Prepared for and preached at First Presbyterian Church in Apopka. Primary Text I Corinthians 13. I am thankful for Dr. Lyle VanderBroek’s reflections on Paul, community and the church in Corinth in Breaking Barriers.
Before we dive into the passage for today, I want us to back up for a moment and recap our conversation last week about the verses leading into this portion of Paul’s letter. By using the image of a body to describe the way the people come together as church, Paul points out the reality and the importance of diversity. In the process, he made clear the ways that being one body in Christ make the church’s way of living countercultural.
Rather than seeking power in order to put others in their place, we are called to mutual submission. Instead of choosing some to honor and others to shame, we are called to treat all as worthy of honor, and to acknowledge the gifts that each member is given to build up the body.
The diversity of gifts and experiences and backgrounds in the body come together to assure there is completeness, shalom and community. This means we really are better together. Even though the coming together and staying together can get really messy. The human tendency toward hierarchy, cliques and schism is as prevalent inside the church as it is outside. We find it hard to maintain unity without expecting (and sometimes requiring) uniformity and unanimity.
Thus, Paul’s image of the body can and should be read in two ways:
First, we are like a body made up of diverse and divergently gifted members, each empowered by the Spirit to care for and to build one another up.
And second, we are the Body of Christ, the embodiment of Christ, reflecting the grace, love and power of God as we carry the Good News into the world.
Paul closed what we’ve designated as the 12th chapter by encouraging the Corinthians to engage the gifts of the Spirit as they are given. And he even encourages them to go ahead and seek after the greater gifts, as they do have benefit to the body. But then he sets us up with a big transition.
There is a still more excellent way, about which he wants to tell us. That’s where we were left hanging. But now we’re seen the big reveal. That more excellent way is love.
As he begins this portion of the letter, Paul makes it clear that love is not a gift of the Spirit like those he named earlier. Instead, love is a practice. A spiritual discipline. A way of being.
In fact, as a way of being, love is what sets us apart as children of God. By that, I mean that love is the basic foundational practice on which all of the Christian life is based. It paves the way for and governs the use of the varied gifts that the Spirit gives. It paves the way for and governs the relationships we experience as we come together in community.
A good question to ask at this point might be – Why does Paul need to describe this way of being to a gathering of Jesus-followers? The reasons are likely to sound familiar. The laundry list of concerns that Paul addresses in this letter (as well as the other letters collected in the New Testament) certainly persist today.
We still ask…
- Who are the truly faithful theologians and leaders in the larger church?
- Who gets to be ordained to lead in the local church?
- What should happen in worship?
- What kinds of behaviors/sins are sufficient to cause one to be removed from fellowship?
- How do we best use/invest/save/share the resources we have together?
- Who does God expect us to welcome?
- How are we supposed to interact with the culture around us?
- What do we believe Jesus meant about eternal life and who will experience it?
I’ll be honest, even as I started scribbling these questions on a notepad this week, I could feel the tension rise in my own body. See, you don’t know me very well. And I don’t know you very well. This is the nature of being a visiting preacher.
I don’t know where you stand – individually or as a congregation – on the difficult cultural and ecclesial controversial topics of our time. If we are not in agreement on these issues, I could very easily step – or even stomp – on somebody’s toes from right here in the pulpit.
But here’s the thing. If I trust Paul on this, I honestly shouldn’t care where you stand. Because there is a more excellent way to live than politeness. There is a much more excellent way to be the church than to create and fill out checklists that determine who gets to be in and who should be out.
In other words, I don’t have to care if our checklists would match up.
I can love you regardless.
You can love me regardless.
Whether you get your news from NPR, CNN, Fox News or MSNBC. Whether you root for Florida State or Florida… or even the evil Longhorns. I can love you.
Love is, after all, patient and slow to anger. We can sit and listen, with no other agenda than to understand what is important to one another.
Whether you love the sinner and hate the sin, are evolving on the matter of same-gender marriage or if there is someone in your family who is alive today because you chose not to reject but to wholeheartedly embrace them… I can love you.
Love is, after all, kind and does not require having its own way every time. I can trust that you and God are in conversation and that you are faithfully seeking God’s will and the Spirit’s guidance, even when my conversations with God guide me differently.
And I can, if I practice love, even walk out to the parking lot and be perfectly happy getting into my car. Though I must confess, it’s much easier to be jealous of the people who drive something newer, prettier, and more reliable than my vehicle. And, even as old and sad as my poor car is, I can still manage to be prideful when I see a car that’s older and sadder.
It sounds petty, doesn’t it, this car jealousy. But this is one way our culture really does undermine our ability to love. We are so steeped in marketing that we don’t even notice when “Why don’t I have one of those….” slips into “She doesn’t deserve that…. I do“ until after the damage is done. When jealousy and pride take center stage, community gives way to competition… over stuff, status, even people.
And yet, love can endure. Love does endure.
There is love that can endure all things – from small misunderstandings to really ugly arguments. Love that can endure separation- whether due to illness or a change in living arrangements. Love that hopes the best and believes the best, even for those who believe the worst in return. Love that seeks out what others need, even at the risk of losing something, or someone of great value.
That love is as disciplined in steadfastness as it is extravagant in generosity. It draws strength from faith and hope… and it boldly bears the image of God into the world.
Our psalm this morning must have been written for corporate worship, or perhaps also as a tool for teaching young ones about God. You probably noticed all the repetition, the pattern of call and response.
I can hear almost hear a rabbi or canter singing out, line by line, the story of creation, of the exodus and of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. And in between each line, the people sing out the refrain: For his steadfast love endures forever.
Over and over, this truth is repeated by people who need the reminder: God’s steadfast love endures forever.
I discovered something as I looked at that refrain this week. Because of the way Hebrew sentences are structured, the most literal, word-for-word of that refrain is beautiful in its simplicity.
God’s lovingkindness is forever.
God’s love is.
God’s Love always was. Because God was.
God’s Love is now. Because God is.
God’s Love always will be. Because God will be.
And… In our humanity, even with all its brokenness and messiness, love can be.
Because God’s love is. Because God is.
Love must be. Because God love is. Because God is with us.
Love must be. Because Christ is in us.
Practicing love, doing the hard work of staying in community – rejoicing when others rejoice, weeping when others weep, seeking out and healing the wounded, calling out for help when we are left behind or dishonored…
In all these ways and many more, practicing love is a worthy pursuit. Not only for the good of the Body, but because our love is our witness to the world about the existence, purpose and love of God.
Practicing love is an answer to prayer. Not only to Paul’s prayers for the church, but the prayer of Jesus on the very night that he was betrayed. John’s gospel tells us that when he prayed that night, he prayed for the disciples he knew best, the ones he had travelled with for three years. And then he went on to pray…
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
That’s us, though I don’t know how many generations of people believing and then telling and believing and telling to bring the believing and telling to us, here, today.
I pray that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Did you catch the so that? The unity he prays for – that we may be one, just as Jesus was and is one with God the Father – is not just for our sake, but so that the world might see love and know of God’s love for them. Not just putting up with one another, though…
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
In every generation, the church has faced the challenge of staying together, much less perfectly together, when the world and our own human nature would drive us apart. As we cling to our faith in Christ and our place our hope in the power of the Holy Spirit in this time and place, I pray that we might practice love in a way that reflects the enduring, powerful and extravagant love of God. Amen.