160131 – Love It Out

Yr C ~ Epiphany 4 ~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

If you’ve been here over the last few weeks you’ve heard me talk a lot about love – how God loves us, how we love God, and last week how God wants to marry us (!) – and now this week we’re doing 1 Corinthians 13. That’s a whole lotta love!love-it-out

Chances are you’ve heard today’s reading at a wedding. Couples love this text because it says the word ‘love’ more times per square inch than just about anywhere else in the bible. But if you read the chapter as a whole it starts out sounding nothing like a wedding text at all, then it starts to sound wedding-ish, then it’s back to not at all. When we’re done with it I hope you’ll see it as both an amazing wedding text and a text for you and me today.

The Greeks had different words for different aspects of love – where we use only one word. The special Greek word for love that refers to spiritual love, to God’s love, is agape.
Agape is the kind of love that supersedes and transcends all other loves.  It’s the ideal kind of love because it’s the kind of love God has for us!
Agape has at its heart a nature of self-giving – of whole-heartedness – of completeness.
Agape is the fullest, holiest, greatest love there is.
This entire text is about that kind of love – agape! Every time you hear love today, think agape.

The first three verses start off kind of harshly. Let me back up a minute and tell you why. There once was a church community in a busy city called Corinth. The church was planted by Paul who taught them all about Jesus and his Way, but then Paul went on to plant more churches. After a while he got word that the church in Corinth was in trouble. You see, they thought they were the bright shining star in the “denomination” but they were actually quite dysfunctional.

Some of the Corinthians liked Paul’s teaching – others preferred Apollos who had followed Paul. There were serious class distinctions with separate tables for the rich and poor at the community gathering meal. There were reports of turning a blind eye to sexual impropriety. They were taking one another to court over disputes. And they were making up their own rules for church and behaviour. It was a nightmare.

So Paul writes a scathing letter to them. I mean, it’s nasty. He pulls no punches whatsoever. The big thing he repeatedly calls them is not mistaken, or evil, misguided, but immature – spiritually immature. By the time we get to today’s reading (near the end of the letter) he’s finally getting into some more positive language, but even this starts with a bang.

He says in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 that if you do this or that, even big churchy things, but you don’t do it with love (agape) then you’ve done nothing worth doing. Ouch!

If you sing hymns but don’t love, you’re just making noise.
If you pray but don’t love, you’re wasting your breath.
If you preach but don’t love, you’re just showing off.
If you help people but don’t do it out of love, you’re not accomplishing anything.

And remember, that love is agape – God’s holiest, highest love. That’s the standard.
Paul is saying, “Are you trying to do everything you do with a self-giving, whole-hearted, full, holy, spiritual love? Or are you just doing your duty?”
Like I said, he’s laying it on thick!

How about us?

If I wash dishes after church but don’t love, I’ve done nothing.
If I serve on a committee but don’t love…
If I get up on Sunday and drag my sorry butt out of bed and reluctantly come to church but don’t love…

I think we try our best to love with agape love, I really do. But we are not perfect. We’re human. (Man, are we human!) I’m sure we all catch ourselves grumbling over certain tasks and doing things grudgingly rather than lovingly – even at church.

Then comes the part that couples like. Verses 4-8 give us a list of what love is – but remember it isn’t romantic love being described, it’s agape. Hopefully a couple’s romantic love will resemble agape love and the list will apply, but Paul was not thinking about wedding days when he wrote this. He was thinking about how a community – a church – a group of people just like you – is supposed to relate to one another if they are really following Jesus’ way.

He’s saying that love is this and that, patient and kind, etc, etc – but by implication what he’s really saying is that those Corinthians weren’t being those things. To them he says, “Agape is this, but YOU lot are impatient, unkind, arrogant, envious, boastful, rude, selfish, irritable, resentful, celebrating others’ failures…” Again, ouch!

Then in verse 8 he says something that might shock us. He says that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will end but love never ends. What he’s saying there is that churchy stuff – like what we do here – has a best before date, but agape is always and forever. I think we tend to think that once we’ve built a church it should be around forever because it’s holy ground and filled with spiritual history.

But remember, we repeatedly make the affirmation that God’s Presence is not just in churches but everywhere so every place is holy ground filled with God’s Presence and love. It would serve our denomination well to remember that bricks and mortar will come and go, but God’s love is always and forever.
(And did you notice it doesn’t sound very weddingy anymore either.)

Ok, now we’re getting to the really juicy stuff!
In verse 9 Paul talks about how we only know “in part” – we’ll come back to that in a minute.
And in verse 10 he says, “but when the complete comes, the [in part] partial will come to an end.”

Now we have to unpack what “the complete” means. It’s not about the end of something but the “coming to fruition” of something – specifically, our Christian character. In other words he’s talking about spiritual maturity. Now we know only partially, but then, when we’re spiritually mature and oozing Christlikeness, then we’ll see fully.

The next verse expands on that.

13:11 “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Last week I asked you if your understanding of God had evolved over time. I certainly hope it has. We’re supposed to put an end to our childish ways of understanding.
But by all means, go ahead and be goofy and child-like sometimes, just not when it comes to your faith. Our goal should be to grow deeper, to learn, to yearn and work for spiritual maturity.

And now we get the best verse of the chapter – verse 12:
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

So much here.
‘Now’ is before spiritual maturity. ‘Then’ is when we’re mature.
And mirrors in their day were polished bronze, not glass – so reflections were often distorted – and the word dimly in Greek is ainigma – an enigma, a mystery, a riddle.

So now, before maturity, our ability to “see” and understand is like an enigma, but then, once spiritually mature, we will see face to face.

Who? Who will we see face to face?
Well, God/Jesus/Spirit obviously, but there’s another really important level going on here.

Remember, the Corinthian church was a mess because of misunderstandings and social class problems. They were supposed to be Christlike, welcoming all, seeing one another as sisters and brothers. They might be master and slave “out there” but “in here” they’re supposed to be equals. But that wasn’t happening – because they were immature.

Now, this is an enigma, but then, when you’re more Christlike and spiritually mature, you will see face to face! – see one another, right here in your own community, face to face – as equals, as one.

Now watch this last part of verse 12 – so important!
“(For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.) Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Once mature I will know fully – ok, makes sense – even as I have been fully known! That’s the missing piece.
You cannot truly, fully see someone “face to face” until you allow them to fully know you!
And you cannot allow someone to know you without risking profound vulnerability.

That means you have to let your guard down.
You have to risk opening yourself to scrutiny.
You have to dare to let someone see that you don’t have it all together, you’re not perfect, and thing’s might not be as bright and shiny in your life as you’d like.

Mutuality can only happen if both parties are willing to be vulnerable and open – and the challenge in that is that experience has taught us that being vulnerable and letting down our guard dramatically raises the possibility that we could get hurt.

This was the stumbling block for the Corinthians, and it ain’t so easy for us either.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Now that is a wonderful wedding message! You think you’re in love today, but you ain’t seen nothing yet. It’ll get better and richer and deeper – but only if you allow yourself to be fully known.
And it works for churches too!

The chapter ends with verse 13 “But for right now, until that completeness (that spiritual maturity), we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” (MSG)

In more classic language: “And now faith, hope, and love, abide these three; and the greatest of these is love – agape.”

Paul’s message to the Corinthians – to the church – to the followers of the Way of Jesus – to us – is that the most important thing we can do is love – agape – love like God does. It flows out of deep faith and spiritual maturity.
You can’t fake it, and you can’t force it – you can only harvest it.
And what do you do with the harvest? You share it!

So – we are called to love. Love who?
Love God! Love people! Love one another!
It’s common to hear a preacher say you need to live out your faith. I’d like us to go even further.
It’s about agape – we need not just to live it out but to love it out!

Several years ago I experienced a minister making the most wonderful word-slip I’ve ever seen. He was using projection like we do and his message was about living out your faith. As an encouragement he meant to put the phrase “Live out your faith!” on the screen, but he made a typo. Instead it said, “Love out your faith!”
Best. Typo. Ever!

God says, “You are precious in my sight, and honoured. I love you!”
We respond in worship, in song, in prayer, in proclamation and pondering, gushing out our love for God.
All this love ends up in a wedding – not for couples, but between God and God’s people.

And to celebrate this love – this agape – we dedicate our lives to sharing that love by showing compassion to others and being vulnerable in relationship with one another.

And as we are filled to overflowing with all this love – this agape – we cannot help ourselves but to leave this place and agape the world – not just living out our faith, but loving it out!

Amen.