The Still More Excellent Way
“The Still More Excellent Way”
January 30, 2022
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
The Gift of Love
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, 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.
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.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will 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.
We are well into the season of Valentine’s Day, according to the stores anyway. It’s impossible to not be accosted by red hearts and molded chocolate candies at any given store. Even the pharmacies! You go in to buy medicine and you have to walk past at least three aisles of candy and sweetheart gifts just to get to the medicine, and that started just about the day after Christmas ended.
For a couple years in a row now, this passage, 1 Corinthians 13 has come up in church in or near the season of Valentines Day, by shear coincidence. And so it’s necessary to get something out right now. While this passage is often read at weddings and can be meaningful when you talk about two people sharing love between themselves, it has a much broader and significant meaning. And actually, I would argue that it’s a much more subversive scripture passage than we all give it credit for.
These cold winter months when many of us are finding ourselves more isolated than usual, we’re spending our church time talking about what brings us together and how that shapes our community in the present and the future.
The city and church of Corinth is providing a useful well of wisdom. Not because of how “together” this early group of Christians had things, but because of how not together they were. Paul was writing to the Corinthians because they were arguing and being rude with one another, thinking one faction was better than another faction. They weren’t acting like a community at all. Last week we heard Paul say that community is like a body where different parts all work together for the common good. And then he said this: we must strive for a still more excellent way.
Today we hear what that still more excellent way is. It’s love. And not the kind of love you see paraded on the first three aisles at the pharmacy. Paul uses the word for love called agape (In Greek there are three words for love: eros, phila and agape). Agape love is a love that represents the good and well-being of others, society and our world as a whole. A love that builds strong and healthy communities. A love that builds bridges across what divides us. A love that mends tears in the fabric of our collective spirit.
Today we hear the familiar phrases of 1 Corinthians 13 and we get warm fuzzies inside. But it was never intended to do that. You see, Paul wrote this love letter to a group of people who had lost their sense of agape love and Paul was trying to hold up a mirror for them to see. You’re doing all these things, he writes, speaking in tongues, making prophecies, talking like you have knowledge and wisdom, giving away all your stuff, but if you’re not doing it with an agape kind of love, so does it really even matter?
The Corinthians didn’t “ooh” and “ahh” when they got this letter. Oh, how sweet. Paul’s talking about love. No! They probably let out gasps of shock and indignation. Is he talking about us? No! Surely not! A noisy gong? Boastful? Envious? Paul is calling them out. Love is not just a pipe dream of what should be but a call to account for what hasn’t been. Our capacity to flourish as human beings is not realized by how great each individual can make themselves but to the extent that we can live together in the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
We must make Love into an action word if we can ever hope to realize this true community. To belong to God’s church is to be an agent of God’s love in the world, not seeking one’s own advantage, but working on behalf of others.
My family watched Encanto. Again, I know. Each time we watch it, I hear or see something new and it almost always relates profoundly to how to be in community together. (If you haven’t seen it yet, do I sound like a broken record?). The thing about this movie is that it is so relatable for anyone who has ever been in a family or tried to be part of a community (like church).
Right as things are looking really hopeless for the family, Mirabel sees a vision with the help of her Uncle Bruno in which she realizes she has a role to play in the healing of the family. What does she need to do? The vision shows her hugging the sister she has a terrible relationship with. Mirabel launches hotly into a long list of reasons why she and her sister are at odds and why her sister will never be willing to hug her. She’s going on and on and finally Bruno has to practically yell her name to interrupt her. “You’re missing the point!” he says. “You see, the fate of the family is not up to her. It’s up to you. You’re exactly what this family needs. You just have to see it.”
This is the message at the heart of the movie and also, I believe at the heart of any truly authentic community, especially a community rooted in Christ’s agape love. To heal the family, to make community work again, you have to be willing to take the first step. You have to be an agent of change. You have to go from passive observation to active participation. Healthy community doesn’t just happen to us, it happens because of us.
This is exactly what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is a verb. Love is an action. It’s not just a feeling that can be conveyed on a Valentine’s greeting card. Agape love is about seeing the world differently. It’s about seeing yourself as beloved of God and then taking the first steps to treat everyone else around you as though they are the beloved of God. It’s about stepping into the currents of arrogance, selfishness, injustice and dishonesty and saying with our words and our actions and our heart: enough is enough! Things need to change and that change begins with us.
This week I had a vision and no, it didn’t involve Bruno. Recently I’ve had trouble sleeping because of a dream that keeps running through my head. What if this church, Cobleskill United Methodist Church, decided that its purpose right now was to make a meaningful difference in the way people treated each other in our community? What if this church decided it was its job to preach agape love into a hurting world? What does it look like to go from passive consumption of these scriptures to meaningful and sustained action? What would it look like if every ministry of this church, every decision made by this church, and every church member at their core embraced as their underlying one single mission in their life: to be people who actively love? In my vision I saw all the people who long for a more compassionate world but who have been wounded by the institutional church again finding a community here where they belong.
In a world that is changing more and more each day, I saw this church being at the front of the change preaching from the street corners, metaphorically and literally, about the radical inclusion and liberating love of Jesus Christ. You might think my vision was extraordinary, but how else do we have a hope of changing this world unless we stand up and realize we are the change we’ve been waiting for? The world isn’t going to become more compassionate and loving because we’re inside our stained-glass windows talking about it. We must live it, individually and collectively.
The amazing thing is we already have so many of the right ingredients to make this vision a possibility. We have passion and energy. You all are some of the most dedicated and creative people I’ve ever met. We already have a tremendous outreach presence in the neighborhood providing food and clothes to those who need it. We have an incredible tradition with this beautiful and sacred building and our longevity as a worshipping community in this village. And we love Jesus and we know Jesus loves us, all of us; those of us listening now and also the many, many who aren’t here yet. But this is the other amazing thing we have. We have a unique moment in history when our community and our world has never needed a prophetic, compassionate witness more than it does right now. People are tired; they are worn down; they feel erased; they are exhausted by the isolation, the injustice, the indecency and the lack of compassion that is spreading right now like a parallel pandemic. This is our moment to stand up and be a bold and prophetic witness to Jesus’ agape love by fighting for justice where it truly matters, speaking the truth in love, and practicing compassion even when it’s inconvenient.
It’s time to start putting a vision into place for the future of this church and community that picks up the pieces from this isolated season and emerges on two feet ready to do everything possible to rebuild sacred community, to see and be God’s agape love in Cobleskill, NY. I need you to help plan this future. Every Sunday in February after church I am going to be in that Social Hall with a big blank piece of paper and a sharpie and I’m going to be dreaming a dream about the agape love that will be put into action by this church in the coming months. If you want to roll up your sleeves, join me. Christ’s love will change this world yet. It begins with you and it begins with me.
Let us pray.
Grace and Peace,