(This is an edited version of a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge)
What is a mature Christian like? How can we know when a Christian is growing in spiritual maturity?
The Apostle Paul in this famous chapter in his first letter to the church at Corinth, 1 Corinthians 13, provides a very clear answer to that question.
A mature Christian is a loving Christian. A growing Christian is a person whose love for the Lord Jesus Christ expresses itself in love for the church, love for the Body of Christ, love for the Christian family.
Now we need to be clear on the definition of love as Paul describes it here.
He is not talking about romantic love. That has its place between a man and a woman in marriage. But romantic love is not Paul’s focus here. Nor is this about niceness. Niceness may overlap at some points with what Paul is talking about here. But niceness at least in its middle class incarnation tends to duck the difficult issues because niceness likes its comfort.
But Paul isn’t out to be comfortable here. Here he demonstrates what real Christian love is all about and it is about Christians wanting God’s very best for their fellow Christians in the family of the church and it is about Christians speaking and behaving in ways that bless and build others up in the loving family of the church. This is about intentionally and practically and committedly loving one another within the Body of Christ, the local church, the people God is saving for eternity in and through his beloved Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We’ve seen so far in our series in this very important New Testament letter that the Christians in Corinth were spiritually immature. The underlying cause of their stunted spiritual growth was that they had fallen into pride and arrogance. They had come under the delusion that they had arrived spiritually as Christians – they tended to forget that they were still in the rescue boat travelling through the choppy waters of this world on their way to the safety of the heavenly shore.
This arrogance showed itself in competitiveness around the use of spiritual gifts in their church meetings. Some of them tended to look down on fellow Christians they considered less spiritually gifted than themselves. Some of them who had the spectacular supernatural gift of speaking in tongues looked down their noses at fellow believers, who had in their eyes trivial gifts like administration and forgot that at the foot of the cross the ground is level.
Now it was into this dire church situation that Paul wrote his wonderful hymn to love in chapter 13 and we should note how well-crafted and how lovingly directed Paul’s teaching is.
Please look at v1: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clashing symbol” (NIV). The purpose of God-given gifts is to build others up in Christ. So if I am not using my gifts lovingly towards my fellow believers, then I am just a noisy distraction like a car alarm going off for no reason. That was a truth the Corinthians needed to hear in relation to their attitude to their spiritual gifts in their church meetings.
And then notice how Paul addresses their childish delusion that they had arrived spiritually. Please look at v12: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Note the ‘now’ and ‘then’ there. Now, as we travel through the choppy waters of this world we don’t see the whole spiritual picture because we have not yet arrived at our heavenly destination. The Lord Jesus has not yet returned but then, when he does, we shall see the full spiritual picture, we shall enjoy the full blessings of salvation, we shall see the Lord Jesus face to face.
But what is the quality that is of value both now in this world and then in heaven? Love, because heaven is the realm of love where the King of love, our Lord Jesus Christ, rules for ever. So what more compelling reason do we need for loving one another now in the family of the church? Because Christian love is an enduring quality, is that not the essential reason why loving Christians are mature Christians, loving men and women who are on track for heaven?