Tough Love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

This is the second sermon in our I Corinthians series. Last Sunday, we left the Apostle Paul trying to get the church at Corinth to think and live in a new way—Christ’s way. Although he started churches all around the Mediterranean, Paul had a special relationship with this church in Greece. As their founder and guide, he tried to direct them in their new faith and religious life. They were making many mistakes in how they behaved as a church and in this letter Paul corrected them and tried to help them change how they saw the world. He was changing their lenses from pagan to Christian, from mainstream to unconventional, from self-focused to community focused.

Remember that the Corinthians were new to the Christian faith. The pagan religions were in the majority. Pagan religions did not challenge the status quo of society. If you were oppressed in society, your status did not change when you worshiped. As a matter of fact, the poor were required to worship and sacrifice to the same gods as their masters.

BUT Christ turned everything upside down. When the Corinthians came to know Christ, they learned that everyone was equal in God’s eyes, slaves and their masters. They were told by Paul that everyone should eat together, at the same time and eat the same food. — It was no small task to try to change the mindset of people who had never known anything like this.

The Corinthians continued to bring society’s model of relating to each other– into church life. They claimed some spiritual gifts were more important than others.  They highly valued speaking in tongues and prophecy— speaking in tongues or prophesying was the result of being filled by the Holy Spirit. And since people filled with the Holy Spirit, were obviously closer to God, he or she should definitely have more power and influence in the church. It is a very logical argument – really.

Last week we read that Paul said, you have it all wrong. Everyone has gifts and talents that are given by God. Everyone was given the same measure of the Spirit when they were baptized into the faith. God does not give talents and gifts for the individual; God gives talents and gifts for the up building of the community. Paul said the church is the body of Christ and that just like every part of the body is necessary, so too, every person with various talents and gifts is necessary for the church. In order for the body to function at its best, every part needs to function well. And in order for the church to function at its best, every person must do his or her part. It was the case in Corinth in the first century and it is true at Providence in 2013. Our gifts should be used for God’s purposes, for the benefit of the church, the community, and the world.

In today’s passage from the letter, Paul has continued expounding on the same theme. Listen now as we read 1 Corinthians 13.1-13 together.

Paul is saying all these gifts and talents that we have that are from God – all the talents that we think we are are using to benefit the church are worth nothing if they are not shared in love. The Corinthians were using their talents for acknowledgement and praise, to impress others, to secure power and for heaven points. Paul said when they are used like that they are worth nothing. Giving so as to be noticed, working for the church in order to please God, volunteering to please others, is worth nothing. They were sharing their gifts and talents for the wrong reasons. The sharing and giving should all instead come out of the love we have received from God through Christ – the blessings we bestow should come out of the love that flows from God through our parents – from God through our spouses – from God through friends – we give in love because we were first loved by God–

The love part of our passage today is one of the most well known passages in the Bible. It is read at many weddings– probably many of your weddings. It really is a lovely passage. It is poetic and sentimental. It brings to mind two people who love each other.  It has come to remind many of us of the beauty and magic of weddings. But Paul would be surprised that we associate this passage with weddings. He did not write it about the love between two people. When the Corinthian church members heard this letter for the first time, Paul’s words stung.

Have you ever been sitting in church on a Sunday morning, listening to a sermon and felt convicted? –like the sermon was written for you? The Corinthians were listening to someone reading this letter and realized that Paul was lifting up things that they had been doing. Someone had obviously been talking about them to Paul.

— And what is this love of which Paul speaks, this sacrificial love?

Agape is the word in Greek. It can be the love found in strong marriages and families, but Paul was not talking about marriage or families here. Paul was talking about the love that we must have for the church. Paul was talking about what is required of us as the body of Christ.

Agape is the love embodied most visibly in God’s love for humankind in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This love is not so much a feeling as an action. This is “action speaks louder than words” love.

Starting in verse 4, Paul gives a list of things that love is and love is not. Love is patient and kind. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things – it never ends. Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. It is does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing.

And as beautiful as this passage is, some of the power of Paul’s words have been lost in the translation from Greek to English. The words in Greek that Paul used are action words, not qualities or attitudes. Instead of “love is” — a better translation would be “love acts with patience, love does deeds of kindness.” Paul used 15 ACTION verbs in this section and that action speaks louder than words. The words Paul used to define love were the very things that the Corinthian church was doing and not doing. When the church heard the letter read to them they squirmed in their seats. Maybe they felt ashamed. This was not a sentimental image of love that Paul set before the church 2,000 years ago. Agape love is active and tough, sacrificial and long-suffering.

And unlike money and material things,  gifts and talents, love never ends. It is the one thing that we can give the world that will exist forever. –Forever! –We can build great buildings that may or may not be standing in a thousand years, but not forever. People with money can establish trust funds that will be around for generations, but not forever. There are many things that we can now do that will last a very, very long time, but not forever. The one thing that does last forever is love – love that is given away through what we do and what we say.

In Christ we are known and chosen by divine love. God knew us before we were formed in the womb. We can trust in the divine love that created us and nurtures us. We can trust in the permanence and persistence of that same divine love. And it is in divine love in which we participate as Christians when we actively give of ourselves for the betterment of others – the uplifting of the community, love in action.

When we actively engage in love, we participate in the body of Christ. When we give of ourselves for the benefit of others, in love, the body of Christ, the church, is healthy and fully functioning.

In the gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” As members of the body of Christ we are to actively love each other. Not a sweet, kind love that we hear about in love songs on the radio. Not the sentimental kind of love that we celebrate at weddings. Not the pink and red kind of love that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. As members of the body of Christ, we are to love in a way that gets our hands dirty and makes our backs hurt. We are to love in a way that takes us out of our comfort and safety zone. We are to love in a way that involves justice. We are to love each other in a sacrificial way where the goal is not for ourselves, but someone else—the least of these— who are members of God’s family. —

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister and seminary professor imprisoned and executed by the Nazis for his resistance – his words and actions against Hitler. Bonhoeffer did not simply believe in Jesus Christ. He did not simply preach and teach from the Bible. He did not simply serve bread and wine representing the body of Christ. He actively embodied the living word. He actively loved as a member of the body of Christ.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian minister, author and civil rights leader. He was assassinated for his work working for the equality of all people and his stance against the Vietnam War. He did not only preach and teach from the Bible. He did not simply break the bread and serve the cup which represents the body of Christ. He actively embodied the living word. He actively loved as a member of the body of Christ.

Bonhoeffer and King were both ministers and leaders in movements of peace and justice. But there are regular people who serve out of love too like Cindy who is a white, middle class Christian in her mid 60’s who lives in Lexington. She was born in the hills of rural Tennessee, to a family who did not value education. She was raised in a family and church that did not concern itself with the “civil rights goings on” of the world. Cindy is not a minister or theologian or writer. She is not a seminary professor or well-known. She is not wealthy or powerful.

But Cindy actively gives of herself in love, thinking not of herself, but of others. She works with the homeless in Lexington and calls many of them by name when she passes them on the street. Every Sunday, she brings her mug to church so that she won’t have to use a cup that will then be thrown away. She walks or rides her bike when the weather is favorable. She writes letters and calls her legislators when there is a bill that impacts “the least of these among us.” You will usually find her on the build site for Habitat for Humanity. Cindy takes her faith seriously and the love that she actively gives the world is not easy or sweet and pretty. She gets dirty, she gets tired, she gets overwhelmed and she sometimes cries. The things that Cindy does will not last long, but the love that comes from her actions will be here forever.

Our own Abigail will travel to Central Asia this summer – out of her comfort zone, away from her family and all things familiar. Abigail is ready to get her hands dirty, to work until exhaustion and maybe even to shed a few tears – not for her own good – not for recognition or money, power or fame. Paul said, “faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”