(a sermon for February 2, 2014, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany; 1st in a three-part series, based on 1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13)
Let me cut to the chase: it’s all about LOVE.
Life, the universe, everything: it’s all about love; specifically, love as God gives it and intends for it to be given. In the words of Edward Marquart, “From the moment you are born until the moment you die; [in] every second and every minute and every hour and every day and every month and every year and every decade, the purpose of life is God giving you and me the time to learn how to love, as God loves… that’s what [life] is all about. That is what it has always been about.”
And to this, I say, absolutely! The only problem is that we don’t always seem to live up to that purpose! I’m reminded of a story I heard about the late Earl Weaver, who for many years was manager of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and who was notorious for going nose to nose with any umpire he happened to disagree with. Whenever he’d have, shall we say, a “difference of opinion” regarding a call, he’d run out of the dugout, charge into the umpire’s face and literally scream at him, “Are you going to get any better, or is this it?”
Well, where life and love is concerned, I have to admit that sometimes I want to ask the same question! I mean, turn on the news any day of the week and you’re apt to be overwhelmed with the amount of violence and despair that exists in the world. There just seems to be this dominant culture today that revels in finding new and creative ways to promote hatred; and sadly, even in the church, where we’re supposed to represent the gold standard of love, lethargy and meaningless conflict all too often rules the day! So yes, sometimes you’ve got to wonder, “Are we going to get any better, or is this it?”
I would submit to you, friends, is that what is needed most urgently in our world today – and, I might add, in each of our lives – more than knowledge, more than achievement, more than a unity of opinion – is love; but understand, not love as pop culture would define it, as Tina Turner used to sing, not love as “a second hand emotion.” We need love as God intends it, as scripture defines it, as Jesus himself embodies it: as “a more excellent way” of life. Further, I am convinced that nothing will distinguish us as God’s own people and as followers of Jesus Christ any more clearly than a real commitment to love: loving more radically, more earnestly, and more deeply. But what does that mean for us, and how do we start; how do you and I as people of faith truly improve our “love life?”
That’s what we’re going to be looking at over the next couple of weeks; and for that we’re going to turn to one of the most familiar and beloved passages of the New Testament: 1 Corinthians 13. Now I’ve always said that if there was a top ten list of wedding readings, this one would most certainly be “number one with a bullet,” and for good reason: there are few places in scripture that set forth the parameters of love more succinctly and eloquently than in 1 Corinthians 13; yet it’s also quite possibly one of the more misunderstood passages in the Bible!
You see, 1 Corinthians 13 actually has very little to do with weddings, and it really doesn’t address marriage per se. Interestingly enough, these words were in fact addressed to a bunch of church people in the middle of a fight! The Corinthians were a bitterly divided and feuding group of new Christians: they were divided over issues of leadership, over the relative importance of spiritual gifts, and over priorities in ministry and the practice of faith. And as you might imagine, each faction tended to be more than a little smug and self-righteous as to the correctness of their particular point of view, which did nothing at all to help the situation! So these familiar passages that we traditionally and appropriately take as an affirmation of love and marriage were in reality part of a larger plea to the Christians at Corinth to simply get along! Paul is reminding them that whatever their differences of opinion, whatever they seek to do or not do as followers of Jesus Christ, LOVE is the more excellent way, and must have priority; as we might say it today, LOVE always needs to be Priority One!
When you look at it that way, 1 Corinthians 13 becomes for us much more than a warm and fuzzy recitation on the ideals of love: it is no less than a manifesto of the true Christian life lived with love. I love what theologian Elizabeth Achtemeyer says about this: she writes that this is the kind of love that is “closer to hard-eyed realism than simpering sentimentality.” This is love that is to be invested directly into what we do and how we do it; love that sets a personal guideline for being at our best and serves as an anchor to steady us when we’re at our worst; it’s what provides the proper motivation and fuel for everything else in our lives.
That’s what comes through clearly in the first three verses of this passage. You know the words: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” In other words, without love at the heart of it, anything we say, even the most eloquent of words, is at best ineffective. “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.” Or, to put it another way, we can know everything there is to know; we can have all the best ideas to affect the greatest change, but without love accompanying those ideas, all that knowledge is ultimately incomplete. And “if I give way all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” It’s true; you can give abundantly for any number of reasons, you might be a wonderful steward of your resources and be a benefactor of the highest order to the point of self-sacrifice; but none of it counts unless it’s done in love. Without love behind it, what we give is insignificant!
What Paul says to the Corinthians in the midst of their own conflicts is also true for the challenges we face in the task of living. Simply put, great things can happen in this life and in our living, but without love being our first priority, anything we accomplish ends up being inadequate to the task at hand. Or, expressed in the form of a mathematical equation, if you can believe it: LIFE minus LOVE equals ZERO!
You see, as a matter of faith love is not an emotion; it is a practice that makes every bit of difference as to the success and failure of our lives; and what’s more, it’s part and parcel of the message we send to others about what, in the end, we really stand for.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about here: most of you, I suspect, will remember John Lennon’s song from the early 1970’s, “Imagine.” (You know, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”) It’s one of those songs that 40 years later has grown to become something of an international anthem of peace and love, one that gets sung at just about every global event you can name. And it’s a good song, but… not to offend any hard-core John Lennon fans here, I have to confess that I’ve always had a problem with “Imagine.” First of all, I can’t get past that line in the song that says, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try;” but that aside, my problem is also because I have a problem separating the song from the songwriter.
You see, John Lennon dedicated a good part of his life to the cause of peace and love: along with “Imagine,” he wrote “All you Need Is Love,” and countless other songs that were not only anthems for the sixties, also extolled love as the answer for all of humanity’s ills. Yet, if you know anything about John Lennon, you also know that he didn’t exactly embody those ideals in real life: a few years back I read a piece about his son Julian Lennon, whom his father abandoned along with Julian’s mother at a very early age, just about the same time that the Beatles exploded on the scene. And after Yoko Ono came along… well, let’s just say that situation never really changed, and because of John Lennon’s death in 1980, Julian and his father were never able to reconcile. Julian, in fact, was quoted as saying that even as an adult he could never understand why someone who apparently had so much love for the world couldn’t even share a bit of that love with his family. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved the Beatles, too, but here’s the thing: John Lennon, one of the seminal and influential musicians of the 20th century, sang about love but didn’t practice it.
And it’s all too common a story, isn’t it? So many people in this life who in the end were not what their words claimed to be; so many more still who carry around the pain from having been wounded by that. It’s a stark reminder to us that love as God intends for it to be is an awesome responsibility. And for us as Christians, the responsibility to love as a practice is crucial; for people do indeed respond to words of love, but the truth of those words come when they’re backed up by loving behavior.
I don’t need to tell you that we live in an era where Christians are viewed with more than a little skepticism, so the old adage of practicing what we preach becomes paramount. If we are to introduce others to the God of love, if we are to invite them to know Jesus as a Savior, a teacher and a friend, then our lives need to be free of the kind of hypocrisy that make our words of love nothing but an empty sentiment. Love – that is, the love of God in Jesus Christ flowing through us by the Holy Spirit – needs to be the guide and rule in what we say, and especially in what we do. And though we are, after all, only human and subject to the kind of sin that keeps us from loving as we ought, nonetheless we must always be on guard that we not succumb to those all-too human attitudes of anger and pettiness, but rather let kindness, forbearance and openness lead us.
Love needs to be the standard for how we conduct ourselves inside and outside these doors – in all things, we always need to remember that yes, we are all ministers of the church of Jesus Christ, that we are our Lord’s messengers and ambassadors, and that for some people out there, we will be the first (perhaps even the only) impression of Jesus that a lot of people will have ever had. And when they see that love is the priority for us, it will be the encouragement for love to be their priority as well.
“I will show you the most excellent way,” says Paul, and that way is LOVE – love made real and true by the way we live. How that plays out in “life as we know it;” well, that’s for next Sunday. For now, though let our prayer be that everything that we say and do this week be done in love. And may it be with our thanks unto the same God who has called us to love one another.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry