The True Measure of Love

14 Feb

(a sermon for February 14, 2021, the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 13)

Let me just cut to the chase here:  it’s all about LOVE.

And understand, I’m not speaking merely of our text for this morning; I’m referring to 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 once 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 are concerned, I have to admit that oftentimes these days I want to ask the same question!  These are days that it is so easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer lack of love existing on just about every level of society, including, at times, our dealings with one another. Sadly, there just seems to be this dominant culture today that revels in finding new and creative ways to promote hatred – ten minutes on social media is all it takes to figure that out (!) – so yes, sometimes you’ve got to wonder, “Are we going to get any better at this thing called love, or is this it?”

I would submit to you, friends, is that what is needed most urgently in our world and in our lives today – more than knowledge, more than achievement, more than a unity of opinion, political and otherwise – is love: but understand, not love as pop culture would likely define it; nor love as Tina Turner used to sing, as “a second-hand emotion;” and, I’m very sorry to say on this St. Valentine’s Day, not love in a purely romantic sense, either.  What we need is love as God intends it, as scripture defines it, and as Jesus himself embodies it:  as “a more excellent way” of life.  I am convinced, friends, 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 the question is, 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,” as it were?

Actually, there are a lot of answers to be found in this morning’s reading, one of the most familiar, beloved and oft-used 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 true measure of love more succinctly and eloquently than in 1 Corinthians 13; that said, however, it should also be noted that 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 midst of conflict!  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!  But for that to happen, says Paul, what’s required is a “more excellent way.”  

Actually, as I’ve been thinking about this over the past few days, I’ve had this strange random memory of… “Fizzies.” Do you remember Fizzies?  I don’t even know if you can still get them today, but if like me you’re “of a certain age,” you might remember these because for a while they were quite popular: what Fizzies were were these little tablets, sort of like Alka-Seltzers without the medicine. You dropped two tablets into a glass of water, and when the tablets dissolved, what you ended up with was a fruit-flavored carbonated beverage (Kool Aid with bubbles, basically!).  Nothing much, I know; but when you’re a little kid, this was about the neatest thing in the world!

Well, what I remember about that was that I’m maybe in the 5th or 6th grade and I was going with my parents out of town to this big state science fair competition.  My Dad was a high school math and science teacher, you see, and he and my mother had been charged with chaperoning a couple of teen-aged girls from the school who’d qualified to go this science fair, and I got to come along.  But for some reason that totally escapes me now, the biggest thing I remember about that trip is that these two girls not only had a package of Fizzies in their possession, but they’d offered me a glass!   Now, remember I’m just a kid, and the mere fact that these high school girls were paying me any kind of attention at all was pretty cool in and of itself; but that they were going to share their Fizzies (!) with me was about as good as it gets!   However, what I also remember is that when I finally got a chance to take a drink of that wonderful, fabled elixir… it was the worst tasting stuff that I’d ever drank!  It was horribly bitter and I know my face immediately wrenched into a sour expression; which, of course, was incredibly funny to the high school girls and everybody else in the room!  The problem, of course, was that there was something missing from the Fizzies mix, which, of course, was sweetness!   Fizzies needed sweetness in a fairly significant amount in order to taste good, and the one ingredient that was missing for that to happen was sugar!

Well, that’s the place that love holds in a life of faith!  Love isthe more excellent way,” it’s what Paul was saying needed to be present if the believers in Corinth were ever to become a unified and fully realized church, and, friends, it’s still the key ingredient for you and I to fully live out of the faith we espouse and as true disciples of Jesus Christ.

So… it turns out that 1 Corinthians 13 is much more than a warm and fuzzy recitation on the ideals of love: it is no less than a manifesto of a true Christian life lived with love! The late theologian Elizabeth Achtemeyer once wrote that the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is the kind of love that is “closer to hard-eyed realism than simpering sentimentality.”   It’s love that is to be invested directly into what we do and how we do it; it’s 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; and it’s what provides the proper motivation and fuel for everything else in our lives.

That’s what comes through very 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 and I can give abundantly for any number of reasons; we might be wonderful stewards of our resources and be benefactors of the highest order to the point of supreme self-sacrifice; but none of it counts unless it’s done in love.  Without love motivating the gift, 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 there in good measure, anything we accomplish ends up being inadequate to the task at hand.  In the same manner of those woe begotten, sugar-deprived Fizzies, without love the flavor of what we do and what we claim in faith from sweet to bitter.

What you and I so often forget, friends, is that as a matter of faith love is not an emotion; it is a practice that serves as a test of our faith in a world that often rejects love at every turn.  The true measure of love is to be found in its connectedness to a higher good; love is meant to be the touchstone of our attitudes and actions as God’s people: therefore, “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”  For us to sing that “they’ll know that we are Christians by our love” is not simply wishful thinking or worse, misguided idealism; it is no less than our edict as followers of Jesus Christ.  For love, simply put, is answering the command of Christ by the following of his example; love is seeing everyone and everything through the lens of Jesus Christ, and then living our lives accordingly. 

And it is what, in the end, makes all the difference.

Brian Wren, a composer of beautiful hymns and other music for Christian worship actually said this wonderfully in an article about congregational singing published a few years back in The Christian Century.  Wren said, “It’s possible to sing without believing a word of what you say, but if you believe in what you’re singing, then body, mind, and spirit come together.”  Friends, I get that… there are moments when I’m singing with the guitar, or else with the choir or in a congregation that there’s this palpable feeling of… well, power… when the words and music we’re singing come together as something real… and something true.  I mean, speaking personally, there are a whole lot of times I’m just trying to get the notes and the chords and the words all in the right order (!)… but then there are the moments I’m singing it like I believe it, because I do!  And when that happens, I suspect you folks also know the difference!

Well, that’s exactly what happens when LOVE is at the center of what all we seek to do to be as Christians and as the church.  Yes, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”   But that love finds its measure in how we bear, believe, hope and endure; the depth of our faith is truly equivalent to the lasting quality of our love for Christ and one another!

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, especially as it involves love, becomes paramount.  But when in our lives we choose to lead with things like kindness, and forbearance, and openness, and acceptance, and generosity, and so much more… then we set the example that others will see – and, we pray – be moved to emulate; and that, dear friends, is how we change the world for the better. Maybe not right away, of course, but eventually… as Paul also says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I only see in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 

Like I said before, it’s all about LOVE – love as God in Christ gives it and intends for it to be given.  May it be said of us today and every day that whatever we say and do was clearly said and done in love; and that you and I were the very embodiment of how faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is LOVE.”

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.


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