Fourth Sunday after Epiphany - 1 Corinthians 13


There was a hushed tone in the gathered congregation as they listened to the reader: “Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” We all think we know what these words say. We’ve all heard them many times – most often, perhaps, at weddings. We’ve used them to celebrate the beautiful, inspiring love between two people who have chosen one another above all others. That thrill when you see the one you love – the way your heart smiles when they look at you. Whether for a spouse, a child, a parent, or a friend, love is the greatest feeling of all. But that’s not what Paul is talking about. Paul is not talking about feeling good in someone’s presence, or the feeling that someone else carries your heart with them. In fact, Paul is not talking about a feeling at all. When Paul wrote his beautiful, poetic words about love, he wrote them to a community that was deeply divided and conflicted. Factions had developed among various teachers. Worship had become disorderly, with different people competing for attention and leadership. The communion meal they shared had become more a social gathering than a reverent ritual of remembering and receiving Christ. Sexual immorality was rampant, with disagreement about what behavior was and was not appropriate for people who called themselves followers of Christ. Someone had written a letter to Paul describing the situation, and he had written back. At some places in his letter, Paul’s anger and disappointment with the Christians in Corinth comes through loud and clear. But in other places, Paul’s deep faith and understanding of Christian life and community, his brilliance as a prophet and teacher, shine through the words. God has given gifts to each of you, Paul tells the Corinthians. But those gifts are not to be used to raise your standing in the community. Instead, you are to use your gifts to build up and encourage the community as a whole. You are the body of Christ, Paul says. And every one of you is important in the body, regardless of your relative positions of honor in the world. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Paul finishes his discussion of spiritual gifts with the words, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” And the verses that follow are Paul’s words about love. I can have the greatest gifts and personal charisma, the deepest faith, do the most excellent works of charity, but if I don’t  have love, Paul claims, none of it matters. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I can just imagine the Corinthians moving restlessly in their seats, exchanging quick glances across the room, as Paul continues. Love does not insist on its own way. Some stare fixedly into the distance, avoiding eye contact. Love is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. Someone clears his throat. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Am I the only one who thinks some tears were flowing in Corinth by this time? The love Paul describes is not a feeling. Rev. Dr. Gil Bowen shared this idea in a sermon on 1Corinthians 13: “If you ask [the bible] about the purpose of your existence here in this world, what gives it meaning, one answer always comes back. You are here to love: love your God, love your neighbor. “I think we often make the question of the meaning of life more complicated and obscure than we need. But it is important to add immediately that when this faith talks about love as the heart and center of our existence, it is not talking about the kind of love we celebrate, for example, on Valentine’s Day. It’s not talking about romance, not talking about a certain emotional moment that we hope for. Nothing, of course, against romance or Valentines, but look for a moment at this familiar picture by the Apostle Paul. “First of all, Paul’s words are a criticism of his friends in Corinth for whom religion has become focused in the attainment of a kind of emotional high, an ecstasy that takes them out of themselves, a religious enthusiasm that carries them far out of the mundane and real world. His comrades in Corinth really major in the quest for religious experience. They speak in tongues, that’s a sort of utterance that takes them to heights of fervor. They revel in it, they are almost, one might say, addicted to it. Now, he doesn’t dismiss their religious fervor outright. He himself speaks in tongues. But he does begin by saying, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love..." “And the love of which he speaks is not so much something you are swept up in emotionally, as it is something you decide and do. And it is certainly not a love that grants continual bliss or peace of mind. For example, it is patient he says, and God knows, being patient can be painful, can it not? It does not insist on its own way in life, and that is often hard to handle, to accept, is it not? And it is a love that bears and endures. That doesn’t sound like a Hallmark card, at all. “The reality is, we give ourselves to this business of love only by setting aside our absorption in our own feelings, our longings for eternal happiness, our desire for ongoing bliss.” The love Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthians is the love which leads us to continue to worship and serve in the community of believers – encouraging one another, helping one another, bearing with one another’s faults. The love Paul describes is the love which leads us to serve the neighbors we don’t know, sharing what we have with those who are in need. Some years ago I read a story that provides a graphic example of love.  Actually, it was a story that circulated on email – one of the few I read and kept. The father of a boy with multiple handicaps told this story about his son, Shaya: “One afternoon Shaya and his father walked past a park where some boys Shaya knew were playing baseball. Shaya asked, "Do you think they will let me play?" Shaya's father knew that his son was not at all athletic and that most boys would not want him on their team.  But Shaya's father understood that if his son were chosen to play it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging.  Shaya's father approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shaya could play. The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said "We are losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning." Shaya's father was ecstatic as Shaya smiled broadly. Shaya was told to put on a glove and go out to play short center field. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shaya's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning, the team scored again and now with two outs and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base, Shaya was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let him bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shaya was given the bat.  Everyone knew that it was all but impossible because he didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it. However as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so he should at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came in and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. One of his teammates came up to Shaya and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly. As the pitch came in, Shaya and his teammate swung at the bat and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game. Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman. Everyone started yelling,  "Shaya, run to first. Run to first."  Never in his life had Shaya run to first. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base, the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman that would tag out Shaya, who was still running. But the right fielder understood what the pitcher's intentions were, so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman's head. Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second." Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. As Shaya reached second base, the opposing short stop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, "Run to third."  As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, "Shaya run for home." Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit a "grand slam" and won the game for his team. “That day," said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, "those 18 boys reached their level of God's perfect love" When we share love which is kind and places the needs of another above our own needs,we share in the love of God. Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe January 28, 2007

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