January 31 Sermon

Date: January 31, 2016                                                                                                           
Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13                                                                                                 
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS

A fact few church goers seem to know; the earliest written texts in the New Testament are not the four Gospels, they are instead Paul’s letters to various churches. The Gospels came later, which explains the inconsistencies, the differences in the way each tell the same story, in the stories some include while other writers leave out. But Paul’s letters, whether he wrote them himself or they were written in his hand, are an early account of the church growing in large numbers, struggling with conflict (yes they had conflicts too!), and finding new norms for their house churches to live in community.

What is especially interesting to me about Paul’s letters is the pastoral tone. Paul is like a Bishop who visits and writes the churches in his Diocese. Each community struggles in different ways; some have few resources, some have too many resources, some are living in harmony, some are torn apart by division, some argue about worship, some argue about daily practices. In each case Paul inserts himself into the conversation. Because Paul was once Saul he can confess his own shortcomings, show humility, and demonstrate grace and forgiveness. On the other hand because Paul is so sure of who he is now, what he believes now, he can be a tad self-righteous with his listeners. Paul has all the markings of a new believer, he can’t wait to tell you what he has discovered.

But what resonates throughout all of his letters is Paul’s deep love for all these churches. What I like about the letters is how personally involved he is, how he is constantly thinking and praying about these communities of faith. They are truly his sisters and brothers in faith. Each and every community, each and every believer, matters deeply to Paul.

You will recall that two weeks ago I shared with you the letter of chapter 12, where certain members of the church were declaring that their obvious and demonstrative faith was a norm other believers needed to imitate. Otherwise these zealous believers would suggest that the less demonstrative sisters and brothers of the church were lacking in faith. And those without that “noisy” faith also felt they were lacking in some way. So Paul writes them and explains that the church is a like a body, that all members of a body are necessary for the body’s well-being so similarly all parts of the church, all the gifts of the believers, are of equal value, are equally loved by the Creator of these gifts.

This week Paul is still speaking to the church in Corinth but instead of focusing on the equal value of the gifts in this letter he is concerned with the intent of how the gift or ministry is carried out. If Paul has successfully convinced the people that each of them is valued by God for their respective ministry now he has to convince them to carry out these ministries with love and no other motive.

I like how the late William Barclay, a fine scholar of the text, writes that there are gifts of the Spirit but only one motivation in how the gift gets shared in the world and the church. In his commentary on this letter Barclay shares that there are two kinds of preachers (prophecy), that some speak with the kind of love that assumes s/he knows all the answers and thus must give strong medicine to the listener, whether it hurts or not. And then there is another the kind of preacher who can say difficult things to a church, even hard things, but s/he does so with the humility that s/he has her/his own struggles, failings, weaknesses, and thus the hard words are as much for her/him as they are for the listener. As a preacher who has written sermons for 25 years I know well the difference. I remember the one time when I was not happy in ministry. I knew it was time to leave when a colleague called me to say, “Just read your Thanksgiving sermon…can’t say there will be much cause for rejoicing at your church this week.” He was right. Prophecy without love is a loud and clanging gong.

There are also two kinds of charity, or outreach work, there is outreach done with a “grim duty, giving with contempt the other can feel, throwing scraps at the one in need with a smug indifference to the other’s struggle.” And there is outreach work undertaken with “there but for the grace of God go I”, a humility that understands that we are all broken, that we all need help, and part of helping others is just being human. Charity without love is cold, judgemental and cruel.

But we all know there are those moments, those experiences, when our faith breaks through to the other side and we just know…we have touched the eternal, we have loved, we have exercised our ministry in such a way as to connect with the Spirit of Jesus. Paul writes, For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. Corinth was famous for their mirrors. The Corinthian mirror was made of highly polished metal, and even at its best gave but an imperfect reflections. Barclay writes, “In this life Paul feels we see only the reflections of God and are left with much that is mystery and riddle.” We all grope to see the perfect love lived out among us, around the world. We look for it in ourselves, in others, and often it is like one of those Corinthian mirrors, we think we can see it but it is just not clear. It is a mystery, it is a riddle. It is elusive.

But that does not prevent us from seeking that love. New Testament and Jesus scholar N.T. (Tom) Wright says of this passage that the English language has only one word for love but the Greeks had at least three. Philia is the love of friends, eros is the love of lovers and agape is self-giving love. Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock says Paul is referring to agape love in this letter. Craddock reminds us that self-giving love points to something the church calls an eschatological reality. Many use the word eschatology in reference to end times but Craddock says that here Paul is referring to love as that which is eternal, meaning that his version of love lasts forever, beyond death, beyond existence as we know it. There is a permanence, a transcendence, to Paul’s definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13.

Thus when we use love so loosely, when we seek love that lacks such transcendence, we are not doing anything wrong or sinful. But we are not touching that love that animates our lives, we are not feeding our souls in the way we were intended to live as creation. As a good dietician might say, you can eat junk food, you can eat pretty good food but when you taste that heavenly food, that fills us deeply, we will remember that experience forever and ever.

I remember such an experience. At Brunswick Street United Church a few years ago we decided to invite some other small faith communities to come among us and share their stories. One night we had one assistant and three long-time residents from L’Arche Halifax on Russell Street all bus to our little church on a chilly Sunday evening. The assistant Nathan did most of the talking that night, he reflected on what it was like for able-bodied persons to live as sisters and brothers under one roof as one family, sharing in decision making and celebration planning with persons who live with many physical and mental challenges. At one point Nathan turned his head and looked up and pointed to the high pulpit banner, shining white with gold print, “God is Love”. Nathan simply said, “these words have little meaning for our community.” He went on to explain that many of the residents with challenges had heard the word love all their lives; from family, from staff, from teachers, from medical people. And in the end the word love carried with it little more than a sweet tone. There was little to demonstrate that love meant anything other than a warm feeling.

Nathan then told us that there was one word that his community did understand as profound and meaningful, “belonging.” “When people tell us that we belong”, he said, “it means something.” “When someone intentionally uses the word belong s/he means that you are part of us, that you matter, that you have value and that person who is speaking usually backs up that assertion with an act of belonging.”

I think this is exactly what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 13. Ironically the word love often functions in our culture exactly as Paul describes the gifts of Spirit without love, empty and meaningless words. I would argue belonging is the word today that brings life to our gifts, to our ministries, to our mission as a faith-filled people. When we say first to the other, “you belong” it makes everything else we do and say different, meaningful, real. If my preaching does not include the spirit of belonging I am a very noisy gong. If our charity does not include the spirit of belonging it is like throwing scraps at the other. If our churches do not demonstrate “you belong” then our open doors and open arms are a sick joke or worse.

Throughout the Older and Newer Testaments the stories abound of people and communities who demonstrate how others belong; widows, children, refugees, gentiles, Samaritans, the enemy, the unclean, the poor, a babe born in a manger, shepherds who gather their flocks by night, strange Magi from distant lands, even thieves on either side of the Cross, all belong, all matter, all are welcomed in love. Love is real. Love is belonging. Love is right here. Amen.