Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Lectionary 4C] - January 31, 2016 (1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and Luke 4:21-30)

The Apostle Paul often catches a lot of flak for being very long-winded and wordy. And rightly so. Even though the things he writes are important, and sometimes really profound, in reality his New Testament letters are chock-full of complicated, convoluted sentences that go on and on and on. As a result, many people find his writing hard to untangle and follow, kind of like...sermons. As someone once said, there is a fine line between a long sermon and a hostage situation. But that’s how Paul writes so much of the time!

"Paul Writing his Epistles" Valentin du Boulogne (17th c.)
That’s what many people feel like as they read the Apostle Paul—like they’re hostage to horrible writing—until they get to the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he waxes poetic. He trims his sentences down. He follows a clear pattern. Choppy, awkward phrases disappear and flowing, lyrical lines take their place. And the result may not be any easier to grasp, but at least it’s pretty to listen to. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is considered by many people to be the most beautiful piece of prose in all of Scripture. Couples often choose it to be read at their weddings simply because it sounds so nice, even though it doesn’t really have anything directly to do with weddings. This short chapter and then the book of Ruth from the Old Testament were the only examples from the Bible that made it into my 10th grade world literature class textbook. I have to think, though, that it’s not simply Paul’s graceful language that adds to the beauty and charm of this beloved chapter. It also probably has a lot to do with the fact he’s talking about one of everyone’s favorite subjects: love.

Ahh, yes, love. Now, I know some of you are probably rolling your eyes and wondering to yourself those words of another famous Paul. You think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, that the world is full of them. But even though we might get the point that the Apostle Paul and Sir Paul might approach the same subject a little differently, they both agree on one main point: love isn’t silly. It isn’t silly, it isn’t silly at all.

It isn’t silly because, at least for the Apostle Paul, love is the gift, the tool, which becomes the key for using all other gifts in the Christian community. Without love, Paul says, nothing else works. It is the mortar which helps bricks form a building. It is the musical staff which allows the notes to be arranged in a meaningful melody. It is the heat that turns the batter into a delicious cake. Without the application of love, any one of these things would just turn into a mess, no matter how strong the bricks are, or how original the notes are, or how high-quality the ingredients are.

This lesson on love was particularly important for the Corinthians to understand because, as it happens, they’d been arguing over who among them were the “best ingredients,” which individuals in their community had the best gifts. There were several gifts that they were particularly enamored with, like speaking in tongues and displaying great wisdom and prophecy. Congregations may not exactly argue over particular gifts anymore, but every community tends to rank certain attributes and skills on a scale, consciously or not. Paul wants his congregation in Corinth to know that the strength or depth of each skill is not nearly as important as the love with which that skill is applied, because love, as he says elsewhere, builds up.

I’ve been told that one of this congregation’s former associate pastors, Mark England, had a question he would often get people to ask themselves in order to gauge the effectiveness of an idea or activity for ministry. He would ask, “How does this idea or activity we’re doing build up the kingdom of God or the body of Christ?” If that question was too difficult to answer, then they would hold off or change the idea. That is the question that love asks. Paul would have liked that question a lot, because he goes on to talk about love not just as a thing, but more like a person who has feelings and thoughts and abilities. It’s helpful to know that love is critical to community life, but only if you know what love is like. And so Paul anthropomorphizes love, using a style of writing that was typically used in the ancient world for praising people. It’s been translated differently through the years. Here’s how Eugene Peterson puts it in his contemporary language version of Scripture, The Message:

“Love never gives up.
Love cares for others more than self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
doesn’t have a swelled head,
doesn’t force itself on others,
isn’t always, ‘me first.’”

As the Corinthians continue to rank themselves according to the level of gifts they’ve received, Paul wants the church members to understand that love always involves the other. Brilliant prophecy may be nice, wisdom and knowledge may get you far, inspiring displays of faith are wonderful at times, but only love can really bear all things and endure all things. It hopes and believes all things, too, which doesn’t mean love turns a blind eye to abuse or manipulation, but that it always has an eye out for God’s future, confident that justice and mercy will ultimately rule.

Many people find this to be the really poetic part of an already poetic chapter, but interestingly enough, the particular kind of love that Paul is talking about, the kind of love that does the building up and bringing together, is often anything but poetic or lyrical when it’s acted out. The kind of love that never gives up, that cares for others more than self, that doesn’t keep score of others’ wrongs is most often painful and unpopular and even ugly when it’s demonstrated.

Ina recent opinion piece on the website Medium discussing the extreme polarization of our public discourse on political and social topics, writer Sean Blanda talks about the necessity of being humble enough to lay down our opinions on any given contentious issue so that we can accurately phrase and understand the viewpoint of someone who is on what we’ve often labeled the “Other Side.” This lack of arrogance and boastfulness is essential to growth and maturity, he says.  “We won’t truly progress as individuals,” he writes, “until we make an honest effort to understand those who are not like us.” He issues a dare for the next time we’re in a discussion with someone we disagree with.  “Don’t try to ‘win,’” he says. “Don’t try to convince anyone of your viewpoint. Instead, try to ‘lose.’ Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it.”

What he is encouraging is a practice of painful, unpopular love, which Paul reminds us, isn’t rude and doesn’t insist on its own way. And it’s not just good for the progress of individuals. It helps the whole community. And eventually it grows outward, not just inward, which is important: the quality of the church’s internal life together is almost always its greatest tool for reaching new people.

That, in fact, appears to be the problem with the Nazareth crowd’s reaction when Jesus attempts to bring them God’s Word and demonstrate how God’s love works. Initially, the message Jesus brings them sounds good, but immediately, Jesus recognizes, they think of themselves first and insist on their own way. They want to keep score, wondering why Jesus won’t perform for them the same wonders the other towns in Galilee got. But the love that Jesus comes to bring, the love at the center of his Father’s very being, is never given to self-preservation. It is directed outward, even towards those on the margins, those with the gifts, Paul would say, that everyone looks down on. And after he gives the Nazareth synagogue a few real-life examples of how God’s kingdom is often built up from the edges, bringing outsiders in, they rise up to silence him by throwing him off a cliff.

But they forget that love endures all things, that this love of God never ends. It’s not pretty and it’s definitely not silly when this love eventually goes to the cross and does die. It’s not poetic and it’s not aesthetic when love stretches out its arms and breathes its last, reminding us all that this kind of self-giving love lies at the center of everything God is.

That is why Paul can say this love is the greatest…even greater than faith and hope. Love is the thing that God does. God doesn’t believe things or need hope, as important as they are for us. God loves…and there will come a day, you see, when we will see that this love is completely victorious over all, when we reside in nothing but God’s eternal presence. There will be no need for belief in things we can’t see or for hoping in good things that haven’t happened yet because we will finally see them and they will be happening! Love will be all in all, and all will somehow be built up in Christ, and all will somehow, in God’s grace, be brought together. Full-grown in Christ, we will have learned the true value of listening to one another and trying to “lose” to them so much so that we realize there really isn’t an Other. There won’t be “them” and “us,” people with awesome knowledge and people who can’t speak in tongues. There won’t be folks from the hometown and folks from the other side of the tracks…there won’t be anger about widows from distant Zarephath who get the special attention or frustration with Syrian outsiders. There won’t even be a need for our different wonderful gifts anymore, because the kingdom they are to be used for building up will be fully built up. We will know everything about him, just as God has already, all along, known everything about us—and still loved us and claimed us—since the time we were formed in the womb.

Now that’s truly beautiful, my friends, no matter how you put it. That’s truly beautiful. Love never ends…especially when a silly love sermon really needs to.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] The Message//Remix, NavPress 2003 p 1683ff

No comments:

Post a Comment