Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sunday Sermon: I Corinthians 13

My Bishops kindly gave me permission to accept this invitation to preach in the parish of my old Vicar-School pal, Dr. Bob's wife's parish where she is vicar.

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in all of scripture, equal to the 23rd Psalm as a much loved text etched in the memory of Christians. In it we get some of the most beautiful language found anywhere on love. Paul writes: “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 fails.”

The only problem with these words is that they don’t really ring true. The beauty of 1 Corinthians 13 masks a different reality: love is very hard. Who can live up to this? Aren’t we all sometimes impatient, sometimes unkind? Don’t we all have limits to what we can endure? Which of us is perfect in this love?

“Love never fails.” Sadly St. Paul didn’t have the foresight to know that these words of his would become the single most popular scripture reading for a wedding ceremony. Yet in Britain today, some reports indicate that between a third and a half of all marriages end in divorce. Paul writes that love never fails. Why then does it seem as if love fails so often? If the people we love were perfect, we would not have to be “patient”, nor would we have to “bear all things.” And as for changing, the reading suggests that we ourselves might be the ones who must “now change,” rather than those we love. This biblical exhortation calls us to a kind of self-sacrifice that is close to heroism.

When this passage is used at weddings, most people interpret it as setting forth an ideal for love. This is the ideal to which the newly-weds aspire, and the older generations smile because we know that the bliss of the nuptial day will be exchanged for tough times that try patience, kindness, and all the other aspects of love. The wedding party prays that the couple will grow into love that can carry them through life’s difficulties, and this is all to the good. Paul’s point, however, is that, regardless of being a future ideal, only actual love can make the other virtues count. Having love as an ideal, not a reality, is not enough.

The problem is that if we read the passage the wrong way, we misunderstand Paul’s thought. In English we have one word for love and we use it interchangeably: I love my wife, I love chocolate, I love Edinburgh and so on but the new Testament has several and Paul, being a Greek speaker, writes using the word agape: it is a “self-giving love,” routinely shown to be the love God has for us. It is this agape that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is this self-giving agape love of God that never fails.

Paul calls agape love a “still more excellent way.” And he uses an extreme example: Paul writes that if he understands all mysteries and has faith so as to move mountains, but has not love, he is nothing. If he were to give away everything he owns and even hand over his life, but has not agape love, then he is nothing. Do we think like that?

So what is the difference between this godly love that never fails and the kind of love that results in so many marriages ending in divorce? The difference is that the love that starts with us and goes out to another person is usually conditional. “I love you as I think you are.” Or “I love you as you are now.” Or worse yet, “I love you as I wish you were and hope to change you to be like the ideal of you that I love.”

All of these are examples of love that start with “I.” It’s that “me, me, me” thing so many of us do unconsciously yet Paul tells us that we can infuse our lives with agape, the love that is God’s love for us. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for us, we can then begin to see other people as God sees them. From this experience, we reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

Now I really hate it when someone in a dog-collar starts laying down the rules. I can imagine sitting where you are thinking “Well, it’s alright for him. Don’t these people live in the real world?” In my other life I am a high-school teacher. I deal with the hormonally and linguistically challenged: those otherwise known as teenagers. It is my daily prayer that I might see God in them and, crucially, that they may see Him in me. Believe me it’s a challenge and one I’m not sure I always win. But it helps me to remember that these are beloved of God - argumentative, rude, untidy and sometimes foul-mouthed as they are. If it’s good enough for him then the onus is on me to act likewise however much, instinctively, I may not want to - and believe me that instinct is strong. My other Achilles heel is aggressive beggars: I find them so hard to deal with and when I’m around and about in Leeds City centre it’s as if they can smell me. I feel I sometimes have a neon sign invisible to me but visible to them that flashes “Try this guy!”

God’s agape is not conditional. God’s love for our spouses is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood or anything else so changeable. God’s love for our children does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for our friends does not depend on whether or not they let us down. God’s love for everyone is the same. His love is a lot more dependable than ours even on our best days. God’s love for my pupils doesn’t depend on how well they listen to me or how politely they respond. Unlike my employer I doubt God cares whether they hit their target grade in Religious Studies, and God’s love for the aggressive beggar doesn’t depend on how recently he washed or that he is alcohol and drug dependant or on how many teeth he has.

As we read the list of love’s characteristics, we realize just how countercultural it is. Our society does not encourage us to be patient, or even kind. In fact, it admonishes us to seek our own interests, to look out for Number One. It applauds pomposity and ego-inflation by making icons of film stars, sports heroes and musicians. We then approve of this by unthinkingly paying tribute at their altars. Look at the magazines in the newsagents: O.K., Heat, Now, Grazia – all obsessed with the cult of celebrity.

If we stop for a moment and reflect, we might discover that the people we really admire the most are those who are indeed already patient and kind, not jealous or pompous, not inflated or rude, not quick-tempered or brooding. They are people who genuinely love, people after whom we might want to model ourselves, people who have already discovered Paul’s “more excellent way.”

When Paul talked about the other spiritual gifts, he ranked them. Faith and hope are at the top of the ranking of spiritual gifts along with love, and love is the greatest. Love has a unique place in Christian holiness, as the condition that makes all the other spiritual gifts or virtues worth having. That must have been ground-breaking in Paul’s time and today it is still astonishing!

So how do we achieve this? Clearly not in our own strength: to believe that were possible like some spiritual new year’s resolution would be a huge mistake. It is the Holy Spirit within us which makes this possible – and it may be two steps forward, one step back because the Holy Spirit does not offer perfection as She battles with our selfish natures. Yet in the Holy Spirit God has provided the resource we need to draw ever closer to His image. When we search our souls and find little love for God and neighbours, this means that we must listen to the Spirit within us. When we search our communities and find little love for God and neighbours, this means we must listen to the Spirit among us. The Holy Spirit is the fount of our existence as individuals and communities. That we don’t see this much of the time is because we, not the Spirit, are asleep. So let’s all wake up to the Spirit of love, the power of the creative impulse, the random acts of kindness, the deep-seated sympathy that makes us grieve at the sight of the suffering of others: the Haitis and Gazas; the tsunamis and bombings. We need to be the loving power of God in the world and use it in our own lives to fight and struggle for peace and justice wherever we find them missing. In our own small ways we can bring the agape of God to the situations we encounter and change them.

God’s love pulses the Holy Spirit through our lives like a heart-beat setting the weakest, most flawed and perverse of our inadequate versions of love within the fullness of God’s love. To have even the most pitiful and wretched impulse of love is better than perfect faith, hope, or any other spiritual gift with no love, for it participates in the being of God. This is the love Jesus had when he was dying on the cross and looked out at those who were killing him, those who had mocked him, spat on him, beaten him, humiliated and laughed at him and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This precarious act of loving, even though it may well not be returned, is part of the agape love of God. So let’s be clear: our expression of God’s agape towards others isn’t about what we can get back or what’s in it for us. It’s not about seeking God’s favour either, because we can’t please God by our own efforts. God has already taken the initiative and given us his favour as a free gift: what we do in response is merely an act of grateful and obedient discipleship.

Do we want to experience that sort of godly love for our friends, our families, our spouses? Then the love we have for them cannot start with “I” and go out to them. The love we have for others must start with God. We need to ask God to give us this gift. We need to pray for God to reveal to us the way God sees the other people in our lives, especially the difficult people we deal with. Seeing another person as God sees them is not always easy, but when we get it right, this love will never fail. This agape love is a gift from God, which is the still more excellent way.