love’s power

preachinga sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, being the third of a 3-part Epiphany season preaching series on Christian community, with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 31, 2016

LOVE

I love Pontheolla! I love South Carolina living! I love Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, our home and bed and breakfast! I love you, my Epiphany community!

Though vast the English vocabulary, numbering over a million words,[1] making possible greatly nuanced communication, there is only one word for love. Therein lay love’s utility, capable of being employed frequently, and love’s difficulty, though used often, always without obvious specificity. For I yearn to express my heartfelt affections, yet, confined by one word, “love”, I cannot possibly mean the same thing about my wife, my locale, my domicile, and you.

Blessedly, the Apostle Paul comes to our aid with his paean in praise of love. As originally written, Paul had an advantage, for Greek has four words for love. Here, he uses agape, meaning unconditional and unlimited benevolence; a term with which the ancients described the nature and action, the being and doing of God.

Paul doesn’t define love. Not in a way that satisfies the Socratic classifications of essence and quality. What is clear is that love is great! Greater than the omni-linguality that can speak every earthly and heavenly language. Greater than an all-mystery resolving, all knowledge-retaining prophetic ability. Greater than a faith that transcends all trial and tribulation.

To know what love is for Paul, we need to review chapter twelve (which we’ve read over the past two Sundays) concerning spiritual gifts;[2] Spirit-given abilities never for our individual use, but always to enable us to do something for the community. At the close of chapter twelve, Paul, after giving examples of various abilities, writes, “I will show you a still more excellent way.”[3]

Now, we read, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love…” Love, for Paul, is the greatest spiritual gift. For it is given to all, granting all the power to be as God is and to do as God does. In this realization, clearly Christianity is an incarnational religion. It’s not about a pie-in-the-sky-coming-down-from-on-high-(and even less)-a-wait-until-you-die-God, but rather God’s Spirit alive and well now in human flesh. And not only in Jesus, but in us!

Paul then describes what loving like God looks like when we do it: “Love is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.” To highlight that agape is unconditional, I refer to but one of these attributes: Patience, which means more than tolerance of insult or injury, or tight-lipped forbearance amid hardship.

The ancients, in their quest for shared meaning and assured understanding, noting how easily a word could be misconstrued, often told stories. A five-part anecdote described the word, makrothumia, translated patience:

(1) One, who has wronged you in the worst way,

(2) against whom you want revenge,

(3) the capacity for which you possess,

(4) is standing right next to you, and

(5) you choose not to exercise your power.

In first century tribal cultures, your offender, often a member of your clan or family, stood next to you, literally, for a lifetime. Therefore, the refusal to avenge yourself couldn’t be a one-time, but had to be an ongoing choice (lest folk decimate their villages by killing off everyone who committed an offense!). Over time, as the story was retold, a 6th part was added. In the repeated act of doing this “more excellent way” of love’s patience than lex talionis (or law of retribution, often stated as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”[4]), the natural yearning to strike back was resolved through forgiveness.

Love is power. As a spiritual force, an energy in (thus limited by) our human flesh, that is our imperfections, love’s only conditionality is whether we choose to use it. And I believe that we, Epiphany, as followers of Jesus, are a community of love. Not primarily feeling in love, for emotions wax and wane. Rather ever acting out of love, the truth of which we, today, being present, have demonstrated…

“Faith, hope, and love abide…and the greatest is love.” Why?

Faith and hope, each involves assurance, conviction about something unseen.[5] Each of us here today arose this morning believing, trusting, having confidence that “church” would happen in Laurens, South Carolina, at 225 Main Street, at eleven o’clock. Acting in faith and hope, we’ve come. Now here, in order for community to be present, incarnate, real, we still need love; beyond merely feeling in love, but acting out of love. Love’s constant necessity is its greatness. Love is what we always need to do. Most truly, love is what we always need to be.

Footnotes:

[1] 1,025,109.8 – as estimated by the Global Language Monitor on January 1, 2014.

[2] 1 Corinthians 12.1-11 and 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a were the lectionary appointed epistle readings for the 2nd and 3rd Sundays after the Epiphany, respectively.

[3] 1 Corinthians 12.31b

[4] See Exodus 21.22-27, Leviticus 24.19-21, or Deuteronomy 19.21. Fairly stated, at the root of the principle of lex talionis was the intent to provide equitable retribution for an offended party. The law sought to define, hence, restrict the extent of the reprisal so that the punishment might fit the crime.

[5] See Hebrews 11.1: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

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2 thoughts on “love’s power

  1. Paul,

    In keeping with the beginning of your sermon I’ll say, I LOVE your sermons!

    It gets more difficult from me after the first paragraph. Why? Because I’m sure like many people, I struggle to love like God on a daily basis. I don’t always love my neighbor, or even myself for that matter. I do believe one of the things I have going for me is patience, it’s an every day part of my life… and the fact that if I love you I do so unconditionally probably doesn’t hurt me either. So I’ll keep moving forward til I get the rest of how I’m supposed to be living right too. Thank you for your sermon.

    Like

    • As the saying has it, Loretta, “keep on keepin’ on!” It’s something I believe we all need, must do. The “keepin’ on” part is allowing God’s gracious Self-giving of the Spirit-love to come into our hearts and souls and beings entire. For it is the presence and power, the gift and grace of the Spirit, I believe, that empowers us to be and do as God is and does. So, let’s continue to be open to God!

      Like

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