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What Is Love?

1/31/2016 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany The text is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Our second lesson for today is simply one of the most famous and familiar passages in all of scripture.  Often called “the love chapter,” these words, given to the people of Corinth, have become a staple at weddings, as well as a common text for posters, bulletin covers and needlepoint.  And yet, for all of its familiarity, this passage is not well understood.

As Erich Fromm, author of The Art of Loving, once said, “love is the most discussed and least understood subjects on earth.”  People talk about it, write poetry about it, sing about it, tell stories about it, and understand it less than any other subject.  The people of God are no exception, especially when it comes to “the love chapter.”  For the words in this passage are more than sweet sentiments spoken to a couple embarking on the journey of marriage in Christ.  They are a challenge issued to all people in the church, as the most critical challenge given to the people of Corinth and to the Body of Christ as a whole is to mimic the love of Jesus.

With this in mind, the little word, “love,” should not make us feel warm and comfortable.  It should make us uneasy deep in our souls as we are given the awesome responsibility as faithful Christians to love to the point of death.  And this is no ordinary love.  The love, in this passage, is not the love between sexual partners (eros), nor is it the generic love of friendship (filos).  This love is the sacrificial love demonstrated by Jesus on the cross.  This agape, this love, shows itself most clearly in a willingness to lay down one’s life for the benefit of another.

Agape is the word Jesus uses when he speaks about loving God – it’s a total commitment.  Agape is the word that Jesus uses to describe loving your neighbor – it’s unconditional.  Agape is the word Jesus uses to challenge us to care profoundly for our enemies – it’s with no strings attached.  For Jesus, this love is not an option; it’s a way of life.  It is not to be confused with niceties – for being sweet and nice has little to do with being loving.  For if we love, then that love will move us to words and actions that are demanding, difficult, life-changing and downright inconvenient, but necessary, for us and others.

Now, the people of Corinth were a lot like us in that they didn’t like being challenged.  They weren’t into change.  They liked the way they lived before hearing about Jesus Christ.  And they wanted this new religion to be easy to follow and comfortable.  But, what is comfortable and convenient for one person is not necessarily convenient and comfortable for another.  So, the people fought.  They fought over communion – how it should be done and who should be allowed to partake.  They fought about who was the most important authority in the church.  They fought over whether they could eat the prime cuts of meat that had been offered to idols.  They fought about giving benevolence dollars to the people in Macedonia.  They fought over whether they should get married or not.  They fought about whether you could be a follower of Jesus and not speak in the tongues of angels.  And they fought about whether Paul knew what he was talking about – especially since Paul was calling the fighting to a halt by challenging them to put away their arrogance and pride and to put on the love of Christ – the type of love that caused the Father to send his Son into the world; the type of love that caused the Son to lay down his life for us all; the type of love that empowers us to put aside our wants and desires so that we can serve others and build up the community of believers.

This love is peaceable for it is patient and kind.  It is not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, self-serving, irritable, or resentful.  This love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.  And this love will never end, even though prophecies, tongues and knowledge will pass away.  If we exaggerate the gifts that God gives us, other than the ability to love, then we are being childish and we need to grow up and begin acting like adults – for this self-sacrificing love is the more excellent way to live.  It is the greatest of gifts and in using this gift people become great.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer was once asked to name the greatest person in the world.  He replied, “The greatest person in the world is some unknown individual in some obscure corner of the earth who at this very hour has gone in love to be with another person in need.”  The late Episcopal Bishop James Pike speculated that if there was a heaven that it would be an empty place, not because no one would qualify to pass through the pearly gates, but because those gathered in heaven, beholding the suffering of those dispatched to hell would have to leave the streets paved with gold to minister to those in agony.  Now, this is love in action!

When a group of soldiers, released from prison camp at the end of World War II, were heading home, bad weather meant that some would have to be left behind.  To get as many on board as possible, each soldier was allowed one piece of luggage.  Well, two the soldiers waiting that day had been together throughout the war and had watched over each other.  One was selected to leave on the last boat and the other was forced to stay behind.  So, the first man turned over his duffel bag and emptied its contents onto the ground.  He then told his friend to climb into the duffel bag, lifted the bag onto his shoulder and carried his most important item of luggage onto the departing ship.  Now, this is love in action!

Love in action can be a simple act of kindness, such as my friend John, driving up from Connecticut, to take me to an appointment with the surgeon when I unable to drive and then bringing me home and going out in the backyard to clean up dog droppings.  Love is action can be a simple act of kindness, such as Alyce and others dropping what they were doing in order to help me find my dog when she had gotten out of the house and was missing.  Love in action can be a simple act of kindness, such as sending a birthday card to someone who could easily be forgotten, making a phone call to someone who is homebound, or helping an elderly neighbor shovel snow.  Love in action is self-giving and asks nothing in return.

Jesus said it.  Paul echoed it.  Love is what the kingdom of God is all about.  Love is not convenient and comfortable.  Love is not sentimental.  Love prods us into action as we put aside self-interest and reach out to those in need.  There are limits to what we can know, but there are no limits to this love.  So, let us strive for the more excellent gift.  As faith, hope and love guide us into our future with Christ, may we strive to love as we have been loved by the Son who laid down his life for us all.  And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.



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