READ : 1 Corinthians 16:21-24
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. If any one has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.
1 Corinthians 16:21-24 rsv
“If any one has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” That’s a jolting statement, isn’t it? Right at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, before a prayer for the Lord’s return and before pronouncing the benediction, Paul drops this bomb shell. “If any one has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” Let him be anathema.
Those words are easily misunderstood, easily caricatured. Some are outraged by it. They accused the apostle of intolerance, of bigotry. What is this, they object, but the most narrow-minded fanaticism? This man insists that everyone must adopt his religious outlook or else be damned. He shows a frightening hostility, they say, toward those of other faiths. But before we condemn Paul out of hand and dismiss him as a crank, let’s think carefully about what he writes here.
Let’s grant him this, at least, that the apostle deeply wants other people to have love for the Lord. He longs to see other people devoted to Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the crucified and risen One. What would that look like? What does it mean to love Jesus Christ?
The first dimension is surely one of gratitude. The Bible always speaks of our love to the Lord as a responsive love. We love because He first loved us. To love Jesus Christ is to feel toward Him a sense of unlimited indebtedness, the most profound personal gratitude. Paul felt that, and the heart of it lay in these words: “He loved me and gave himself for me.” Throughout his whole life, the apostle felt a sense of wondering thankfulness toward the Lord. Jesus had called him when he was a red- handed persecutor of Christians. Jesus had forgiven and accepted him and entrusted him with a great mission. His life henceforth was to be a life of gratitude, remembering the great mercy which had been shown him.
But there is more. In the Bible, love toward the Lord always involves obedience. Jesus put it just that way: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments . . . He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.” Again, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word.” Those verses are from the Gospel according to John. The same note sounds in the first letter of John. “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” And again in Second John: “And this is love, that we follow his commandments.”
All professions of love to Jesus Christ are only empty sentiment without a sincere desire and effort to obey Him. When we love others, we seek to please them. A life without regard for their wishes can in no sense be called a life of devotion to others.
Love for Christ means also loyalty to Him and to all that concerns Him. The Scriptures speak of loving God’s name, loving the habitation of His house, loving His salvation and the place where His honor dwells, loving His commandments, His law, His testimonies. To love a person is to be concerned about what concerns him, to desire that he should be honored, his plans fulfilled, his name lifted up. When we love a person, we delight in everything that reflects credit upon them, when we are grieved at anything that might dishonor them.
The New Testament also teaches that to love Christ is to long for His appearing. Right after these words that we’re looking at now, Paul prays the prayer Maranatha: “Our Lord, come.” He writes to Timothy that a crown of righteousness awaits all those who love Jesus’ appearing. If we are devoted to Him, we cannot help but long for His final vindication: the coming in glory to take His power and to reign forever. We who love Him long to see His face, to be in His unveiled presence.
Another special quality of this love for Christ which Paul lifts up elsewhere is its continuing indestructible character. He writes at the end of his letter to the Ephesians, “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying.” This is not a temporary emotional attraction but a life-long devotion that weathers every storm which nothing can destroy.
This is the kind of love that Paul knew toward Jesus Christ and what he wanted to see in every other person he met. “O that these too might love my Master!” was the cry of his heart. Now why for the apostle was love for Christ so absolutely essential?
Apparently for Jesus Himself the great question to be addressed to any would-be disciple had to do with genuine love. Remember when he came to Peter after His resurrection? Peter had three times denied his Master on the night of Jesus’ arrest. With an exquisite compassion the risen Lord now gives to Peter a three-fold opportunity to express his loyalty and the question each time, the central question, the all-important question, was, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
It was characteristic of Jesus to simplify greatly such matters. When people heard His words, they either did what He said or refused. They believed His claim or rejected it. They chose the light and came to it or chose the darkness and remained there. They trusted and loved Him or they turned away and hated Him. Somehow in His presence there was no middle ground. There was no room for neutrality. To the question, “What would you do with Jesus who is called Christ?” it was either crown Him or crucify Him.
Now the claim implied here, both for Jesus and for the apostle who wrote of Him, was that Jesus is Lord of all. He is the Son of the blessed. He could say, “I and my Father are one . . . He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus was conscious that all authority had been committed into His hand, that He was the only begotten Son, that all were to honor Him even as they honored the Father.
If we view Jesus in that way, then refusal to trust and love Him is a violation of our supreme duty in life. The first and great commandment is that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind. If Jesus is God in human life, if He is indeed the everlasting word made flesh, the brightness of the Father’s glory, the express image of His person, then how we react to Jesus is the clearest, surest index of our heart attitude toward God. If we do not love Christ, we do not love the One who has sent Him. If we do not welcome the Son, we reject the father as well. But if we receive the Son, we receive the Father also.
The apostle Paul is not condemning here people who have never heard of Jesus, who have never been told the message of His saving love. No one can be expected to love Jesus Christ who has not heard His name. Paul’s heart breaks for those who have seen the light but have closed their eyes to it, who heard the gospel but refused to be humbled by it, who have been offered the crucified and risen Jesus but have said no.
Remember the other anathema that Paul pronounced? He was against those who were trying to present to the new believers in Galatia another gospel. By that he meant not a new and different religion but a perversion, a distortion of the gospel of Christ. His white hot indignation against people who took what they knew of the gospel message and twisted it, who took Christ out of it and offered people salvation by some other means, by a different way. About such a practice, Paul could thunder, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed!”
The most sobering words of Scripture are always addressed to people who know better. The most withering indictment are for those who insist on calling evil good and good evil, who have God’s truth offered to them and insist on calling it a lie. It’s light rejected that leaves us in darkness. It’s truth resisted that hardens the heart. What the apostle cannot bear is that anyone should know of Jesus, hear the gospel of His self-giving love, behold Him crucified for us and risen from the dead and then close the heart against Him. To do that is to bring condemnation upon oneself. It’s to clutch to ourselves the curse which Christ willingly bore for His people.
As Tennyson put it, “We must needs love the highest when we see it, not or another. To reject the Jesus offered to us in the gospel is to refuse to love the highest when we see it. What hope can there be for us then?
What is God saying to us through this word of Paul to the Corinthians? Look at it this way. The apostle’s devotion to Jesus was all-important. It was the bond of communion for the people of God. These Corinthians had all kinds of doctrinal errors which Paul addressed in the letter. They had been guilty of grievous moral lapses, but he loves them still and will stay with them. He says at the close: “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus.” Anything and everything can be forgiven to the humbling people of God if they hold fast to the head. But if they have no heart for Christ, that is the one thing that excludes them from the fellowship.
Perhaps you don’t like Paul’s way of expressing himself here. Try to look at his heart. This man was intensely devoted to Jesus Christ. Even that understates the case. And part of loving someone, of course, is the desire that others should appreciate that person too. The more intense or deeply felt our devotion, the stronger our feelings about them. Here was a matter of loving someone supremely worthy, who deserves the love and loyalty of every human being on earth.
There’s a common feeling in our time that easy going toleration of every idea and practice is the supreme virtue. Let’s be open minded, we are told. Let each believe as he desires – it’s all the same. Let every person do as he or she will. After all, the argument runs, there are no absolutes. To such an outlook, the only error, the only evil, is to be deeply convinced about something. If anyone believes that a way of acting is either right or wrong, a way of believing is either true or false, that sounds like insufferable intolerance.
Paul was not of that mind. Blundering on his Christ-rejecting way, headed for Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus, he had been arrested, commandeered. He found the One he had been persecuting, the Lord of all and full of grace. In Jesus he found the way and the truth and the life, and he responded with every atom of his being. He was either terribly wrong in doing that or wonderfully right. The gospel he believed and preached was either a monstrous falsehood or the truth of God. And our view of his faith and his choice will largely determine how we feel about these burning, controversial words of his.
I’m one of those who embraces the same faith and loves the same Christ. I’m ashamed that my faith is as feeble as it is and my love is faint, but I know beyond all doubting that Jesus is worthy to be trusted and loved entirely. And I would urge you today not to spurn the light you have. If there are some beginnings in you of faith in Jesus, encourage them. Open yourself to further light. If there is a spark in you of grateful love to Jesus, fan it into flame. And remember, love for Him begins and grows as you focus on His great love toward you. If Jesus Christ crucified for our sins, risen from the dead, offering us forgiveness and new life, lets us see the infinite caring in the heart of God. Trust Him, love Him, live for Him and be at peace. Amen.