February 3, 2019

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

“The Demands of Love”

I’m looking forward to next Sunday evening at First Church, and our “Celebration of Love” fine dining event. I think it’s going to be a lovely evening to support a good cause – our refugee sponsorship initiative – and to celebrate the gift of love. In the early stages of planning for a Valentine’s Day-themed dinner, we were talking about the program and I suggested that we include some love poetry, in addition to the music and dance that would be the highlights of the entertainment.

I’m no expert on poetry, but I thought of “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And then I thought of Robert Burns’ poem that begins “My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June. My love is like the melody that’s sweetly played in tune.”

But I am a Christian minister, not a poet, so the next thing that came to mind was not exactly a poem. Although it is poetic. It was our Epistle reading today from 1 Corinthians 13 – the love chapter. I’ve preached on that chapter many times, and most of them were at weddings. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude… [Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

I usually explain that the passage wasn’t intended for a wedding or a Valentine’s Day dinner, and it’s not really about romantic love. It was written by the Apostle Paul to a church community that was experiencing conflict and strife. It was an encouragement to the people of the church to care for each other and stay faithful to each other through problems and difficulties, and to do the active work of loving each other even when they didn’t like each other.

It’s good advice for church families, good advice for nuclear families, and good advice for couples after the wedding day, and five years later, and twenty-five years later. Because we know that love demands more than yielding to romantic feelings that make our hearts melt when we see that special someone. Love demands patience, and kindness, and self-giving, and faithfulness that carries us through the difficult times.

Certainly, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 call us to love our sisters and brothers in Christ, even when it is difficult to do so. And it’s easy to apply that same advice to the ways we love and care for our families and our close circles of friends. But as Christians, we know that the Gospel calls us to go even further, demanding more of our love.

The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, was to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Not just our spouse, our kids, our crazy uncle, and our friends from church. We are commanded to spread that love further to our neighbours down the block and across the street.

And when someone asked Jesus about “Who exactly is my neighbour?” it quickly became clear that neighbours are not just people like us. Our neighbours include outsiders, foreigners, people from different cultures and religions, and people with whom we wouldn’t typically spend time or get to know.

I currently have a neighbour who regularly clears the snow behind our garage and occasionally our front sidewalk too. Although I don’t know him too well yet, so far I’m not finding him hard to love at all. But Jesus said in another place that we should love even our enemies… even the neighbours who ignore us, or who disturb us with their loud music, or let their dogs poop on our lawn, or yell at our kids when they’re playing outside. “Love is not irritable or resentful… It bears all things, endures all things…”

Now, when Jesus said, “Love your neighbours, love your enemies, love the foreigners and the outsiders among you…” it wasn’t a new idea. These were foundational commandments of the Jewish faith that he learned from his parents and community and embraced in his way of life.

What Jesus did that was new, I think, was to begin to live out the commandment to love more fully and faithfully than anyone had seen before, fulfilling the demands of love in a way that no one had imagined was possible.

In our Gospel text last Sunday, we heard about Jesus standing up in his hometown synagogue and reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah about the Jubilee. That’s the Jewish practice of mercy and grace to those in need through a redistribution of wealth and land that is to take place every fiftieth year. Those who have lost land, who suffer from poverty, or have to serve as slaves to others for the basics of life, are given a fresh start with the Jubilee.

They haven’t done anything to deserve their debts being forgiven. But God’s way is to love unconditionally, and to forgive graciously, and God’s commandment to his People is that they care for one another in that same way. Those who have become rich and have plenty must give some back at the Jubilee so that others have their needs filled. That’s what love demands.

When Jesus preached in the synagogue he talked about the Jubilee, and then he said that it was going to be fulfilled in him. It was time for the redistribution. It was time for the poor, the lost, and the lonely to be raised up. It was time for the well and the wealthy to use their resources for others. That’s what love demands.

Did you notice in this morning’s reading (after Jesus talks about the Jubilee) that the people respond quite positively to his words. They speak well of him at first, thinking perhaps that he was bringing good news for them.

One commentary suggests that the crowds would have understood very well what Jubilee was all about: lifting up the lowly, a “reset” for society as a whole… as Simeon put it a couple of chapters ago, “the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” In other words, the crowds may realize there will be winners and losers in the new era, since Jubilee includes a re-leveling of privileges – and they assume their hometown status will give them an inside track to the winners’ circle.

But Jesus seems to sense this presumption, and he brings it out into the open. He rebukes them by referencing two stories of prophets who bless not insiders but outsiders.

First, he talks about Elijah who performed the miracle of producing an unending supply of food. But while all kinds of people were suffering from a famine in the land, Elijah chooses to help only a poor, foreign widow. Then, he talks about Elisha who performed the miracle of healing for a man with leprosy. But while there were plenty of lepers in Israel during that time, the one who is healed by the prophet is Naaman the Syrian – not only a foreigner, but the commander of an enemy army.

Jesus, himself, hadn’t even begun his miracles of feeding and healing, but it was becoming quickly clear to his community that he was going to be healing all the wrong people. This is what made the people of the synagogue so angry. They were looking for good news and grace for themselves, and what they heard was good news and grace for everyone else.

The people were “filled with rage” because Jesus proclaimed a grace that was wider and more generous than they were. Grace is more difficult to really embrace than we often assume. We are happy when the “right” people are forgiven, accepted, or healed, but we’re not so sure that we want those things extended to people outside our favoured circles, or that we want to extend that grace ourselves.

Jubilee is a redistribution and a leveling out of things. So, if some of our enemies are receiving grace and a fresh start, that means that some of us are the ones needing to grant it to them. That’s what love demands.

Earlier this week, I was watching Steven Colbert, as I sometimes do. And talking with a left-leaning U.S. politician, they were discussing the proposal that there be a significant tax increase on the rich, with those in the upper brackets being required to give about 70% of their income.

While the audience was pretty enthusiastic about this possible change, likely most of them wouldn’t be wealthy enough to be personally affected by it. But Stephen Colbert would be affected, and he named that fact. He joked a bit about it, feigning concern that this politician was suggesting that he give 70% of his income to taxes. But it was also clear that he actually approved of such measures. I expect that, as a Christian, he would agree that it’s what love demands.

The people of Nazareth had a much more negative reaction when they realized that the Messiah they saw in front of them was not just focused on raising them up and conquering their enemies, but that he was calling them to love their enemies, and welcome and include even those who had rejected or excluded them.

We can imagine that the rage they express when they get up, drive Jesus out of town, and try to hurl him off a cliff, is fueled by anxiety and anger about the possibility of being passed over or left behind themselves. I expect that a lot of situations in our world in which people show hatred, discrimination, and violence against other racial, ethnic, or religious groups is rooted in fear of losing a privileged position, and being pushed to the margins ourselves.

This week, for example, marked two years since the shooting in a Quebec City mosque – one of so many examples of hate and intolerance in our society. And the Presbyterian Church in Canada, together with other faith groups and people of good will, is advocating that January 29th be established as a National Day of Action Against Hate and Intolerance. In response to hatred, we need to do even more to promote love, respect, and inclusion of all people regardless of religion, culture, or race.

The Moderator of our Church, the Rev. Daniel Cho, wrote about the National Day of Action saying this: “Love isn’t meant to fit neatly into our personal lives or comfortably in our narrow social circles only. The demands of God’s love are unequivocal – more love to all!”

And yes, it takes faith to love like that. It takes courage to advocate for the well-being of others, and to trust that we also will be okay… to participate in God’s plan of extending grace to the outsiders, even when it means the insiders will need to give of themselves a little more.

But we must note that Jesus’ brief references to Elijah and Elisha caring for the outsiders don’t need to be taken as a rejection of the insiders. As we’ve seen and will see again and again, Luke’s vision for salvation is universal – and accordingly, the stories of Elijah and Elisha can just as easily be read as emblems of God’s love reaching beyond conventional limits.

Indeed, if we listen to Jesus through the trusting ears of love, we can hear the good news of the Great Jubilee, addressed first and foremost to the most vulnerable, and at the same time to the whole human community, Jews and Gentiles alike, and the whole creation besides.

Today’s Scripture texts remind us that love has heavy demands, but also great benefits. We know this from our experiences of committing to marriage, and parenting, and even friendship. Love is not just about happy, romantic feelings, but it demands a great deal from us, and makes us vulnerable too. But if we enact it in our relationships, we build relationships of love and we are deeply blessed.

And I believe the same thing is true when we respond to God’s call to extend that love beyond friends and family to our neighbours, and foreigners, and even our enemies. When we show respect, patience, kindness, and care – even when it is not earned or deserved – we begin to build communities of love, and the Kingdom of God begins to grow.

So, let’s rejoice in the love God has for us and has shown us in Jesus Christ. And let’s commit ourselves once more to the “demands of love” not only for our friends, and families, and church families, but for those outside – for those most vulnerable, for those rejected and excluded, for those who experience hatred and discrimination.

God has called us to love, and that’s what love demands.