Sermon January 30 2022 ~ The Heart of the Matter (I Cor13) Rev. Betsy Hogan
It's one of the most well known passages of Christian scripture. This most glorious testament to the ideal of the Christian life, written by the Apostle Paul.
The hymn to love: what Paul himself calls ‘the most excellent way’. And it really is excellent. Like, I’m not sure it could technically be MORE excellent. Because our high calling as Christians, Paul says, is love.
Is this: to be patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, not to insist on our own way or be irritable or resentful, not to rejoice in wrongdoing but to rejoice in the truth, to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. Without end.
Which I don’t know about you, but things literally went off the rails for me way back at ‘patient’.
It’s quite a calling. And I hasten to say that despite the fact that this passage is often chosen for weddings, this is NOT in fact romantic love that Paul is talking about here, between couples in marriage.
There are several different words for "love" in the original Greek, that run the gamut from philia, which is brotherly love, to eros, which is romantic love, to the love that Paul's talking about here.
Which, the greek word that he uses is agape. It’s love in community. Love grounded in shared humanness. The love of wanting each other's well-being, wanting and ensuring that each other has food, water, peace, safety. Agape is the word we use for that Christian love that's mutual responsibility and mutual care, between just people.
And if it’s the ideal to which we’re held as Christians, it's a pretty high ideal. It's a pretty daunting expression of how we're called to shape our behaviour toward other people, the people around us. So that how we are with them, how we behave, how we treat them, it ALWAYS communicates that their well-being matters to us. We treat them like they're human, we want for them fullness of life as surely as we want it for ourselves – that's agape. And Paul wants our agape to be relentless.
But here’s the thing. The most important sentence, I think, in this whole passage, the whole passage that we heard earlier from First Corinthians, is the one that seems most out of place. The one that seems the strangest when it pops up – seemingly out of nowhere.
And it’s this. After the great hymn to love, all the ‘patient and kind’ and everything else, Paul writes these words: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” It seems incredibly obscure. Until we consider it within the context of the whole of the letter.
Because this is a letter – the first letter to the church in Corinth – that Paul writes to a very real church. He has no illusions about their perfection, he doesn’t even pretend to think they’re an ideal community: he’s writing in response to questions they’ve sent him about what to do about a half dozen different conflicts that have arisen amongst them. That have become really exhausting to deal with.
They’re basically a community, the Corinthians, of good-hearted, faithful, real people, who want very much to embody holiness, to be the Body of Christ – but they have questions for Paul about how to actually do that. When someone's getting on their last nerve. When there are divisions arising, when there are serious disagreements, when they just can't even with someone.
Because as good-hearted and faithful as each of them is in their own way, they’re also real people. They’re not quite perfect. They’re not quite perfect with each other – and each of them, in their own particular way, is not quite perfect at all.
They’re not always patient. They do get irritable and resentful. They try not to be rude, but sometimes – like when they’re feeling irritable or resentful -- they might get a little rude. And it’s not that they want to sometimes insist on their own way, but what about when someone else’s way is just… WRONG? What do they do then?
This is a really high ideal Paul is presenting them. So should they just give up? Acknowledge the fact they’re not up to the task? Before the people around them start getting cynical about their so-called faithfulness?
It’s kind of a heartbreaking thing. The Corinthians really want it to work. They really want to be the body of Christ, to embody the teachings of Jesus in everything they do. And it’s breaking their hearts that… they can't. That it seems like it's just naïve. Because no matter how much they want to be the Body of Christ, it’s not going to be perfect all the time.
And so Paul’s response to them – it’s actually very poignant. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
Because for Paul, the difference between a child and an adult isn't just about age. The difference between a child and an adult is the ability to understand that the world really isn't just black and white. That there are shades of grey between those blacks and whites and that's okay. Not that ideals aren’t good – idealism is motivating, it’s transformative, it’s prophetic, it’s what keeps us reaching forward --
But the difference between a child and an adult, for Paul, is understanding that there’s a great big spectrum of reality between living up to the “ideal”… and suddenly being, say, “the worst mummy EVER” – just because you raised your voice and said NO.
An adult can cope with shades of grey. Without feeling like any faltering and any mistake makes the whole thing impossible or irredeemable, and we might as well throw in the towel on the whole enterprise.
And what Paul wants for the Corinthians, essentially, is to put away childish things and learn the grace to cope with the inevitable shades of grey. To live with shades of grey. The Corinthians need, in effect, to mature enough in faith to realize that the ideals of the Christian life are good and worth striving for – but that every mistake isn't catastrophic. And it certainly doesn't negate the entire effort.
It’s a hard struggle to get from child to adult – to get from thinking in the strict binaries of black and white, good and bad, perfect or utterly ruined, to accepting that there’s a whole muddy complicated MIDDLE that’s actually what we’re having to negotiate most of the time.
But that maturity is what Paul wants for the Corinthians, for us. Not just because it's about being gentler with ourselves, not just because it's about learning to treat ourselves with as much grace as God does, but Paul wants that maturity for the Corinthians and for us for one more crucial reason.
Because the truth of the matter is that agape-love ITSELF makes things muddy and complicated and filled with shades of grey.
And most notably, as Paul's already pointed out to the Corinthians in an earlier part of this letter, agape-love makes FREEDOM muddy and complicated and filled with shades of grey.
Because earlier in this letter, Paul's had to address an issue that's come up in the Corinthian community that's all about freedom. Because aren't they FREE, the Corinthians have asked him, to eat the meat in the market that's been sacrificed to idols.
And yes, he tells them, of course they are. THEY know those idols aren't real, THEY know that they're not "participating" in some sort of "not okay ritual" by buying that meat – it's JUST meat, it's like any other meat, so of course they're free to eat it.
But it's not actually about whether they CAN, Paul says to them. It's about whether they SHOULD. And the sole thing that he tells them they need to contemplate in this regard is the effect it'll have on other people.
Because will it do them harm? Then no you can't.
It really is that straight-forward, for Paul. If you're trying to live a life shaped by love, he's saying to the Corinthians, love means it's never a question of what you CAN do, like you're just one person living in a bubble. Love means it's always a question of what you SHOULD do. Because love means the effect on other people ALWAYS matters.
Will it do them harm? Then no you can't.
In other words, Paul says, if you're trying to make this love shape your living? Then your personal freedom will get muddy and complicated and limited and filled with shades of grey.
Because this agape-love, this love for neighbour, it muddies personal freedom. It absolutely does. Love shadows our personal freedom with the shades of grey of ALSO caring about the well-being of other people.
And that's good. It's how we were created by God to be, with each other. Bound together by love as a human family – not living in individual bubbles of personal freedom but mattering to each other enough that we'd allow in shades of grey.
Not that it's always easy. And we might even struggle with it. And it might demand from us sacrifices and burdens that we really want to fight against, because we're tired. Love shadows our personal freedom. Love urges us to think of others and not only ourselves. And that isn't easy.
And then love urges us to be patient and kind with those who are stuck in the strict binary of thinking that that if they don't get to do whatever they want -- "When I was a child, I reasoned like a child." -- then they're "not free".
It's a pretty high calling. Especially if we weren't that great at patient in the first place. It certainly makes the grace extended when we don't quite achieve the ideal feel like amazing grace indeed.
We're all works in progress. Paul certainly understood that. And thanks be to God, God does too. We pause, we pray, we try again. Amen.