4th Sunday after Epiphany
February 3, 2013
1 Corinthians 13
How many of you have heard this reading before? Hands up. A few times? A dozen times? More than a dozen? You’ve probably heard it at a wedding, right? I’ve seen it written on plates with gold ribbons streaming around it. Very sentimental.
The Apostle Paul would likely be amazed at how sentimentalized it’s become, because he wrote it as more of a diatribe against the egotism and factionalism that was going on in the Corinthian congregation. So instead of it being read so sweetly as “love is patient, love is kind….,” it might better be shouted, “Love is PATIENT, love is KIND, it is not BOASTFUL, OR ARROGANT, OR RUDE.”
I have a story for you about love gone wrong. My Uncle George was the first pastor I knew well, and his wife, my Aunt Anita was the person I loved most in the world. George was one of the earliest “inner city” pastors. He was it before there was a name for it. His ministry was in the heart of downtowns where the big churches were built at the turn of the century when those were the middle and upper class neighborhoods. In the 50’s and 60’s most of the middle and upper classes had moved out of the downtown neighborhoods and into the suburbs, and poor people had moved downtown. They were mostly black, often jobless and barely literate. Uncle George lead those black congregations of poor people, living in the neighbor hood with them. First in Shreveport LA where he was arrested for shaking hands with one of his black parishioners on the street, and then in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, where he began a campaign to have racial identification dropped from driver’s licenses. His love of Jesus was sound and overflowing, and he could hardly wait to share it with everyone he met.
In the 70’s doctrinal wars of purity began. The Missouri Synod became more and more defensive about the purity of the Gospel, and every translation, every hymn, every prayer, every church service was examined to be sure that it was correct enough. You couldn’t pray with people who didn’t pray in Jesus name, you couldn’t question traditional Biblical scholarship. And Uncle George was one of the leaders of the charge. He turned on most of the people whom he had nurtured in the faith, accusing them of not being faithful enough or doctrinally correct. He cut off people he loved with his diatribes about purity and then became bitter because he felt deserted by the people he loved. People in my family bore the brunt of his anger and defensiveness. It was ugly. I was certainly no theologian at the time, busy with a young family and struggling to make ends meet, but I knew something was terribly wrong. Uncle George had completely lost love as the measure of the message. He was so caught up in knowledge and wisdom, that he had lost the persuasiveness of God’s love, shown to us in Jesus as the call to faithfulness.
We talked last week about the divisions that were going on in the Corinthian congregation. The first part of the 12th chapter lifts up the gifts of people who are part of the community; wisdom, knowledge, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. Paul says that the gifts may be different but that they come from the same spirit and are meant to build up the community. But they had begun to divide it instead as people boasted of their special gifts and pointed fingers at others and called them names for not being so gifted. And so he begins: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a clanging cymbal. If I prophesy, fathom mysteries, have all knowledge or great faith but have not love, I am nothing. If I give everything to the poor, I gain nothing.
Every spiritual gift, even the elevated and wonderful of them finally come to an end. But love never does. Paul’s not talking about the love of husband and wife, or parent and child, or even the dearest friends. We know that those loves are not forever, and we cannot say that they never fail us. The love that Paul lifts up here is the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ, who gave up everything and bore everything with a love stronger than death. All of us fail to love the way we hear this morning: we are not patient, we are not kind, we are often so concerned with what we think is right that we push people away and alienate them from the love of God when we should be gently supporting the faith they have.
We are often so blind that we don’t even see what we don’t know. Eugene Peterson says that we are so dulled by sin that we have lost the true perception of how love works. In Paul’s day, mirrors were polished bronze, and images were not clear as they are in our silvered glass mirrors today. It is only when we come face to face with God that we will see the full truth.
And so what can we do in the meantime? What Jesus showed us was not a sentimental love that is all about how we feel, he showed us a powerful love that was all about action. And so the love we are called to live is a love that bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, because that is the love that we have received, and the love that is entrusted to us to pass on. It is the love we should be living, but really cannot get more than a glimpse of. And so we throw ourselves on God’s mercy, asking for forgiveness, and to be restored to the love that only God can give. Faith, hope and love abide, says the Apostle, but the one that drives it all is love. Amen.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.