31 January 2010
Love Is All We Need
1 Corinthians 13
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 31st January 2010
At the risk of sounding like I’m channeling the Beatles or even contemporary artist Mary J. Blige in her recent hit single: All we need is love…for love is all we need. Burt Bacharach’s, “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love,” is also running through my head. (1) In many ways, it’s really that simple and that complex. All we need is love, for love is all we need. We both desire love and fear it, sometimes at the same time.
Paul turned to love as the remedy for the many divisions facing First Church, Corinth. As we’ve seen over the last two week moving through this portion of Paul’s epistle, the congregation was plagued with all kind of divisions, disturbed by an assortment of moral and dogmatic sins. The place was a mess. There was a group in the church who believed they were specially gifted with particular gifts of the Spirit. And so there was this competition or struggle among them over gifts, who had them, which ones counted more than others, how to get them. It was really, looking back on it, very childish. But it almost tore the church apart.
In this larger discussion about spiritual gifts, Paul takes a breather, pauses, and then launches into one of the most beautiful and well-known poems in the Bible. He offers a hymn to love that continues to be sung across the ages, even by people who aren’t Christian. Paul says to the Christians in Corinth, all you need is love because love is all you need. Love is lifted up as the solution to the conflict. But if it were really that simple, then the church throughout its long history would be a far more accepting, understanding, and loving place. As with most things pertaining to the gospel, it’s complicated, complex.
Part of the problem is the way Christians have come to think of love. Perhaps the first thing we should do is retrieve this entire love chapter back from public domain. It’s our text and not the domain of the greeting card industry, for example. I wish there was a way to copyright the text, to make it the domain of the church, prohibit its use as tattoos, on posters, plaques, coffee mugs, or any other form of Christian kitsch, or on greeting cards particularly cards celebrating marriage or Valentine’s Day. That’s what we most often associate with this text, with romantic love. And of course it’s been read at countless weddings across the ages, maybe even at your wedding or someone you know. One of my good friends, Tom Sheffield, a Presbyterian minister who served in New Jersey with me said that after one wedding in which he read 1 Corinthians, a guest going out the door said, “That was really beautiful. Did you write it yourself?”
In some ways, it makes the perfect text for a wedding, the way it shapes what a marriage should and can be like. Yet, it’s overused. Plus, this isn’t a marriage text; Paul had no vision of it being used in a wedding ceremony, and he certainly did not understand all of his references to love as having anything to do with what we might call romantic love. Right after Paul finishes this poem he continues to talk about spiritual gifts. So, we have to be careful not to decontextualize the text and make it into something it’s not.
So what is Paul trying to say to his church? Of course, the answer is contained in the Greek, which has three words for the one English word for love. There was philos – love of friendship; there was eros – sexual love, or better desire; and there was agape – a rarely used word adopted by the early church to summarize Christian living because it means selfless or sacrificial kind of love. This is not to say that a Christian only loves agapeically (Yes, this is a word, a theological word. Theologians love to make up words.), with no place for desire, sexual love, or friendship. All three matter. Every time love is mentioned to this church in conflict, the Greek reads agape.
It’s the experience of agape that Paul turns to as the remedy for the problems facing Corinth. Because while eros and philos are important, it is agape that actually forms the church of Jesus Christ. It’s agape that forms the body of Christ. Because Jesus was the fullest embodiment of agape, agape emanates from the body of Christ the church. It’s the heart-beat of the congregation, it’s what sets the pulse and rhythm of this living, breathing body we call the church.
What is agape? First, it’s not all about feelings, the way romantic love is. In some ways, feelings have very little to do with it. This kind of love is a choice, not necessarily based on how one feels on a given day. But a choice to do what? Yes, it’s selfless love – choosing to putting others first over your own needs and wishes. Yes, it’s sacrificial love, making sacrifices for the sake of the other. There are plenty of people who are really good at putting the needs of others first, who make all kind of sacrifices for the other (sometimes for the wrong reasons). These people might be celebrated for the sacrifices and even selflessness they embody, but it’s not necessarily love. There is a dimension of love here. But is there anything distinctively Christian about it? There are plenty of Muslim mothers in the world who makes all kinds of sacrifices for their children, who put their family’s needs ahead of her own.
We have to go a little deeper and remember something one would think would be very obvious to us, but, I think, has been sadly neglected when we talk about Christian love. If Christian love is the kind of love Jesus embodied in his life and calls his followers to embody, then we must say at some level Christian love means choosing to suffer for the sake of the other. I’m not talking about some kind of masochistic obsession. It’s not intentional self-flagellation (which has a long history on the church). Jesus demonstrated with his life that: “there can be no love without suffering.” Contemporary Paul Fiddes offers this powerful summary of love and suffering. “[For] suffering in the widest sense means the capacity to be acted upon, to be changed, moved, transformed by the action of, or the reality of another.” (2)
To suffer means, literally, to undergo, to bear, to permit, to allow. It means, at some level, to be moved, to be acted upon by the experiences of the other. Love means a sharing of experience and when we risk the sharing of another’s experience we also risk being changed, moved, impacted in our own lives. It bears all things experienced by another, it believes all things believed by another, hopes all things hoped by another, endures all things endured by another. We suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice (1 Corinthian 12:26). And when we choose to put ourselves in the lives of others, when we risk empathically putting ourselves in the lives of those around us, when we wonder what it must feel like for them, when we risk that kind of imaginative wondering of what it’s like to be another, something happens – we are acted upon by their experience and in a moment or slowly over a lifetime, we are changed, we are moved, and maybe even transformed by what we share and experience together.
This is a different kind of love – when we choose, risk getting close to another, undergo another’s experience, to care for their needs, to share hopes and sorrows, we are acted upon and there’s always the possibility that we will be changed. And because we resist change, there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to be acted upon, which means we withhold love. We resist love because we don’t want to be change. And sometimes that fear is so great that we don’t get close to another human being, we build and maintain walls that keep us far apart.
But once you start wondering what it’s like for another human being to exist – particularly if that person scares you or what she represents, if that person raises all kinds of fears and anxieties in you, even if it’s someone you really despise, or if that person is homeless and really smells, makes you uncomfortable, whether it’s an orphaned child in Haiti, a couple going through a rough patch or on the verge of divorce, the lost, the confused, the sick, the dying – then there’s the possibility that such a consideration will change you. For once we allow ourselves to be acted upon, literally or imaginatively participating in the experience of another, then inevitably our actions change. If we stay with this posture long enough we just might find ourselves become more accepting or forgiving. We just might find ourselves suddenly becoming more patient (1 Cor. 13:4), maybe even kind (1 Cor. 13:4). We might suddenly find ourselves holding back our agenda or opinions and not insisting on our own way (1 Cor. 13:5). May we stop being irritable or irritating to others and give up being resentful and jealous and maybe even fearful (1 Cor. 13:5). We stop competing with each other – in Paul’s context, you stop worrying about gifts and focus on the other – we find in the other a fellow-member of the body of Christ.
Do you see how agape – unlike philos or eros – builds up the church? Because through it we build community, it draws people together. Through it we build one another up – and then the concrete actions a particular community makes are reflective of this deeper desire to really love one another, to get close enough to each other that we really know the suffering of another, be touched by it, and may be so moved to do something about it, if only to just dwell with the suffering of another so she, so he know they’re not alone. Or to get close enough to each other that we really know another’s joy, learn what makes us tick, what we’re passionate about, and share in making sure these joys and hopes and passions are honored and protected.
As you read over the reports to the Annual Meeting this morning, just revel in how much we have and are accomplishing together as a church. Christ’s love is in this place, our capacity to suffer with and for one another and for the world, are reflected in the concrete actions we have taken this past year. Love is a choice. These reports reflect our choices. Pay attention to all of the verbs in the report. All of the activity rotates around the desire to be a church that embodies Christ’s love.
It’s all there in our actions: in mission, in outreach, in worship, in our care and improvement of the facilities, in education for all ages, our counseling center, in acts of peace and justice, in tangible and intangible ways, a unique kind of love permeates all that we do. It’s there, especially in the deacons work: 221 visits; 215 phone calls; 684 cards/notes. And all of our financial resources and gifts, all of our various income streams allow us to do this amazing work, even in an enormously challenging economy. The work of the Vision Task Force will, no doubt, celebrate who are and help us deepen our ability to risk the kind of love that even more reflects Christ’s presence in us and among us – because this is what the world really needs from us.
This, Paul tells us, is what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. It’s this simple and this complex. It’s the vision and work entrusted to us. It’s what we’re called to. It’s about love in action.
1. Beatles, “All You Need is Love,” (1967), written by John Lennon & Paul McCartney; Mary J. Blige, “Love Is All We Need,” (2004). Burt Bacharach, “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love,” (1965).
2. Paul Fiddes, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 171.