Jeff Rudy ~ A More Excellent Way

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But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

1 Corinthians 12:31b—13:13 (The Message)

It is our prayer that in this series on “Charisma” we have grown a deeper appreciation for one another and of our need for one another – that the task of fulfilling the mission of making disciples of Jesus does not belong to one of us, but to all of us together. It is our hope that you have been encouraged to not only discover but also find ways to put the gifts, talents, resources, and passions the Holy Spirit has given you to good use. But sometimes it’s that last portion where we often find the most difficulty if we don’t intentionally engage one another in conversation and find the right ways and places to exercise how God has shaped us for ministry in the world. And so we hope that you will take all this in, pray over the next few weeks about how God might be wanting to work through you in the life of this church if you’re looking for a place to plug in, and if you’re still struggling to discern how you might be gifted or shaped or how or where you fit, that you would consider taking a spiritual gifts inventory, which is a short survey designed to help people discover what gifts God has given them for the sake of ministry and the life of discipleship, and to engage us in conversation so we can discern together. Stay tuned for more to come.

But before we turn the page and take those next steps, we conclude this series on a note that seeks to bring this whole idea into completion and set our giftedness, our purpose, our mission in its right place and setting – something that Paul calls “The More Excellent Way.”

The story is told of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, when he was young and still living with his father, Leopold, who himself was a great musician, played a trick on his dad from time to time. Young Wolfgang would come home late from a night of hanging out with his friends. When he got home, his father would already be asleep and so Wolfgang would go to the piano and begin playing loudly a rising scale of notes, playing slower and louder as he reached the top of the scale, but he would stop, one note short of completing the scale, and go to bed himself. (No pointers, please, young people who still live with your parents.)

The notes would apparently make their way into Leopold’s dreams and imagination and he would toss and turn in bed at the frustration of having his musical senses aroused only to have them unresolved by the scale remaining unfinished. It was too much to bear. So eventually he would slumber out of bed, go downstairs and play the last note so he could get some peace of mind and restful sleep.

In a sense, I think 1 Corinthians 13 serves as the finishing note on this rising sense we ought to have in terms of discovering our purpose, because without this thing called “love” whatever else we would have played, whatever else we would have done will have been left incomplete. It completes the scale of 1 Corinthians 12, which Dan preached on to begin this series on “Charisma.” Dan began the series by alluding to the big changes that have taken place in the history of the Church, including what was lost in the movement of Christianity when it became the “official religion” of the Roman Empire in the wake of Emperor Constantine. In John Wesley’s sermon of the same title as mine today – “The More Excellent Way” – Wesley tied this era with the decline in the manifestation and exercising of spiritual gifts by saying that, “the love of many—almost of all Christians, so called—was waxed cold.”

In other words, it is the fire of God’s love in us that keeps the wax melting, that keeps the body doing what we’re supposed to do. Similarly, we’ve looked at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, who at one point were apparently living well into their giftedness. Yet if you trace through the progression, or rather decline, of the church in Ephesus chronologically through the time in which the New Testament was written, you will find that after a few decades, in the words of Revelation to that church, “you have lost your first love.” (Revelation 2:4) Their love, too, had waxed cold.

But what is this love? The King James Version of the Bible uses the term “charity” throughout this chapter instead of “love.” But “charity” is hard to tear away from its connotations of giving to the poor, or non-profit charitable organizations. Yet one wonders whether “love” with all its sentimental and Hollywood baggage can be redeemed either. In English we just have this word “love” whereas the Greek language offers four different words that we translate into this one English word.

•storgē – affection, especially of parent to child

•philía – friendship, loyalty to family, community, etc.

•érōs – romantic; “in love”

•agápē – ideal, self-giving, self-sacrificing love

C. S. Lewis wrote about the differences between these in his classic The Four Loves. Of these four, only two show up in all of the New Testament (philía and agápē), but it is the ideal, self-giving agape love that Paul here uses throughout the chapter. This is the love found in the letter of 1 John where it says “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

And so a good meditative practice would be to place “God” wherever it says “love” throughout 1 Corinthians 13. So hear it this way:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have God, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And 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 God, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have God, I gain nothing.

God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on God’s own way; God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never fails.

It is this love that John Wesley was speaking of when he said to a friend of his: “beware you be not swallowed up in books,” for “an ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.”

It is this love that stirred St. Teresa of Avila to offer this important teaching about the transformation of our souls when she said: “The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.”

It is what Mother Teresa of Calcutta spoke of when she said: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

And it is the riskiness that comes along with loving with this agape love that made Lewis to make these remarkable reflections: “If I am sure of anything I am sure that [Christ’s] teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preferences for safe investments and limited liabilities…There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” (The Four Loves)

The life of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics recipient John Nash and of his wife Alicia was dramatized in the 2001 movie “A Beautiful Mind,” starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connolly. In case you’re not familiar with John Nash’s battles, he suffered with paranoid schizophrenia all his adult life, a battle that put to the test in every imaginable way Alicia’s ability and willingness to love her husband. Hear the words Nash gave, in the movie, upon receiving the Nobel Prize:

“I’ve always believed in numbers; in the equations and logic that lead to reason. But after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask, ‘What truly is logic? Who decides reason?’ My quest has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional and back. And I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found. [To his wife Alicia]: I’m only here tonight because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.”

It’s kind of funny that 1 Corinthians 13 is so popular at weddings because of the beautiful and poetic language found in the description of love, yet what we have in Paul’s words to the church is in the context of being the heartbeat of the worship and mission of the church.

It’s not a romantic thing, though we might find ourselves in awe and ecstasy at the beauty when we see the bride of Christ living into her identity and mission. It’s not an affectionate thing, though we might find ourselves genuinely caring and compassionate toward others as we share deeply in the sacrificial love that Christ has given to us. It’s not a friendship thing, though we will find ourselves reconciled with the world, with our enemies when we discover that Christ has befriended us when we were at enmity with him. So that’s what it is.

The heartbeat of the Church is Christ. We’re only here because of him; because of his love. Christ is the reason we are. Christ is all our reasons.

And one day, as we will proclaim together in a few moments, as Leopold Mozart would do, Jesus himself will come and complete the scale – bring to consummation the love he began in us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Rev. Jeff Rudy serves as a pastor in the Memphis Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. His current appointment is as Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tennessee.

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