what's love got to do with it? 1 cor 13
1 Cor 13:1-13- Love
Sometimes we hear something so often that we stop hearing it. The words stop having meaning, or they have less of an effect on us. When Crystal and I were first dating the words "I love you" had an incredible echo that just hung in the air for weeks. Now we can shoot those words as we walk out the door and we hardly remember if we said them. It's not that those words don't have any meaning for us, it's just that we are so used to the words that they don't ring in our ears the way they used to.
Something similar can happen when we mention the word "love" in Church. We say "love God"; "Love your neighbour"; or even "love your enemy" and the words sometimes seem to not have any weight- Probably because they are so familiar. So we read 1 Corinthians 13, "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud..." and it is so familiar that we don't really hear it. The reason this reading is familiar is because it is profound. The reading tells us what love looks like, and what it doesn't look like. It is central to who we are, so we repeated it, but a side effect of repeating it is that we get used to the words and we become numb to them through familiarity.
This reading should be repeated. It should be memorized. But, it is also our duty to not allow our familiarity with it to numb us. Part of our responsibility is to go back and remind ourselves about what it means.
Love, no doubt, has a high place in our culture. Movie after movie is released in theaters where the answer to all life's problems is romantic love. ... Also, think of the range with which we use the word "love" in our culture. I love snow. I love coffee. I love my new shirt. I love my wife. I love cheese. I love God. Do we mean the same thing by the word "love" in all those sentences?
Hebrew has its own distinctive words for love. I'm not going to go through them all, but I do want to mention one just to show how unusual it might seem to us. Hesed is the Hebrew word for covenant love. It is love that is promised and owed as a part of entering into a covenant relationship. God has hesed for Israel and Israel has hesed for God as a part of their covenant together. It is love that is obligated. Hesed is out of duty to the covenant. ... This seems pretty strange to us because when we say "love" we usually mean a feeling that we don't seem to have much control over- We just love or we don't. We don't see love as an act of the will. However, when the Bible talks about love it is usually referring to an act of the will. It is a free decision, not primarily an internal feeling.
Many of you will know that there are a few main words for love in Greek. Eros refers to a physical love. Philos refers to love between family or friends. Agape is sometimes called divine, or spiritual love. It can sometimes be used in a similar way to philos, but it sometimes seems to go way beyond it as well. Agape is what God feels towards the whole world. Agape is expected of us as Christians. We are commanded to agape our neighbour and our enemy. Agape is unconditional and self-sacrificial. So this isn't primarily a command to feel nice feelings towards one's neighbour or enemy. In Agape there is an act of the will to choose to act in loving ways towards our neighbours and enemies. This doesn't mean faking it, it is deeper than just behaviour. But, it is also deeper and more demanding than nice feelings, which are often fickle and temporary. It is beautiful, and demanding.
The New Testament Scholar Ben Witherington III says "[Agape] is often bestowed on the unloved and the unlovely. It is an expression of grace, which means undeserved and unmerited benefit or favor bestowed on someone. In a world of reciprocity, and 'you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,' such love seems to break the cycle of payback, and reaches a person as a true gift, one that comes without strings attached. This is the greater agape the Bible refers to, and it is surely no exaggeration to say that it is a love humans are not capable of apart from divine example, assistance and enablement."
The catholic theologian Peter Kreeft says that Agape "is not eros, desire, sexual or otherwise, for that proceeds from need and from emptiness, while agape, proceeds from fullness. ... Agape is the love that created the universe and sent Christ down to suffer Hell on the Cross to save us rebels, the love that kissed the traitor Judas, suffered the soldiers' slaps and sneers, and prayed, 'father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' ... Agape must be supernatural because only God has no needs. Human love is not enough because it is always mixed, always flowing partly from need, from emptiness. We cannot build on a foundation that has holes; we cannot build on emptiness; and we are emptiness; we are need; we are a little child crying in the night. ... If you want to know what agape is, look at Christ dying for us on the Cross. ... Agape ... is active, demanding, and revolutionary. It is not a feeling it is an action." (Back to Virtue, 76-78)
When we look at love through a theological lens it can seem so high that it's impossible to grasp. It is beyond our ability. It has to be God loving through us. Love is a power active in us- acting through us. ... It is important to understand that Agape is profound. ... I don't, however, want us to be left with the thought that it is unreachable. It is not to be found on some distant mountain top. Agape is close to us. This is what the Pastor and writer Frederick Buechner has to say, "God knows we are none of us much good at [loving our neighbours] much of the time, but at least we can see each other... . We can see each other's faces especially, and every once in a while, if we have our eyes open, we can see something of what is within those faces. Even with strangers sometimes, people we pass on the street or find sitting across from us in a bus or a waiting room; even sometimes with people we know very well but seldom take the trouble really to look at- we see something that stops us in our tracks. We catch a glimpse of some unexpected beauty or pain or need in another's face, or maybe we just notice the tilt of an old mans ... cap, or the way a young woman rests her cheek on the palm of her hand, or the way a child looks out the window at the rain; and for a moment, then, our heart goes out to them in ways too deep for words. We would love them right if we only could. We would love them truly and forever if we only knew how." (Secrets in the Dark, 99). We get glimpses of this deeper reality because, of course, it is what we are originally made for. We are designed to love like this. We are made for agape.
When we get busy, distracted, and overwhelmed it can be harder to see this. Part of us is afraid of this love because it is a very ideal love and we're not sure how to love this way in a non-ideal world. We think we'll get hurt, or that we'll hurt others. But, in those special moments we see a glimpse of God in the faces of others. There is a connection between us and them that is unspoken and undefinable. God is close and calling us into this love at all times because this is the center of what God is about. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said, "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40). Everything else in the Bible is commentary on this love. Everything else in the Bible is to help us understand what this love is like. Jesus is saying that we haven't truly understood any portion of the Bible until we see love in it.
1 Corinthians 13 is primarily about what it means to be a Christian, which means following Christ with others. How do we interact? How do we use our gifts and talents? You are about to begin a search for a permanent rector to serve St. Timothy's. Imagine a particular person applies for the position. This person can miraculously speak in other languages. They have the gift of prophecy. They have mountain moving faith. They have given a vast fortune to the poor. They have endured beatings and torture for the sake of the gospel. (sounds good, right?) ... But,... they have one thing against them. They don't have love. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that you shouldn't hire them. Love is what makes any of that other stuff matter. If our work and gifts don't come from our love, then they are meaningless. This is how central love is to the Christian life. If we don't do it out of love, then there is no point in doing it.
If you are the most beautiful and desirable person in the world, but have not love, there is no point. If you amass a fortune of billions of dollars and are the most successful business person ever, but don’t have love, there is no point. If you have three PHD’s and are the head of the Cosmological Physics department at Cambridge, but don’t have love, there is no point. ... If we have the best choir, the most beautiful building, the best programs, the best Sunday school, and we feed all the homeless, but have not love- there is no point. ... If we call Jesus Lord, or cast out demons, or do miracles in his name, but don’t have love- there was no point to any of it. We are salt that has lost its saltiness- we have lost our purpose. As Christians, if we are not centered in love, there is no point to any of it.
If we think about these things from the point of view of eternity we will see what Paul is saying. There will be a time when God’s presence will be fully with us in a way that He is not now, so miraculous signs of God's presence will not be needed. We will not need anyone to use their gift of prophecy to tell us what God is thinking. We will not need the preacher and theologian to teach us. All these things are temporary because we will see God face to face. ... But, love will remain. When the spiritual gifts have expired, what will remain is love. It is eternal because God is eternal, and as John has told us "God is love" (1 John 4:16). When God has a hold of us we will have the freedom to love the way Paul describes- patient, kind. not envious, not boastful, not proud. Not dishonouring others, not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs. Not delighting in evil, but rejoicing with the truth. Always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering. May God give us the freedom and will to love this way. Amen