Sunday, May 18, 2008

Today's Sermon

Well, below is today's sermon. I wanted to convey the importance of cultivating loving relationships and friendships with fellow Christians as an implication of already being loved by God. I don't think I managed to communicate as effectively as I would have liked the importance of friendships within the church, but perhaps I can do that another Sunday. It can be difficult to know sometimes how effective a sermon has been. As another pastor recently told me, "There are very few watershed sermons!" How right he is! But thankfully God can use even our meager efforts. I hope these words bless and encourage you too.

“The Gift of Love”
1 Corinthians 12:27 – 13:13; 1 John 4:7 – 21

Introduction—the art of re-gifting

We’ve all received lots of gifts over the years. Most gifts we have probably forgotten; some of them we never even use; and some of them we keep and enjoy. And some of these gifts we keep but we never really use them ourselves. They end up in closets, boxes, and storage rooms. And then when it comes time to give someone else a gift—either for a birthday or for Christmas or for some other occasion—we do the unthinkable, the unimaginable. We do what we would never admit out loud: we ­re­-gift.

Haven’t you ever done this? That little trinket you didn’t want to set out on the coffee table you gave to someone else. That book you knew you’d never read you gave to someone else. That CD you knew you’d never listen to you gave to someone else. That sweater you knew you’d never wear you gave to someone else. Don’t tell me I’m alone!

Good or bad, re-gifting is about giving to someone else what we’ve already been given. Now, if we do this with a sweater or a CD it likely means we didn’t much like this gift ourselves. When we received it and said, “You shouldn’t have,” we really mean it, and in more ways than one! The things we re-gift are usually things we didn’t like or want; and so we re-gift to get rid of it (and maybe to rid ourselves of the guilt that we don’t like it!).

But when we receive gifts we do like and enjoy, usually the last thought that crosses our minds is passing it on to someone else. Gifts we like, we keep. Gifts that we deem worthwhile, we hang onto. But what if we were to reverse this logic? What if we instead adopted the attitude that we should give away the good gifts we receive? And what if I was to suggest that the only way to truly appreciate a gift is when we give it to someone else and allow someone else to appreciate it and enjoy it too?

The particular gift I have in mind, one that most of us here know of, is the gift of love. And love is the sort of gift that we can only truly receive once we have learned to re-gift it, to give it away to someone else; failing to do so means failing to understand the true nature of love. Having received it, we pass it on. This is what it means to respond to the love we have received from God. It means, as we will see, cultivating loving relationships where friendships are the goal. And it also means having to extend grace to our brothers and sisters in Christ; loving one another means, at times, forgiving one another. And being able to forgive—to see past how others have wronged us—draws us further into the love of God who forgave us in Christ. The forgiveness we have received, we also give; doing so, therefore, is at the heart of relationships within the church as well as the relationship between ourselves and God. And it is precisely these sorts of loving relationships that we are after as believers in Jesus Christ.

Giving the gift of love means responding to God’s love

Our first point this morning is this: Giving the gift of love means responding to God’s love. And the point of this point is this: We love others because God loves us; our loving relationships are modelled on our relationship with God. What God has given us, we willingly give to others.

Alisha’s friend Janis has always held loosely onto her possessions—with one exception: a pair of patch-work, quilt-style pants. I guess she just loved these pants. Though not much of a clothes person, she was very excited about these pants. Well, Janis was working at Circle Square Ranch at the time and when her supervisor, the head cook, saw these pants she absolutely loved them! And she told Janis so.

Janis felt like God was telling her to give her boss the pants. And giving them up was hard because she did love them so much. But, as I said, she always held unto her possessions loosely because she knew that all she had came from God. That included these pants. So she gave them away. And the person almost refused to take them, knowing how much Janis liked them. As a result of this gesture, she shared things with Janis that opened up more opportunities for friendship. Janis was also blessed by giving away. What she gave was what God had given her. She was responding to God’s generosity in her life.

When we re-gift love—show love to those around us—we are simply responding to the fact that God has given us love first. We receive love first from God—he is the source of love; indeed, God is love. Love defines his essence; it is who he is. But the love we receive from God doesn’t stop with us, but is meant to flow through us to those around us. Just as we have received the gift of love from God, so we are to give the gift of love. As 1 John 4:8 says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” and a little later in verse 11 John says, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”

Even our giving of love to others is something enabled by God’s Spirit—love is the pinnacle of the fruit of the Spirit. John points this out to in verse 13 when he says that, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” Having a character shaped by the quality of love means being someone who is patient and kind, who lives toward others in the manner that God relates to us. This means to grow in love and to show such love, we need to be in relationships. In particular, we need to be in relationships with other believers. As a community we need to be around and with one another—in relationship with one another—in order to give the love we have been given.

Giving the gift of love means cultivating loving relationships

Our second point this morning is the most important point. We’ll spend most of our time on it. It is an implication of the first: Giving the gift of love means cultivating loving relationships. The point of this point is this: Modelling our relationships in the church on our relationship with God means actively pursuing loving friendships with fellow Christians. It means cultivating trust, openness, and acceptance. Let’s unpack this a bit.

When we were living in Hoyt we would let our dog, Miss T., outside without a lot of supervision. This turned out to be a bad idea. One morning I got a loud knock at our door from our neighbour Brad. Miss T. had gotten into his garbage and it was now everywhere. I felt awful. Strike one. On another occasion Miss T. had gotten into some of Brad’s dog food, which he would leave at the side of his house in a dish for his two dogs when they were tied in the yard. Strike two.

We’re told to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. But how do we do that? When it came to Miss T. and her shenanigans, we made sure we leashed her and didn’t let her wander indiscriminately around our neighbourhood. We made sure we didn’t do anything to annoy, frustrate, and otherwise anger our neighbour. We avoided actions and behaviour that would not show love of neighbour. But was this really love?

I think if we had decided to show real love of neighbour, we would have given Brad and his family a big bag of dog food—to replace what Miss T. had eaten over time and then some. Rather than just avoiding making our neighbour mad, we should have gone out of our way to make our neighbour glad—is this not a better description of neighbourly love and of love in general?

This applies to our relationships in the church. Loving relationships in the church require not only avoiding actions and attitudes that hurt our brothers and sisters, but doing things that build up and encourage our brothers and sisters. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:11: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.” So it’s not only about not doing things we shouldn’t; it’s also about doing those things we should. It’s not only about not letting our dog loose to ransack our neighbour’s garbage; it’s also about dropping off some homemade cookies for no other reason other than they are your neighbour. The threads of love that bind us together are ones that we intentionally take time to knit.

Think of it this way. Would you call a marriage a genuine relationship if all the couple did was to make sure they avoided all the behaviours and actions that annoyed and upset one another? To keep the peace I make sure I put the toilet seat down, squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom, and put my dirty clothes in the hamper rather than leave them on the floor. Does making sure I do these things guarantee a healthy marriage? Does this signify a healthy relationship? Or does a healthy relationship also need to include making my wife coffee in the mornings, bringing her the occasional bouquet of flowers, giving her some alone time when she needs it, and going for a walk with her on a beautiful, sunny day?

When God shows us love, he sends his Son. He takes an action. He does something. And when he does this, and we respond, he draws us into a loving relationship with him. It means deliberately asking ourselves: how can I show love to my brothers and sisters in Christ? How can I express this love? How I can give someone else the love I have received from God?

You know, if we ask ourselves these questions and take action, then we will be drawn into relationships with one another. The relationships in a church are about becoming friends with one another. I’m sure we each have friends that, despite how long it’s been since we’ve seen them or how long it’s been since we’ve talked, we can still be honest with them the moment we talk to them again. Friends are those people who accept us without conditions, who are willing to look past our faults, mistakes, and quirks, to see us as we really are.

I remember being at Acadia and for one of my years there I was a volunteer staff worker with IVCF. As a part of my ministry, I met with the staff worker once a week to discuss how things were going. It was a chance to tell him about struggles not only with ministry but even with school or with life. As I shared these feelings, this other person never winced, never judged, and never raised even an eyebrow. Inevitably, I would leave our conversations feeling as though God himself had released me from my fears and insecurities. And as a result my own relationship with God grew and was strengthened. This person was as “Christ” to me. And our relationship was analogous to my relationship with God. It was modelled after that relationship.

These kinds of loving relationships reflect God’s relationship with us—his willingness to look past our sins, to forgive, offer acceptance, to embrace us, and to love without condition. Truly, we can be honest with God. We can lay ourselves bare before him. There is nothing about us that he does not already know; there is nothing we can keep from him. Scripture advises us, in 1 Peter 4:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” We need friendships that have this same quality. Scripture also tells us in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Such loving relationships only happen with time and willingness. It begins with a simple willingness to get to know the others in our midst, however different they may be. It doesn’t mean that we will become good friends with everyone in church, but it does mean that such loving relationships and friendships ought to be a part of our faith experience.

We can trust God not only to save us but also to forgive, to accept, to see us as we are and still show grace to us. Without such a trust in God, we would not have a genuine relationship with him. We would not be living a life of faith. Yet if we believe what the Bible says about God, then we certainly have every reason to trust him. Such trust needs to be a part of our relationships with one another.

Giving the gift of love means extending forgiveness

Trusting other human beings is another matter, however. This brings us to a third point: Giving the gift of love means extending forgiveness. The point of this point is: Loving other people presents us with a challenge since people are not always lovable; in fact, sometimes others, even other fellow Christians, wrong us. This is why we have to learn to extend one another forgiveness. In extending such forgiveness we are modelling our relationships with one another on God’s ultimate act of loving us: forgiving us in Christ.

A Sunday School teacher had just concluded her lesson and wanted to make sure she had made her point. She said, “Can anyone tell me what you must do before you can obtain forgiveness of sin?” There was a short pause and then, from the back of the room, a small boy spoke up. “Sin,” he said.

While we know that God will not betray us, we know that we have a propensity to betray one another. We know that sometimes we don’t have reason to trust one another. We are wary of opening up because of what the other person might do with that information. Will they betray that confidence? Will they turn a confidence into a reason for gossip?

That this is so means we need forgiveness. We need to receive it and we need to extend it. People are not always easy to love, and surely neither are we. No wonder Paul finds himself advising other Christians, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was reminded one day of a vicious deed that someone had done to her years before. But she acted as if she had never even heard of the incident. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked. “No,” came Barton's reply, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.”

How does this relate to giving the gift of love? The apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 4:8, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Certainly the love of God in Christ has covered the multitude of our sins; our love, through our willingness to forgive as God has forgiven us, covers the sins of those who wrong us. Loving relationships that model God’s love for us are only possible when we are willing to forgive and be forgiven. And in extending such forgiveness we live out the heart of God’s love for us.

Conclusion—love only lives when you give it away

Many people dismiss church, Christianity, Christians, and even pastors as hypocritical. They look at us and see that we are as prone to sin and failure as anyone else and see this as reason to dismiss what we believe. It justifies their belief that believing in God and being a part of a church community really makes no difference in life. As Danny will often say, “The truth serves their purpose.” But our being to prone to sin and failure is not a sign that we are hypocrites. It only provides evidence that we are sinners. To be sinners is not to be hypocritical. We are only hypocrites if we refuse to handle our sin and failures honestly. We are only hypocrites if we ignore our sin or if we refuse to forgive others as God has forgiven us. We are only hypocrites if we choose to hate rather than love.

And all people, whether they realize it or not, need God’s forgiveness and love. All people need to trust God with their lives. If we are not demonstrating such trust, forgiveness, and love in our relationships with one another, we fail to give others reason to trust God.

We read from 1 Corinthians 13 today where Paul describes beautifully the priority of love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” While Paul is here talking to Christians who were letting pride over spiritual gifts get out of hand, such a description applies equally to all churches everywhere. It applies to each of us. Imagine if it read this way:

“George is patient, Sandy is kind. Susan does not envy, Danny does not boast, Joyce is not proud. Pat does not dishonour others, Marcia is not self-seeking, Telania is not easily angered, Derek keeps no record of wrongs.”

The bottom line is that it is only when we re-gift the love we have received from God can such love truly be alive in us. And only when we re-gift this love to one another can we expect others to see our relationships and be attracted to the loving God we proclaim. Love, as a gift, is only love when we give it away. The price of real relationships is love, we are the currency, and we are called to spend it all. We do this because God, who is the ultimate Giver, gave infinitely more than we could ever give when he gave us his only-begotten Son.

No comments: