Sermon for Sunday January 31, 2016 || The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C || Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Psalm 71: 1-6; 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 || Luke 4: 21-30 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” –1 Corinthians 13: 4-7
First Corinthians thirteen. It is perhaps the most well known passage of scripture in the entire Bible. It is certainly the one most often read at weddings, and not infrequently at funerals. If you’re old enough, you might remember hearing it like you’d never heard it before when Prime Minister Tony Blair read it at Princess Di’s funeral. Some say it was like he’d written it himself.
But Paul is not writing about the virtues of universal love, offering advice to starry-eyed lovers, or comforting those who grieve. There is actually nothing that warm and fuzzy about this passage at all. The kind of love Paul is talking about here is called agape—and agape-love is about how we act, not how we feel. It’s about how we treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. And it is absolutely essential for a Christian community to flourish.
Paul also has a very specific target audience to whom his letter is addressed: the fledgling young church at Corinth. It seems he has heard reports that the future of the church there is being threatened by competing interests and internal conflicts.
Now, you may find it either incredibly comforting, or absolutely horrifying, to realize that as long as there have been churches there have been conflicts and competing interests in them. But if you think about it, church is, after all, where we come in all our brokenness to heal, where we try to become better people, where we fall short despite our best efforts, and where we are loved and forgiven anyway. “Church,” as the saying goes, “is a hospital for sinners, not a drawing-room for saints.” Ever has it been, and ever shall it be.
The beautiful thing about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is that it is so relevant. The conundrum Paul is facing within the church at Corinth is a conundrum all churches face—simply by virtue of the fact that they are populated with imperfect, fallen people like us. So this passage has as much to teach us about being church as it did the folks at Corinth 2,000 years ago.
Two weeks ago we listened in as Paul addressed the conflict in Corinth by emphasizing the Spirit that binds us all together in Christ. “…there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” we heard him say, “…varieties of services, but the same Lord…varieties of activities, but…the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
We are all made of the same stuff, you may remember me saying. We all share the same spiritual DNA, are children of the same God, and are animated by the same Spirit. Lesson #1: The gifts God gives us are not for us, but are to be used for the common good.
Then last week we heard Paul talk about the church as the body of Christ and our importance as individual members of it. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ he chided the Corinthians, “nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Lesson #2: Each of us is as important as the other in the life of the church.
Now this week Paul continues his teaching with a lesson about agape-love– how we treat each other–as the foundation upon which all else depends for the church to flourish. Without it, he says, it doesn’t matter what spiritual gifts we have to offer, what acts of service we do, or what activities we engage in. So St. Stephen’s could have standing-room only attendance, enough pledge income to fund the best outreach programs in the diocese, the greatest choir in all of Christendom, and the finest, well-kept buildings on the National Register of Historic Places—and all of it would amount to naught if we didn’t have love. Without love, it’s all a bunch of noise. Without love, it’s all worthless. Because without love, the body would fall apart.
We’ve heard the words, “Love is patient, love is kind,” so many times they are almost a cliché, but Paul’s meaning is far more radical and challenging than most of us realize. The Greek word he uses for “patient” actually means to be long-suffering in bearing the offenses and injuries of others, to be slow in avenging a hurt or in punishing a perceived wrong. And when Paul says that love is “kind” he is saying that love is gracious and virtuous. Love, Paul is saying, acts with forbearance when hurt or angry; it bears offences with grace, rather than revenge. As theologian Stan Mast notes, “Love doesn’t just put up with hurtful people, it is actually kind to them.”
That is the kind of behavior Paul is calling the Corinthians, and us, to exhibit in order for the church to thrive and to flourish. Again from Stan Mast: “Paul isn’t calling members of Christ’s Body to feel passionately about each other or even to like each other. He is calling us to act in a self-sacrificing way toward people who aren’t nice to us and whom we may not like one bit…” Lesson #3: “We” is more important than “I.”
Fortunately, I think most of us at St. Stephen’s do genuinely like each other, but even so we are not always kind to each other. Or patient. Or forgiving. There is always room for improvement in all of us!
New Testament scholar Brian Peterson puts it this way:
“Because of our disordered assumptions about what love actually is, we often act as though the mission of the church is to gather like-minded and likeable people together. We think that in such a community it will be easy for us to love or, more honestly, to ‘feel the love.’ But true love is not measured by how good it makes us feel. In the context of 1 Cor. it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.”
The measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division…
Last week I noted that there’s probably not an issue on which we would all agree, yet we worship together each week and we celebrate our differences. There are, of course, competing interests in this church, just as there were in Corinth. There are competing interests in all churches. But when we can address those competing interests with agape, with love that demonstrates patience and kindness, we are living into what Peterson calls our “capacity for tension and disagreement, without division.”
A couple of examples: We recently needed to replace the boiler in the main church building. A number of options were presented to the vestry. Odds are that if you were on the Property Committee your interest would have been in going with the most comprehensive option that would insure the fewest possible problems for the longest period of time. If you were on the Finance Committee, your primary interest would have been spending as little as necessary given the reality of our financial constraints, while satisfactorily addressing the problem. And if you were on the Green Team your concern would’ve been doing the most environmentally responsible thing. The decision we made as a vestry no doubt disappointed some, but we were able to do it without division. No one insisted on his or her own way. No one was arrogant, irritable, or rude. We were patient and kind with one another. Paul would’ve been proud!
Likewise, right now we’re exploring the possibility of changing our Sunday bulletins. If your main concern is that our service is welcoming and hospitable to newcomers, you’ll probably favor having the whole liturgy printed in the bulletin like we do now. If your main concern is that we be better stewards of the environment, you’ll want us to use less paper. And if your main concern is saving money, you’ll want us to use less expensive paper. In an ideal world we’ll find a way to print the whole liturgy on less expensive paper and use less of it. But odds are, some of us will be disappointed by whatever decision is reached. Yet by God’s grace we will be patient and kind with one another. No one will insist on his or her own way. Hurt feelings will be forgiving, and agape will once again prevail.
Next week in my sermon I’ll be sharing some of my hopes about what you will do as the Body of Christ while I’m on sabbatical. This sermon is about how I pray you will be. Because, “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
And love never ends. Amen.