08 September 2013

Growing in Grace

Path to the West Lomond, Kingdom of Fife, Scotland
Photo: K. Kovacs
1 Corinthians 13

16th Sunday after Pentecost/ 8th September 2013/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

“For now we see in mirror, dimly, 
but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). 

Now and then. 

We are here, now; then, we shall be there.
Now, we know in part; then, our knowledge will be complete. 
There are things we know now; but don’t get too comfortable, for there are things we’ll soon need to know; then something new will be required of us. Now and then.

            The apostle Paul’s famous “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians is not the lectionary reading for today. I chose it for our Kickoff Sunday as we start a new program year, as we recognize our church school teachers, as church school resumes, as we ordain and install new officers, as we gather for Communion, as we proceed outdoors for lunch and sit at tables that are extensions of the Lord’s Table. I chose it for two, related reasons, which I’ll explain.

            The chapter is all about love, of course; it’s often read at weddings. But it was never written to stand on its own and it’s not a wedding text.  Chapter 13 flows out of chapter 12 and in chapter 12 Paul makes the important point that we have been endowed by the Spirit with certain gifts, gifts that are to be exercised for the common good.  It is your responsibility, and mine, to discover what they are; and then it’s your obligation, and mine, to use them.  We use our gifts—or more correctly, our gifts use us—in, through, and for one thing, and that is: love.  Indeed, love is the greatest gift and it shapes how we exercise all of the others. 

            If you don’t have love, if you’re not being governed by love, if you’re not motivated by love, driven by love, then someone or something else is governing you, motivating you, driving your life that has little to do with God’s grace. 

            What is love?  It’s patient and kind.  It’s non-possessive.[1]  It doesn’t insist on its own way.  It’s not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It isn’t selfish. It’s other-directed. It’s not irritable (or irritating!) or resentful; it rejoices in the truth. It bears all things. Believes all things. Hopes all things. Endures all things.  Love suffers with and for the other.  Love, like God, never ends.

            So the first reason for lifting up this text today is that as the body of Christ we need to be reminded, weekly, that it’s love that governs, motivates, and drives us. Without love, all that we do as a church becomes a lot of noise, noisy gongs and clanging symbols, endless committee meetings and busyness, but lacking in depth and soul.  Without love, we’re nothing.  Without God’s love alive within us and in the way we live in community, we’re just an institution or a social club with membership dues or an ethical society.  Love has to be at the center. 

            And when love is at the center, when it’s the generative force at the heart of all we do, something remarkable happens.  When God shows up among us and within us—for God is love (1 John 4:8)—then be prepared for action, for something to happen.  Be prepared, then, for growth and change and development, for movement, transformation.  Because, you see, when we know God loves us—loves us through and through to the core of our being—when God’s love flows through us and we have the courage to really love another, we are changed.  Love changes us.

            This leads to the second reason for turning to this text today.  It might be trite, you have heard it a thousand times before, but it needs to be said because we all have terrible memories: a Christian is always a pilgrim, we’re always on a journey. We’re followers of the Way (Acts 24:14), and we’re on the way toward becoming the people God already knows us to be.  We’re not there yet; no one is. But we’re on the way. The Christian life is never static, but always dynamic.

            My hunch, however, is that a lot people assume that Christianity is static, very static.  I would argue that the West’s fascination with facts and data and information has turned a living, dynamic faith into a static (stagnant?) religion of ideas and beliefs that leave so many feeling empty or hollow or indifferent.

            And this point is particularity relevant today, because it speaks directly to the way we approach Christian education. We can teach our children about God and about Jesus, we can tell them all about the stories of the Bible, have them recite Bible verses, teach them facts and data and stuff them with information, but if we don’t introduce them to the Christian life, if we don’t lead them into a lifelong relationship with the God who loves them, if we don’t invite them on the journey, and if we don’t convey to them that it’s a journey worth taking, then what good is it?  What good is any of it?  Why are we here?  Indeed, we can teach our children, force them to attend church school (and I know it’s a struggle for many families getting here on Sunday mornings), but if we as adults and parents don’t have that relationship with God, if our commitment is lacking, if we’re not growing in grace—all of us, whether we have children in church school or not, this applies to all of us; when they were baptized, the church stood up and promised to help nurture them in the faith—if our faith isn’t being nurtured, if we’re not on the journey, if we don’t think the journey is worth taking, then what good is it? What good is any of it? Why are we here? 

            Growth is implicit in the New Testament.  It’s assumed. Growth in our capacity to give and to receive love.  Growing in grace. When the focus is on growing in love and grace, we will really discover what Paul is talking about here in the “love chapter.”  And do you know what will happen?  Instead of just reading about love, seeing this text at a distance, we will be transported inside the logic of the text. We will resonate with Paul’s words because they have become our words too.

            The Spirit calls us forth on a journey:  we are here, now; then, we shall be there. That’s what love does.

            We know in part, but there’s more for us to know and discover. Love is always the best teacher.

            The growth toward Christian maturity is assumed.  We might begin as children in the faith, but we’re not to stay there.  The goal is to grow up, to mature, to have an adult faith, which doesn’t mean having as adults the same faith we had as children, but an understanding of Christian commitment and discipleship that is analogous with being an adult, a faith forged in the crucible of human experience, through joy and suffering.  As contemporary poet Christian Wiman says in his enthralling new memoir on religious faith, “It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or denied the reality of your life.”[2] The goal is to move from seeing Christ dimly to seeing him face-to-face.  And can you hear the relational aspect of claim? It’s a journey of encounter and discovery.  It’s all about relationships.[3]

            The truth is, we’re on this journey together, trying to figure out this life of faith and service, discovering the love of God, learning to love ourselves, and one another, trying to be faithful.  We’re each at different stages on the journey, but we’re on the road together.  We can’t do this alone.  We need one another because the challenges facing us today are immense, for the Church, for Christianity.  For example, how we respond to what’s going on in Syria is a case in point.  There are no easy answers.  What is required of us as Christians? By “us” I don’t mean the United States, I mean the Church, the Christian witness of peace and love, those who have been baptized in Christ.  What about our responsibility toward fellow Christians in Syria? What does Love ask of us?

            As we begin this new program year, as we approach the Table, maybe that’s the question the Spirit is placing before us - What does Love ask of us? - both individually, personally, and collectively as a community of struggling saints:  What is Love asking of us?

[1] James E. Loder (1931-2001) defined love as “the non-possessive delight in the particularity of the other.”
[3] Cf. the work of James Loder, who was tireless in making this claim. See Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter and Conviction (NewYork:  Peter Lang, 2011).

1 comment:

Lydia said...

Thanks, Ken. It is good to read your sermons when I cannot attend.