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TEXT: I Corinthians 16:19-24
SUBJECT: Love for the Unlovable
Several years ago, I met with a group of pastors committed to the Reformation and Revival of the Church. To promote these things, we met every couple of months to study, pray, and encourage each other in ministry. This is what we met for, and for the most parts, it's what we did.
Except for one man. He came to the meetings to complain. He didn't complain about things in general, but one thing in particular: his church. The people were stupid, selfish, rude, lazy, stubborn, stingy, and uncooperative. He quit the church a year or two later, but long before he resigned the pastorate, he gave up on the people. How true his assessment of the church was, I can't say, but I can say this: He was part of the problem and not part of the solution! God has not called pastors to be frustrated! He has called us to be faithful. Not to accuse the people for whom Christ died, but to love them.
My friend did not do this, but the Apostle Paul did. He founded the Church in Corinth, and for eighteen months, he stayed with them, preaching the Word of God, setting a good example, and caring for their souls with great wisdom and tenderness.
Unlike most pastors, Paul was not permitted to stay anywhere very long, but when he left Corinth, he didn't leave them on their own. He sent Timothy and Apollos to solidify and extend his work.
But for all his work and worry, the church was a big disappointment to Paul. He had poured himself into their lives, but the more he loved them, the less they loved him in return. Not only did they fail to love him as they should have, they didn't even respect him. They were repelled by his appearance and they sneered at the way he spoke. Paul was a true Apostle, chosen and faithful in his work, but the Corinthians preferred other preachers, men he sarcastically called Super Apostles.
The personal rift between Paul and the church was real and getting wider every day. But this is not all that troubled him. He was stung by their rejection, but had they been an otherwise good people, he could have lived with it. But they weren't good people who misunderstood Paul.
The church was worldly, conceited, partisan, greedy and self-centered; some were flirting with idols, dabbling in heresy, and celebrating incest!
If any pastor had a right to be bitter, it was Paul. If any man had a right to complain and accuse and excoriate a church, it was he. But no one has the right to be bitter! No one has the right to resent and hate the people God loves and approves of.
Paul had written hotly to the church, and in II Corinthians he raises the heat. But look at his closing words in both Letters, and you'll see the words did not proceed from a hard heart. In spite of all their unsaintly conduct, Paul still took them for saints, and he loved them as saints.
Except for Jesus Christ Himself, I can think of no man who better lived the maxim--
Love covers a multitude of sins.
Paul was not blind to their faults and he didn't laugh them off as 'no big deal'. They were a very big deal to him, and he took them seriously. But, unlike the man I referred to earlier, he did not give up on the church or write them off as 'impossible to deal with'. Hebrews 13:1 says--
Let brotherly love continue.
And you notice it doesn't say, 'Until it hits an impediment'. 'Love one another--unless they really get on your nerves! 'Love the brotherhood--as long as they meet your needs! 'Love the church--as long as everyone loves and appreciates and recognizes and thanks you for all you do!'
Most people are loving up to a point, loving those who love them, praising people who praise them, respecting people who respect them, getting along with people who are easy to get along with. Jesus had a name for this 'love' and it wasn't very flattering: He called it Publican Love! And in First Century Israel, 'Publican' was the nastiest, most despicable name you could call a man.
Our Lord wants us to do better than the Publicans. He wants us to love people who aren't so lovable, aren't so easy to get along with, who don't hold us in the highest regard.
Some of these people are in our church. A lot of them were in the Corinthian Church! And, here at the end of his First Epistle, Paul loves them as they are.
He starts by passing along the warm wishes of the church he is presently with and the ones nearby, v.19a--
The churches of Asia greet you.
Paul wrote from Ephesus, and the folks there send their love. As do the saints in Smyrna, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Thyatira, and Pergamos. Do the towns ring a bell? They ought to, because these are the Seven Churches in Asia that are named in Revelation. Re-read the second and third chapters of that Book, and you'll see they had their share of problems too. But, for all this, their love for the Corinthians was real and unified.
This must have stung the more sensitive members of the church. If seven very different churches could come together to love us, why can't we love one another?
From this general love the churches in Asia feel for the brethren in Corinth, Paul comes to the particular, v.19b--
Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
Aquila and Priscilla were names well known to the church in Corinth, because that's where they were from. They were among the first converts in the city and the first to open their home to Paul. Why they were now in Ephesus, nobody knows, but what they were doing there, we do know. They were still hosting Paul and the church.
Aquila and Priscilla knew what the Corinthian church was like. They knew it from first hand experience, and they must have read Paul's Epistle and seen the agony the church was putting him through. But for all this, they had not become cynical and judgmental. They still loved the saints in Corinth, and under their influence, so did the disciples who met in their home.
While the other churches sent them 'greetings', the one that met in Aquila's home sent them 'many greetings', suggesting a warmth and heartiness, a special love for them. And this from the people who knew them better than the others did! It's a lot easier to love someone whose faults you don't know, but knowing them 'warts and all' the church in Ephesus loved them from the heart.
This too must have pricked consciences in Corinth. If they love us, in spite of knowing what we are, how come we don't love one another?
Paul then adds, v.20--
All the brethren greet you.
It's hard to say how this adds to what he's already said, but perhaps he means each and every brother greets you, that the love they felt for the Corinthians was unanimous. Not just a few particularly mature and tender people, but everyone in the churches loved them with a fervent love.
Having received so much love from the saints in Asia Minor, Paul urges them to show the same love to one another, v.20b--
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
There's nothing distinctly Christian about the kiss, that was the customary way people greeted each other at the time, like bowing in Japan or shaking hands here. But if people greeted each other this way back then, there's one thing they didn't do--they didn't greet everybody this way!
Masters did not greet slaves with a kiss! Jews did not greet Gentiles with a kiss! Least of all did people who were quarrelling greet each other with a kiss!
But Jesus Christ came to end the distinction between Jew and Gentile, between slave and master, all the former categories were swallowed up in the brotherhood of all God's people. The New Testament is sometimes condemned for not abolishing slavery (which it didn't). But what's missed in the criticism is what it did abolish: the enmity between master and slave, the cruelty, the crookedness, the resentment and pride that made the system the hateful thing it was.
This needs to be said, but there's something more about the holy kiss that shouldn't be missed. Kissing was and is a sign of reconciliation. We've all heard the saying, 'Kiss and make up'. This is what Paul is telling them to do.
Division is the big problem in Corinth, and the factions have to get back together. There is no better way of signaling the change than the holy kiss, or what later was called, the kiss of peace.
Do we have to do this? Are we sinning if we don't meet each at the door with a big wet one right on the lips? Of course not. But, allowing for cultural sensitivities, we have to make up when we've fallen out with each other and do it in a way that everyone can recognize. Let our making up be as public as our falling out! That's a rule to live by.
In v.21. Paul signs the letter with his own hand. This was to guarantee the authenticity of the letter (which he had dictated to a secretary), and to assure them that everything the other man wrote was what Paul had said.
Why he didn't write the whole thing himself, we don't know. Some think his eyesight was poor or that his hand was crippled in some way. Thus, writing the lines must have been hard for him, but he couldn't sign off without a personal touch. Though he was a man of immense learning and dignity, he was not a professional! His ministry was conducted on a personal level, eye to eye, heart to heart.
He ends the letter with two wishes. First, he wants--
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to be with them.
To some people, 'grace' is a substance, a liquid, perhaps that the Lord pours onto or into us in some way. This is nonsense! 'Grace' means His favor and all that goes with it. He wants the Lord to look upon them with favor; he wants them to bask in the sunshine of His favor. This, I think, is an allusion to the Aaronic blessing at the end of Numbers 6--
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make His face to shine
and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up the light of His countenance
and give you peace.
Like all Christians, Paul is a priest, able to pronounce God's blessing on His people. And this is what he does, for a people who dislike him, who resent him, and who are breaking his heart. Peter tells us to--
Not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, blessing, knowing that you are called to this...
This is what Paul does here: he blesses the people who curse him. Just as Jesus did when He hung on the cross and prayed for the people who put Him there.
After wishing them all Christ's favor, Paul has to add one personal note, a note he had played often in the Letter, but hits one last time--
My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.
I Corinthians has shown Paul at his most combative, combatting heresy and immorality and pride, sectarianism, and all the other things that plagued that church then and there, and all churches since.
But for all his courage in standing up to sin and sinners, Paul never became a cranky old man, never enjoyed lashing out at people who didn't know as much or live as well as he did. He remained a man of love, and he grew in love as he got older.
Is this happening with you? Growing older, yes I know that's happening to you. But are you growing in love? Love for Christ and love for His people? Is your love for others mostly abstract, that is 'in your heart and head', or is it becoming more practical, by getting into your hands and into your wallet, by allowing people to bother you when you'd rather not be?
This is what I Corinthians is about! It's about love, real love, the kind that suffers long with people and is kind to them; the love that doesn't weaken and die with time, but which--
Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
May the God who is love use His Word and Spirit to make us the loving persons and community we ought to be. For Christ's sake. Amen.
Praise the Lord!
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