January 31, 2016

1 Corinthians 13

“Practice Love”

The Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians at Corinth are beautiful, but often challenging to hear. The middle section especially is difficult, because when I hear those familiar words again, I become immediately aware of how often my own actions and words have betrayed the love to which I am called:

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

I think of times when I have been grumpy instead of patient. I think of times when I’ve been cruel rather than kind. I think of times when I was more concerned about how I would be perceived than about a situation being resolved. I think of moments of frustration, irritability, and stubbornness, that have not just been a part of my life, but a part of my life this week! There have been times when I have been unwilling to bear with all things. Indeed, I’ve complained, and criticized, corrected and insisted on my own way even when the issue wasn’t all that important.

It’s easy to blame such behaviour on being tired or hormonal, or on the stupidity or ridiculousness of the people around me… but the fact is that I, and we, as Christians are called to work harder at loving, and to do better at loving than we usually do. This is the sin that we are called to identify, and acknowledge, and confess, and correct when we make our prayers of confession every week… the small, perhaps subtle, but pervasive ways that we fail to show love for our families, our co-workers, our neighbours, or the strangers that we encounter.

Perhaps you have found, as I have, that it’s easy to get caught up in negative patterns of criticism and complaint. It’s tempting to start thinking of this behaviour as simply being present to share each other’s concerns and frustrations. You know, my co-worker was upset and someone needed to listen to her. But it can soon develop into terrible insults and complaints about a third party… the kind of thing that you wouldn’t want the person to overhear, and the kind of thing that just isn’t very loving. It isn’t very Christian.

Just think of the Gospel passage that we heard this morning. Jesus has just finished reading from the prophet Isaiah in the context of a Sabbath service in the synagogue of his hometown. And the people dislike his interpretation, and they think that he should be doing some miracles and healings in their town too, just like he’s been doing amazing things in other places.

And rather than just ask Jesus to consider doing some miracles in Nazareth, they get angry. I can imagine one person standing up to complain, and then someone else chiming in, a third guy agreeing with the complaint and raising his voice in anger… and the objections getting louder and louder until the whole synagogue full of people is filled with rage.

And what happened next? “They got up, drove Jesus out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff”!!!

Now, the Corinthian Christians weren’t hurling anyone off a cliff, but their negative patterns and relations were getting out of control as well. Already in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he has talked to them about the problem of their disagreements and divisions. He has scolded them for failing to treat each other with love and respect, and pointed out that even at the community meal, some of them receive plenty to eat, while others go hungry.

In chapter twelve, parts of which we have heard in our Sunday worship over the last two weeks, Paul explains that the members of the Christian community have different gifts, but that all the gifts arise from the same Spirit. In theory, I think that concept is easy to accept. We know there is diversity in the Christian community. We know that some people have some gifts, and others have other gifts, and we know (in theory) that all the gifts and the members are needed and valued.

But, in practice, it’s more difficult than that. When someone wants to approach a problem in a different way. When someone doesn’t meet our expectations for organization, or clarity, or creativity. When someone challenges us to change, or to make space for difference, we may want to dig in our heals and insist on our own way.

In chapter twelve, Paul encourages the Corinthians to recognize the variety of gifts and remember that each one is valuable. Like the human body cannot function without a full complement of various parts… head, hands, feet, ears, eyes, etc… the Christian Church needs all of its diverse members with their diverse perspectives, patterns, and gifts in order to be whole and complete.

But after reminding the church about the diversity that is essential to its unity, Paul tells the Corinthians that he will show them a still more excellent way to be the Church of Christ together. Ideally, we would all be able to see clearly enough on any given day to recognize the giftedness of our neighbours in the church community, and celebrate the wonder of our diverse and necessary gifts.

But the fact is that sometimes we just have to put up with each other… we have to bear with each other… showing patience and kindness, and avoiding rudeness and irritability… until the gifts (rather than the shortcomings of the other) are revealed.

As you probably know, this chapter all about love (1 Corinthians 13) is a favourite passage to be read at weddings. And whenever I preach on it at a wedding, I find myself reminding everyone that Paul wasn’t talking about romantic love when he wrote it. It’s not that the passage is inappropriate for a wedding, but the point is that the love Paul is challenging us to enact in all our relationships is not just a feeling, but it is a committed action.

In a pastoral reflection on the passage, Lewis Galloway explains that the character of love that Paul talks about is agape love – “the love embodied most visibly in God’s love for humankind in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This love is not in the first instance a feeling, but an action. This love seeks not its own good, but the good of the one who is loved.”

Married couples will do well when we remember what kind of love we are called to express to our partners – not just when we are dating, or when we are sharing a romantic evening – but in the midst of the daily challenges of life, when we’re tired or hormonal, when life is busy and hectic, when stresses and strains are pulling us in different directions, and when we’re not at our best.

And the same thing is true for the Christian community. If the church was just a place where we gathered on Sunday mornings… if it was just an event that we planned to attend by putting on our Sunday-best clothes, and pasting on our Sunday-best smiles, and preparing to participate in our Sunday-best conversations… then Paul’s admonition to love one another probably wouldn’t be so difficult.

But the Christian community is much more than that. We are God’s people working together and worshipping together, praying for and caring for each other, striving together to enact God’s purpose in this place and beyond by bringing together our gifts, and ideas, and efforts into one coordinated mission.

And those who immerse themselves in this community and commit themselves to our common mission see each other at our best and at our worst. We do not stay home when we’re tired or grumpy or frustrated – and we’re not supposed to stay away just because we’re not perfect yet!

Indeed, it is in the imperfect Christian community, surrounded by our imperfect neighbours and friends, and aware of our own imperfect selves, that we are given the opportunity to learn how to love one another. We learn patience because some of us are slower. We learn kindness because some of us are in need. We learn humility because there are others here with amazing gifts to astound us. We learn not to insist on our own way because we meet and get to know people who are different and discover that their ways have value as well.

In his pastoral role, Paul admonishes and exhorts the Corinthian Christians with a simple command: practice love. Love is not another spiritual gift, but it is the way in which God intends us to practice all of our gifts.

When I think about the people in our church community, I am thankful for the variety and depth of the gifts that we possess… great faith, deep commitment, amazing leadership skills, diligent organizational ability, creative thinking and writing, teaching and serving. But whatever gifts we have – whether we can sing, or pray, or give generously, or take the most precise minutes of a Presbyterian committee meeting anyone has ever seen – if we do not have love, our gifts are worth nothing.

Paul presents quite a challenge to the Corinthian Christians in chapter 13, and it is quite a challenge for us as well… bearing all things, enduring all things. This is hard stuff. It’s hard to do it in our families, and it’s hard to do it in our church families, and it’s hard to do it with our neighbours and our colleagues too.

The reality is that we’re not going to get it perfectly right on this side of heaven. Almost every week, we’ll probably be able to cast our minds back over the last seven days and identify a number of times when we fell short, getting irritable, resentful, or even rude. But it’s still where we need to keep aiming.

And we need to keep trusting that if we turn to God, and listen to God’s Spirit, and ask for God’s help, that we’ll be able to do far more and far better than we imagined. It is the gift of God’s Spirit in our hearts that will keep on working in us, and keep on working on us until we see God face to face.