Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
So how many of you are sitting there thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about our second lesson from Corinthians? It is one of the most often quoted passages of the entire Bible, and usually for feel-good purposes. It is also used frequently at weddings. Everyone loves this passage. Even people who aren’t Christian love it, quoting it often. And, you know what, sometimes we all just need a warm and fuzzy feel-good message about love. That can be very important. But especially in today’s climate, I think it’s really important to realize that this is not a warm-and-fuzzy passage designed to make people feel good. This passage is a condemnation, a challenge, and a call to action.
See, the thing is, this passage was written to the church in Corinth. And it was not written as a reflection on how loving that congregation was. Quite the opposite. This passage was designed to point out everything the Corinthians were not. See, the Corinthians were pretty messed up. Paul wrote more to the Corinthians than to any other church he founded, and it wasn’t because he loved them so much. I mean, he did love them, but he wrote to them because they were the worst. If there was a way to get something wrong, they would do it. If there was a way to screw up worship, or theology, or the working of the Holy Spirit, or community, or anything else, the Corinthians would find that way. They were a bunch of arrogant, selfish, prideful jerks who would find any excuse to attack and belittle their fellow Christians. As much as we mourn for how divided and unloving modern American churches can be, the Corinthians were at least that bad and quite possibly worse.
They created divisions based on gender, race, and class, treating some people better than others based on the social distinctions of the world around them. They judged people based on how flashy and flamboyant their spiritual gifts were. And from Paul’s words, it’s quite clear that they were not judging those gifts based on how useful they were in spreading God’s Word and God’s mission. No. They treated the gifts of the Holy Spirit as personal playthings for self-aggrandizement, and then tried to shame and belittle those whose gifts were less publicly visible. That’s why, in last week’s lesson, Paul was trying to get them to see that no gift is more important than another and that the important part is how we work together as one Body in Christ. Right? Paul’s been talking about this for a while, by the time we get to the love chapter which is today’s lesson. Nobody is better than anybody else, and all are needed together. As Christians, we are not supposed to see through the eyes of the world, but through God’s eyes, and remember that we are all children of God and members of Christ’s body together. It’s not about individual heroic Christians, it’s about all Christians coming together and being made one in Christ.
And then, after talking about how we all need each other as members of the body and no person or spiritual gift is more important than any other person or spiritual gift, that’s when Paul talks about love directly. And it’s a continuation of everything that he’s been saying. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels,” he says. Well, speaking in tongues is one of the spiritual gifts the Corinthians have been fighting about. Prophetic powers—that’s another gift the Corinthians have been fighting about. But Paul says that all those awesome gifts of the Holy Spirit that they are so keen to fight over and use as an excuse to snub and humiliate others are useless without love. The more they fight, the more they scheme, the more they puff themselves up and try to cut others down, the further away from Christ they go. All of those powers are useless without love.
And when Paul talks about love, he’s not talking about love as a state of emotion. Oh, no. That’s a modern delusion, to think about love as being mostly about how you feel about someone or something. No, in Paul’s day love was a verb. It was an action. And it might be truer to the Greek original text to translate this passage in a way that makes that more clear: “Love acts with patience, love acts with kindness, love does not act jealous.” The love that Paul is talking about is not about sitting around thinking nice thoughts. And it is certainly not about mouthing platitudes about how of course you love someone while stabbing them in the back or ignoring their needs. No. For Paul, love is about actively working for the good of others. Love is about actively choosing to do something that will help others even if you receive no benefit from it. Love is about actively choosing what kind of a person you are going to be and how you are going to treat the people around you. And then actually following through and doing something about it.
Humans are not good at loving. Or rather, we’re not good at loving people who are different than us. We make up little groups of who is in and who is out, who matters and who doesn’t, and we treat those on the inside well and those on the outside badly. In Corinth, that manifested as cliques within the church, and fighting between different cliques. In other places, that manifests as prejudices about class, race, gender, ability, politics, nationality, sports teams, food choices, music preferences, and just about anything else you care to name, big and small. We love those who are close to us, those on the inside, and not those who are different from us. But Paul tells us that no matter what the divisions among us are, we are all one body together in Christ, and that nothing else matters if we do not act with love. If we choose to act with love, we are acting as part of the great body of Christ and those actions will resonate throughout time until Christ comes again. If we choose not to act with love, if we mouth platitudes about loving others while acting with jealousy and resentment and fear and arrogance and selfishness, we are useless. Noisy gongs, clanging cymbals. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
That’s not easy to hear. I wonder how the Corinthians reacted. Did they take Paul’s words to heart? Did they change their behavior? Did they start loving people outside their own cliques and building up the body of Christ? Or did they give lip service to following Paul’s words and keep on acting badly, hurting the whole community? The Bible doesn’t tell us how they reacted. However, the Gospel reading today reminds us of what often happens when people get told things they don’t want to hear—especially when that thing includes opening up to outsiders. Jesus was preaching in his hometown, after having done some miracles elsewhere, and people loved him! They loved him right up until he pointed out that God’s gifts were not reserved only for them. Those people he names from the Old Testament are all from the surrounding nations. The Widow of Zarephath was a Philistine, who lived in what we today call Lebanon. Naaman was a Syrian, and not just any Syrian, a general! Jesus’ neighbors loved what he was saying until he pointed out that his words and his power were for everyone including the people they did not like, and then they drove him out. I can imagine the Corinthians hearing Paul’s words of love and nodding and explaining how they only applied to some people—the ones they already loved—and not the people they were feuding with. And then getting angry when Paul makes it clear that his words apply to how they treat everyone.
It’s not easy to put godly love into action. It’s a lot easier to come up with reasons why it doesn’t apply to the people we don’t like. And it’s even easier to claim that we love people while letting our actions reflect what we really think and feel about them. But we are not called to do the easy thing, we are called to do the right thing. We are called to live lives of love and service, putting that love into action in every word and deed. Because only through love—the love God shows us in Christ Jesus, the love God calls us to spread throughout the world—do our actions have any meaning. May we love as Christ calls us.