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. 2And 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. 3If 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.
is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or
rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or
resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things,
believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
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. 9For
we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but
when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When
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. 12For 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. 13And
now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of
these is love.
I returned yesterday from a week at our regional high school camp, directed by our own Chris Turner with about 60 youth from around the state including a half-dozen from this church. I thought it would be a great way to end my vacation, to get me all inspired to return to work after a week with energetic, enthusiastic, exited youth. And they were all of that and more, much more. So now I am ready – for another week of vacation! It was a great week, definitely an experience more of our adults should have as well as our youth.
The theme this year for all of our youth camps is “Peace Talks”. As part of that theme, we talked about the biblical concepts of shalom in Hebrew scripture and agape in the New Testament. We also talked about the Hawaiin concept of aloha, appropriately on the first day, and the South African concept of ubuntu, which says, “I had a good day if you had a good day” and “I am because we are, we are because I am.”
In essence, all of our activities and discussions pointed toward living out love in community. One of our family group sessions was devoted to the implications of such ideas for the global community. In that session the youth were asked to engage in a role play in which they were the leaders of a nation called “the United Lands of Harmony.” They were informed that the nation of “Far Away” had been taken over by terrorists and was planning to blow up a big theme park in the United Lands of Harmony in just 12 hours. What would they do? Our newly appointed president of United Lands immediately said, “nuke them.” I don’t think he had quite got the point of the camp theme yet. His Vice President responded, “you can’t do that, it would kill thousands of innocent people.” A lively discussion quickly ensued. They eventually settled on mobilizing the National Guard to protect the theme park and sending in special forces to disrupt the terrorists and bring about a regime change in Far Away. (I wonder where they got that idea?)
In the midst of the discussion, one of the campers suggested dropping teddy bears on Far Away. We laughed and continued our serious discussion of what would really work but she insisted that she was serious. “Why?” we asked. “Because,” she said, “it would show love for our enemies and then they would no longer be our enemies.” That’s the problem with kids these days—they take the teaching of Jesus seriously.
Sure we can come up with a hundred reasons why such a naďve approach would not work in foreign policy, but what do we know? We’ve tried colonialism, military domination, mutual assured destruction, pre-emptive war and regime change, all disastrous in one way or another, but when have we ever seriously tried to take Jesus at his word and actually love our enemies as a means to peace?
Love has to be one of the greatest over used words in the English language. When we speak of love for cities and pets and food and cars and guns and trees and movies and any one of a thousand other inanimate objects, how is that we are to speak of love for another human being let alone our enemies? Can we really equate that what we feel for a person with something like chocolate? (Not a good comparison, since chocolate almost always wins!)
Judy’s family had a collie when she was growing up and Judy loved that dog. He was her faithful companion. She told him all kinds of secrets and he never told anyone else. She was very devoted to him. Somehow, however, it wasn’t very reassuring to me when she told me that she never wanted to marry anyone else in her whole life besides me, and that dog.
At least a dog returns your affection. When we talk about our love for our cars or our homes or a particular brand of clothing or shampoo, what are we saying? Is it any wonder that we have difficulty finding appropriate ways to express love in our society when the object of our love is too often just that, an object? How do we equate this beautiful, eloquent, poetic language of 1 Corinthians 13 with our attachment to things?
The Greeks and other ancient societies had an advantage over us in that they had different words for different kinds of love. In the early church they had a special word used exclusively for love of other human beings or God, agape, one of those biblical words we talked about at camp and often in church. It would be unthinkable to use agape for an object because agape, or Christian love, has nothing to do with attachment to things. Nor is agape what you feel because someone is worthy of your love. How else could Jesus say, “Love your enemies”? Does your enemy do anything to deserve your love? No, loving your enemy is the extreme example to show that the nature of Christ and therefore the calling of Christians is to love unequivocally. Love is not about feelings, it’s about decisions, about having the will to love.
Sometimes that is the most difficult part of being Christian. A number of years ago I was asked by a family to call upon their father who was not a member of the church, this or any other. He was a rather difficult person, a pain in the butt. He had succeeded in alienating everyone who was close to him. I had met the man a time or two and didn’t particularly care for him either and I wasn’t very eager to visit him so I put it off as long as possible. Finally I got up the nerve to go see the man. I patiently listened to all of his complaints. I heard him blame everyone but himself for all of his problems. He complained how everyone in his family had abandoned him and now he was all alone. After he had recited his sad litany of all the wrongs done to him, never once acknowledging any of the things he had done to alienate others, he said to me, “it feels good to know that at least someone cares.” I had a hard time feeling sorry for the man and yet I left there with a sense that even this cranky, bitter, decrepit old man needed love too.
Remember the story of Zacchaeus? That wee, little man who wanted to see Jesus? We tend to think of him as this poor, misunderstood, little fellow but the truth is, if we had known Zacchaeus, if he were a member of our community, we would despise him and hate everything he stood for as did everyone else in the story, save Jesus. Zacchaeus is the enemy among us. We talk about how the love of Christ can change one such as Zacchaeus but the real question is whether or not the love of Christ can change ones such as us to love our enemies and the unlovable.
That kind of love comes only as a gift of God. That is why this chapter in 1 Corinthians 13 comes right in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spirituals gifts like healing, tongues and prophesy. We typically describe love as the greatest of the gifts from God, but Paul doesn’t actually call it that. This love is not one among many gifts, it is one above all gifts. Paul calls it a “way” (12:31) as in “way of life.” To call it a gift would imply that some have it and some don’t. If that were the case then we could easily walk by the man in the ditch on the road to Jericho saying, “Gosh, I sure would like to help, but that’s not my gift.” The main point Paul makes here is that in contrast to those spiritual gifts which he names in chapter 12 and then again in chapter 14, love is not optional. We don’t love only when and if it feels good, we are called to love in all that we do.
1 Corinthians 13 of course is most often read in weddings as I did once again just yesterday. In the context of a marriage ceremony it makes perfect sense. Love your spouse like this: Be patient and kind, keep no score of wrongs, do not gloat over the wrongs of others... You hear that at weddings and it makes you feel all warm and gushy. (Get out the handkerchief.) Now don’t tell this to wedding couples, but marital relationships were probably the last thing Paul had in mind when he wrote this. I remind you that the church in Corinth was one of the most bitterly divided churches in all of ancient Christendom. We read this text like it was written for a couple of newlyweds but a better image for the audience would be along the lines of Hezbollah and Israel. This is not about creating a happy marriage, it is about creating a loving community among a group of people who are very diverse, opinionated, thick-headed and thin-skinned. Love is the basic principle not just of Christian unity, but also global harmony. Such love that overcomes all barriers does not come easy or cheap.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian martyred by Hitler, popularized the concept of “cheap grace”, the notion that grace sometimes is too freely given. Bonhoeffer feared that we make it too easy for people to accepted into the church without requiring any change in their lives or outward evidence of making a commitment to Christ. By the same token we can speak of “cheap love” for we cheapen love when we reduce it to slogans on bumper stickers. We cheapen love when we use “I love you” as casually as we would “good morning” or “how do you do?” We cheapen love when we equate it with physical passion. We cheapen love when we separate it from our actions.
So I would rather speak of costly love because that is the kind of love God requires of us. Love that invests the self, the most costly thing we have to give. For love is not something to be casually given away like penny candy, or that can be used to brush off very real, concrete problems in relationships. There is a line in one of the wedding vows I give to couples. It says, “I will love you even when I am angry with you.” And they always laugh when they say it. Later on when they are really angry it won’t be so funny anymore but I hope they remember that vow. To love in anger does not mean that you ignore whatever it is that made you angry, rather it means that you care for the other person enough to work through the anger, to find a way to overcome the obstacle in your relationship.
I don’t know any couple that has a perfect marriage, but I believe Judy and I come as close as any. This past week we celebrated our 26th anniversary. It was Wednesday. I was at camp and Judy was home alone. Happened last year too. Now you know the secret of our marriage! Seriously, I’ve said before that the success of our marriage didn’t just happen by itself. We didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “Gosh, what a wonderful marriage we have.” Our relationship and the love we share is the result of hard, intentional work. I tell couples whether they are preparing for marriage or contemplating separation, you have to invest yourself in your relationships if they are to really mean anything. You have to be willing to spend more time, energy and money than you spend on any hobby or certainly more than you spent on your wedding. For any relationship, friendship or companionship to thrive and be truly satisfying, you must give yourself to it.
At the same time I also say that you have to be willing to let go. You have to love the other person enough to let them be their own self. One of the major destroyers of all relationships, whether it be marriage or family or friends or neighbors or even among nations, is manipulation, seeking to control the other. It backfires in marriage just as it back fires in foreign policy. I suspect that parents who try to run their children’s lives are a greater cause of juvenile delinquency than is parental neglect. So you need to let go, to give the other person or people their own space. As we say in the unity candle ceremony in our weddings, we “leave the light of the individual candle burning to remind yourself that marriage is a relationship that requires care for the light in each person that the flame of the whole will burn bright and strong.”
True love, you see, is costly, because we must give without expecting anything in return. And true love is costly because we must give with great risk to ourselves. Frenchman Jean Vanier, champion of the disabled, says that “love is the greatest of all risks, the giving of myself.” That is precisely the meaning of the cross. Jesus had so much love he was willing to risk it all.
True love is costly because contrary to all the Valentine cards and love songs, true love is more than just words. Words are cheap, actions are the language of love. Paul begins this chapter on love by asking, “What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels?” What is the primary spiritual gift in Corinth that has caused the most turmoil? Speaking in tongues. In other words, this question is a direct challenge to those who claim to be filled with the Spirit but who show little love. To put it differently, you can sing like angels, but if you don’t speak to the visitor, what good are you to the body of Christ? You can preach like Paul, but if you don’t love like Jesus, who will listen? You can even heal the sick, but if you can’t tend a broken heart, what good have you done?
When we see someone who is in need, it is an opportunity to show our love. When someone is in trouble, it is an opportunity to show our love. When someone is ill, it is an opportunity to show our love. When someone disagrees with us, is angry or upset with us or we with them, it is an opportunity to show our love. Even when they are violent towards us, it is an opportunity to show our love. If we do not believe that, we have learned nothing from the death of Jesus. To be a Christian is to put love into action. I long for that day when we as a people, a community, a church and even as a nation are guided by the love of God for all people in all of our interactions. Such begins not in state houses and capitols, not in the United Nations or peace talks between nations, but right here, with us. When we do, it unleashes a very powerful force that can change the world. “Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity,” said French theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin, “we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.”
That love is the light of the unity candle we use to symbolize the start of a new marriage and it is the light of the world that will end the darkness of war. Let the teddy bears fall.