Sunday, October 15, 2017

WHAT I SAID TO THE GRADUATING CLASS OF PASTORS IN CUBA


Love and Competition

Several years ago I was asked to travel to the island nation of Cuba as part of a humanitarian aid group. There I was to give the commencement address for the graduates of a small pastoral training school. There were twenty or so graduates.

I had no idea what an appropriate message should be, and I was given no advice concerning things that I should or should not say in that communist society. Before that time, I had given commencement addresses in other Latin American countries, but Cuba was its own case.

For most of us in the United States, Cuba has been a closed country. At least, it was for me. I had not known much at all about what was happening on that island nation. However, as I prepared my sermon, I was drawn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians because some of Paul’s words seemed to express what I was also feeling at the time.


In this letter, Paul sounds as if he were writing to people whom he had never met. Although he had previously spent quite a lot of time in the city of Ephesus, much had happened in that region since he left. The church of the area had grown considerably in a spiritual sense, and in their work for the Lord. He knew that many people he did not know would read his words.

He writes: “…Having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, I do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15-16).

As Paul expressed concerning the Ephesian church, when first I heard of the strength of the churches in Cuba, I was frankly astonished. I had not known this previously. When I began to learn of the faith in the Lord Jesus that existed among them, and of their love for the saints, I also gave thanks for those believers who maintained such faith while living under such an oppressive regime.

What was the reason that compelled Paul to give such thanks for the Ephesians? He says in the sentence that came before the one that I just quoted. Read carefully: 

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession– to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14) 

In this rather long and complicated sentence, Paul tells of some very astounding things. Indeed, this whole letter to the Ephesians is full of astounding things, for in it Paul explains the essential characteristics of who we are as Christians. It is we who make up the church of God.

The Church in Contrast with the World

The church stands in stark contrast with the world today. The fuel that powers the engine of the world is competition. In the world, we are competing at every turn. We compete in athletics, of course, but we also compete in our schools and in our work places. International businesses compete with one another for a greater share of sales, and even whole nations are in competition. Trade agreements and peace treaties are usually only thinly veiled attempts to try to gain the upper hand economically and militarily. Simply said, the world is a competitive place.

However, in the church it is not so; at least, it should not be. In this letter, Paul describes an alternative to competition and how the church is to fit into that alternative pattern. In many aspects, the way of the church is diametrically opposed to the pattern of the world. The way of the church also differs to those relationships that are based upon competition.

The very nature of competition pits one person against the other. Of course, in the case of sports, we often wish our opponent the best, but despite what kind words we may say, there is never a question that he or she remains our opponent. If the one with whom we are competing makes a mistake or stumbles, we try to capitalize on that mistake and take advantage of the opportunity to lift ourselves over our challenger. There is always a part of us that is looking for our opponent’s weakness.

It is not to be so in the church. Paul establishes this fact in the very first verses of this letter to the Ephesians, and it is why Paul truly rejoiced over the spiritual growth of the church in their city.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he begins (Ephesians 1:2). 

The Blessings of the Church

Paul then goes into a rather lengthy introduction of how the church is established. We might consider it flowery and extravagant language and simply read through it without much thought. But we should not be so careless in our reading. It contains some important truths for us, and if we do not begin to understand these foundational truths, we will never understand what he says later in the letter.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.  (Ephesians 1:3-4) 

This is truly an astounding statement, and one that Paul could never have made had it not been revealed to him. He speaks here of things of which we have little or no knowledge. Exactly what does it mean, for instance, to be blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing? We do not yet know nor could we understand all that God has in mind for us in his blessings.

Other things about our position are somewhat more understandable. We see that our place of blessing had not been gained through our own merit. God did not look upon us and determine that we had “potential,” like a high school coach might look at a new freshman coming into school. We had no potential in ourselves. It was even before the creation of the world that we were chosen! That is the word Paul uses. Then he says this: “In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the kind intention of His will” (Ephesians 1:4b-5).

The aspect of this sentence that I especially want us to notice is that in all that God does, love is the motivating factor. Nothing was or is done by God apart from love. It is important for us to see and to understand this, because we often dismiss love as an impotent sentimentality. Without seeing this, we cannot comprehend that love is the powerful and moving force of the universe.

Love goes beyond what is merely necessary. We see it in the words that Paul uses in this passage to describe the spiritual blessings that God gives to us: the redemption that God offers us and the forgiveness of our sins are given in a measure that is consistent with the riches of his grace.

Not only that. God is not miserly in the giving of these gifts. Paul tells us that the gifts of God are lavished upon us. It is God’s great delight to pour them upon us.

It was with every kind intention that God made known to us the mystery of his will, and with the view that we might obtain an inheritance. In anticipation toward the time when we will know and understand these things fully, God gives to us the Holy Spirit, who is to us as a mark or a seal which guarantees God’s fulfillment of all that he has said (Ephesians 1:7-13).

We often speak of God providing this salvation for us because we could obtain it in no other way, and, of course, this is true. We speak of how Christ had to suffer for our sins, and suffer he did. Nevertheless, we sometimes forget that God acted not out of pity, but out of love. He is pleased to lavish upon us his gifts of redemption, wisdom, and a full and eternal life, because he loves us. God is a loving father who gives gifts to his children simply for the joy of giving and seeing his children’s excited smiles. 

The Comparison between Love and Competition

The pattern for the world, as we have seen, is competition. But in the church, it is love. 
Love, in some ways, is fundamentally opposed to competition. When we compete, we seek to overcome. We look for a weakness in our opponent and try to capitalize on it. Love does not operate in this way. With love, when another rejoices, we also rejoice. What is more, when another weeps, we weep with them (Romans 12:15).
There are also some ways in which love and competition seem to have the same result. Both love and competition can be said to result in the betterment of both oneself and also of the other. When I demonstrate love toward someone, I seek his betterment. In this very act of seeking to improve the other person, I also become a better person.

However, competition also often provides this mutually beneficial result. When I need to go against someone in a foot race, for instance, my competitor drives me to put forth my best effort. This results in the betterment of myself and also of my opponent. Through competition, we both may reach our highest potential. It can even be said that it is the same in business. Because of competition in business, industries are forced to produce better products at a lower price. We might see this as a positive aspect of competition, and in some ways, it is.

Nevertheless, before we speak too glowingly of the results of competition, we must look at one fundamental difference. In competition, there is always the tendency toward self-betterment and self-glorification. Those in a competitive relationship may both benefit in some ways, but each individual is really focused upon himself—how he himself might improve.

In love, the tendency is away from self. Instead, all good is directed toward the other. In a relationship of love, each individual is actually focused upon how he might improve the other person.

I understand that there are athletes who compete and seek to give glory to God for their accomplishments. I admire them for that, and I am thankful for those individuals. It is also possible to run a business based less on competition and more upon love. I think it is important that we recognize this fact.

I also understand that under the name and the guise of love, we have some poor examples where, when all the externalities are stripped away, a person will prove himself to be in fact not acting out of love, but instead to be only self-serving and trying to enrich himself. However, these examples in competition and in love are both exceptions and not according to their true natures.

The natural tendency of competition is self-glorification. Sporting events are very often accompanied with cries of “We’re number one! We’re number one!” That is why the awarding of trophies always occupies such a large role in competitive events. We play the national anthems of those persons who won the event, not those who lost.

Love, on the other hand, as Jesus Christ demonstrated it, is always for the glorification of God. Love, in its pure form, is not directed toward self but is always directed toward the other person. This establishes a directional chain, which ultimately leads back to the Creator of all—back to God. The betterment of ourselves demonstrates not our own greatness, but the greatness of he who made us. We sing his praises, not our own. God is not only number one—he is the only one. 

Playing the Anthem to God

 So closely linked is love to the calling of the church, which then brings praise to God, that Paul mentions this praise three times in this passage of scripture. “To the praise of the glory of His grace,” Paul says, “which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved…to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory…with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His glory(Ephesians 1:6, 12-14, NAS italics added).

If we correctly understand love and fully understand the calling of the church, we will see that all of these blessings bestowed upon us have as their end, praise to God. That is why, upon hearing of the church in Ephesus, Paul could say: 

[I] do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. (Ephesians 1:16-19)

Make Love the Motivation for Your Actions

It was this that I said the graduating class of the school for pastors in Cuba. I made no mention of the fact that our two governments were at odds with one another. I only made mention that the motivation for our work in the church must always be love. It did not matter that the world of governments is one of competition; in the church; our prayers for one another must always be that the other might grow in wisdom and in understanding.

This is the power of the church. This is the praise of God.

 

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