Summary: Discusses Paul’s use of love as the yardstick for Christian living, then turns to several congregational issues to ask what the loving response would be.
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C)
1 Corinthians 13, is a popular passage to use for wedding sermons, because of course the topic is love. Brides and grooms have often chosen this lesson because of the beautiful, poetic prose it contains. But Paul did not write this to the Corinthians so that they would know how to treat their spouses.
Paul wrote this to the Corinthians because of the divisions that had been arising in the church. People were all worked up over how right they were and how wrong others were. They were almost to the point of kicking people out whose opinions differed from them. This early church was having arguments over how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, what kind of things to expect from their members, and how to conduct themselves in worship. To their disagreements, Paul offered the solution of agape love. Agape love is deeper than mere friendship, and is not romantic love. Agape love is selfless, empathetic, consideration for another.
Although our disagreements might be different ones than the Corinthians, St. Paul points out that agape love is the greatest strategy in the world. Any disagreements, any arguments, can be dealt with in the context of love. Perhaps Paul’s message to a divided first-century congregation can enlighten our twentieth century congregation. He gives us some pretty clear guidelines of how to live together in community. His yardstick by which all actions are judged is consideration for the other. Paul says that anything we do must be governed by love, or else it doesn’t mean anything.
In my own words, "If I preach a really great sermon, but do not have love, I am just sounding my own horn. If I can see into the future and understand the most complex theory or theology, and if I can move mountains by my faith in God, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away the things that I don’t need any more, or even those that mean the most to me, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I give a lot of money to the church, or get listed in the large donors of a non-profit organization, but have not love, I am nothing. If I try to stop a bank robber in order to get on the 6 o’clock news, but do not have love, I gain nothing."
In Paul’s worldview, love is the final test of whether something is worth dealing with, worth doing, or worth spending time with. Love makes even the littlest courtesy worthwhile. Whether our actions are based on selfless, agape love is the true test of any act. But without love, not even self-sacrifice means anything. Love for the other must guide our actions. Unselfish love and consideration for those around us must determine the way we act.
So I want to give you some situations to think about, to give them the "love" test. What would be the most faithful way of living God’s love in these situations?
First, let’s consider how to evangelize, how to reach out to people who are not in our church. In years past, the church sign and perhaps an advertisement in the newspaper and yellow pages was all it took to grow and build a church. Church was assumed to be a part of life for more people, so the question really was how to let them know we are here. In today’s world, church is no longer an assumption. Even for people who claim to believe in God, church is not assumed to be necessary. How can we respond in love for others? I suppose we could say, "Well, they know we’re here; we can’t do anything more." But where is the love for other in that response?
If we want to show forth God’s love, if we really have the love that we talk about, we must be actively involved in reaching out to people outside the church. Yes, I’m talking evangelism. Evangelism is the task of every Christian, not just the evangelism committee. Anything we do to connect with this community which surrounds us would be an improvement. We cannot just sit here together with other Timothy members and talk about why people aren’t coming to our church, we have to actively engage ourselves in doing something that would appeal to those around us, that would show our love in action. Love is patient, love is kind.
Second, let’s think about communion. In today’s society, there are many good arguments for offering grape juice for communion either instead of wine or in addition to wine. Pastors and theologians have discussed this issue too many times, but it can be a critical need for some folks. Many recovering alcoholics find that even a little sip of wine can be a trigger. Some people, like myself, just don’t drink because of the dangers and prevalence of alcoholism. If we are theologically able to agree that grape juice is an option, and there are people who might benefit from our loving act of offering grape juice, why should we withhold that courtesy? If a visitor comes to our church who needs that courtesy, what will we tell him or her?