“iDisciple – Part 3”
Bible Text: 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 | Preacher: Rev. Mike Putnam | [WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE FULL PRINTED TEXT OF TODAY’S SERMON. TO LISTEN TO AN AUDIO RECORDING, CLICK THE LITTLE BLACK ARROW ABOVE THE WORD “WHAT.”]
In recent years there has been a proliferation of movies and Netflix-type television serial dramas around the subject of life after death.
For example, the critically acclaimed Netflix series The Good Place is an entertaining look at a version of heaven, or actually hell, as it turns out, with a few curve balls to keep you guessing.
Another popular series from Amazon Prime called Forever, depicts a married couple who find themselves dead. But heaven, it turns out, is rather boring. They set out to discover their true heavenly selves, with all the post-modern angst you’d expect of our self-absorbed “find your true self” culture.
About a year ago I did a sermon that garnered a little negative feedback. It turns out, some folks have a pretty clear idea about what life after death is like, and you don’t appreciate your minister challenging those assumptions. I’ve learned my lesson.
And so, today, I head into this subject with a little trepidation. But, none the less, I press on. Because I think that what you believe about life after life matters. And, I’m not alone. Because as we heard this morning, according to 1 Corinthians 13, so did the Apostle Paul.
But why does it matter? What difference does it make?
Thomas Long, a professor of homiletics at Princeton University, once told a story about a committee he served on called the Chaplain’s Advisory Council. “We met only once a year and our basic task was to hear reports from the chaplains on campus about their work. They would report, we would ask questions, and that was it.”
One year, we had heard the reports of the chaplains and it was Q&A time. An older member of the council asked the chaplains, “What are the students like morally these days?” The chaplains looked at each other. Who wanted to answer that? Finally, one of them, the Methodist chaplain, took a stab at it.
“Well,” she said, “I think you’d be pleased. They’re pretty ambitious in terms of careers, but that’s not all they are. A lot of them tutor kids after school. Some work in the night shelter and the soup kitchen for the homeless. Last week a group protested apartheid in South Africa…”
As she talked, the Jewish chaplain began to grin. The more she talked, the bigger he grinned, until finally it became distracting. “Ed, am I saying something funny?” she said, slightly miffed.
“No, no, I’m sorry,” he replied. “I was just sitting here thinking. You are saying that the university students are good people, and you’re right. And you’re saying that they are involved in good social causes, and they are. But what I was thinking is that the one thing they lack is a vision of salvation.” We all looked at the Jewish university chaplain.
“No,” its true,” he said. “If you don’t have some vision of what God is going to do to repair the whole creation, you can’t get up every day and work in a soup kitchen. It finally beats you down.”
I think that’s true. You can work away at something only so long as you believe it’s making a difference. But eventually, the daily despair and brokenness just wares you out. It’s one of the reasons ministers often burnout – they go into the vocation believing they will make a real difference – but as the years go by they realize lots of people’s hearts remain hardened, few people seem to experience real transformation – sermon after sermon seems to fall flat with little effect.
And so, the kind of Love we’ve been talking about over the last three weeks only makes sense, so long as God has a plan, which is bigger and more effective than ours.
Over the last three weeks, we have been working our way through Paul’s famous “love chapter,” and I have suggested that in its essence, this is what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. It is to be someone who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, loves in the particular way of Jesus Christ.
I’ve suggested that this is no small task, and that it will take more of us to accomplish this than a mere desire to “give a little back” or to do “a little good in the world.” It will take the sheer power of God, at work in you, to live out this particular kind of love.
I’ve argued that in doing so, in living out this radical version of love, that we will seem strange to the dominant culture. We might even be judged harshly for giving ourselves away in such a way. Because the secular mindset has no category for this kind of self-sacrificing love.
So, today, we complete the chapter. But here Paul seems to have taken a sharp right turn into the weeds. He is no longer simply on about love and its charming attributes, but he’s talking about eschatology.
Eschatology is the study of end things. How does this story end? Because, unless we know how it ends, and how we fit into that story, asking you to dedicate yourself to the costly love of Jesus Christ, makes no worldly sense.
Because we live in a world that says, “life is short and then you die.” We live in a world that largely measures success by how much you have in your bank account, how many degrees and awards hang on your wall, how famous and powerful you managed to become, and how luxurious your vacations were.
But, in that kind of world, Jesus’ version of love makes no sense. In that kind of world, life becomes a self-centered race to empty your personal bucket lists and to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Sure, we might volunteer or donate here or there…just enough to assuage our middle class guilt, but then we can get back to living the American dream.
But what if that’s not what it is all about? What if that version of reality is an illusion, a distraction, or even a lie? What if we disciples have just enough of a sense of what lies ahead to actually allow it to impact how we live today – knowing that anything we give away in this life can be enjoyed more fully in what is to come?
Maybe a robust eschatology is the only way to make sense of Jesus’ command to “take up your cross and follow him.”
And, maybe that’s why Paul has written verses 8-13. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but wh en the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
Paul is speaking in pretty vague terms here. But even so, he is clear enough. His task here is not to tell us what heaven is like – it is to tell us what it is not like. And what it is not like is anything we could have cobbled together on our own.
See, the Corinthian church has missed the point. They think their gifts of the spirit are what matters most – collecting them like trading cards to improve their self worth, but Paul wants them to know that one day those gifts will be pointless – because they are just a hint of what is to come.
We know what we know, but we don’t know what we don’t know. We see what we can see, but we can’t see it all. “We see but through a glass dimly” Paul says, but one day – one great and glorious God filled day – we will see face to face. Now we know in part, but one day we will know fully.
But here’s the thing – and this is important; most of what we hold dear in this iteration of life isn’t coming with us. Now don’t panic, ‘cause you’re not going to miss it! It won’t ultimately matter. Because the one thing that you can take with you will be so glorious and redeemed that those “left behind” things will seem like grade 2 art compared to the masterpiece God has in mind.
Speaking of art, J.R.R. Tolkien once penned a short story called “Leaf by Niggle.” He wrote this story shortly after he completed the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He had poured himself into that great work, hoping that it would bring a fresh light to the Christian Gospel, but in the end, he feared that it was all for not; that no one would ever read it.
The story he wrote, Leaf by Niggle, has a main character named Niggle, who is an artist. He’s been commissioned to paint a great mural on the side of city hall.
Niggle spends his entire career attempting to create the mural he had in mind: a large, robust, colorful, and fruit-bearing tree that would inspire many. But in the end, the artist is only able to eke out a single leaf that he was satisfied with. And after this, he dies.
But, on the train to heaven, Niggle sees a familiar image in the distance. He asks the conductor to stop the train. As he approaches, he discovers that it is —his tree—complete and even more lovely and fruitful than he ever hoped or imagined.
And there, right in the midst of the tree, is Niggle’s leaf.
It’s then that Niggle realizes that his little leaf, his biggest disappointment, is actually part of something quite grand, a part of a Greater Work by a Greater Artist for the enjoyment and flourishing of a Greater and Everlasting City.
This story is a wonderful metaphor for love and what God will one day do with it. We may spend our entire lives trying to love, but because of the fallen nature of our world, that love might never seem to amount to very much.
The teacher who pours herself into her students day after day in the classroom, but never gets to see the fruits of her labor. As far as she knows no student of hers ever went on to do great things.
The social worker who offers counselling and support to addicts, who never seem to get their lives turned around. Oh sure, things seem good for a while, but then she gets the news…their back on the street.
The Police officer who works his neighbourhood year after year, only to see it descend into gang violence. He does his best, but they always seem to be understaffed and ill equipped for the need in the community.
The foster parent who takes in kids who are in need of a good home. They deal with his issues with violence and vulgarity, they do their best to steer him in a good direction. They treat them as their own. But in the end, he makes his way back to the old neighbourhood, falling into the very lifestyle that got him in foster care in the first place.
The Christian who prays fervently for healing and deliverance of those she knows need a miracle. But sometimes it seems to make no discernable difference.
But you see, we see through a glass dimly. All of this will pass away, but the love given in the name of Jesus never ends. Like an investment that accrues good interest, our acts of Christ-like love accumulate in an eternal account.
Every Wednesday night at Cornerstone we recite a certain memory verse with the kids. “For the scripture says: “I chose a valuable stone, which now I place as the cornerstone in Zion; and whoever believes in him will never be disappointed – 1 Peter 2:6”
That’s a pretty bold claim! But its true, because “Love never fails” and one day the God who is love will stand face to face with you and me, and then we will see. We will see how every little act of love, which seemed so insignificant or ineffective at the time, was actually atomically powerful.
Now you know in part, but then you shall know fully, even as you are known. And then, these three things remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Thanks be to God, Amen.