4th Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2016
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
In our reading from 1st Corinthians today, the Apostle Paul lists what we normally call the “spiritual gifts.” These are important gifts which God has given to his people in order to strengthen our life together.
One tragic thing about people is that we have a tremendously predictable tendency to take God’s gifts and abuse them — use them in a way opposite to what God intended.
The Bible is a continuous record of this. The Garden of Eden was a gift of love to the first people. But rather than receive fullness of life (as God intended) through the abundance of the Garden, they used the gifts of the garden to try to grasp equality with God. They abused the gift of Eden.
God gave Moses the law on Sinai. The law was a gift of love: A gift intended to heal strengthen, and unite the community. Soon, religious leaders found it to be a fabulous instrument to control the community for their own advantage. They abused the law.
God granted to his people the land of Canaan… “the promised land” — a place where God’s wisdom and justice were to take root within the community of his people, and from there grow and be shared with and bless every corner of the earth. It was a gift of love for all creation. But soon greed and selfishness replaced the promise of God’s kingdom. They abused God’s gift of the promised land.
God then gave the people the gift of his word spoken through his prophets. The gift of his word was a gift of love, a gift of life given to a dying society. Once again people were more interested in how this gift could be used to serve their own selfish purposes. They began to make their own prophets so that, rather than listening to and learning from God’s word, they could put their own words into the prophet’s mouth… words that approved their corruption and encouraged their greed. They abused the gift of the prophet.
Finally, God’s gift was himself. The word of God took on human flesh and walked among us in Jesus Christ. His gift was the life and love of his son, and we, quite naturally, put him to a brutal death.
Why are we like this? What is it with us? Why is the pattern so depressingly predictable? It is especially profound to note that the leaders in all of these instances of abuse and misuse of the gifts of God were the holy or “spiritual” people of their day.
It is tragic and discouraging to see and know this plain fact about ourselves — that we have a stubborn, dark nature that constantly defies God and abuses his gifts.
Chapter 13 of 1st Corinthians speaks of gifts given to us by God. The background of this letter is that there was a religious crisis in Corinth. The people of Corinth, just like everyone else, like you and I, had a tendency to misuse God’s gifts, and this tendency had amok.
Chapter 13 is aimed at shattering their distorted ideas of what the gifts of God were about. Everyone was thinking about and talking about the gifts of God in selfish ways.
To Paul, this was a disaster. He was compelled to set them straight.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels… 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.
Only one gift is a treasure in itself — love. Only the gift of love can give value to the other gifts. Everything else is nothing… nothing without love.
Paul does not speak about ordinary love here, but God-love. Ἀγάπη is the Greek word for this love. This is love which comes from God. There is nothing like it in this world.
Ἀγάπη is different from what most people think of as love. It is not the intense, exhilarating stuff which draws two young lovers together. It is not the powerful feeling of a mother as she lays eyes on her newborn. It is not the powerful, heart-wrenching feeling that comes over us when we see images of the suffering poor on T.V.
I know it is not these things because I have seen the powerful stuff between two young lovers disintegrate as quickly as it came together with fights, jealousy, and misunderstanding.
I have see the powerful feelings of a mother for her newborn become tired and turn to neglect and abuse.
I have seen heart-wrenching sympathy for the poor turn to disgust and contempt when the reality of poverty comes up close.
I don’t mean, of course, that these feelings will always be followed by a complete failure to love. Ἀγάπη-love may indeed follow these other feelings, but these other feelings themselves are not love. They are just strong human feelings. They need Ἀγάπη, God-love, to become complete.
The well-known Christian author, C.S. Lewis, once wrote that most of our powerful experiences of love, most of what we interpret to be love, is really just our own “cravings to be loved.”
God-love… ἀγάπη… that is what we were made for and what our lives need. That is what our marriages need, our children… the poor.
Paul helps us understand God-love by describing some of its qualities: “Love is patient; love is kind…; [love] rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Paul also helps us understand God-love by listing what it is not: “Love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong…”
But words about love are not enough to explain what it is… or to bring it into our lives. Just as strong feelings are not enough to bring love into our lives.
What Paul ultimately directs the Corinthians to do… and the Romans, and the Ephesians, and the Galatians… in order to learn what God-love is… he says we must turn our hearts and minds to Jesus Christ. Love doesn’t come from words or feelings; it comes from the living Christ… from the power of God, active in our lives.
Therefore, we are directed to look for this love in scripture, in prayer, in Holy Communion, in the Holy Spirit… through our relationships with one another… for it is there that Christ lives; and it is there Christ loves us in order to make us whole. It is there Christ loves us in order to teach us what love really is and to strengthen us to love him and others as we are called to do.
If we want to learn and know what love is, we need to look to Christ and let him teach us… change us… equip us… for love.
If we want our feelings for another person to grow into love that gives strength… that can sustain and give life and joy to marriage and family… then we need to actively seek that love for our lives.
If we want to become a person whom others can depend on, whose friendships and vocation are filled with meaning and purpose… then we need to seek that love for our lives.
If we want to learn how to love others who are different from us and learn how to share community and life with them… then we need to seek that love for our lives.
If you want love to change your life… change you… and others through you… then you must actively look for this love in God’s word; learn about it, let it change you. And you need to push yourself, out of your comfort zone, to find it in people and places where this love lives and is at work, where you can see it in the flesh with your own eyes, and know first-hand the deep nurture that it gives.
Pushing out of your comfort zone… that can seem like a scary thing to do; but for the sake of Ἀγάπη, God-love, it is what Christ calls all of us to do.
Love is the power that finally gets us out of ourselves and moves us beyond our own fears and cravings. It is the power that frees us to be the people we were created to be… the people we want to be. It is what gives life true strength and growth.
God created us in this love… as a gift. And by his love — Ἀγάπη-love — we are expected to grow up and become adults that are able both to receive and express this love.
This is how God fills our lives… and the whole earth… with a taste of his goodness and glory. This is how all things are given the fullness and joy they were created for.