Love, agape, the love of Christ, is the only way to live, the only way God will heal all things, and the one thing that makes your gifts healing and blessing to the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Lectionary 4 C
Texts: 1 Corinthians (12:31), 13:1-13 (adding in that extra verse)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Early in my ministry I got knocked back by a seminary professor.
Ordained for about three years, I had a half hour conversation with a professor with decades of experience, not from my seminary. We talked about Christian ethics, and I shared my growing conviction that the dominant New Testament ethic, from Jesus to the letters, was love of God and love of neighbor.
This professor said I was too simplistic, that I hadn’t factored in all the other ethical considerations to really understand what I was talking about. And, he said, love isn’t enough of an answer. You’ll have to define what love is, he said, and that’s where all the disagreement happens.
Now, I hadn’t yet connected all the dots of my thesis, and I was pretty wet behind the ears. So I didn’t have this snappy comeback: “Well, Paul seems to have pretty clearly defined love in 1 Corinthians 13.” So the professor went on his way having properly put the naïve pastor in his place.
25 years later, I still hold the same conviction, only much more deeply and with far greater certainty. It’s simply too clear in Scripture. And today we hear Paul’s magnificent proclamation of love, agape, that centers it all, the wisdom he gave his fractured church at Corinth.
It’s true, saying love of God and love of neighbor is the heart of Christian ethics might be simple. But the last thing you can say about Christian love is that it’s easy.
You want to know what is easy? Do what you normally do.
If you want me to get angry, I can do that right now. I can be rude without thinking, arrogant without noticing. It comes as naturally as breathing.
Insisting on my own way? Easy as anything. I expect many here are the same. There’s nothing easier than being irritated at someone who bothers us, or resenting other people, nothing easier than losing control and being unkind.
Now, I’ve met people who seem to have Paul’s Christian love genetically written into them. They appear to be naturally kind, gracious, not boastful or arrogant or rude. Maybe they’ve been working on it and it was hard for them, too. But for most of us, that’s not our natural tendency.
Paul writes to a faith community that’s the opposite of this chapter. They’re divided and fighting, and it’s easy for them. So Paul tells them of this most important gift of the Holy Spirit. “Strive for the greater gifts,” he says. “And let me show you this still more excellent way.”
Paul’s argument has three parts. The first is simple: everything you value in yourself has no value if you don’t have love.
It’s an eye-opening argument. He’s just spent a lot of ink talking about the many and various gifts of the Spirit, how each member’s gifts are different and important to the body of Christ. Paul is our greatest proclaimer and describer of the gifts the Holy Spirit pours out on the Church and on individuals.
But now he says: none of these gifts have any worth if they aren’t accompanied by love. Without love, there’s no point to anything you do as Christ. It doesn’t matter how well you speak (he says to preachers like me), if you don’t have love, you’re just noise. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you don’t also love, it’s worthless. A prophetic voice in a world of injustice means nothing without love. And even faith. Remember how Jesus said just a tiny bit of faith could move mountains? Paul says, even if you have such faith and move those mountains, if you don’t love, who cares?
All the things we most value about ourselves, gifts of God, things that can make a huge difference in the world for God, if we have no love wrapped around them, flowing out of us, we might as well be a lump of rock.
Ah, but – our professor complains – love is too simplistic a term. What do you mean by it? I’m glad you asked, Paul says. Let me tell you part two.
“This is what I mean by love,” he says.
Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious, love isn’t boastful. Love is not arrogant, love isn’t rude. Love doesn’t insist on its own way. Love isn’t irritable; love isn’t resentful. Love doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing – even in our enemies – but love rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, love believes all things, love hopes all things, love endures all things. Love never ends.
Oof. There are literally no loopholes here. No cracks where you or I can sneak out of this, no places to hide. Paul is painfully clear. If you aren’t being kind, you don’t have love, and anything you’re doing means nothing. If you insist on being arrogant or rude, you don’t have love, and there’s no point to anything you’re saying. If you’re happy when someone messes up, if you’re envious or resentful, you don’t have love, and anything else you’re up to has no worth.
These are some of the hardest words in Scripture. Behaviors we claim are “just part of who I am” are signs that we are not Christ, because we are not love. Excuses we make for such behaviors carry no weight, because Paul doesn’t give the option of being impatient in certain circumstances, or insisting on your own way on some special occasions. There is only love, Paul says, love we have seen and known already in Christ. Anything else, you’re just wasting your breath, taking up space, making noise.
But hear Paul’s third part before you despair.
Paul says we only see dimly now, have imperfect knowledge. But that will change.
All those things that mean nothing without love don’t last into the next life. But love such as Christ has, love like this, never ends.
So you don’t stay in dimness of sight, lack of knowledge. You are being changed by the Spirit into a new creation in Christ. Day by day you will see love more clearly, live love more deeply. It will become a part of you and transform those parts that are not of Christ. At some point it will become like second nature to you.
It’s like growing up, Paul says. You mature from childish ways, you become an adult. The Spirit is likewise growing you into maturity of love, until you look like chapter 13, like Christ.
And when you move through death into the life to come – something Paul will proclaim in great detail in chapter 15, which we’ll hear these next few weeks – when that happens, your dim sight will turn to clarity of vision. Your imperfect knowledge will be complete.
But you know what will still be there? The Christ-love that has matured in you. That love – for God and neighbor, for the creation, for all things – all the growing into Christ you’ve done here, when you are raised into eternal life through Christ’s resurrection, that love comes with you.
Love’s not only the greatest gift the Spirit gives. It’s the gift that never goes away.
Love isn’t easy at all. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But it’s the way god will heal all things.
Consider a world filled with creatures who are kind, humble, patient, generous, sharers of joy, where anger and rudeness and arrogance and irritation aren’t known. Can you imagine living in such a world? God can.
So strive for this greatest of all spiritual gifts, Paul says. “Strive” carries with it the word “zeal,” so Paul’s saying two things. Zealously pray for the Holy Spirit to give you this gift, transform your heart and your life. Put all your prayer into asking for this gift. But also be zealous in your actions, your thoughts, your decisions, your life, zealous to live this kind of love.
Then all the many gifts of the Spirit that we see here, your gifts, my gifts, that work for the common good together, then they also mean something. Covered by such love, shaped by such love, your gifts now become part of God’s blessing of this creation. As God always intended.
This is the more excellent way, Paul says. Will it be yours?
In the name of Jesus. Amen