A Still More Excellent Way

A Still More Excellent Way

Matthew 5:38-48

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

13If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

 A Still More Excellent Way

 What hasn’t been said about love? It is object of psychologists, therapists, marriage counselors, and match-makers.  It is the domain of poets, song-writers, musicians, and artists. Love is the promise held out by advertisers.   Love sells flowers, chocolates, and Hallmark cards — but also automobiles, life insurance, and carpet.  What hasn’t been said about love?

A number of years ago, Randy and I read a book called The Five Love Languages.  The book explained that people give and receive love in five ways:   (1) Words of Affirmation — compliments, (2) Quality Time, (3) Receiving Gifts, (4) Acts of Service, and (5) Physical Touch. The key to true married happiness, the book promised, was figuring out how to speak your spouse’s “love language.”  If he felt loved by receiving acts of service, then you should quit buying him ties and start washing his car more often.  If your wife’s love language is quality time i.e. dinner and conversation, then don’t expect her to feel loved because you’ve just trimmed “her shrubs.”  I admit the book was insightful, but it felt kind of calculating and self-serving.  Plus, I didn’t sense much intimacy in washing his car; and he didn’t always have anything to talk to me about!  So . . .  we didn’t find it easy to speak the same love language.

 

In a way, the Corinthians (whom we talked about last week) weren’t speaking the same love language either.  In fact, for all their gifts of healing and preaching and prophecy, there was very little love going around.  Rather, they were using their “spiritual gifts” to gain status and advantage over each other.  “My eloquent speech is better than your unintelligible gibberish,” they said.  “How dare you, I am the most learned scholar among our group.  Surely, I deserve the best seat at the table.” “Oh, but both of you forget that I have been given the gift of prophesy.  I am given to know even the thoughts of God himself.  My gift is superior to yours!”

 

That’s how it went:  one-up-man-ship, vying for status, every man talking to himself and about himself.   Until Paul says, “STOP!  All of your gifts are important if they are used for the common good, but there is so much more to living in Christian community than these gifts along!  Now I will show you a still more excellent way.

That sentence is the transition to I Corinthians  13.  Always read those 10 words before you read the passage:  “Now I will show you a still more excellent way!” Paul was going to tell the Corinthians something very important, something even “more excellent” than all those spiritual gifts he had just talked about. It  would be the key to fixing the Corinthian church.  In fact, the key to fixing the world.  What was it?  LOVE.

Paul’s message would boil down to four key understandings about love: (1) Love requires selflessness.  (2) The work of love is hard.  (3)  Love requires both closeness and separation.  (4) Jesus is the model for and source of love.

 

We hear people say that they “found love” or fell “in love” or that “love found them.”  In these expressions, love is a condition or place or even an agent like cupid. Love befalls you, somehow.  It swallows you up like a giant lake of milk chocolate. You need do nothing except bask in the heady delirium of happy hormones.  It is blissfully effortless.

I Corinthians 13 is conspicuously short on blissful happiness.  It is  long on effort.  I Corinthians 13 is love’s job description.   To truly love, says Paul, is to develop the following skill set:

You will be patient with the people you love.  In other words, you will not demand that they change or cooperate on your time schedule.  You will plant the seed and allow time for it to germinate and grow. During that time, you will wait in prayerful expectancy.  For as long as it takes.

You will be kind to everyone.  You will speak with kindness, with respect, giving all you meet the same courtesy that you would wish to be extended.  Being kind does not mean you endorse their opinions or condone their behavior but that you choose to withhold hurtful words.  Often being “kind” requires refusing to enable another’s harmful behaviors, seeking instead to support healing and growth in their lives relying on their potential and God’s power.

You will be humble – not rude, envious, arrogant, or boastful.  You will not demand to receive attention.  You will not dominate every conversation, be a bully in meetings, push your way to the front of the group.  You will not tell the loudest jokes or insist on having the stage.

You will not insist on your own way because you trust that divine wisdom pours through all of us – not just you.  Others, whose ideas are often silenced or dismissed, may have the clearer insight.  When you do not get your way you, will not be irritable or resentful.  You will not pick up your gifts and go home.  It accomplishes nothing for the Kingdom for you to storm out of the room, pout, threaten ultimatums, or emotionally blackmail your adversary.  It is not about you.

You will not rejoice in someone else’s misfortunes –no matter who they are, or what has happened up until now, or how much you think they “deserve” them.  You do not know what has caused such misfortune or how you yourself—whether actively or passively– may have contributed to it.  Instead, you will take pleasure and rejoice in whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is good.  “Even sinners,” says Matthew, “love and rejoice with their friends. You are called to a higher standard of compassion.”

Real love is persistent:  long-suffering yet hopeful.  Love is not a sprint, it is a marathon, and the runner – YOU—must believe you can win even when the pack is out ahead of you.    Says Paul, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  It is often tough and gritty –at times, you will hang on by your fingertips or claw to the top of the hole only to slide back down.  But you will go on even when you think you can’t go on.  Because love, this real love, this love that Paul is talking about is forever.

 

“Therefore, brothers and sisters in Corinth,” writes Paul, “THIS –THIS KIND OF LOVE – is what your church needs.  It is the ‘still more excellent way.’”

But the Corinthians most likely say “No way! This is impossible.  No one can do this! It is beyond human capacity to always hope, always believe, always protect.  No one can give to every beggar, turn the other cheek,  yield to their attackers, and love their enemies. No one can ‘be perfect’ as our Father in Heaven is perfect!”

 

And the Corinthians are right . . . except that . . . this is the way Christ loved.  Christ was patient, kind, not arrogant, not boastful.  Christ rejoiced with truth, suffered with the suffering, believed all things, hoped all things, endured all things.  His agape love never ended.  And so . . .

If we are in Christ –grafted into Christ as Jesus says –branches of the vine—is it not possible to do the same? To develop this agape – this Christ-like love? Would it work for our marriages, our family relationships, our colleagues, our friends, our enemies, our world?

I Corinthians 13 is probably the most-read passage of all wedding texts.  Given that most marriages today are not between two Christians – or between people who are particularly spiritual– I find it an ironic and even cruel choice of material to read.  The passage sets a high bar for Christian spouses but an impossible one for non-Christians. They will lack both the tools and the power to build that kind of lasting love. It will be a house built on sand – no foundation, no storm shutters.

 

Without the three-way covenant of marriage and without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, no mortal can achieve, let alone sustain,  the selflessness that Paul advocates.   Things might go well for one year or five, but sooner or later, all couples face job loss, sick kids, financial stress, disloyalty, jealousy, resentment, and boredom.  That’s when the agape love has to carry the day, and it takes Christ’s Spirit.

 

To achieve agape love –to remain patient, kind, hopeful, and long-suffering despite all the human passions that are warring inside you – you must be able to step outside the situation — step into your higher consciousness, your “Christ Self.”  The Christ self is the dispassionate self who knows that God loves your adversary as much as He loves you.  The Christ Self sees your spouse – or any opponent – not as an obstacle in your path – but as God’s creation endowed with worth, potential, and purpose.  You find –miraculously– that you can pray for your adversary.  You begin to sense compassion.  Perhaps you realize that you possess some of the very same habits or traits that you find so annoying in your spouse or sister or friend.  When you step back inside your human identity, you sense a shift – if only in yourself.  Your anger may be diffused or your perspective may have changed.  Something has happened because you tapped into the Source of Love.

 

I Corinthians – coupled with the passage in Matthew – is the biggest challenge Christ offers to his followers.  To speak this love language requires humility and a deep connectedness with God.  One lifetime is not long enough to master the Christ-like love that Paul speaks of.  But it is a worthy goal.

 

Paul saw in the Corinthian church the potential for great things, but they needed agape love. His message is timely for the church and all of us  today:  Make love –Godlike love– your goal!  It is a “still more excellent way!”  AMEN