It all started with a tree stump right on the property line. For years the apple tree marked the line between the two neighbor’s property, making it easy to know whose lawn was whose. However, one tragic winter ice storm brought down the apple tree and all that was left was the stump.
Most reasonable people would have just left the stump, a further indication of the property line, but these neighbors were far from reasonable. An argument that lasted for months ensued about who should pay for the stump’s removal. It got ugly. It got very ugly.
Then one of the neighbors bumped into the other neighbor’s pastor in the grocery store, and told their side of the story.
“You cannot believe the things that they say to me in the morning, terrible things, things that I cannot repeat in your presence pastor, all because of a tree stump! They were the ones who took the apples over the years. I was the one who had to pay for the tree’s cleanup because it fell in my yard. The least they can do is take care of it,” the neighbor pleaded.
The pastor replied simply, “I’ll take care of it. Don’t you worry.”
And, that was it. That was the end.
The next week, the stump was gone and the once hostile neighbors flung smiles rather than insults across the property line. It all seemed like things were completely right in the world.
Except, not to be too picky about good things happening, the smiles seemed to be a little more 1950s sitcom neighborly smiles rather than reflecting the smile of Jesus.
Eventually, the entire story came out. The neighbor's pastor reminded the couple that Jesus gave his life for them; the least they could do was take up a stump for their neighbor. That was not bad pastoral counsel. It was the next part to which I took exception when the story came my way. The pastor then told the couple, “And, if you don’t do this and be Christ to your neighbor, you can no longer be a part of this church.”
It got the job done...in a way. The tree stump was removed. However, I’m not certain that the deep rooted hatred was ripped out with it. It seems to me, rather, that the hatred was hastily painted with an eternal smile. Joy without the love.
I was approached about this border dispute in the manner of gossip; the way we find out about most things. I have to admit that I was disappointed in the gossiper (beyond the act of gossiping which was bad enough). I was disappointed because week after week we preach about love and grace, but what this person saw in this situation as admirable was how tough and unrelenting the pastor decided to be.
“Now that is how the church should be…standing up for what is right and being brave enough to provide a stiff consequence whenever someone is in the wrong.”
To be certain, reproach is most certainly one aspect of ministry. Jesus reproaches the self-righteous throughout the gospels constantly all while lifting up the sinner with love.
Paul certainly is not shy about pointing out the problems in his communities so that they may turn to a more godly way.
It was not the reproach that was disappointing, it was the threat. Love based in fear is not love.
Love is patient with the sinner.
Love is kind to the sinner.
Love is not boastful and does not insist on its own way.
Love does not make ultimatums, rather love dies for the sake of another.
As great as reproach may be, love is a still more excellent way.
As powerful as the prophet may be to a person who needs to see the truth, if they have no love, they are nothing.
As faithful as a person may be to the ideals of Jesus Christ, if they do not have love they are nothing but a paper cutout of a Christian.
Love “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” (NRSV, 1 Cor. 13:5-7).
I was disappointed in the gossiper because they held up reproach and insistence and coercion as the ideal of faith when the scriptures are clear that love is the highest anyone can strive for in the life of faith.
It was love that was raised up high on the cross. It was love that died for a world of sin. It was love that said to the criminal, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” It is Jesus’ love that even today we hang on our walls and wear around our necks. It Jesus’ love that we hold close to our hearts. It is love binds us to God. Heavenly love is the object that Christians desire.
Love is the greatest gift. Paul wants us to realize that all of the other gifts that God has given you serve the purpose of love, not the other way around.
There was a time when Paul did not believe this. There was a time when Paul was named Saul, and he oversaw the slaughter of those who did not profess the faith the way he saw fit. There was a time when he saw wrong as right and upheld torture as goodness. But, Paul says that during that time in his life he was but a child. “I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (NRSV, 1 Cor. 13:11).
We do not sing:
“They will know we are Christians
by our unwavering political and social stances,
They will know we are Christians
by our unwavering political and social stances.”
Of course not. We sing:
“They will know we are Christians
by our love,
by our love.
They will know we are Christians by our love.”
Are you stuck in the faith? Have you lost a sense of what the life of faith is all about?
It is OK to be stuck in the faith, by the way. It happens. It happens all the time.
But, Paul would like to remind you that if you have somehow become lost in the faith, you most certainly will be found again through love.
Jesus loves you to the end, and when that love of Jesus starts to shine through you, you will know with certainty that you have found your home in Christ.