Preparing to Live
Living Requires a Foundation of Love (1)
All of which illustrates the importance of a firm foundation. Now, already in the book of Ephesians we’ve seen that Jesus Christ is the foundation for our salvation, and for our life in Christ. Paul says in I Corinthians 3:11, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” That’s an established fact and a done deal if you’re a Christian – “in Christ”, as Paul so fittingly puts it.
We’ve also seen that the apostles and prophets were foundational to the church. Their work in establishing churches and their writings which we now have in Scripture are foundational for our lives together as believers.
But today, we study another foundation – the foundation required for the successful day-to-day living for a true believer. We are studying Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 under the title of “Preparing to Live,” because in this most elevated and audacious of all the prayers in Scripture, Paul is praying for his Ephesian friends to have five elements that he considers absolutely crucial if they are going to be able to conduct themselves as described in chapters 4-6 -- to live a Christian life with a capital “L” – a life of joy, happiness, and fruitfulness – even in the midst of hardships.
We’ve said those five items are rungs of a ladder leading a worldly, self-centered mere existence at bottom to a life of full blown victory and heavenly blessing at the top. Rung one was that they be strengthened in the inner being so that they would be capable of receiving all that God has to offer. Rung two was that they have Christ indwelling their hearts and we noted that means Christ being at home, comfortable, familiar, in every corner of our life -- sin and self being cast out, Christ being invited in.
Now, rung three on Paul’s ladder is noted at the end of verse 17. He says, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love.” The words rooted and grounded are foundational words, referring to what is absolutely basic and fundamental to living a truly Christian life. And that one foundational thing is – love. Simply, but profoundly – love.
Now, note the placement of these items. These rungs are not randomly positioned. Christ indwelling comes first. Nothing lovely happens until He is genuinely settled down and at home in our lives. But once He is, then we become rooted and grounded -- in love for God and for others which prepares us for the next step -- understanding the indescribable reaches of Christ’s love for us. We can never experience the love He describes here if Christ is not indwelling. He is the source.
Of course, the word “love” is agape which as we’ve seen before, is different from our modern American concept of love in two regards. Agape love is a decision rather than an emotion response. It is not dependent on the attractiveness of the object, but is an act of the will. I saw a telling interview with Charles Manson a few years ago. I’m sure you remember Manson. He was the hippie cult group leader who masterminded the killing of Sharon Tate and others through young girls who were part of his cult. He was sentenced to life in prison as were three of the girls. At the time of the interview, they were well into their 50’s and Manson had not seen any of them in nearly 30 years. His reaction – “Wow – they got old on me!” His care for them apparently depended on their looks and as they aged, whatever attraction he felt was gone. Agape love is not like that – not dependent on the attractiveness of the object, you see. Then, second, it is a love that always seeks to give – never to get. It differs from our normal concept of love which gives in order to get. Agape gives regardless of any getting. So – Paul’s prayer is that foundational to their lives there be a decision to love God and to love others regardless of circumstances.
Now, to make his point, Paul employs two metaphors. To dramatize the fact that the chief characteristic of the daily Christian life is to be love, he gives us two pictures -- ‘rooted’ and ‘grounded’. The first picture immediately makes one think of a tree; the second makes us think of a building – it’s an architectural term. In both cases, of course, Paul is emphasizing the foundation. The tree is rooted and the building is grounded. And Paul’s suggestion is that what the roots do for the tree and the foundation does for the building in somehow analogous to what love does for our daily Christian life. The question is – in what ways are these analogous – and over the course of the next couple of weeks, I want to suggest four foundational characteristics of love suggested by Paul’s analogy to help us see just how critically important it is – how fundamental to successful Christian living. These characteristics are that love is strong (the most obvious point of the analogy); it is sustaining (taken from the tree); it is selfless (neither the foundation nor the roots exist for themselves); and it is steadfast. Thus when it forms a deep foundation to our lives, good things happen. Let’s look in more detail.
I. Love is Strong
What is the primary purpose of a building foundation or the roots of a tree? They are to provide strength, right? I’ll never forget hearing someone ask John Brodie, all-star quarterback for the San Francisco 49er’s in the old days, why he, as such a high-priced player, held the ball for extra points. His answer ignored the high-priced part and went to the heart of the matter: “If I didn’t hold it, it would fall over.” So the function of a foundation is to hold up the structure that is being built upon it. Why are there so many towering skyscrapers in New York City? It is because the ground there is almost solid rock. This is not true in LA where there are comparatively fewer tall buildings because the much less solid ground itself cannot support their height. The higher the building, the strong the foundation must be. The Empire State Building which towers 1250 feet above the sidewalk (over 1400 if you count the tower on top) was the tallest building the world for 40 years after it opened in 1931. What you don’t see is the foundation which is 55 feet deep – more than five stories down into solid rock. It has withstood plane crashes and hurricane force winds over the years because it has a strong foundation. Similarly, when we see a strong, stately oak tree, we realize that it is supported by miles of roots unseen beneath the ground.
Lack of a strong foundation can be disastrous. It reminds me a bit of a man and his wife and who were looking over some New Jersey ocean-front property with a young real-estate agent. The sales pitch was appealing, but the man couldn’t help looking at the ocean, which seemed fearfully close – especially on a day when a storm was whipping up waves. Noticing the apprehensive glance, the agent remarked, “Sir, I would like to emphasize our houses are built on very firm sand.” That wouldn’t be very comforting to anyone who knows anything about foundations, would it?
So, if Paul is suggesting love as our foundation for daily living, it must be strong, right? And guess what? Love is strong; it is unbelievably strong – foundationally strong. Part of our issue is we don’t always think of it that way. In fact, sometimes, love is thought of as weak, as a more feminine characteristic; it’s almost like if it were a movie it would be a chick flick, right? But nothing could be further from the truth. To the contrary, there is nothing in life that is stronger than love. Love is like the atomic bomb of human relations. When really unleashed, it can change our whole existence.
Think about the things that Paul did not choose as foundational to a Christian life. He did not choose character as foundational. He did not choose our talents, personality, or spiritual giftedness as foundational. He did not say you must apply yourself to learning as foundational to Christian living. He did not say, it is your will that is the foundation. You must make right decisions. He did not say it is joy or goodness or faithfulness or wisdom. He passed over all of these virtues, all of which are very important in their own place, and said that which is foundational, most basic and fundamental -- which you can least do without, which will be the strength of a life well lived, that which is foremost of the foremost? It is love.
Now, he didn’t choose love because it is weak, fickle, arbitrary or unsure. Eros, romantic love is all those things, but not agape. Quite the opposite it is stronger than all, superior to all when it comes to how we live. Love is alive, and it has the power to change you, me and everyone around us. It is that powerful and strong. It is the strongest inanimate force on earth.
You don’t have to be in the business world for long before you hear that information is power. Companies go to great effort and expense and sometimes even illegal methods to get information on their competitors. They want to know what they are planning, what is their cost structure, how many people do they employ. In any organization, it become readily apparent after awhile that those who know the most advance the fastest. Information is power. But I must tell you – love is stronger.
According to New Testament teaching it is love and not knowledge that makes us strong Christians. Paul says in I Cor 8:1, “1) Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2) If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” This phraseology falls a little rough on English ears. What is Paul saying? Paul is saying, “Look, dear Corinthians. You all have been taught that idols are nothing and therefore food that has been offered to idols is also nothing. Eat it at will. BUT – this knowledge has puffed you up. There are those who have not been taught, or whose consciences are more tender who have concerns about this, and you are flaunting your knowledge to their detriment and hurt. You are eating this food at will and throwing it up to others saying in essence, ‘What is your problem? Don’t you now that idols are nothing. There is no harm here. Have a bite!’ And your weaker brother has gone away offended. Far better that you had stuffed your knowledge and exhibited a bit of love by refraining.” And in verse 2 he is basically saying, “And by the way, when you think you know something more than someone else, take heed because I, as God’s apostle to you, tell you that that very superior attitude is a sign that you do not know. At the very least, you don’t know that love is better than knowledge.”
Knowledge is fine, necessary and productive, but it is nothing without love. Love is stronger. The Corinthians were a very messed up church in general as you probably know. In I Corinthians, Paul takes up their problems one by one. But a careful reading of the treatment given to the separate individual problems leads to the conclusion that all those problems had a common origin – the Corinthians were putting experience ahead of knowledge and knowledge ahead of love. They were making experience and knowledge the supreme things in the Christian life, and of all people, Paul, the greatest teacher the church has ever known outside of Christ himself, had to say, “Wait. You’ve missed the boat. The boat is love – not knowledge or experience.” Those are the sails – love is the boat.”
The great love chapter, I Corinthians 13, wasn’t written in isolation. It was addressing a major problem. Greatly gifted by the Holy Spirit – the Corinthians had gotten all enamored of the gifts and not the giver. They were an emotional, outgoing, party group anyway, and when they found out about tongues-speaking, let me tell you, they had found their niche. They were having second blessing meetings every night, urging everyone to get this gift, speaking out randomly at public meetings, anxious to show off their prowess. And they were prophesying. Oh, they loved to get up and hear themselves speak. The deeper the knowledge and the more convoluted the mystery, the better. I mean, it was chaos. It was all for show; it was for personal edification and self-satisfaction. That’s why Paul wrote in I Corinthian 13: 1, “1) If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (Now watch this) 2) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Do you get Paul’s message? Love is stronger than tongues, than knowledge, even than faith. There is nothing to compare to love. Here’s how strong and basic love is -- no spiritual gift is of any value on its own – only as it is used in love. Period.
You know by now that I believe in teaching and in the Word of God. The leaders of our church are committed to that as a priority because it is commanded by the Lord. But we are also keenly aware that without love, the teaching is useless. Nothing is more important than our love for God and for each other. Yes, knowledge is essential. Yes, we must have it, but true knowledge is not just intellectual; it’s true aim is to lead us to a Person – the Person of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. And Jesus is love. So, love is always primary. Love is strong.
Listen, do you want to know just how strong love is? Love is even stronger than death. The wisest man who ever lived said it this way in the Song of Songs 8: 6)” Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. 7) Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.” Love is primary, Beloved.
People whose only perspective on love is the “here-today-gone-tomorrow can’t promise anything beyond that”, emotional bilge that they’ve seen in the movies don’t really understand love at all. They understand self-indulgent infatuation, maybe – but that’s not love or even close to it. Let me tell you, real agape love is tough and it is strong.
Let me illustrate for you how strong love is. In 1946, Czeslaw Godlewski was a member of a young Polish gang, incensed at the events of WWII, that roamed and sacked the German countryside. One night on an isolated farm they gunned down ten members of the Wilhelm Hamelmann family – his parents, wife, her parents and four children in their farmhouse near Bremen. All died, except Hamelmann himself who survived his four bullet wounds. Godlewski completed a twenty-year prison term for his crimes, but the state would not release him because he had nowhere to go. Meanwhile, Hamelmann had relocated to Bremen, remarried and ran a pharmacy. He also helped lead a local church. When he learned of the situation with Godlewski, he asked the authorities to release Godlewski to his custody and gave him refuge in his own home. He wrote in his request, “Christ died for my sins and forgave me. Should I not then forgive this man?”
You show me any other power on earth that could take the natural burning desire for revenge and turn it into a refuge? There is no such power, and that is exactly why the Lord is asking us to be rooted and grounded in love – a love that can bear any abuse, absorb any blow, suffer any humiliation and still stand like that mighty oak or Empire State Building. True love is strong. And the deeper we go into it – the more it pervades our lives – the stronger will be our Christian life and experience.
II. Love is Sustaining
A second thing that we learn about our foundation in love is that it is sustaining. This characteristic comes from the tree analogy. The picture of a mighty tree reminds us that it is sustained largely from nutrients drawn from the soil in which it is rooted and is another reason, no doubt, that Paul chose this picture.
Love is to our spirit like food to our physical body. Food is our fuel; it is what builds us up, allows us to function, enables us to grow, think and act. Just so, love nourishes our spiritual existence. In this, love is paradoxical. True agape love is always aimed at another person. It is at heart a form of self-denial, for it will sacrifice anything for the object. And yet, somehow when we so act, we are ourselves built up. We are nourished and sustained by those efforts we make on behalf of others.
Just listen to the description of love in I Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5) or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6) it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” One cannot possibly act that way toward others without him or herself being nourished. Remember that this love can only flow from us to the extent that Christ is at home in our hearts, so as it is expressed, He is working within and the result can only be our growth and maturity.
Years ago Dr. Donald Gray Barnhouse pointed out that love is intrinsic to the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22. He said, “Love is the key. Joy is love singing. Peace is love resting. Long-suffering is love enduring. Kindness is love’s touch. Goodness is love’s character. Faithfulness is love’s habit. Gentleness is love’s self-forgetfulness. Self-control is love holding the reins.” Perhaps that is the reason that Paul speaks of the whole as the fruit of the Spirit (singular) and not the fruits of the Spirit (plural). The whole thing is love in action, and obviously the believer is nourished by the exercise of love exhibiting this fruit. There is no fruit of the Spirit without love! We must be rooted and grounded in love with all the depth and profundity of these metaphors.
The absence of love is, of course, what dries us out and shrivels us up spiritually – and sometimes even physically. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Picturesque Notes of Edinburgh, a true account of the city in 1870, tells the story of two unmarried sisters who shared a single room. As people are apt to do who live in close quarters, the sisters eventually have a falling out, which Stevenson says was “on some point of controversial divinity.” In other words, they were puffed up with knowledge over some aspect of theology. The controversy was so bitter that they never spoke again (ever!). There were no words, either kind or spiteful — just silence. Nevertheless, possibly because of a lack of means, or because of the innate Scottish fear of scandal, they continued to keep house together in the single room. A chalk-line was drawn across the floor to separate their two domains. For years they coexisted in hateful silence. Each woman’s meals, baths, and family visitors were exposed to the other’s unfriendly silence. At night each went to bed listening to the heavy breathing of her enemy. Thus, the two sisters (ostensibly daughters of the Church!) continued the rest of their miserable unnourished lives.
These women remind me of a British dramatist named Freddy Lonsdale who was urged by a friend at a New Year’s Eve party to make up with a third man with whom he had a quarrel. Finally persuaded, Freddy eventually found his enemy. “I wish you a happy New Year,” he said when he found the man, “but only one.” Oh – we deep six even our own meager efforts, do we not?
I do not believe it is too strong a statement to say that there is no ultimate value in all our work, and all our activity, unless it is rooted and grounded and nourished in love. Paul says in I Corinthians 13:1, “ If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” You may be the greatest orator in the world, you may be able to speak in an affecting manner which can move people to admiration and perhaps even to action; but if love does not control what you are saying or doing you are but as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal – without value. Paul goes on in verse 2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3) If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. That is a shattering and alarming statement, and I’ll tell you what – it suggests that on the Day of Judgment, there will be some surprises. What appeared to us to be very great may then appear to be nothing at all; and what appeared to us to be trivial will then be seen to be of great value with the arc-light of God’s love shed upon it. What a reversal of our judgments and our conceptions we shall find!
The film Babette’s Feast tells the story of two sisters who, though beautiful and talented, choose to remain single to serve their father and his small church. After his death they take in a fugitive from Vichy France, Babette, who works as their housemaid and cook. To show her gratitude, Babette spends her entire life savings on one dinner, to which she invites the sisters and the members of the church. The meal becomes a sacramental event. Divisions are healed, relationships restored, past misdeeds forgiven. Every person around the table receives God’s grace. The lavish meal serves as the medium of that grace because it’s far beyond what the church members expect, deserve and understand. When they saw her giving all she had for them – they were compelled because love is strong. That’s a beautiful picture of love, Beloved. Babette’s feast provided spiritual nourishment for all who participated, but imagine what it did for her. Here’s the deal with love. The deeper you go into this foundation, the stronger you are, and the more you give, the more you benefit. It’s nourishing – strong and sustaining. It’s a can’t lose proposition.