BIBLE READING: 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 Luke 4:21-30
There is something deep within us that knows love is the most important thing. It's true that it gets overlooked in our hectic pace of life, and it's easily forgotten amidst the many priorities vying for our attention. But in the truly significant moments of our lives, it always comes to the fore.
There is a line in the movie 'Love Actually' that reminds us of this. The movie explores the different ways that love takes shape in our relationships. In the opening scene Hugh Grant's character says that whenever he is depressed he imagines the arrival section at Heathrow Airport. There love seems uncomplicated as people receive and embrace the ones they love. As he reflects on this, he adds, "When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love."
We know how important love is. We know that it is the key to relationships. We know that it is what gives meaning to life. And we all live in the hope that our lives will be filled with love.
The context of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians was a church divided against its self. A Church where love seemed to be struggling, if not absent altogether! Various factions followed different teachers, and the variety of spiritual gifts endowed by the spirit were used as a means to rank members on some imaginary scale of spirituality. If you were truly spiritual, each group might say, you would share our gifts, and accept our opinions.
One doesn't have to look far within the Christian Church today to discover that we haven't progressed as Christians much beyond the points of contention prevalent in Corinth. All of the major denominations are stuck in a spiral of political and rhetorical argument and blame. Some of the major issues are the ordination of homosexuals. In other instances, it is whether women should be ordained, or whether priests may marry and rear children. In still others, it is whether there should be some test of fundamental truths that people should be required to believe in order to be called Christians. In every case, there are sides that claim to "love" the church and define their love in terms of their actions - to love the church, for example, means keeping bad people out; or, to love the church means ensuring that all people are welcome, just to name a few examples.
The Apostle Paul is trying to share his wealth of experience with the church at Corinth. On the one hand, he's angry at their lack of understanding, and they're having a difficult time understanding precisely because they think they already understand. They believe they have already been enlightened. They believe they have already received the truth. They believe they have already arrived. Paul is as frustrated as a parent with a teenager who already knows everything, or, at the least, is firmly convinced that mum and dad don't know anything at all about the way life is today.
This, says Paul, is precisely what God has done for us - we have broken God's heart with our rebellions, our complaints, our judgements against neighbours, and our assumptions about our chosen status.
Listen! Paul cries out, his own heart breaking for the sake of the church at Corinth, you must be willing to do for others what God has done for you!
Paul then lists the character traits of love. In our translations, it's difficult to see what Paul is saying, because it looks like a list of nouns or adjectives, i.e., patience, kindness, not envious, boastful, or rude. But in the Greek, Paul is citing a list of verbs: bear with one another in patience; be kind to one another; don't envy others, or boast about your own gifts, or treat others who are not like you with rudeness - respect them, even if you don't understand them, because you know only in part, you see only in part.
One of the problems of Corinth was that people would show up for the feast of love on the Sabbath, and they would eat out of their own picnic baskets with their own kind. "Hey!" Paul says, "Wait for one another. Eat with one another. Share with one another. Grow up together into the body of Christ that God has called you to become!" Apart from a willingness to listen to one another, Paul says, you have no hope of understanding one another.
We are called out of our lives as we know them and into the life of Christ that we have yet to come to know. We know only in part. We are on a journey of love with one another, learning first, to stand one another, then, to understand one another, and finally, to stand with one another. This is the kind of community the world desperately seeks, and only we can offer it.
But that's the issue - we can't offer it. We can't offer it because this kind of love is humanly impossible. It is beyond our human capacity for love to love everyone as Christ has loved us. Yet Paul's whole point about love is that "it never ends." Obviously, Paul is talking about God's love for the very humanity in which, as Solzhenitsyn describes it - "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." Paul's point is precisely that God continues to bear with us, to be kind to us, believing in us, hoping in us, and in spite of our daily failures to return the quality of love that God offers, to endure us.
In some sense, God has had to learn how to stand us. In Christ, God has come to understand us, sharing our stories, and sharing God's story. In Christ, God has chosen to stand with us, to journey with us, and to love us throughout the journey of our lives, whether we deserve it or not.
It is only when we come to the place in our lives that we can acknowledge God's love for us has exceeded all we have deserved that we can learn to love others, to forgive others, and to hope for the best in others. Apart from that starting place where we look honestly at ourselves, and see ourselves for what we are, we can never see God for who God is - a love that journeys with us, that will not let us go. Let us so love one another.
Michael Boss tell this story of the transforming power of love... “I remember when my aunt and uncle used to take in foster children. Some of them came from very frightening situations. They had been subject to things that no one should ever experience, let alone as a two or three year old. My aunt and uncle always had the same priority with every child: love on them. It was amazing to see how this love would give birth to something new in a child's life. It wasn't always immediately evident, and there were always surprises along the way, but their love always introduced new beginnings into their lives.
As one of the children blossomed, he even gave birth to new life in our church. He was sitting on my aunt's lap, and after the choir performed, he clapped. Now in our church no one ever clapped or showed emotion. We were God's frozen chosen. Yet his little clap set off a round of applause, and our church was never the same! Little did my aunt and uncle know that their journey of love would lead to this.”
In all of this we see that though love may give birth to something new, we don't control or fully understand where the journey of love will take us. It is filled with twists and turns, and it will have highs and lows. We won't always see the results of our love. Paul tells us that we only "see dimly" and "know in part," but what we do know is that we should always have the hope that any love shared is never in vain. Though it may not always be evident, love always nurtures new possibilities within us and between us.
Acknowledgements: Rev M Boss; Rev M Phillips