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Sunday, January 17, 2021
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a & 1 John 2:15-28
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
As I was preparing for today’s sermon, I came across this line in a commentary on the text from 1 John, “If one asks what Christian teaching is found in this [passage] or what the Christian teacher is to make of it, the answer is not altogether obvious.” Those are not the words the preacher wants to read when studying a passage coming up on Sunday. And yet, God is faithful and has never failed me yet. With time, study, and prayer, I became surprised by how relevant this passage and the one I paired it with from 1 Corinthians are for this time. Both John in this letter and Paul in 1 Corinthians are writing to address the divisions in their communities. These divisions were significant and were harming the church. Neither assumes divisions and differences of opinion will just vanish on their own. They both speak the truth in love to divided churches, and they anchor what they write in what is true about God. And what is true about God has a legitimate impact on how Christians treat each other and those outside of the church.
These two – right belief and right behavior – are of equal importance. It’s why, week after week, you see your pastors beating the drum of Scripture – so that we all can know what God says is true and come to believe that truth deep down in our lives. It’s also why that right belief then becomes the origin of all of our behavior. We can be decent, moral people, but if we are not striving to learn the truth about who God is, we’ve missed the mark. We can be the best Bible interpreters in the world, but if we don’t practice our right beliefs in love, then we are just like “whitewashed tombs,” as Jesus described, shiny on the outside and dead on the inside. We need both right belief and right action to live fully as Christians.
You don’t need me to rehash the divisions of our times. They’re evident and infiltrating every corner of our lives, even our precious life together as a church. But let me tell you that this time is not unique in its divisions. Let’s take the church in Corinth, for example. Paul writes one of his letters to them, and within ten verses writes these words, “Now, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Paul is writing that because the opposite has happened. This church in Corinth is a mess. Here are just some of what Paul is addressing: their favorite celebrity preacher – Paul or Apollos; people mistreating their bodies; believers suing each other; issues of marriage and divorce; whether or not they can eat food that has been used in sacrifice to idols. To cap it all off, when they celebrate communion, people bring their own food and those without enough are left hungry. It’s a mess in Corinth. Neither right belief nor right behavior are happening.
It is into that mess that Paul writes some of the finest words ever recorded, showing us all a more excellent way. He offers corrections to them, but these are couched in this overarching description of the way love – the love that comes from God – is to exist among Christians. They are worth another hearing today. “4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.” I usually encounter these words at funerals or weddings, but over the past couple of years, I have been struck by how true they are and how much we, the church, as well as everybody in these fraught times could benefit from aligning our lives around God’s love described in this way. I speak these words, and there is a deep hunger in my heart to see them come to life in society around me because so much of the opposite is happening.
John is writing to a different community at a later time than Paul, and yet this community is undergoing division. This one is very much about right belief – what we know as orthodoxy. People have come into this community and sowed division by teaching that Jesus was not who he said he is. John has specific teachers in mind, even calling them “antichrists,” that is, people who oppose Christ. We may have some evidence here of a heresy that came to be called Docetism, which holds that Jesus only seemed to be human. John goes after these antichrists and this false teaching with all of his might. “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ,” he writes. “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.” This is right belief, and it matters. When addressing division – even today – it is imperative that the church anchor itself to the gospel truth and make sure the resulting actions are connected to those beliefs. “Failure to proceed both morally and confessionally in the light of that truth is, as [John} baldly puts it, lying – whether to ourselves, to others, or to God.”
So, it’s clear from both 1 Corinthians and 1 John, that the way to handle divisions is to cling to the gospel and to live according to it. Why is that so hard for us? I know it’s hard for me. I know it’s hard for you. Well, it’s hard for us because we are human. We are limited. We can only take in so much or take on so much before things become a confused mess or we totally wear down.
Perhaps an image would be helpful here. I have here before me a glass representing my life. I get to fill that glass with whatever I want. I also have some pop and some milk. If I fill my glass with nothing but pop, then not only is there no room my glass for anything else, but also my life is filled with something that might be momentarily pleasurable but not healthy at all. There’s only so much my glass can hold. If I keep pouring into it, things just start to leak out and fall all over the place. It’s a mess I’ve made of myself! With my glass full of what’s not healthy, it’s not like I can just start pouring the milk into the glass filled with pop. It’s still spilling out everywhere, and who would want to drink milky pop? Not me! But, if I clear space in my glass – that is clear space in my life – for the milk, then there is room for what is healthy to get into me.
We humans are limited, which means we need to make sure we leave space in our lives for the things that will fill us. What fills us? Knowing God’s love is true for us and the whole world. Taking that love we know in Jesus Christ into our lives. Tending to that love. And, unlike the glasses, when we are filled up with the right things, then we can pour the goodness out of ourselves and into others who need it. When we are filled with the right stuff, we are actually in the amazing position to be a blessing to the world.
1 John addresses this in the first verse we read today. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” he writes. Now, don’t hear this as a command to pull yourself out of the world and live a life that ignores the beautiful and hard realities of life. No, he’s warning us that giving too much space to things that don’t ultimately benefit us is like filling our glasses only with pop. There’s no room left for that which nurtures, helps, and heals. John writes about “all that is in this world” and specifies three things – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches. The Greek for “desire” is epithumia, and it means a desire for something that is forbidden or beyond what should be had. It’s not that the flesh or eyes are bad; it’s that we use them to fill our lives with things that harm us and others. The Greek for “pride” is alazoneia, and it means pretention or arrogance. It’s not pride, as in “I am so proud of my children.” No, it’s pride, as in “Have you seen my vacation home and boat and private plane? Look at how great all these things make me look.” It’s pride that places trust in the wrong place – in our ability to provide for ourselves independent of others or of the expectations of the God who made us and everything there is. So, “[John] is not counseling rejection of material experience as such or an ascetic denial of normal appetites. What he rejects is an absorption with things ‘of the flesh’ and visible to the eyes: a preoccupation with matters of ‘everyday life’ that runs counter to the spirit, undermines seeing by faith, and is hostile to eternal life.”
I think what we need is the reassurance of God’s love. Yes, we always need it, but I think in this hard season we especially need it. Why? Because normally we have each other around to be a physical reminder of that reality, but in this season, we haven’t had that gift of community, which has led us to stew in our smaller worlds about all the difficulties of everything. Without being around each other, we miss out on those gentle reminders that unity does not mean uniformity and that God created each of us to be uniquely who we are and placed us into the particular community of faith for each other and the world. John is writing to his divided Christian community to affirm that what they believe is true and that they do not have to let other teachers convince them that what they believe is inadequate or even false. In last week’s reading from 1 John, there’s a beautiful little litany where John provides this kind of loving reassurance. He lists out the things his people already know to be true (that is, right belief coming in again): Little children, you’re forgiven. Fathers, you know the eternal God. Young people, you are strong to stand against evil. John echoes that reassurance in our passage for this morning. “I write these things to you,” John says, “so that you may know what is true and what is not.” Stay with Jesus. Know him. Love him. Live for him.
In these times filled with so much anger and bitterness and division. I think the message of both John and Paul rings true for us. Friends, stay with Jesus. Know him. Love him. Live for him.
The image from A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh story really connects to our need to be reassured of God’s love in hard times. Milne writes, “Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. ‘Pooh!’ he whispered. ‘Yes, Piglet?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. ‘I just wanted to be sure of you.’” I picture us just like Piglet. We reach out our hand to Jesus, and when we make that connection, we realize how much he loves us, how much we are called to love others, and how great it is to know that God’s love is what gets the final say in all of this. Come what may, God loves the world. Let your hearts fill with that love so that it overflows in the pain and hurt all around you.