"Love is"-Sermon for Epiphany 4, I Corinthians 13:1-13
In last Sunday’s New Testament lesson, we heard what proceeded directly today’s New Testament lesson from the 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. As a reminder, what we heard last week that proceeded Paul’s unequaled discourse on the power and purpose of love is also, in my mind, an unequaled discourse on the Body of Christ. I preached on that last Sunday…focusing on how each and every one of us as individual members of the body…only together…can make up the whole. For the Body of Christ, which is the church…that’s us, to fully live into and realize the dream that God has set on our hearts requires all of to take our own unique place in the life of our church. To echo Paul, just as the eye cannot say to the hand: I have no need of you. I cannot say to anyone in this church: I have no need of you. For only when we are all heard, equipped, empowered and used well…only when we are all valued and affirmed…only when everyone has a starting position on this team we call St. Julian’s…and all have a unique position on that team…only then will we be able to fully be and become, again, the dream that God has placed on our hearts. I sort of described that dream last week, though this is surely not an exhaustive list, as a church…a family of faith…this is a place of welcome and sanctuary to all…a place where hope is found and possibility discovered afresh…a place of learning and contemplation…a place of healing found in Godly council and prayer…a place where lasting friendships are forged…a place that leads the larger community in serving those most in need…or, as our Vision Statement sums it up, a place where we can “Grow in Relationship, Love all Well, and Seek Intimacy with Christ”.
And, I can’t think of a more appropriate or important message for this day in particular…the Sunday on which we hold our annual Parish Meeting…or what I like to call our annual Family Meeting. For all we hope and dream to accomplish in the year that lies ahead…from raising funds for and breaking ground on a new campus in which we intend to grow deep roots…to fall more and more in love with God and with each other…to expand ministry and increase opportunities to learn, pray, and serve those in need around us…to live more deeply and completely into any and all of this…will require all of us…all of us, just as we have done to date, all of us standing up and stepping forward to sacrificially offer our own unique personalities and gifts and resources. And, further, I want to say as your pastor…if you feel like you are not being heard or your gifts are not yet being used…if you feel like you are struggling to find your starting position on the St. Julian’s team…I hope you will reach out. I want to hear you…we need your gifts…we need you.
Now, after Paul describes the Body of Christ as the sum total of the various parts and appendages of the human body…how all are needed for the whole body to thrive and flourish…heart, hands, feet, ears, eyes, etc…, he goes on to connect this metaphor to the various ministries of the church that are also all needed for the church, the Body of Christ, to thrive and flourish. And, he names some ministries that one might anticipate, like, apostles, prophets, teachers, healers, leaders, those with hearts to serve those in need, and those who are generous with their financial blessings, among others. And the point is…that it is not ordination…it’s not a seminary education…but baptism that calls us all to be ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, all baptized Christians…got a ministry…whatever title we might give it. And, if we are yet to find it, that just means we must keep searching…for it exists. And, again, I want to help you find it…because, again, we need you.
But, Paul does not end there. Instead, he concludes by saying, “But strive for the greater gifts.” And, I think what Paul is suggesting is that whatever one’s particular ministry may be…a leader in our mission and growth ministry, or outreach ministry, or hospitality ministry, or stewardship ministry, or living compass ministry, or children’s ministry, or student ministry, or music ministry, or slide ministry…and I could go on, for we have over 20 to choose from! But, whatever sort of ministry that we may be called by God to offer ourselves in and through that fits our own unique gifts and irreplaceable, “one of a kind” lives…there is the same power that lies behind each…that we all share…that we all need…that empowers all of us to be the Minister of the Gospel that we are called to be. Whatever we do…however we serve…Paul exhorts us to all strive for the same thing…for it is the same unendingly deep well of power that shapes all of our various and unique efforts. It is in my mind the great ordering principle behind all that God has made. It is even that by which John, in his first epistle, describes as the essential essence of God. And, it finally transitions us to today’s New Testament lesson that, again, picks up just where last week’s left off. For just after Paul exhorts us to, “Strive for the greater gifts”, he continues, “And I will show you a still more excellent way. [For] if I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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.”
I hope that burst your heart as wide open as it does mine. It is words like these that remind me that, though holy scripture is written by the hand of humans, it is inspired by nothing less than the mind of God. Thus, it is love alone that inspires our very best efforts. It is God’s love that inspires everything that we or anyone can accomplish that we can rightfully describe as excellent and noble and generous and beautiful and admirable and true.
Now, I have done dozens and dozens of weddings at which this passage was chosen by the couple to be read, and it is, indeed, absolutely perfect for those occasions. But, I feel compelled to remind couples, that love as Paul describes it is not sentimental. Though, I, as an admitted romantic, believe sentimentality has its place in human life, Paul reminds us that, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Paul is telling us that patience and kindness and humility and graciousness and truth-telling and courage and strength and faithfulness and endurance are all hallmarks of a love suffused life, and such love will require a lifetime of intentional work, often hard work, to fully live into and incarnate in the life we live and the ministry we uniquely offer. But, love has been, is now, and forever shall be the most excellent way.
So, friends, if striving for love is our first intention then the ministry we offer individually and all together will, indeed, point those with ears to hear and eyes to see to God in Christ…from whom all love flows and returns…for God is love. And, as we think together today about our hopes and dreams, specifically, for the year to come, if our very first intention is, again, to love…to grow our capacity to love…to be patient and kind with each other…to be more insistent that others voices are heard…to bear and believe even those with whom we disagree…to dare to believe that love never ends…then we shall never be overcome. We will find our way along a more excellent path. We will find ourselves closer to the very heart of God than where we begin. Amen.