vote our moral conviction at the ballot box, we must also remember the church’s business not to win votes, but to continue to do God’s business the same way Jesus did God’s business.    This means that we must not ‘fight’ in the same way the world puts up a fight.   If we only draw lines in the sand, define our enemies, and then go after and attack them in hopes us being winners and them being losers, we will not win.   

I once lived a while in Europe where 95 percent of the people still do not go to church.   I know what it is to live in a culture where the church has very little, if any earthly, political power.    I know what happened when the church tried to fight Nazism or Communism and or any other –ism and does not win.   If we only fight to win, we end up exactly where we have always been---being a nation, a people, who remain unchanged sinners and losers.   But if we will dare to live like Jesus, to intentionally lose by turning the other cheek, by resisting the ways of the world, not only with the power of our conviction, but also with power of our compassion,  we can fight the good fight with hope----that in a world that still sins and in a world where Christians also must admit that they are still sinners too, we can have still have the hope of creating an atmosphere where people can still be transformed by God’s love and by God’s grace---no matter what happens.   

I don’t mean to be become political, but the truth is, when you follow Jesus you can’t help but become political.   But this means becoming political in a completely different way than we normally see modeled in human politics as usual.  

As Paul reminds us, the kind of foundation we built upon is not a mere  ‘human foundation’, where people tear at each other, struggling to defeat and conquer an opponent.   But the foundation the Christian builds upon is a foundation that cannot be defeated, no matter who wins or loses.  Is this kind of politic possible in our dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all world?   It is, if you truly believe in the Jesus who still works miracles, and gives eternal life to those who will trust and follow him in the work for justice, for morality, and for the sake of righteousness.  

But again, can building upon the foundation of God’s love really change the world or change our situation?   It can, but will not always turn out like we think.  
When 4 Navy Seals set out to secretly capture or kill the notorious Taliban leader, Amad Shah, their hiding place was tragically discovered by 3 goat herders.   But instead of killing the goat herders, the Seal’s decided to let them go.   It wasn’t so much an act of love, as much as, they were afraid that killing them would appear all over the media.   So, they let them go.   Then, it wasn’t long after the goat herder were released, that the Seals came under attack, were quickly outnumbered, and even their rescue helicopter was shot down.    There was only a “lone survivor” in the battle,  First Class Corpsman, Marcus Lutrell, who, though seriously injured, managed to escape by crawling 7 miles to a neighboring village.  

When he arrived at the village, this one surviving Navy Seal was taken in, hidden, and protected by an Afghan man, who because of a sacred tradition of showing hospitality to strangers, put his own life and his own village at risk, even putting at risk his own child, in order to help and hide the American solider until the US Military could be informed.    If it had not been for the sacred tradition of showing compassion, and the desire of that Afghani man to go against the politics of hate, this American solider, Marcus Lutrell, would not have had a chance to survive.  But he did survive.  He survived because of one Afghan man’s willingness to lead his village to go against the evil and to courageously risk a sacred, if not ‘foolish’ act of compassion. (

When I first learned of this tragic, but heroic story, at first, I thought how foolish it also was that those Navy Seals released those 3 goat herders after they had captured them.   If they had killed them instead, they might not have been discovered, and many American soldiers lives could have been spared   But there is something else.  If they had not acted with compassion for those 3 goat herders, the whole ordeal, as tragic and terrible as it was, would not have been a story worth telling.   It is the story of love, a story of love about people giving their lives for others that brings meaning in life and makes our lives worth living---even if it kills us in the process.   When we have compassion and love for others, even if they are different,  even if we disagree with them, or even when they are our enemies, we build on a foundation that has a power to both transform and even change the world,  even when it sometimes kills us in the process.    This is what love does, no matter what.   This is, as Paul says, a ‘foundation that no other person has laid” other than the one that was laid by Jesus Christ.    

How did Jesus first show this very different foundation based upon the power of God’s love?   We all know that Jesus did not resist the Jewish leaders who arrested him, but he was willing to die for them.   We also know that Jesus did not overthrow the Roman powers, but he submitted, even though, as Scripture says, he could have called his own legion of angels to his rescue.   Why did Jesus submit?   Why did Jesus die?  It wasn’t because Jesus was weak, nor was it because he agreed with the ways of Judaism in his day.   We know he didn’t agree with them because he outwardly challenged their hypocrisy and cold heartedness.   We also know that Jesus did not believe Rome had the final authority either.   He believed that one day Rome itself would see the Son of Man coming in glory and would finally submit to God’s authority.   But instead of fighting these evils straight on, Jesus was willing to wait on God, and even to suffer and die to establish a whole new way of confronting evils of his world and ours.  Jesus died so that his sacrifice would transform and redeem not just our enemy, but also would transform and save us.  Politics as usual seldom saves anyone, but the politics of love has the potential to save everyone---if we will join in with the story of God’s love.

Is this story of love---a love really worth finding, a love worth living into, and a love worth giving our lives for?   Will we join with Jesus by taking up our own cross in order to build upon the foundation only he has established, so that we can challenge the world in a very different way?   It’s certainly not easy, and it will certainly cost us.   Who would want to risk love like those Seals did?  Who would want to risk love like that Afghan tribesman did?   Why would we take such risks and partake in such ‘foolishness’, as Paul himself named this very strange way to save the world---to save it by building on the foundation of sacrificing love?   Who would we ever attempt something like this?  

God did.  And that is what makes the gospel good news---instead of bad news.  
Instead of returning evil with evil, God returned evil with good.   It is this kind of ‘good’ that God provides to us as a witness to His love so that we too, can we have something to build our lives upon, so that our lives become the very sanctuary of God’s Spirit.   Because Jesus has already overcome the world with God’s love, God’s love can find its way into us.  

But how will we receive this great love into ourselves?   How will this kind of love become foundational for living our own lives?   We live in a world where there are so many other options, and there are still many obstacles to prevent us from wholeheartedly diving into a life based upon God’s love and grace.    How can live on this foundation no man has laid?   
You cannot and you will not try to live the basis of love, until you know you are loved.   You will not try to live like Jesus, until you know Jesus for yourself.   And you cannot and will not give up everything or anything, until you realize that you already have everything worth having, when you have love.  

And this is exactly what Paul means that we have when he says:  “All things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belong to God”  (3: 21-23).    When you and I belong to Christ, “all things (already) belong to us. “ Do you get what Paul means?   It all goes back to what he said before,  when he says that one day ‘the work of each builder will become visiblefor the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done” (3: 13).   That which has built on the foundation, will survive, Paul says.   But even if the work does not survive, and even if the builder has suffered loss, because the builder has built on the right foundation,  the foundation of love, that builder will be saved, even if it is through the fire. (3:14-15).   

What is most reassuring about all this, is to God what matters most is not the things we accomplish in life, but when we accomplish love in our life it is this desire to love that guarantees our destiny in God.

What are you building your life upon?   Will it last?  Will you be saved?  It all depends even more on who you are than what you’ve done,  says Paul.    Those who build on the right foundation will survive the fire.   You can survive the coming fire too, when your life does not belong to you, but you belong Christ.    Nothing and no one will be loss in him.   You are God’s temple, and no one can destroy the place where God lives---no one.     Is that who you are?   Do you not know that you too are a sanctuary of the God who wants to build us all up in his love?   You are his temple, aren’t you?  You are building on His foundation of love, aren’t you?   There is no other foundation that will last.    There is no other foundation that is worth having or wroth lasting---this is the foundation that Jesus Christ has laid, and he laid it in love.    What other true foundation is there?   We must be ‘careful’ which foundation we choose.    We are God’s field.  We re God’s building.  We are God’s temple and sanctuary.  We are also God’s builders, who are to work together and have only one foundation to build upon---and that is to build each other up in love.  Amen.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

A Sermon Based Upon 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany,  January 4th, 2015

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”  (1 Cor. 1.25).

We begin each year with a study of one particular book of the Bible because we believe the Bible is God’s word which speaks God’s truth in God’s world.   If that is your belief, I invite you to be here on Sunday mornings, when I’ll be preaching on the most important texts of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.   I also invite you to come and study with us on Wednesday evenings, as we go deeper. 

To guide us through this letter, we will be led by some of the major ideas found in 1 Corinthians 13.   This is one of the most familiar Scripture Bible passages, known as “The Love Chapter”.   It is a text most often used at Weddings, but it was meant for the church.  It is to the church that Paul declares that “without love” we “gain nothing” (13: 3) and we “are nothing” (13:2).    He ends with a most memorable conclusion:  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13.13).   

Of course, love is the greatest, who would dispute that?  Even the Beatles once sang “All You Need is Love!”  But how do we define love?   You can’t simply define love as a simple feeling of emotion.  You have to define love as it is practiced in the realities of everyday life.   This is why the book of 1 Corinthians is so important for the church of Jesus Christ, even still today.   Here, in this letter, Paul confronts real-life-situations in the early church that can help us put love into practice, so that we too, can know better how to love each other in Christ’s church, and know more fully what it means be Christ’s love in the world.  

Love is most important to the Christian, because, as another Christian writer put it, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4.7).   Who among us would dispute that the call to God’s love is what is most unique about the Christian faith?   Jesus is our Lord because he is also our example and our model of what love means and what love looks like.   Jesus is what it means to love God and what it means to love each other.  When we look at Jesus we also say, this is how God is: loving, caring, forgiving, and redeeming.   Just as it is a beautiful thing to love, it is even more beautiful to know the source of love: to know a living and loving God.

But then, as Fred Craddock has said, somebody is going to say to you, if love is so beautiful and so good for everybody, “then what happened to Jesus?”   Here, we must face the truth.   This Jesus who came to love and to show the face of God as a God is love, was treated as a criminal and was executed as a threat.   This is also the place where we must speak of love.  Even as Christians, we live in a world where it getting harder to love.

To love as a Christian is not easy.    This is the reality that confronts us as we begin our study of Paul’s letter to Corinth.    We can speak of love in many different ways, but when we begin to speak of how to love like Christ loves, we can get into all kinds of difficulty.

Take the situation in the church at Corinth, were Paul tells us there were already ‘divisions’ (1.10) and ‘quarrels’ (1.11).   Now this might sound like those early Christians were nothing much more than a bunch of ‘battling Baptists’, who were part of a fragile, na├»ve, impossible fellowship of uncommon belief.   But think again.  The church at Corinth was located on one of the most important trade routes of the ancient world.   Try to imagine a church strategically located on the Panama Canal.  That was Corinth.    The city was located on an ancient canal ‘crossroads’ of trade, travel, and culture.  Paul acknowledges his thankfulness (1.4) for this ‘spiritually gifted’ (1.7) congregation in this city (1.2), but such a constantly changing diversity of people and culture also provided the endless challenge of living with extreme differences which brought disunity (1.10). 

The disunity in Corinth focused itself in “quarrels” (1. 11) and religious ‘cliques’ (1.10) which formed around personalities.   The focus was not on Jesus, as it should have been, but it was on arguing the question, who was the best preacher (1:12ff)?    This turned faith into a game of politics and a push for power.   One group voted for Paul, another for Apollos, another for Peter, and of course, one for Jesus.   To have a group vote Jesus sounds good, but even this meant their own personal interpretation of Jesus.  

Once I was pastor of a church that knew what they wanted.   The problem was, that what part of the church wanted, the other part of the church didn’t.     Both wanted their own particular type of worship.    This wasn’t just a problem in that church, it was the problem found in many churches during the 1990’s.   The differences in changing worship styles, unless carefully navigated, can divide and destroy the unifying purpose of a church.  That’s why they called those struggles, “Worship Wars”.  

When I became pastor here, there were some who wanted me to launch out with a new ‘contemporary’ or ‘blended’ style of worship.    Some wanted me, as a newly installed pastor-leader, to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and ‘put my neck on the chopping block’ for the sake of their vision of what this church could be.  While I would count it an honor to die for my Lord, I would not count it any honor to die for someone else’s view of what a church should be. 

Personally, I do not have a problem with ‘contemporary,’ ‘blended’ or ‘traditional’ worship styles.  I’ve been a missionary and on the mission field you get used to seeing God work in many different ways, as long as it is done with integrity and unity of purpose.    I want our churches to be growing, but I don’t think it would be healthy to be growing just for the sake of getting bigger, or even only to be as big as we used to be.   I think church growth is about much more than growing in numbers.  It should also include reaching out and growing, but growth at all costs, is not healthy, but not to grow is to eventually die.   So, when a few people wanted me to take our churches in a new direction, I listened.   I polled the deacons and discovered that there was no ‘same mind’ or ‘same purpose” about changing our worship style.   That is why I did not lead us in that direction, and still haven’t.   But this question of shared vision and purpose does bring up a very important question we need to consider today: What does bring us together with the ‘same mind’ and the ‘same purpose?’    

As we enter this 8th year of ministry together, the elephant in our living room is the continued decline of church here, and most everywhere in our land.  What should we do about it?   The reality is, we can’t do anything about anything until we have ‘the same mind’ and the ‘same purpose’.    To come together and begin to take the risks we need to take to discover our shared ‘mind’ and our shared ‘purpose’ is the hard work of love.   Isn’t that the hard work lovers do, before they get married and start life together?   They want to know what the other thinks, and they want to discover how they think alike.

So, what do we believe about who we should be and what we care about in our church and community?    Can we find a shared vision on the kind of ‘agreement’ (1.10) we should have together?   What would make us look forward to worship and to serving Christ this year and in the years ahead?   What brings us here to work and to witness for our common Lord?   What might ‘strengthen’ Christ among us (1.6) as we share in this ‘fellowship’ (1.8) of Jesus Christ so that we come together and not fall apart?

Before we look at the answer Paul shares, which should also be ours, we need to be reminded that the problems of unity in Corinth, remind us, first and foremost, why love is not easy:  You cannot be the body of Christ when you only want what you want.   You have to also consider what God wants?   It is what people wanted, not primarily what God wanted, that got Jesus killed.   It is what people wanted, not what Jesus wanted, that caused people to use Jesus as a weapon and divide and quarrel over their differences.   It is what people still want, not what the Holy Spirit wants, that still causes people to form cliques, groups, and factions in churches and communities, all in the name of a gospel, while working against God’s unifying work of love, grace, and oneness. 

Most all of us know the challenge of being ‘of the same mind’ about anything.   People are different.  People have different backgrounds, experiences, and goals.  How could the Christian church or the Christian truth ever expect to find a unifying principle?    Paul says that unifying principle comes in ‘the message of the cross’ (1:18). 

We still like to sing about the cross, but who is willing to carry one?   But this is exactly what Jesus called us to do, and it is this ‘message of the cross’ that makes the difference in our life and in our destiny as the church of Jesus Christ.   Isn’t this what Paul means when he says that ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to show who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’  (1.18).    According to Paul, it is only when the church of Jesus Christ, lives and dies the cross, that it truly believes in the cross.    This is what he goes on to explain when he says that his own focus as a preacher, was not only fancy words or speech, but it was only to preach “Christ crucified” as the way to release God’s power into a perishing people and give them new life.   Can we think about how this might happen through us in this year ahead?  How could we be people who not just talk about the cross, but how can we, ‘take up the cross’ in how we live for God in our own lives.   Could we dare to try what Paul calls this ‘foolishwisdom of God that is still ‘wiser’ than any ‘human wisdom?’  What in the world does Paul mean by this?

It wasn’t long after those first missionaries who returned with Ebola, they were being called “Heroes”.   Interestingly, they were not being called ‘heroes’ primarily by churches, but they were called ‘heroes’ by the media, by medical personnel, by the scientific community, and even by the President of the United States.  They were called ‘heroes’ because they put their lives at risk for a cause that was bigger than themselves.   They did not desire to die for this cause, but they knew when they got on those airplanes, when they went into those remote places, and when they worked with diseased people, that they were ‘bearing a cross’ to bring health, hope and healing to hurting people---and that they were doing it for reasons that were beyond themselves and they were willing. (

This is the ‘wisdom of God’ which is wiser than the ‘foolishness of human wisdom’.  The foolishness of human wisdom, would say, do what feels good, do what is best only for me, and do what I want to do only to get what I want  (A former SC republican party chairman suggested that to rid the U.S. of Ebola, you should put Health Care Workers down)     But the ‘message of the cross’ is not to see one’s own benefit, but to seek the benefit of loving, no matter the cost.   This was the ‘message of the cross’ when Jesus died for us, and it is still the message of the cross, as we are commanded to “take up our cross’ and to ‘follow him.’ 

Calling upon Jesus is just another dead religion, when it’s just talk about love, or when we go on our way, happily or sentimentally singing about the old, rugged cross.   But when you participate in the faith, when you are willing to take up your own cross,  and you’re  willing to make daily sacrifices for Jesus, even to willing to suffer personal loss for the sake of sharing God’s love in the world; it is then that faith become real because it becomes love.   How will your faith become love in this year ahead?   How will you make sacrifices for the Christ who makes God’s love real for you?  

When we love like Jesus loved, as those missionary doctors and nurses are still doing,  it is  such a living ‘message of the cross’ that puts the world to shame, and it might even put a lot of churches to shame too.   What are we doing to sacrifice ourselves in some way because of this Christ who sacrificed for us in every way?    If we will love like this, in this year ahead, it can keep us focused on what God wants and what the world needs most----heroes of love who still bear the cross of Jesus Christ.

When that young Pakistan girl, Malala Yousafzai stood up for the right of girls like her to have the right of an education, beyond the religion of her world, she was standing with Jesus and taking up her cross, even if she still believed in Allah and remains a Muslim.   While I would personally thank her for living like Jesus, and I hope she might become a follower of Jesus too, the truth is,  right now, she probably does more good for her world and for ours, if she remains a Muslim and lives like Jesus.   Muslims would not trust her, nor see her as a hero, if she publically converted to the Christian faith.   Can you see how she still bears a cross?   Malala can bear a cross for Jesus as a Muslim in a way that she never could as a Christian.

Don’t misunderstand me,  I’m not saying I don’t want her to become a Christian, but I am saying that being a Christian is more than being baptized with water, joining a church, or saying a mere word of “yes” to Jesus.    Sometimes we need to be baptized by fire,  we need to join with Jesus not just join a church, and we need to live a life that is more than words.    We need to understand, that bearing the cross of Jesus is bigger than one religion or one way of looking at the world, because Jesus is the only Savior of the whole world, whether everyone believes in him to be or not.  

What I’m saying is foolishness, but it’s God’s foolishness and even it’s smarter than anything else we’ve got to offer.   There is no way to make progress out of the darkness of this world without bearing the cross.  There is no way to break down the walls of differences between religions or between people, without the way of the cross.   There is no way to pave a new road ahead, or to make God’s way straight and sure, without taking up a cross yourself, and risking yourself to join with others and to love even those others, who are much different than you.   There is no other way forward, without the cross.  Only ‘the way of the cross leads home’, as the song says.

We might see things differently, and that can be O.K., but we can’t go forward together, unless we are willing to ‘take up a cross’ and ‘sacrifice’ or even ‘die’ for the truth that will forever remain beyond ourselves.   There is no other way that leads us forward.  There is no other power that works.  There is no other truth that brings people together in love and hope.   Every good power God gives us for our way ahead is found in the power of love that was first released on a cross.  

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters….” (1.26).   That’s how Paul ends his appeal for his church to focus themselves in the way of love found in the message of the cross.   You don’t have to be a ‘somebody’ to answer this call, Paul says.   In truth,  first you have to make yourself a ‘nobody’.   You have to make yourself a ‘nobody’ because you can’t love somebody or be fully loved, until you realize that before God, we are all nobodies, made somebody through the cross that declares God’s unending, unconditional, and undeserved love.    Today, consider your own call to this kind of love.  Amen.