Being a Christian changes so many things. It affects every area of your life.
What is the single most important thing we do? What’s at the heart of what it looks like to live as a Christian?
Is it our church services: the songs we sing, the prayers we say, the bread and wine we share?
Is it our charitable work, helping the needy as best we can?
Is it the community we build, the way we look out for one another, and take others under our wing?
These are all good and important things. Maybe one of them chimes with you in a particular way.
But can we be objective? Can we answer more definitely: What lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian? What is central, not simply one good thing amongst many.
Well, we’re about to find out. The reading from 1 Corinthians is the last few verses of the letter. It’s a long letter. Like the Christian life, it gives us many areas to think about and work on. But as the letter draws to a close, we get to find out what’s central to all of it.
That’s because of the way these last verses work. If you look at verse 21, you’ll see that it says: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand.”
Paul used a secretary for most of this letter. He dictated it. But as the letter draws to a close, he picks up his pen, and signs off in his own hand.
The whole letter was personal, from Paul to the Christians in Corinth. He meant every word of it. But there’s something especially personal about the bit he writes himself at the end. This is the heart of it, the absolute centre, the thing he wants them to take away.
In these days of email, you remember the correct way to send a typed letter. The letter is printed, but you write the greeting yourself, “Dear John”, and you sign off yourself, “Yours sincerely, James”.
Or Christmas cards come pre-printed with a standard greeting: “Merry Christmas”. But as you write the card, perhaps you add your own message: “I hope 2019 brings better news for you.” As I said last week, that’s the greeting our church hall architect has written in my card for the past 9 Christmases.
Here is how Paul signs off in his own hand. It will tell us what lies at the heart of being a Christian.
Verse 22: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!”
Here, then, are two hallmarks of the authentic Christian.
Love the Lord
Number 1, they love the Lord. Love the Lord.
“If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed!”
The Corinthians had many problems. But they all boiled down to a lack of love, and supremely a lack of love for the Lord Jesus.
It’s why chapter 13 is such an important chapter in the letter. We know it as the great poem on love that is so popular at weddings. In fact, it was designed to put its finger on all the ways that the Corinthians lacked love. They lacked love for each other, yes. But supremely they lacked love for the Lord Jesus.
The Corinthians loved lots of things.
They loved pleasure, which is why they were failing to deal with some serious issues of sexual immorality.
They loved celebrities, which is why they were more attached to certain gifted speakers than they were to the Jesus they spoke of.
They loved their rights, which is why they were not going to stop eating meat from a pagan temple, no matter how much it might cause a fellow Christian to trip up.
They loved their possessions, which is why they were taking each other to court rather than forgiving grievances and debts.
And above all they loved their status. Those who had wealth, who were free rather than slaves, who had influence in the city, would not do anything that put that status in jeopardy.
Instead, Paul wants them to love Jesus. To be wrapped up with him. To be focused on him.
The opening chapters of this letter were all about Jesus. Jesus Christ, crucified. The thing about the death of Jesus is it looks useless as a plan to save the world. It’s weak. It’s foolish. It’s unimpressive. But it just happens to be God’s plan, from before time began, to bring God’s people to a glorious future.
What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love him – they all come to us through Jesus Christ and him crucified.
So Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to love their pleasure, possessions, their rights or their heroes. He wants them to love the Lord Jesus, who looks so weak and foolish to the unbelieving world, but who is absolutely wonderful for those of us who can see him for who he is.
There’s one more thing to say about Paul’s call for us to be people known for our love of the Lord.
It’s possible to love the things that the Lord tells you to love, more than you love the Lord himself.
When you love Jesus, you start to love all kinds of other things and all kinds of other people. You love the Lord’s people, your fellow Christians. You love those who live around you. You love those you have the opportunity to serve and to help. You love the church you serve, the neighbours you visit. You love your husband, wife, children, parents, grandparents.
But it’s possible to love those things, those people, more than you love the Lord himself.
So here’s Paul’s first hallmark of a genuine Christian, as he signs off with his own hand. A Christian is someone who loves the Lord. Not someone who loves the blessings the Lord gives us – we’re not to be spiritual sugar-babies. Not someone who loves the people the Lord calls us to love – although we will. But people who love him.
All the divisions, the immorality, the problems in Corinth traced back to their lack of love. Their lack of love for one another, yes, but supremely their lack of love for the Lord himself.
Which means we need to ask: Does this describe you? Is Jesus the one around whom your whole life revolves? Is he the one who makes you tick? The one who thrills you, who captivates you, like nothing else in your life?
This is not something you can manufacture artificially. The key to loving him is to be gripped by his love for you. Here’s Romans 5, verses 6 to 8: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Let that take deep root in your life and your love for him will grow.
Hallmark number 1 of a genuine Christian: Love for the Lord.
Long for the Lord
Hallmark number 2: Long for the Lord. Long for the Lord.
Verse 22 again: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed! Come, Lord!”
If you look at the footnote in the Bible, you’ll see that “Come, Lord!” translates two words of Aramaic. It’s bizarre. The New Testament is written in Greek, a Western language. Aramaic is a language closely related to Hebrew, a Semitic language. But here, embedded in the pages of the New Testament, still in Greek script, are two words of Aramaic: Marana tha.
Sometimes you hear those two words pronounced rolled into one: Maranatha! It means, “Come, Lord!”
But why does Paul not just write “Come, Lord” in Greek? Why bring Aramaic into the text?
Because this is the prayer that the earliest Christians would have used in their churches. Embedded in the letter of 1 Corinthians is an ancient piece of liturgy, something you’d have heard in churches across the Middle East Sunday by Sunday just a decade or two after Jesus rose from the dead. “Marana tha!”, “Come, Lord”.
Jesus promised that one day he would return to this world. When he ascended, the disciples were left looking up at the sky, until two angels said that Jesus would come back the same way they saw him go. The early church took this on board, and longed for the day when Jesus would come back. And they prayed for that moment to come. “Marana tha!”, “Come, Lord”.
Once again, many of the problems the Corinthians have had trace back to this. Their horizons are too short. They are just looking at this life, and living as if Jesus is not returning.
They divided over which speakers appealed to them, not caring which ones faithfully preached a gospel that gets you into eternity.
Their morality was falling apart because they assumed that what we do with our bodies does not matter to God. They’d quite forgotten that God had raised Jesus bodily, and will one day raise us with new bodies too.
And there’s that glorious chapter 15 that we looked at a few weeks ago. Jesus is risen. Jesus will return. We will be raised. We’ll be raised glorious, transformed, renewed. And Paul call us to live all of this life in the light of that wonderful and certain future.
So here, then, is the second hall mark of the genuine Christian.
A Christian is someone who knows that this life is not all there is. A Christian is someone who knows Jesus is coming back for them. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me.” A Christian is someone who longs for the day when this happens, who prays for Jesus to come soon, who works for that day to come.
Here’s a little diagnostic test for you: How would you feel if Jesus were to return during your lifetime?
Some respond with disappointment. “That means I’d never get that promotion I’ve been working for. I’ll never get to take that holiday, complete my degree, have grandchildren, …” whatever ambition it is.
Others respond with excitement. Nothing would thrill you more than to be alive to see Jesus return with your own eyes. The sooner, the better!
You know that Jesus’ return is the beginning of the next chapter of your life. A chapter where every day is better than the one before, and it goes on like that forever. You know that the return of Jesus will be so wonderful it will eclipse even the best things you were hoping for in this life.
Contemplate Jesus returning during your lifetime. How does that make you feel? Disappointment? Excitement?
As Paul picks up his own pen, here’s his second hallmark of a genuine Christian: Long for the Lord.
Paul’s said so much in this letter. 16 chapters worth.
It’s just one book out of 66 that make up the Bible.
There’s so much to being a Christian. It involves our worship, our charity, our community, the difference we make in the wider world, and much besides.
But for all those good things (and they are good), Paul brings the Corinthians back to two very simple things as he picks up the pen himself. He asks us to love the Lord, and to long for the Lord to return.
Which doesn’t at all mean that those other things aren’t important.
In fact, start with those two anchors: Love for the Lord, longing for his return. Get them in place, and you find that they are actually the ground in which all those other worthwhile things will grow.
But try to have those other worthwhile things without these two foundations, and what you’ve got is well-intended, generous and philanthropic, but it’s not Christianity.
Love the Lord. Long for the Lord.