Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
My wife Cheyenne and I have something of a running joke based on this book (on screen). It’s part of a series of books about this little dog named biscuit. Titles include What is Halloween, Biscuit? What are Shapes, Biscuit? Pretty basic learning stuff. This one is What is Love, Biscuit? We both thought it was hilarious. That someone would consult a cartoon dog to teach them the depth and intricacies of the most important of human emotions. Shapes are one thing. Love is another. I always imagine asking my own eleven year old Shih Tzu, “what is love, Newton?” And Newton silently staring back at me with his froggy eyes. (next slide)
It’s a good question, though. “What is love?” We rarely think about it. It’s one of those things that’s a given. Like “what is hate?” But love is how we describe both a 40 year marriage, and our relationship with A&W Rootbeer. Love sounds like a feeling of varying degrees of intensity. So perhaps we need to consider the word a bit more deeply.
So, what is love? Today’s scripture passage offers an answer. You’ll remember, this is a letter by the Apostle Paul to one of the churches he helped found in the city of Corinth. And he’s writing because these people fight over social status, sexual morality, and who has the greatest spiritual gifts. Some see themselves as greater, as superior to others, whether socially, morally, or spiritually. And that’s become a deep source of conflict. So the meaning of love is being offered in response to a community that lacks it. A community that is not being loving.
So in this section of the letter, Paul starts with the necessity of love. And he kind of sounds like The Beatles. All you need is love, love love love, love is all you need. That’s kind of what Paul says:
“If I speak in tongues of mortals and angels,” he writes. “If I speak in tongues, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
So in response to their spiritual one-up-manship, Paul’s basically telling them that they can be spiritual superheroes. They can have mystical experiences, speak prophecies. They can work their way to the top, win every award. They can give all their possessions away, live simply, and even offer their bodies to martyrdom. But the fact that they can do all of the above and still treat their fellow sisters and brothers in Christ with judgment and unkindness, then it means that everything else they’ve done or achieved is meaningless. It counts for nothing. Cancelled out. Without love, you ain’t nothin’.
Love’s something we need. It’s essential to human life. And we’ve all seen this or felt it in one way or another. It’s obvious. Dr. Gabor Mate, who works with addicted patients on Vancouver’s downtown east side says that every patient he treats, without fail, has grown up without the experience of unconditional love. Without it, we’re either angry, judgmental and bitter, finding ourselves unable to give it. Or we hurt, we suffer, we despair in ourselves when we don’t receive it.
We need it. Whether giving or receiving. We can be deeply spiritual people, with mystical experiences. We can tithe 10, 20, 30 percent. Answer every call, perform every service. Complete every task, dot every I and cross every T. We can cure cancer, and hear direct commands from the almighty herself. We can have everything, do everything. But in the end, without love, it’s all meaningless. Paul may not say along with Paul, John, George and Ringo that love is all we need. But he does say that we need love for anything else to matter. Without love, life ain’t nothing. We ain’t nothin’ either.
Love’s essential. We need it. But how do we know we’ve got it? Next, Paul starts describing to us what love looks like in practice. What it looks like on the ground.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
You notice how love’s an action here. Not just Romeo’s love for Juliet. In Greek, the word used here is agape. I’ve pointed this out many times before. But this isn’t just any kind of love. It’s self-giving love. This is sacrificial love. In the old King James Version they translate it “charity.” Which means donating money or pity for us. But to be charitable towards someone is to be tolerant of their flaws, and to show love even when the other person hasn’t done anything to deserve it. It’s “More Than a Feeling.” This kind of love is love that acts without condition for the sake of the other.
And really, here in describing love, he’s just rehearsing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul says elsewhere in his letter to the church in Rome, “God proves his love for us that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” For Paul, Jesus is God showing God’s love for us even at our most crushed, wicked and broken. Jesus is Love incarnate, agape in the flesh. Jesus’ suffering on the cross, his submitting himself to death, his willingness to go to hell and back, that’s what God’s love looks like. Patience, kindness, not insisting on his own way, rejoicing in the truth, bearing all, believing all, suffering all, are all signs of the presence of that very same love.
That’s how we know when love’s in the room. There’s patience, and there’s kindness in large doses. But you’ll also know love’s in the room by other absences. When envy has evacuated the building, and arrogance and rudeness are nowhere to be seen. Irritation towards the most annoying of your fellow creatures is away for the week, and resentment towards their faults and foibles is under lock and key. Nobody’s revelling in cutting another person down, but instead the truth stands in the center. And when love’s there, people seem to be able to bear hurts and burdens, and to endure suffering and pain in ways they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
When love’s in the room it looks like Jesus. You could say it’s agape or the highway.
But Paul’s not done. There’s one last thing he needs to say about love before he’s done.
“Love,” he says. “Love never ends.” All those other things, prophecies, tongues, knowledge, all of them come to an end. “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 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. 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. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Love never ends. That’s the bedrock. The hinge of the whole thing. He’s saying that there’s this eternal quality to love itself. Everything else in life is partial, spiritual gifts, prophecies. Our achievements, our failures. All that stuff is destined to slide away. But love, he says, that kind of Christ-like agape love. Along with faith and hope, love… it lasts forever. The great theologian Karl Barth says that love is “the eternal future shining in to the present.”i “Though heaven and earth pass away,” Jesus tells his disciples, “my Word will last forever.” And that last word is love.
And, so, to be a Christian. To be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, is, simply, to submit our lives to this fact of perfect love. That we were made in love. We were made to love. And we were made to reach for, and set our whole lives towards love. A costly love that’s come in to view in the image of Christ on the cross. Of a God who is infinitely patient and kind, who does not insist on his own way. But instead bears all injuries, forgives all trespasses, to set all souls right. Because accepting this mere fact has the power to change everything for us. The biblical scholar Jerry Irish puts it like this:
“The love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is a love we experience as God’s unshakeable grasp upon our lives. It is the source of our greatest security. And thus, our freedom to actually be patient and kind, to bear all things and not to insist on our own way.”ii
Because of the inexhaustibility of this love, we can begin to function without fear, without anxiety for the future. Without arrogance, without resentment, without bitterness or hatred for anyone. Because we when we truly know we’re loved in our wholeness, both the beautiful and the ugly parts of us. We can begin to love others with the kind of Christ-like resolve Paul harangues us with. Because knowing the depth, height, and breadth of God’s love for us creates a surplus of love within us. Rather than the deficit we operate out of that is our default.
So, new children’s board book idea: “What is love, Paul?” based on 1 Corinthians 13. Whatever love is, we need it to live, for our lives to be worth a damn at all. And whatever it is, it’s more than a feeling. Because, in action looks like Jesus. And finally, whatever it is, it lasts forever. Because God is love. Love begins in God, and love ends in God. Love is our source, and our ultimate destiny. It’s our beginning, and our end. No wonder we need it so badly.
You need it, I need it, we need it. as we know it in our lives. The love you feel for your children, your family, your friends. It’s a small dose, a sacrament, a sign, a symbol, a foretaste, of the greater love that resides in eternity. And even if it’s not something you have experienced, it’s not only there for you, it’s come for you in Jesus Christ. It’s been given and’ll never run out. It’ll never end. Because love comes not from us. It’s not limited by us, not limited to us. But it comes from God, the source of all things. So when everything else is washed away in the sands of time. God’s love will still stand. And it means we, too, can stand. Always and forever.