"Loving Others Through Helps & Hurts"
Jan.22, 2006 2Cor.6:11-13,7:2-7, 13-16
"Love each other." That's as basic as Christianity gets. Since the early church there have been marvelous examples of Christ's followers loving one another dearly.
The Greek writer Lucian lived in the 2nd century AD. He wasn't a believer, but noted this about the warm fellowship he saw amongst Christians: "It is incredible to see the fervour with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator [Jesus] has put it into their heads that they are brethren."
The night He was betrayed, Jesus told His disciples, "A new command I give you: Love one another.As I have loved you, so you must love one another.By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (Jn 13:34f) Interesting, isn't it - Jesus views our love for each other so significantly as to become THE identifying characteristic of His followers.
Unfortunately, it's not always so. Church conflicts happen far too often. We sometimes fall far short in loving other believers. When Tony Campolo was pastoring a small rural church, he discovered that a young woman of the town had become pregnant out of wed-lock. The word was out, and the gossip about her condition was everywhere. Tony went to see her and sat in her living room explaining the forgiveness of God and how God wills for each of us to have a new start. The young woman responded with great intensity and gave her life to Christ. Tony recalls, 'I watched joy cross her face that an hour before had been marked with sadness. I wasn't surprised when she showed up at church the following Sunday. She showed up the week after that and the week after that. And then she stopped coming. I went to visit her again and asked why she wasn't attending church anymore. She said, "I can't! Every time I go into that church I get the feeling that I'm dirty and no good." Tony said, "You shouldn't feel that way.Jesus has forgiven and Jesus has forgotten." She responded, "Jesus may have forgiven, and Jesus may have forgotten. But the people down there at your church - they haven't forgiven. And, they haven't forgotten."' She wasn't sensing much of Christian love there, was she?
As we continue to explore as a congregation how to improve our "loving relationships", we find in Paul's second letter to the church at Corinth a frank but warm interchange that touches on several dimensions of real love shared in the Lord.
In any loving relationship, for starters, there has to be openness. In chapter 6(11,13) Paul says, "We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you...As a fair exchange...open wide your hearts also." And in chapter 7(8), "Even if I caused you sorrow by me letter, I do not regret it." Paul had written earlier to rebuke the congregation for tolerating in their assembly a man who was involved in shocking and blatant incest, having his father's wife (1Cor 5:1). Some leaders might have avoided mentioning the shameful issue, but Paul confronted it in a straight-forward manner. In his letters he wrote straight from the heart, plainly and with deep concern. He asks for the church members to reciprocate, speaking freely and opening wide their hearts to him.
One thing that detracts from love for sure is gossip. Proverbs 17(9) says, "He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends." Don't go talking about it behind the other person's back; be open with the person themselves. Jesus taught (Mt 18:15), "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." Notice it's 'just between the two of you' - not spread around the whole neighbourhood! Loving each other means being open and honest, "speaking the truth in love" (Eph 4:15).
In Christian Schwarz's Natural Church Development survey, 3 questions to measure 'loving relationships' are these: "I find it easy to tell other Christians about my feelings." "In our church it is possible to talk with other people about feelings and problems." "When someone in the church has a different opinion from me, I prefer to be silent rather than endanger peace" (this last one is different in that it's scored expecting a negative response). So, openness about our feelings and opinions is important, being able to talk things through not hide or avoid problems.
Humble Repentance, Desire for Innocence
Another ingredient required in love is to be able to say you're sorry, coupled with a desire to get back on right terms with the person wronged. Paul refers to the humble repentance of the Corinthians in chapter 7 vv8-11: "my letter hurt you...you were made sorry...your sorrow led you to repentance.For you became sorrowful as God intended...Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret...See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter." The rebuke brought about the desired result of godly sorrow, repentance, and real inward change. They wanted to do the right thing and get back on track with God.
Back in v2, Paul's asking the Corinthians to "make room for us in your hearts" when he declares, "We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one." His innocence and integrity as an apostle in mission work forms a solid ground for love to grow. Love is squelched wherever there's selfishness, deceit, or mixed motives. Paul tells Timothy (1Tim 1:5), "love...comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." Love can't grow where there's pride or impatience (which is often a signal of pride, wanting to be in control). 1Cor 13(4) says, "Love is patient...it is not proud...it is not self-seeking." Love comes from a humble heart, pure and innocent, seeking godly relations with another.
Another essential ingredient for loving relationships is forgiveness. In Paul's dialogue with the Corinthian church, there's been rebuke, then repentance, followed by reconciliation. The tone of the second letter is quite different because Paul has forgiven the immoral matter of the first letter; they're moving on, together. Look at 7:3, "I do not say this to condemn you"; and the end of v11, "At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter." They dealt with it well, disciplining the individual involved for a short time, then restoring him. Love forgives. 1Cor 13 says love "keeps no record of wrongs". Proverbs 10(12) holds that love "covers over all wrongs" - buries them, makes them disappear, they're no longer an issue. So many marriages and homes and friendships could be saved if people only learned to truly forgive, absorb the pain or injury with Jesus' help, and not hold the mistake against the other person which only allows bitterness and resentment to poison the relationship.
Love expresses itself to others in word and action. Spoken love often takes the form of encouragement, praise, commendation, positive feedback and appreciation. Listen to the positive words Paul uses (7:4,11,13ff), "I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged...By all this we are encouraged...I had boasted to [Titus] about you, and you have not embarrassed me...so our boasting about you to Titus has proved to be true...I am glad I can have complete confidence in you." Is this the same group he was reaming out in the last letter? He's sure changed his tune now!
Two questions in the Natural Church Development survey reflect the importance of spoken encouragement: "The atmosphere of our church is strongly influenced by praise and compliments"; and, "When someone in our church does a good job, I tell them." We need to 'catch people doing something good' and commend them out loud. Romans 12(10) says, "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.Honour one another above yourselves." Verbal praise is a way of honouring someone. Paul notes in 1Cor 8(1), "Love builds up." Does what we say have the effect of boosting the other person? Then it's likely loving.
Gathering & Giving
I'm grouping together these last two indicators of love, gathering and giving, because the giving or sharing flows out of the affection and magnetism drawing us toward those we love. Paul mentions the feeling which attracts him to his flock: 6:12, "We are not withholding our affection from you..." Chapter 7(3,6f,13,15), "You have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you..." The Corinthians care about him in turn: "[Titus] told us about your longing for me,...your ardent concern for me..." Even Titus' affection for the people is mentioned; "his spirit has been refreshed by all of you" - the Corinthians gave valuable refreshing, strengthening, and bolstering to Titus and Paul (who sent him) in turn. There's lots of positive emotion flowing here, transmitted when Titus first meets them, then he in turn gets together with Paul.
Love has opportunity to be expressed when people gather. If you're not meeting together, it's hard to share love very effectively. Not surprisingly, 3 questions on the NCD survey deal with this: "How much time do you spend per week (excluding formal church meetings and activities) with friends from church?" "How often have you been invited by church members (not relatives) for dinner or coffee during the past two months?" "How often have you invited church members (not relatives) for dinner or coffee during the past two months?"
I was listening to a sermon by John Piper in connection with the day honouring Martin Luther King Jr in the United States, Jan.16. He was noting that the current trend seems to be to have meetings of Reconciliation. His opinion however wasn't that blacks and whites needed more meetings on Reconciliation; he said, "We just need to hang out together!" That's where love gets a chance to build, in 'hanging out' together - sharing one another's stories and lives. I had two ministerials this past week (Blyth and Wingham) and was amazed by the frankness and depth of conversation in both, touching on fears, discouragements, close family tragedies, and past marital fractures. It's when we meet together and get beyond small talk that we start to bond and relate in the reservoir of God's love and mutual concern.
Gathering - and giving. Out of the affection, the longing, the caring concern, springs helpful action. It is the very nature of love to give, to automatically volunteer one's resources for the use and betterment of the beloved. The apostolic team, including Paul and Titus, gave unending time and energy to build up the churches, through correspondence, visits, and endurance of many hardships. The churches, in turn, sponsored the Kingdom outreach of the apostles with their own material resources and prayers.
In Luke 6(32ff), Jesus challenged us to enlarge the boundaries of our love by showing concrete kindness even to those who aren't 'our own'. He asked, "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked." Love extends kindness in practical forms - doing good, lending without expectation of repayment. In Jesus' word-picture story illustrating this, the Good Samaritan, the hero didn't just feel compassion for the wounded man in the ditch but stopped to help him, bandaging and medicating his wounds, transporting him to shelter, and covering the cost of his emergency stay.
1Corinthians 13(4) says love "is kind, it does not envy." Love gives rather than aims to get; it's radically opposed to stealing or coveting (Rom 13:9); it shows its sincerity in becoming poor so that others may be enriched (2Cor 8:7f). The Bible counsels us to "live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Eph 5:2) Love is by nature giving and sacrificial, pouring itself out for the person who's loved.
During the season of Super Bowl I, the great quarterback Bart Starr had a little incentive scheme going with his oldest son. For every perfect paper Bart Junior brought home from school, Starr gave him ten cents.
After a particularly rough game against St.Louis, in which Starr Senior felt he had performed poorly, he returned home weary and battered, late at night after a long plane ride. But he couldn't help feeling better when he reached his bedroom. There, attached to his pillow, was a note: "Dear Dad, I thought you played a great game.Love, Bart." Taped to the note were two dimes!
Joy in Sharing
Although loving each other requires genuine giving and sacrifice, it's not as difficult as you might think because through love we identify with the recipient and experience joy knowing their needs are being supplied. We see this positive sentiment expressed in Paul's letter; in chapter 7(4,7,9,13,16) he writes, "my joy knows no bounds...my joy was greater than ever...now I am happy...we were especially delighted to see how happy Titus was...I am glad..." What we're conscious of is not so much what we've lost, but what we've received in joy.
In the movie Beckett, Richard Burton plays the role of that heroic archbishop of Canterbury. When he's ordained as archbishop he goes through a ceremony in which he must divest himself of all his earthly goods. He invites the poor to come into the cathedral and then distributes his material possessions, item by item, among them. At one point he stops, points to the image of Jesus on the crucifix that hangs over the altar, and whispers harshly with an irony in his voice, "You! You! You are the only One who knows how easy this is! Everyone else thinks it is difficult!"
We get the message that following Christ leads to sacrifice, but the sacrifices are easy because of the joy and fulfilment that comes from giving away one's earthly possessions to meet the needs of the poor. Most of us are still struggling to learn the fullness of that joy. Somehow we still think, in spite of all Jesus has told us, that there's more joy in keeping things than in giving them away. The Holy Spirit's continuing to teach us, weaning us from "having" to the joy of heaven - through loving in Jesus. Let's pray.