Monday, February 1, 2016

A More Excellent Way

I Corinthians 13:1-13
January 31, 2016

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

There are no words to describe how much I hate that song. I. Can't. Stand. It. When I was much younger and working in youth ministry, it seemed like at every youth retreat, every campfire sing-a-long, someone would start with that song. Then every one gathered, youth and adults alike, would begin to sing. It got to the point that when I would hear the first chords being strummed on a guitar, I wanted to stick a burning marshmallow in my mouth so I would have an excuse not to join in. I haven't done youth ministry in quite a while now, so perhaps they have moved onto other musical selections. I hope so.

I don't mean to offend anyone. It's not that it is a bad song per se. It has a nice message. It certainly ties in with what we've been hearing from Paul's letter to the church in Corinth. We are all one in the Spirit. We are all one body with many members. We are called to live in unity one with another. So let's pray that one day that unity will be restored. But the hallmark of our identity should be our love. And they'll know we are Christians by our love.

This is actually a powerful message. But this song was sung so much that I'm not sure anyone even heard that message anymore. It just become a nice song to sing at campfires. It no longer held any meaning. I worry that this is true for chapter 13 in 1 Corinthians.

"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."

Paul's lyrical words have been used so often that I'm afraid we no longer hear them or even begin to comprehend their meaning. Second perhaps to John 3:16, I suspect that these are some of the most famous, well-known words of scripture. There are references to I Corinthian 13 in movies like Wedding Crashers and in television shows such as How I Met Your Mother. Paul's language about love is the go-to scripture reading for weddings. Paul was not writing in reference to romantic love, but certainly these words describing love are applicable to a couple setting out on a life together. Who doesn't need to be reminded about what love is and about what it isn't?

But again, Paul was not writing to young couples. He was writing to a church in conflict. The Corinthian church was a contentious church. There was infighting, bickering, posturing and jostling for prestige. The whole of chapter 12 was a reminder to that church that they were not in just any community, they were gathered in the name of Christ. They were a church which meant that they were the body of Christ in the world. Their life together was supposed to be a revelation of Christ. But everything they were doing and saying, and the way they were living was revealing the opposite.

At the end of chapter 12, at the close of this stunning metaphor about the body, Paul teased them with these words, "And I will show you a still more excellent way."

That way is love, and just when you think Paul's prose can't get any better, it does.

"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. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

As tired as I am of the song, "They Will Know We are Christians," I cannot get enough of "Though I May Speak," the anthem sung by the choir this morning. This hymn, both in its melody and lyrics, captures the beauty of Paul's words like nothing else I have ever heard. I'm tempted to say that if we were to sing this hymn one more time, that would be sermon enough for today. But there's one problem. As beautiful as this hymn is, it still does not convey the full impact of Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians. Why? Because I think there is an edge to Paul's words, and the English translations and the songs they inspire do not capture that edginess.

Paul was writing to a church in conflict. He was exhorting these people who did not get along, and did not agree on what a real follower of the Way was supposed to do and look like and be, to see themselves and the church in an entirely new light. Paul's words are beautiful, but that beauty belies their passion. Our translations of Paul's statements about love make them seem to be a description of what love is, but in reality I think they are meant to show what love does.

Let's replace is with different verbs. Love practices patience. Love acts with kindness. Love does not seethe with envy or crow with boasting. Love shows humility not arrogance. Love speaks with courtesy not rudeness. Love does not sulk with irritation or resentfulness.

Paul's description of love takes on a new meaning, doesn't it? As I've said in many other sermons, love in this sense is not a feeling or an emotion, it is an action. It is a verb. Considering the context of this letter, it stands to reason that Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that this active love was not reserved only for people for whom they felt love. If we are one body, but many members, and that body is the incarnation of Christ in the world, then we must actively love others -- all others.

Even more, if the gifts we have been given are not grounded in this kind of active love, then they are wasted. If I can preach with passion and compassion to you, people I love, but I cannot preach with that same passion and compassion to people I don't love, then I'm not fully living my gift. As one commentator said, "Love is not a gift of the Spirit; it is a fruit of the Spirit." And if I am interpreting Paul with some clarity, then it is the fruit of the Spirit.

All of our gifts, all of our abilities, all of the ways that we make up the body of Christ should produce love. They should resonate with love. They should demonstrate and embody and personify love.

It seems to me that this chapter, which at first seems to be a thematic break with the preceding chapters, is actually the exclamation point. We cannot let the lyrical and poetic quality of Paul's words distract us from their emphatic passion. These words have an edge.

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals or angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal!" Do you understand?

"And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I. Am. Nothing!" Nothing! Do you get it?

Love is the more excellent way. But excellent does not equate to easy. Loving as Paul describes is not easy. It requires more of us than we sometimes want or feel able to give. We must love those who hurt us and persecute us. We must love those who hate us and seek to destroy us. We must love not only those we don't like, but those who seem most unloveable.

Love is the more excellent way. But excellent does not equate to a burden either. I hope that none of us leave here today thinking, "Great! I have to go and love that person I can't stand. Why does God ask this of me?" No, loving in this way is not easy, that is true. But as hard as it is for me to love other people, I know that it can be equally as hard to love me. None of us are perfect, in our loving or in our living. But none of us our unloveable either. That song I don't like proclaims that "they will know we are Christians by our love." If we take Paul's words to heart, then this is not just a statement dripping with false piety. It is a call to action. It is a call to do. It is a call to witness through word and deed the more excellent way. Let us follow that way. Let us love.

Let all God's children say, "Alleluia!"

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