The Preaching of the Word
First Presbyterian Church
116 South Loudoun Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 1, 2016
“Another Sermon on Love?”
First Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Gospel Reading: Mark 12:28-31
“Not another sermon on love!” groused one of the leaders of a local congregation. She had just seen the pastor’s sermon title and the 1st Corinthian 13 text sent out with the weekly church email. “Another sermon about the ‘shoulds and oughts’ of life that leave us further guilt ridden,” she thought to herself. She knew what a therapist friend of mine is fond of saying, “The shoulds in life will kill you!” She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear another sermon exhorting her to patience and looking the other way. After all, her years on Session had taught her how un-loving some church members can be when differing over issues like budgets, the use of church property and priorities in mission. “How about a sermon on finding peace in a troubled world?” she thought. She considered staying home, but her sense of responsibility as an elder would not let her do so. And so, come Sunday morning, she braced herself as the text was announced and the lector read, “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.”
She had heard this so-called “hymn on love” so many times at weddings. She had been amused and wondered if brides and grooms, lost in their infatuation with and passion for one another, had any idea what the text was calling them to do and be as husband and wife. She knew too well that Paul’s virtues of patience and kindness were critical if marital love was to grow into a mature commitment of life shared together amid the joys and heartbreaks, successes and challenges of life. Kindness, she was pretty good at, but patience was still a work in process. She prayed for it, but like many of us, wanted it right now! She was continuing to learn that God gives us the gift of patience the old fashioned way – over time. It was helpful for her to remember that God was no more finished with her husband than God was finished with her, and that their forty-year old marriage was still very much a work in process.
On the other hand, that long list of things that Paul says love is not was more challenging. Envy came almost as a reflex; what could she do about that? Though she had long learned she could not always have her own way, that did not take away the resentment she felt. It seemed sometimes that she nurtured the resentment for having given in to family, friends and others, so often. To be sure, marriage had taught her the need to bear more than a few things. Her husband was not as perfect as she had initially believed him to be. And so she had learned the need to continue to believe, not only in him, but also in herself, and in their mutual commitments to sharing life together. It was as though this hope and endurance had been the glue that kept them together in those moments when youthful passion was a memory and the challenges of their own human short-comings had tested their life-long vows to love one another. As the reading came to a close, she wondered if the radiant couple had heard a word. Paul’s words are so poetic, so idealistic, they quickly evaporate in the day to day crunch of life.
At the last wedding, where this text was read, she was grateful the minister added a homily and reminded the bride and groom that the infatuation turned to passion that had brought them together was itself a part of God’s design for life and special gift to them. They were to nurture that gift into authentic, mature love, not out of their own resources, but out of the gift that is Christian marriage. They were not simply promising themselves to one another in good times and in bad. That was the essence of civil marriage. But what made Christian marriage different, said the minister, was the presence of a third partner in their relationship – God was the resource that would not fail them when they discovered that they had failed themselves and one another. It was Christ’s presence in them and among them that would give them the power to say the hardest words in the English language: I’m sorry! I was wrong. She remembered speaking with the pastor after the service, and thanking her for speaking so forthrightly. “You told them like it is,” her husband added. “God as third partner had been his experience and the secret behind their marriage. God’s power helped level the rocky moments and brought healing to the broken places.”
Coming back to the present this Sunday morning, she was startled to hear her own pastor begin his sermon saying, “This is not just another sermon on love!” Had he been reading her mind? Surprisingly enough, what he went on to say was remarkably similar to what she was thinking anew about the text.
This is not just another sermon on love! This is about what it means to be Christian and how to be the body of Christ. The love Paul is talking about has nothing to do about romance, which has to do with how the other makes one feel. Nor is this a warm affection to one another based upon mutual care. That is precisely what had broken down in Corinth. The Corinthians were embroiled in a church fight over who was the most spiritual. Which gifts of the Spirit were the most important – faith, wisdom, knowledge, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues? In chapter 12, Paul uses his brilliant image of the human body as a metaphor for life in the church, pressing the point that each gift is important if the body of Christ is to fulfill its God intended function. Each gift, each person, is critical to the health and well-being of the body, which is so interconnected that one part of the body cannot hurt without it having an impact on the rest of the body; ever had a bad back ruin a night’s sleep? Can we disagree with one another? Of course, not one of us has a monopoly on the truth. But we must do so recognizing that the one with whom we are disagreeing is also a part of the body – the body of Christ to whom we are all joined – who we cannot do without lest we do harm to ourselves. Because we cannot do without one another, Paul calls the Corinthians and calls us to the more excellent way of Christian love.
Interestingly Paul never speaks of this love as a gift of the Spirit. In his famous trilogy of the essential components of a vital relationship with God – faith, hope and love – faith and hope are gifts of God’s Spirit. Not so for love. It turns out that love is not a gift of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit. Love is not something given to some of us – like wisdom, knowledge, leadership, administration – while others receive other gifts like teaching, preaching, care-giving or crunching numbers. Love is something that is essential for each of us. It emerges in us as we invest our faith and hope in God, rather than in ourselves or others. This is the more excellent way. We must live beyond ourselves in the sense that we immerse ourselves in the One who is beyond us whose love for us never ends. Only as we plunge ourselves more deeply in God – the source of authentic love – can such love appear in our lives. All other forms of love are ultimately self-serving.
One other thing about this love: only this love is eternal. Gifts are transient. The gift of faith, as important as it is, is a temporary gift. Paul is telling us that there will be a day when we no longer need it – for then, we will know God face to face. We will live in Christ and with God and know God as fully as God knows us, which is even better than you and I know ourselves. Faith is transient; so too is hope. There will come a day when you and I have no need for hope. We cannot truly live without hope now. The gift of hope sustains us in the midst of this world where values and commitments often oppose Christ’s teachings. But on that day when we shall know even as we are now known, there will no longer be any need for hope – for once hope’s object is realized longer need it. But love is different; love is eternal. It is the fruit of being linked to God. It is a way of living that is made possible only by God’s love at work in our lives, the matrix that leads us into the more excellent way.
This is what Paul is pressing us to seek after. For only as we know the love of God in our own lives are we truly able to love one another as we love ourselves. Only as we discover ourselves loved for ourselves alone, and not how useful we might be to another, do we know what it means to be truly loved. And only as we experience such love can we begin to love one another as God loves us. Paul is not telling us that if we manage to perfect patience, if we can discard envy and boasting, arrogance and rude behavior, we will have achieved love. Even if you and I had the resources to do that, that is coming at the task backwards. The only way to abandon irritability and resentfulness, the only way to leave rejoicing in wrongdoing behind, is to know how much God loves us and to live out of that conviction, knowing God loves the other equally as well.
When our faith and our hope fail – and they do fail at times in all of us – God’s love for us never fails, it never ends. Once God’s love is imprinted on our souls the urgency to always be right, the impulse to vaunt ourselves above others, the desire for revenge, simply disappears. It only happens as we center ourselves in the love of God which God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
So, when envy rises up and resentment creeps in, pray. Immerse yourself in the One God who loves all of us. In prayer, you will discover the capacity to love another as you are loved, the ability to forgive another as you have been forgive. You will discover the power to live a more excellent way – the way of love.