Sunday 3 February 2019
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the presence of these witnesses, to join together these two people in holy matrimony…. Wait a minute… that’s not right. I guess I heard the reading from 1 Corinthians 13 and got a little carried away. We hardly ever read that text at a regular church service, but it seems like whenever there is a wedding, this is the text that they choose. “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…. Love never ends.” It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? Just reading through it I can almost hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D played by a string quartet in my head, which, by the way, is not actually a canon at all—it’s a ground bass—but that is another story. 1 Corinthians 13, like Pachelbel’s Canon, is just one of those things that we expect to hear at weddings.
Now, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble here, but despite all of the wonderful language about love, and despite the fact that it get’s read at virtually every wedding, and despite the fact that we’ve all heard several wedding sermons about it, this text has virtually nothing to do with marriage or with romantic love.
In fact, marriage was the last thing on Paul’s mind when he wrote this particular passage. Paul, you see, is not a great fan of marriage. If you don’t believe me, just turn back a few pages in your bible to 1 Corinthians 7. Paul basically says, “It’s alright to get married if you think that you have to, if you’re too weak to be able to handle being celibate, but everyone would really be better off if they were single.” Here are a few of the highlights:
“If you marry, you do not sin…. [but] those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that… I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided…. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”
That’s what Paul actually thinks about marriage. It’s okay if it’s the only thing that will save you from fornication, but it is best avoided. Not quite as romantic as 1 Corinthians 13, though, is it? I suppose that’s why we don’t read that bit at weddings.
As you may already know, while in English we really just have one word for love, the Greeks have several different words to describe what they think of as different types of love. The word that refers to romantic love is ἔρος (eros), from which we get the word erotic. It is never once used in the New Testament. That’s right, the New Testament never mentions romantic love. It’s just not a concern of the New Testament writers. Another Greek word for love is στοργή (storgē). It usually refers to the love between parents and children, sometimes to the love between husband and wife. Again, this word is never mentioned in the New Testament. One word for love that we do find in the New Testament is φίλος (philos). This is most often translated as the love between friends. It’s the kind of love Jesus has for his disciples. It is a deep and personal affection. Another related word is φιλαδελφία (philadelphia), that is, brotherly love. This is the kind of love that members of the church are supposed to have for one another. And, of course, this is why the American city, Philadelphia, is known as the city of brotherly love.
But none of these is the type of love that Paul is talking about. Paul is talking about ἀγάπη (agapē). Ἀγάπη is the kind of love that God has for humanity or the kind of love that humanity has for God. It is also the kind of love that we humans might have for other humans on the basis of our love for God. That is to say that it is not a love that is based on affection, but a love that is based on principles. I love my wife because I like and respect her and enjoy spending time with her; that is not ἀγάπη. I love the people of Syria not because I have any particular affection for Syria or because I know any Syrians, but because my principles tell me that I should love all of my human brothers and sisters, especially those who are suffering; that is ἀπάπη.
As one commentator puts it, ἀγάπη is “the kind of love we have for someone or something upon which we are willing to base our principles for determining right and wrong; it includes the intention to act upon those principles regardless of what the consequences may be. This kind of love is the deep and abiding respect that we have for another. It is the kind of love that commands our intentions and directs our daily decisions.” In other words, ἀγάπη is the kind of love that defines our morality and our ethics and has very little to do with whether we like or dislike a person or a thing.
And Paul tells the Corinthians, “You don’t have anything if you don’t have ἀγάπη.” You see, some of the Corinthian Christians were rather caught up with the idea of spiritual gifts—healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues, wisdom—that sort of thing. And many of them were quite proud of themselves for the types of spiritual gifts they possessed. Not only that, they thought of themselves as superior to other members of the church who didn’t display those kinds of gifts. And on top of that, this division in the church tended to express itself along lines of class. It was the well-to-do people who could afford an education who were focussed on these special gifts of the Spirit. And it was the uneducated peasants, slaves, and working folk who found these spiritual gifts to be a bit strange. The upperclass folks, Paul calls the strong, and the lower-class folks he calls the weak.
And Paul wants to say to the strong, “Get over yourselves. There are more important things than those spiritual gifts. So you have the power to heal people, what does that matter? So you can speak in tongues, big deal. So what if you have so much faith that you can perform miracles. It all amounts to absolutely nothing if you don’t have ἀγάπη.
The Corinthians had a hard time loving each other across difference. We still have the same sorts of troubles today. And often it’s over the same issues. The conflict in Corinth had to do with class and education. And we may have a hard time relating to someone from a lower social class than ours.
It is a part of our American mythology that a person’s place in society is based on their own effort. Anyone can achieve whatever they set their mind to. And so if some achieve little and others achieve much, it must be because there was a difference in effort. Which, of course, means that anyone who is below me in society must be there because they were lazy. They must not have worked as hard as I did, or they would be where I am.
But the myth of the American Dream conceals a much more complicated truth. While our society does provide the opportunity for social advancement, it is certainly not a level playing field. Despite our stories about an egalitarian society, your parents’ social class is still the most likely thing to predict your own social class. If we are born in the upper class, we are likely to stay there. If we are born in the middle class, we are likely to stay there. If we are born in poverty, we are likely to stay there. Race, gender, and immigration all have an effect on social mobility, making it easier for certain groups of people to succeed and harder for others.
But despite this reality, we often blame the poor for their own poverty. And that often leads to a kind of dehumanization. If their predicament is because of their own choices, then I don’t have to worry about it. They brought it on themselves. They are somehow inferior people. They are different. They are other. I have no responsibility to them. All they do is bring me and my people down.
But how different is God’s ἀγάπη love? “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth.” Ἀγάπε insists that we overcome our societal divisions. It insists that we treat the other not as an alien, or as stranger, or even as friend, but as a member of our own family. It insists that we put ourselves in the place of the other, that we see the other as God sees them. And what a difference it makes.
I want you to take a moment with me now. Close your eyes. And think about the love that God has for you. God sees you as a beloved child. God wants to be in deeper relationship with you. When you are doing well, God is right there celebrating with you. When you make a mistake, God is always there, ready to forgive. When you face difficulties in your life, God walks through them with you, giving you strength, giving you comfort, giving you peace. Rest there in God’s love. Rest in God’s ἀγάπη love.
Now we’re going to move somewhere else. Bring to your mind someone you see as other. It might be a particular person, or it might be a group or class of people. Whoever it is, it is someone who inspires a negative feeling in you, a feeling of fear, or anger, or distrust, or resentment, or disgust. Imagine that person now. Call their image to your mind. And feel for a moment the feeling that that person inspires in you.
And then bring back your memory of God’s ἀγάπη love. And remember what God thinks of that person. They are God’s beloved child. God wants to be in deeper relationship with them. When things are going well for them, God is right there celebrating with them. When they make a mistake, God is always there, ready to forgive. When they face difficulties in their life, God walks alongside them, offering strength, offering comfort, offering peace.
What would it mean for you to love that person with God’s love? What would it feel like to have patience? To be kind? To be free of jealousy or envy or rudeness? What would it mean to erase the record of your complaints? What would it mean to ache for true justice? What would it mean to love as God loves? How would that change the way you feel about this person? How would it change the way you treat them?
And when you’re ready, come back to this room and slowly open your eyes.
Knowledge will pass away, Paul says. Power will pass away. Prophesy will pass away. All of those spiritual gifts will pass away. If you have the charisma to inspire millions, if you have the talent to impress everyone, the ability to make things happen, the fame to make everyone jealous, the money to buy and sell whatever you like… it’s nothing. It’s not worth striving for. The one thing worth striving for is to love the way that God loves. That is the true gift, that is the true power, that is the true wealth. To love the way that God loves. When everything else passes away, only three things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.