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Based on the Scripture readings:
I Corinthians 13

2007 January 28
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Love is Patient and Primary

I am tempted to ask for a show of hands, how many people have heard this ode to love from Paul before, but I won't. I'm tempted also to ask how many folks have either heard or included this scripture at a wedding, and given my own experience, by now we'd have almost all of the hands in the room raised. Other than the Christmas story and possibly something about the Garden of Eden this is one of the best- known passages in the Christian Bible. So when it came up for today, and I read it again, I wondered if there is anything new that we can hear in it since we're so familiar with it. Has it got any depths that we haven't plumbed, or does it serve best as a reminder -- which is not a bad thing -- of something we know?

If you've been in church when they read the King James version, you know that the word love is not part of that translation, which would be read more often on Stewardship Sunday than at weddings. King James translated agape as charity, not love. Agape is the word Paul chose, and it was, most of you know, one of three kinds of love articulated in Greek: the other two are eros and philia. Eros means "I desire," philia means "I engage," and agape means "I give," but they all get translated as love. Someone once said that love is a word made up of two vowels, two consonants, and two fools. That's not exactly what Paul was saying, although he did speak of fools for Christ. But what new wisdom is in this poem, this paean?

Here is what catches my mind. Usually when I read this chapter, I go right for the "love is" section. In this section we find two positives, eight negatives, and five manifestations. Love is patient and kind and so on. One of my mentors taught me to modify the word love and insert the name the couple at a wedding to add some interest. Carol is patient and kind, Randy is not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude, Karen does not insist on her own way, and so on. It makes you think. And as I said, usually I jump right to this section when I read this chapter.

But jump back to the start of the chapter, and remember that two thousand years ago Paul had received some of his most critical and conflicted claims from Corinth, and he was working to guide them to build a new church community, and they were asserting that they were all so very smart, plus some of them had ecstatic visions and spoke in tongues and were way beyond the petty guidance that he promoted. This chapter comes in the midst of critiquing all this special, asserted wisdom and speaking in tongues, and it's almost an intrusion in the flow of the letter, but anyway, the beginning of the chapter is key.

Three times there Paul says, "If I have blank, but not love, then I am blank." Three times. And listen to his list of things to have, because for me it is the key to a whole new level of understanding this Back to topchapter. I've looked for a learned scholar who says this, and I can't find one, so this is my exegesis.

The list for Paul is this: If I have great abilities to speak, if I'm a prophet, an interpreter of mysteries, all knowing, and have enough faith to move mountains; if I have great accomplishments, if I give away all that I have and become a martyr, a sacrifice, if I do all this, am I not special? I read that list the other day, the list about a prophet-preacher who is part human, part angel, one who can move mountains with faith and then gives away all and becomes a sacrifice, and maybe you've noticed this every time you've read the book all your life, but I noticed for the first time that someone in particular is being described here. Does this sound like anyone we know? Like a Biblical character?

Paul describes Jesus, and he gives this list, and then he says, but with just this, He's nothing. He's a noisemaking, empty failure. Am I going to far here? But with love, everything changes. With agape. Jesus is nothing without love. How could we expect to be? I could almost be the messiah but meaningless without giving, serving love. I think that's breathtaking.

Erotic love is edge to edge. Philia love is side to side. Agape love is center to center. And agape love is what Paul encourages. I wonder if most people know that at their weddings? I wonder if they know that you can get a great start with eros, and there is true call for philia, but to go the distance, to go anywhere deep, agape, center to center love, is what we need, and luckily it is also what God gives and what Jesus displays. It is what Jesus asks of us. It's what we ask of Jesus.

Jump back four hundred years, when our ancestors made another bold claim about Jesus, or He made a bold claim upon them. The first Congregationalists, once called Separatists, asserted that there are visible saints in our midst and that in covenant with God and with one another we are Jesus' Church. People said that we were complete as a body together, and that we could worship, ordain, make members, and excommunicate them: all the stuff of Bishops previously. But we didn't need bishops, and while John Winthrop referred to the Church of England as "our dear mother," his generation also said that this Congregational thing was "the final chapter in God's plan." There were a thousand theological issues to be clarified, but one that was in absolute perfect agreement among all these folks: Jesus Christ was the sole head of the church, not us, and to this day that assertion is in our own bylaws. Four centuries ago folks knew that this did not make our church life easier than those from whom we had separated: it made it harder. They knew that it took extraordinary Christian devotion and giving to pull this off, not just simpler efforts or lighter burdens. They knew that it took God. Yet they were called to form a place of intellect and mission and responsibility for faith. And they did.

Our ancestors left us with the theological groundings that we still assert today: that when we are together we can hear not just the voices of one another but the voice of the Holy Spirit, if we listen. That we are responsible one unto another for our common life, and that without question we are responsible to Jesus Christ. This church is for us, but it's not about us. It's about the Body of Christ and theBack to top central ministry of Christ, which is love.

Sometimes I come to church thinking I desire, and I'm willing to live edge to edge. Sometimes we do well to say, I engage, and we work side by side. But our goal, if we believe Paul, is to find ways to give and to strive to be center to center with one another and with God. Because to say that Jesus is at the heart of the Church is to say that love is there, and love calls us to something breathtaking. Something more than moving mountains and preaching and philanthropy and even sacrifice: Love.

The final words of Paul's poem say something radical about eschatology, which displays the Christian claim that the kingdom has not yet come but is still ahead. Yet the final words directly state that prophecy and tongues and all manner of wise things will pass away, but love will not. Love is the one eschatological gift presently shared by all believers. Or, love is heaven on earth. It is the future, now.

Friday night, a number of us gathered here in the Parlor for a program called Theology for Parents, where we talked about sharing God with kids and answering their amazing questions. One of the things that we did was talk about how to discern when God is with us. And I read these words from Rabbi Henry Cohen about growth and love and tomorrow and God.

"God will be with you as you grow physically from a child to a man (or a woman), for God is the Power that makes for growth.

"God will be with you as you grow emotionally from an infant who thinks primarily of its own pleasure to a truly human being who somehow comes to care about the needs of others, for God is the Power that makes for love.

"God will be with you when, after days of anxiety and confusion, the dawn breaks and suddenly you see where you are going, for God is the Power that makes for a better tomorrow."

In our life today, God is calling us to tomorrow and delivering it, too.

In our need today, God is drawing us to health and giving the power of growth.

In our moment today, God is with us, for God is love as we unite center to center.


Copyright 2007 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
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