"Love, Walls and the Christian’s Conundrum"

Date Sunday February 03, 2019
Service Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Text 1 Corinthians 13 and Luke 4:31-30
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Ministry in the Moment"
Next Sermon "When it Comes to God, there’s Always a Catch"

     It’s called “the love chapter” and often is read at weddings, and sometimes at funerals. I’ve always thought it fit better for the latter than the former. There are a number of reasons I say that, which we'll get to later. First, though, let's recall that  Paul was writing the Christians in Corinth during a challenging, not joy-filled, time.

     The new believers were in a metropolitan area; they were surrounded by sin and other religions and were struggling to remain faithful. On top of that, there was division in the church concerning spiritual gifts; it was said that some were better than others, thus giving those who had them higher status, or so they thought. So, Paul writes his letters to the Christians in Corinth and addresses that second issue particularly in Chapters 12 and 13. In 1 Corinthians 12 he creatively describes the importance of every person and every gift, and ends by saying that they should strive for the greater gifts, the more excellent way.

     That’s what Chapter 13 describes – the more excellent way. Basically, Paul is saying that love is the more excellent way. It is the first fruit of the Spirit, which is different from a gift. While not everyone has the same gifts, and that is God’s will, by the power of the Spirit, every Christian can (and should) manifest the fruit of the spirit. According to Galatians 5:22, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

     Love is listed first and is what makes whatever gifts we’ve been given worthwhile. Love is most important, writes Paul, because if you don’t use your gifts in love, you and your gifts amount to nothing in promoting God’s will and ways in the world.

     Commentator Stan Mast translates verse 3 in this way: “No matter what you do in the church, no matter what gift you use in ministry, no matter how much of yourself you devote to God, if you don’t do it in love, it amounts to nothing at all. Love is the more excellent way than gifts and service and, even, sacrifice. So, stop arguing about gifts and ministry and love each other.” (1)

     That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Except that it’s not, because of the type of love Paul is describing. Remember, Paul is writing to the Body of Christ that is not acting in a loving way. So, he’s not talking about romantic love or the warm-hearted love of friendship, but sacrificial love. He is calling Christians to act in a self-sacrificial way even to people who do not treat us well or whom we may no like. Paul tells us what love does, not how it feels.

     So, when Paul writes “love is patient” he does not mean that love waits for problems to be solved, or for a spouse to change, but that love is patient with people who have hurt you. The Greek word we translate patient means to be slow to avenge injury, to seek revenge. And, love is not just patient, it is kind. Love does not just put up with, or ignore, hurtful people; it is actually kind to them. When Paul writes that love does not envy, or boast, and is not proud, he means that there’s no resentment of others or bragging; love does not walk around with an inflated sense of its own worth. In verse 5 the word irritable is used; the Greek leans more toward angry, meaning that love is not touchy or explosive, ready to fight or argue. (2)

     While all of these behaviors would contribute to a loving relationship in marriage, what is being described here is Christians living in the way God desires, being who God created them to be. And, while, with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can strive for that in this life – and some people do better than others – being fully ourselves, who God created us to be, is only truly attained in eternity, which is why I prefer to read this passage at a funeral than at a wedding.

     If you are wondering why we read 1 Corinthians 13 today, in conjunction with the Gospel reading from Luke, please consider that Jesus is calling the hometown crowd to sacrificial love. In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is visiting his hometown synagogue and reads a passage from the Prophet Isaiah which proclaims: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then, in his sermon he announces, “Today, the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, in this moment, all of this has come true.”

     At first that sounded great, and the people of Nazareth were thrilled, and even proud of the hometown boy. But, then, Jesus specifies who are among the poor, the captives and the oppressed; included are those who are their enemies.

     Jesus alludes to two famous prophets: Elijah and Elisha and of the all the stories about them, he picks two about prophetic ministry to people who were not a part of the people of Israel – ministry done on behalf of those who are not a part of the hometown crowd.

     Luke wants his readers to remember that Jesus’ ministry, and the salvation he brings, is available to all. Jesus’ has come not just for a few, but his good news is for the whole world, and especially for the vulnerable. Dr. David Lose writes that it is as if Jesus is saying, “When I talk about God coming to free the oppressed and bless the poor, I’m talking about God blessing the people you can’t stand, the people you don’t want to be near, the people who think are your enemies.” (3)

     So, just as much as the hometown crowd was pleased, they are now angry. And, not just angry, they want to kill him. WOW, that’s an extreme response! But, perhaps it’s a clear picture of what happens when people are asked to love and accept those they do not wish to love and accept, and to do so sacrificially.

     It’s interesting to me that three years ago, in 2016, when Dr. Lose commented on this text he used the imagery of a wall that separates people from one another. That was before the current political battle about a wall was so loud. I think we all know that this proposed wall, on the southern boarder of the U.S., is meant to keep people who are perceived as dangerous or troublesome out of our country. The principle being that good walls (or fences) make good neighbors.

     Dr. Lose says that Jesus disagrees with that philosophy. Let me quote him again: “When you live into your identity as one of God’s beloved children, you see there’s no more need for walls to keep the enemies out because there are no more enemies. Walls – and with them all the ways we define, describe and bracket out “the other” – are antithetical to God’s kingdom purpose.” (4)

     That’s easy to say, not so easy to live. So, we who are followers of Jesus are faced with a balancing act: on the one hand we live in an often dangerous and challenging world; on the other hand we are people who are to love sacrificially, not just someday, but today. It’s the Christian’s conundrum, and ther's only one way to overcome it ...by the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

 

  1. Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 by Stan Mast, www. cep.calvinseminary.edu
  2. Same as #1
  3. Epiphany 4C: “Moving Beyond Mending Our Walls” by David Lose, Jan. 25, 2016, www.davidlose.net
  4. Same as #3