LOVE, FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS
TEXT: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
For several weeks we have been talking about what St. Paul calls the "Fruit of the Spirit" in the fifth chapter of Galatians: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." We have saved two of the heavy hitters for last, along with one that has gotten a bad rap almost from the very beginning...and that's where I want to begin.
Gentleness. The term is also translated as "meekness," and it isn't much appreciated. We might go around quoting the Beatitudes which say "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," but if you look around, there is very little support for meekness in our culture. We have words like wuss and wimp...there are no "meek" heroes. Nike doesn't promise that their shoes will make you meek. Coke doesn't promise that drinking its product will take Mike Tyson and make him gentle. Even in areas where gentleness was once considered a boon, like nursing, for instance, the emphasis is largely transferred to images of expertise, excellence, and the ability to work quickly and carefully under pressure. For Native Americans the animal totem that represents gentleness is the deer. We like to put their heads on our walls.
The war on gentleness is not new. I think it's fair to say that meekness has never been in vogue. The word was used frequently in the Old Testament, but not for God. It was a term used only for servants. As human beings it seems that if we have the social or economic power to exercise control over our surroundings we will not willingly give it up, and unless we give it up, we cannot be considered meek. Servants had no choice, because by their station they had no control. Servants were gentle. Servants were meek. Others wanted no part of it, because of the lack of control it implied.
Then along comes Jesus. In that context he says in Matthew 11:29: "I am meek and lowly in heart." Jesus, who is over all things, takes for himself the characteristic of a servant. "I am meek." No self-respecting leader would say that. Neither would any self-respecting leader put a towel around his waist and wash the feet of his disciples. That too, was the role of the servant. Paul puts it plainly in Philippians 2:5. "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross."
I have put gentleness-meekness-with the heavy hitters of love and faithfulness, because like them, this is the whole point. The fruit of the spirit is grown in us when we connect our lives to the life of God. To have the fruit of the spirit is to be like Jesus, who is God in human form. And the chief thing that God is trying to show us in Jesus is that God is not a tyrant. God is love. God does not have to serve...God chooses to serve out of love. In the Kingdom of God, to have power does not necessarily mean to exercise it. The truly powerful are enough masters of their own desires that they can exercise restraint and self-control; and real leaders devote themselves to the service of others. "I am meek," said Jesus. "I am a servant." It is no wonder that the servants danced to see him come.
When I think of this I always think back to the man who I will always consider my Bishop, even though he died several years ago. Bishop Cornelius Henderson of the Florida Conference. He had a position of great power and influence as Bishop over a large and prosperous Conference. The time of the year when the Bishop has the most visibility is at Annual Conference, where the Bishop presides over each and every session. Well, at the Conference sessions where he presided, it seems we were always starting late. Why? Because nobody could find the Bishop...that is until they learned where to look. He was in the kitchen, helping the staff do dishes or mopping up a spill on the floor. He was not with the high-ranking officers of the Conference or taking an important call from a Bishop overseas. He was with the help or chatting with some of the women waiting in line outside the ladies' room or offering an encouraging word to a local pastor with four struggling churches to serve.
Bishop Henderson was a tall, strong, black man who, before he became Bishop could hold his home congregation of 6,000 people in the palm of his hand when he spoke. But he was gentle, he was meek, he was the face of Jesus to me.
My Greek dictionary says that the word for "meek" praotes was the same word used for tame animals, which says to me that meekness cannot exist without a measure of faith. Many of you have heard me tell stories of growing up with animals. I remember as a child standing outside
in the dead of winter with a handful of sunflower seeds, remaining perfectly still until the birds would trust me enough to land on my hands and eat. The squirrels and later raccoons would come to the door and take treats out of our hands...little tiny sandwiches of peanut butter and birdseed that my grandmother had made. We have a picture of a squirrel taking one of those little sandwiches from my mother's teeth.
The gentleness of those wild creatures grew out of trusting faith. The first time a chickadee landed on my hands, it was uncertain what would happen. It didn't stay long. But gradually, their faith in me grew. Their experience with me taught them that I intended no harm and had good to offer. They came to trust me, and the household where I lived, so that when the door opened, they expected only good to come out.
And so if we are to be gentle and meek in a world of power plays and blood sport, we too must have faith. We must have enough experience of God's gentle and guiding hands that we are not afraid to rest there and to take what is offered. Over time we learn that although God has never promised that nothing tragic will befall us, we always find welcome and kindness and healing in God's house. Animals or birds hurt in our yard could be sure that we would find them and care for them until they were either well or ushered into the hands of God. Life with God teaches us to have faith that God will be there for us.
And so by faith we become the tame creatures in God's world, able to pull back from the need to control others, to seek vengeance, or to insist on our own way because we have faith in the one who comes out when the door of heaven opens.
And all of that together sounds a whole lot like what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends."
In place after place in Scripture...Old Testament and New...love is lifted up as the origin, goal, and summation of all things. It couldn't be clearer in this chapter. Whatever else you have going for you in this world, if you're not doing it with love, you're just whistlin' Dixie. It doesn't matter if you can recite the Creed standing on your head, if you've served at a soup kitchen every night for 50 years, or if you've preached the Gospel for a lifetime. If there hasn't been love in it, it doesn't count. WHY we do things matters more than the things we do. Not that our actions don't have consequences for good or for ill; but when we stand before God and go over the DVD of our lives, if it hasn't been recorded with love, the screen will be a blank. Only love lasts, only love registers on the divine radar.
Pay attention to the last line of 1 Corinthians 13. And now abide these three: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. Love trumps faith. I hate to be out of step with the Protestant reformers, without whom I would not have a job, but their rallying cry of "Sola Fides," "Faith alone," was wrong. It is "Love alone." Jesus, himself, says so. In Luke 10, when a lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The answer has nothing to do with Creeds or doctrines. The answer is quoted directly out of the Old Testament, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."
To live forever, you must love, because as Paul says, "Love never ends." Why? Because God never ends and God is love. It all goes back to the fruit thing. The fruit of the Spirit are the attributes of God which are passed on to us when we plant ourselves in God's soil and go about the business of growing. The more time we spend with God, the more we become like God, the more we exhibit the attributes of God, and chief among those attributes is love. It is more than an attribute, it is God's essence.
In fact, I think we can say that all of the fruit of the spirit are an expression of love as it meets the various aspects of life in this world. That is why love is listed first, I believe. The early Biblical documents had no punctuation, so any periods, commas, or the like that you see in your Bibles are later additions by scholars who are making their best educated guesses about where sentences begin and end and the meaning of the words they contain. I think if I were punctuating the fruit of the Spirit list in Galatians, I would put a colon rather than a comma after love.
Joy is love as it anticipates the future. Peace is the way that love faces anxiety. Patience is the way that love meets frustration, while kindness is love taking action in adversity. Goodness is love expressed in times of duty; faithfulness is how love responds to the unknown. Gentleness is the way that love uses power and self-control is the response of love to desire. If love is not running the show, then neither is God.
I invite you to use the rest of this summer to take inventory of the fruit in your life. As the old nursery rhyme asked, "How does your garden grow?" Is love growing in your heart? Is it being evidenced in what you do more often? We are not perfected overnight, but if we profess to be disciples of Jesus, then we ought to at least be better than we were...we ought to be headed in the right direction.
And if we're not, we need to turn around and start trying...trying to stay connected to God through prayer, Bible Study, worship, and fellowship with others. After all, you can't learn to love by yourself. The point is to grow. The fruit will come. Amen.
Sermon ©2004 Anne Robertson
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