June 3, 2019

Ascension - 1 Peter 4:7-11

The Nature of our Service is About Loss and Love

1 Peter 4:7-11 Now the end of all things is near; therefore, be serious and disciplined for prayer. 8 Above all, maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining. 10 Based on the gift each one has received, use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God. 11 If anyone speaks, it should be as one who speaks God's words; if anyone serves, it should be from the strength God provides, so that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything. To Him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.

Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, He and a small band of His followers assembled in a small town outside of Jerusalem. Jesus would rise up to heaven, visibly, until He was out of their sight. And then He was gone. We appropriately refer to this event as Ascension, a date observed by Christians every year 40 days after Easter.

The first followers of Jesus finally experienced the very thing they feared most – losing Jesus. He was gone and since then He has not returned in bodily form to earth, at least not in a normal way as He had lived (Paul’s conversion). One wonders how the disciples reacted to this. Loss changes people in different ways. When loss involves a deeply cherished and respected individual, it can be a difficult time. Mental health experts say that loss can change people in their daily routines, in what they prioritize in life, in long-term goals, and even in a person’s faith. Sometimes, loss leads a person closer to God, to once again appreciate and use the blessings of faith which God shares through His Word. At other times, loss causes a person to push against God – to become bitter and angry, and to lose faith.

Good or bad, loss certainly changes a person. So, what about the disciples? They were so weak and feeble just a little over 40 days before. They all forsook Jesus to save their own necks. They worried and contemplated what to do, assuming He was gone as they huddled together in a locked room. It seemed then that loss had changed them for the worse. As they now stood gazing up to heaven, witnessing with their own eyes the departure of their Lord and Savior, we can hardly overestimate the gravity of the situation and how crucially important the coming days would be. 

Of course, you already know the answer. You wouldn’t be sitting here today if positive change had not come about through the loss of Jesus at Ascension. Truly, there wasn’t really a loss per se. Jesus wasn’t dead or defeated. He didn’t leave because enemies subdued Him. He departed in victory, according to His plan. And yet, we still know how dearly cherished Jesus was to the disciples. Even knowing that He was in heaven, it would still be tough to move forward without Him. Who wouldn’t have that struggle, having experienced the sublimity of working with God’s own Son in the flesh for three years?

The greater question is, how did the disciples do it? How did they move on so seamlessly, and build the Church of God on earth? How did they conquer an empire that deeply opposed their beliefs, that killed and imprisoned them, a global power that defied the rest of the world’s nations? How did Christ’s disciples eventually span the entire earth, reaching each continent with the gospel, and establishing Christianity as the major religion in the world? And perhaps most important, How do we continue that legacy today?

The answer is through service. Service to God, service to our fellow humans. And service done through loss and love. 

This portion of God’s Word before us today is not about the Ascension, but it does describe the nature of the service we offer in the name of our victorious Savior. And throughout Peter’s words we see how loss changes us.

The disciples became different men when they lost Jesus. You could say the training wheels were taken off. They were abundantly blessed to be with Jesus but they also needed to grow in their faith. Jesus indicated this when He said on the eve of His death, John 16:12 "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 "However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. (Joh 16:12 NKJ)

The coming of the Holy Spirit, ten days after Christ’s Ascension, marked a turning point for the disciples. They were emboldened to stand for the gospel. They felt the responsibility of bearing the banner of salvation. Overall, as far as their personalities and characteristics were concerned, not much had changed. They were still common men, sinners in just as much need of the message they were preaching as their audience was. But now, when called by God to step up and serve, they delivered. The Holy Spirit sustained them in Christ’s absence, just as He promised to, and just as He continues to do today.

Through loss, they were changed for the better. Peter now describes some of those losses that apply to us. Overall, the message is that service involves giving up (losing) certain things for the benefit of others.
·       Instead of living for the moment, and for the cares and pleasures of the world, we train ourselves in discipline and sobriety.
·       Instead of operating by the qualities of our sinful nature, with quarrelling and self-pride leading the way, we serve without complaining – thinking more of the other person’s interests than our own.
·       We use our gifts and skills to help others, to build them, rather than looking for ways to separate ourselves.
·       And the most important loss of all involves confessing our sins before God and seeking to receive change than can only be given by Jesus. Yes, forsaking sin and temptation is a loss. Swallowing one’s pride and admitting fault takes sacrifice. But it’s change for the good.

Too many people try to live their lives without loss. Some are afraid of loss. What would it mean to be less popular? How can I be happy with fewer possessions? What will happen to my vision and dreams if I serve others? These are all thoughts generated by fear – fear of losing out on something. In other circumstances, spiritual blindness leads people to foolish priorities. They become consumed by sinful pride. Interactions with others are only done as a means to some other end. This too, is a path that seeks to avoid loss.

This insistence on keeping a certain level of comfort and attachment to the world, while saying that we follow Christ, can be extremely detrimental to our faith. It causes us to loosen our defenses and cut corners of guarding against temptation. It provides a faulty confession and witness to the world around us, so they get a warped picture of what it means to be a Christian.

God says we don’t have to dance around loss, but rather we can embrace it. Not in the sense of hastening after it, but in trusting that He changes us for the better when we experience it. The is what the disciples realized through the Ascension of Jesus. They lost something, but they gained a gift in the process and it led them the better service. When God deprives you of something, try to discern the blessing in disguise. When you come to confess your sins, actually bring something before the Lord. Talk to Him about what you’re repenting about. Don’t over generalize to the extent of falling between the cracks. Contemplate your life before God’s commandments with brutal honesty. Trust that when you bring something before Him, you will lose it in exchange for His mercy. When we lose the selfish, sin-ridden inhibitions of our fallen nature before Jesus, we understand better the second aspect of the nature of service, growing in love.

Loss is the catalyst for change, but it’s love that provides the power. Love is what gives meaning to loss. And so, God tells us, Above all, maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins. “Above all” refers to that which leads the way in your life [emblem]. If you think about your values and qualities as a line of things that describe you, what would be at the very front? What would be the thing you want people to see the most? God says that should be love – the kind of love that can cover a multitude of sins.        

God tells us a bit more about this love, too. First, it’s to be offered in a sincere and deep way. The word “intense” is used in our verses. This is a love that goes above and beyond. It’s a love that makes sacrifices and looks out for the interests of others. Secondly, this love upholds the Word of God. As we love by our words, it should be according to the God’s Word. As we love in our actions, they should honor and glorify Christ. And this love is the kind that instead of excusing sin, covers it with repentance and forgiveness.

The love of serving others by faith is rare. Jesus predicted this and explained why it’s rare saying, “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold (Matthew 24:12).” Love suffers when sin abounds. Jesus agreed with Peter when he wrote that love must uphold God’s Word. Without that connection, Christ is not honored, the gospel is not imparted to sinners, and service is not rendered to one another. We must love in truth, not in making concessions for every belief outside of God’s Word. The world’s love is cheap. That kind of love changes from person to person. It’s based on fleeting feelings and temporary experiences. God calls the believer to something deeper and more stable. Love that doesn’t change. Love that does not have its origin in this world but in the very nature of God. This is why true, unadulterated service to others is rare, because the love that fuels it is rare.

Whenever lawlessness abounds over love, someone is excluded. When Christians do this, it leads them to belittle others outside of the church. It causes Christians to despise those who are different, instead of caring for their needs. It leads Christians to become hypocritical and self-righteous – using their faith merely as a way to hold power over others. But lawlessness affects those outside the church, too. It causes them to denounce all other beliefs that do not align to their own, in the name of tolerance and justice. It leads them to use equality as a cloak to suppression of righteousness and control. It has all the signs of utopian bliss, but it cuts and excludes just as much as the most hateful, racist, and bigoted person. In both examples, Christian and non-Christian, when lawlessness abounds, love grows cold.

Christ alone offers love that embraces all – that brings change for the better, and that upholds true holiness. A love that serves. There will be loss – don’t mistake that for worldly division and prejudice. Loss doesn’t mean you’re doing things wrong, or that you’re not right in what you believe. God’s loss is directed first at the self. He wants you to see the need and experience that loss before you tell others about it. He desires that each person look honestly at their own heart and intention, because in so doing loss is revealed and then love changes. No one you talk to is going to be changed like that by you pointing the finger, or by you conceded God’s Word. You first experience loss and love in your life, and you share both with others. Loss of pride. Loss of distrust. Loss of self-reliance. Loss of sin. And in place of it all, love from Jesus. No one is excluded, especially God.   

It didn’t seem helpful or loving for Christ to depart the world and go to heaven. One wonders how the first disciples made it. Well, like them, we need to take that first step – stop gazing up and look forward. We see the same thing that they saw – serve God and one another. Along the way there will be loss and there will be love, and that’s the message we continue to share from God’s Word. With that as our source, we have every blessing from the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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