Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
31st of January, 2016
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If you have recently attended a wedding, particularly a wedding in a church, there is more than half a chance that you heard the famous passage about love from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This description of love is so popular that it can be read at the most secular of wedding services. Among my congregation at Mount Macedon were two civil marriage celebrants who told me of couples who were absolutely determined to have wedding ceremonies completely free from religion, with no mention of God whatsoever, but who, when presented with First Corinthians 13 as a possible reading, agreed that it said exactly what they wanted to say about love. First Corinthians 13 has escaped from its original context and become part of our general cultural heritage.
There’s nothing wrong with that; I think the more these words are heard the better, but my job today is to put this passage back into its original context. And the first thing to say is: thank goodness the church at Corinth was such a mess! We owe the very existence of this letter to the Corinthians to their many problems; according to Paul, the church at Corinth was in serious disarray. They were divided on the basis of who had baptised them; they squabbled over who was most important; they took each other to court; they didn’t share the Lord’s Supper together. This most famous passage of the letter, this description of love as patient; kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, has been written because this is not the sort of love the Corinthians are demonstrating. Paul is not writing kindly advice to a couple about to get married; Paul is pointing out to the Corinthians their own sinfulness. Love is patient – as you are not. Love is kind – as you are not. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude – but you are!
The immediate context of today’s reading is the passage we heard last week about spiritual gifts. Members of the church at Corinth had been arguing about who had the best gifts. Paul reminded them that all spiritual gifts came from the one Spirit and were given for the building up of the church as a whole. People were to use their individual gifts as members of the one body. Last week’s reading ended: ‘Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.’ This week we find out what that ‘more excellent way’ is. It is, of course, love.
As I have said before, and will say again, love is at the core of Christian faith because the God we worship is love. The Bible is an enormous collection of sometimes contradictory writings; Christian history shows us that the church has always been made up of frail and fallible human beings who have often struggled to live out their baptised destiny; the rule by which we interpret both the Bible and Christian tradition is love.
On that note, I want to share something with you that I read this week that completely nauseated me. A pastor at the Arbor Springs Baptist Church in Alabama wrote a letter to the editor of a Baptist newspaper condemning the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention for saying that the USA should welcome Syrian refugees. Among other things he wrote: ‘Perhaps our leaders should study the Old Testament when God gave specific instructions to destroy these people (even their women, children and animals). Why would He give such instructions? Because He knew the impact these idol worshippers of false gods would have on His people. It is not a matter of loving your neighbour. My neighbours are the people that value the same standards of life and way of life that I value.’ Does that make anyone else want to vomit?
The thing is, in one way he’s right. There are parts of the Bible in which God apparently tells the people of Israel to commit genocide. My favourite is the story in 1 Samuel 15 in which the prophet Samuel tells King Saul: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”’ (1 Samuel 15:2-3) Then, when Saul spares the king of the Amalekites and the best of the animals God rejects Saul as king for not following God’s instructions. Read the Bible literally and you’ll agree with Pastor Ted Sessoms that sometimes God does apparently command genocide. Read the Bible through the interpretive lens of ‘the greatest of these is love’ and you’ll agree that a story about the destruction of the Amalekites has nothing to say to today’s refugee crisis.
Luckily the response from many other Christians to the pastor’s letter has been, and I quote: ‘Look, you’re wrong, and someone needs to break your computer so you can’t email this stuff to anyone anymore.’ Moving back to love …
The love that Paul describes is a love that is seen only fully in God. There are children in my life who I love so dearly that if they needed it I would happily give them my bone marrow, a kidney, part of my liver. But am I always patient and kind with them? Well, no. Think about those you love most. If you tell me that you have never been irritable towards them, ever, I will politely suggest that you have a selective memory. When couples marrying choose this reading one of the things that I tell them is that this description of love is something to aspire to. In marriage, as in all other loving relationships, we are encouraged to imitate the love God shows us, but we are human beings and not God, and for us loving one another will always be incomplete, until the complete comes, the partial comes to an end, and we know fully, even as we have been fully known.
Did Jesus, God-with-us, show this sort of love? In today’s gospel reading he does not seem to be particularly patient, kind, or un-irritable to the people in the synagogue at Nazareth. Last week we heard the first part of today’s story, in which Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah. I love the Nazareth manifesto so much that I’m going to read it again: ‘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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ Using the words of Isaiah, Jesus tells the people what he’s on about – and initially they’re impressed. They speak well of him; they’re amazed at his gracious words. That’s where last week’s reading from the gospel ended; with everything going well. But as I said in last week’s sermon, that wasn’t the end of the story.
The people of Nazareth then seem to make a massive mistake. They say: ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ It could be a continuation of the praise, along the lines of, ‘goodness, we watched this young man grow up and look at how well he’s turned out!’ But Jesus’ response to them suggests that he knows that they are seeing Jesus as a hometown boy made good, someone in whom they can have a proprietary pride. And neither Jesus nor the Lord’s favour belongs to them. Jesus hasn’t come to reassure the insiders who believe that God is with them; he’s come to welcome the outsiders into God’s family. And he tells the people of Nazareth this, using examples from the Hebrew Scriptures of God reaching out to those who don’t belong to Israel. The God Jesus reveals is a God who cares not just about the Jewish poor, captives, blind and oppressed, but about all of them, of whatever race or religion. The God that Jesus proclaims is a God who welcomes outsiders.
And so from welcoming Jesus as one of their own made good, the people of Nazareth are filled with rage. Like Jeremiah, Jesus has come to plant and build, but also to pluck up, pull down, destroy and overthrow. The good news that Jesus has brought is good news for both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, the free and slaves, adults and children, Pharisees and tax-collectors, scribes and sinners – but if the Jews, men, the free, adults, Pharisees and scribes don’t want to join with Gentiles, women, slaves, children, tax-collectors and sinners in the new family of God, the good news isn’t going to seem quite so good to them. For those on the inside, God’s love for the outsiders can be quite scary.
In his response to the people in the Nazareth synagogue Jesus epitomises tough love. Yes, love is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable or resentful. But love also does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Love rejoices in the truth. And the truth is that God’s love is not limited to one nation or religion or class or gender or sexuality. Anyone who does try to limit God’s love in that way needs to be challenged – as Jesus challenged the people of Nazareth and as other Christians have this week challenged Pastor Ted Sessoms. It was much less dangerous for Jesus to challenge people than it is for us, Jesus being God incarnate and knowing more about what people were thinking than we will ever do. But there are still times when our imitation of God’s love means we must challenge the unloving.
As I said last week, we are not God. We cannot love others as God loves us. We will always fail and fall short. But that doesn’t give us a reason not to try. Every week as you come in I hope that you notice the ‘welcome’ sign on the front doors. The same ‘welcome’ is on our website and our Facebook page. If you haven’t read it recently I invite you to read it again today. That long list of people we welcome to this church is one of the ways in which we try to imitate God’s love. Unlike the people in the synagogue in Nazareth we know that God does not belong to us. We belong to God, and we welcome everyone else who belongs to God here to one of God’s millions upon millions of houses. Such an open welcome can be challenging and frightening to those who want to keep doors closed, but if we seek to follow in Jesus’ loving footsteps we have no choice but to be open. ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ Amen.