Gifted(3): In and For Love

Spoiler alert! Today’s sermon is about love. And not just peripherally. We’re talking Love love—definition, practice, priority. Our text is even called “the love chapter” because the word appears in almost every sentence. You know it because it’s often read at weddings as a kind of ideal for romantic partnerships.

And while its beautiful language and high aspiration fit well there, its context is much broader. It’s smack dab in the middle of the apostle Paul’s conversation of spiritual gifts bestowed upon all God’s people, and God’s intent that these gifts be exercised in community for the common good. Our series has explored those themes, and is completed today by a reminder to do all things with love.

……but we already know that, don’t we? Love is the goal, strategy, and purpose of the church. We’ve expressed it explicitly in our Vision Statement: to practice love in action….and to demonstrate God’s love to one another, our community, and the world. Jesus often taught in parables with multiple meanings and much mystery, but he couldn’t have put the essence of faith more clearly than when he said that loving God and loving neighbor as we love ourselves are the most important commandments and pretty much cover everything else.

And if there’s one thing I know about you, Central, it’s that we know our main responsibility is to love, without exception, without condition, without limit. Can the love chapter really provide any new insight?

Probably not, if we hear it primarily as a prescription—-a formula for how to have a good marriage, a guide for how love should show up in all we say and do. Be patient, kind, truthful; don’t be annoying or jealous, don’t keep track of others’ wrongdoings. As a rule, this text serves mostly to amplify the distance between the ideal and our actions.

So I propose we hear it now, not prescriptively, but as a description. A description of the gift Divinely bestowed upon us all. To assist us in hearing it differently, I’m reading it in the First Nations Version, an Indigenous translation of the New Testament. A reading from the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter thirteen. Listen for God’s love letter….to you. [I Corinthians 13]

One of the first things you learn when studying theology is that you actually can’t. That is, the word literally means “the study of God” and there’s simply no way mortals can define and contain the immortal in a human system, even a religious one.

All our study and reflection and analyses about the Divine is contingent and incomplete, which is one of the reasons why the Bible uses metaphor (Father, Rock of Ages, King, Mother Hen, to name but a few of many) to describe certain God-like attributes: parental compassion, strength, authority, protection.

Christians believe that Jesus’ life and teachings, death and resurrection reveal the nature of God better than anything else (please understand, this is a Christian faith claim and not a judgment on other religious paths by which people travel meaningfully toward God). Jesus showed us God’s love; showed us that God IS love. By word and deed Jesus demonstrated:

  • the inclusive reach of God’s love;
  • its unconditional nature, regardless of whether it is accepted or rejected;\its transforming power through grace and forgiveness;
  • God’s intention for unity between the realm of heaven and earth, a reality in which all dwell together in peace and beloved community.

Friends, this is the love by which we are loved. Could we take a moment to let that sink in? God has given us —-placed in our hands and hearts—a gift better than any other, one that cannot be taken back, and is offered in an inexhaustible supply. With this gift, we can change the world. We can change ourselves. We can become the people, the couple and family, the church, even the city and nation God intends. Before any of that, however, we have to experience this kind of love and envision its power.

And that is not easy. I actually think the apostle doesn’t go quite far enough in describing the lack of love as “the screech of a cat or the yelping of a wild dog” (the literal translation of the verse is “noisy gong or clanging cymbal”). Those are extremely irritating yet meaningless distractions. But actions without love can be truly dangerous, resulting in death, destruction, trauma, and broken and dysfunctional communities.

There is plenty of evidence in our nation these days pointing to the lack of love—in fact, love is often cast aside as a weakness, a drag on the relentless competition to win at any cost. Empathy for migrants and refugees gets twisted into fear that they’ll spoil the good life we’ve created for ourselves. We are regularly subjected to expressions of contempt for historic institutions and foundational principles.

The despoiling of our earth home is justified by short-term economic gain. We are quick to blame and judge victims of obesity, poverty, substance use disorders. And perhaps most pernicious of all is a soul-weariness, a feeling that very little can be done to make a difference at all. We become so immersed in what we know as “reality” that we are blind to the really real, the Love that holds this world—and all of us—-securely and forever.

We have this gift. God created us in love; it’s part of our DNA, woven through evolutionary processes from time immemorial. We have this gift and as one of our young people put it, when love is shared, it spreads to everybody. Love is not a zero-sum game, but an ever- flowing stream from the heart of God pouring over and through and in us continually.

That’s the message of this meal. We are invited to the Table just as we are, flawed and fabulous; brave and fearful; messy and beautiful. We come to the Table humbly. We don’t understand it all; our knowledge is full of holes. The mirror into which we gaze is cloudy, like a mud puddle.

And still we come.

We come to eat the food of love, broken bread, poured out cup. It is Jesus’ death we remember, at the hands of both civic and religious authorities. A sacrifice testifying to the depths of hell that nothing can overcome Love. There’s no denying the death all around us, and in us.

Our love is so imperfect, so childish, so incomplete. We come to receive the gift again that will renew our experience of Love beyond imagination and expand our ability to love with patience and kindness, trust and truthfulness, persistence and with less ego. The bread of life. The cup of grace; God’s love poured out and broken for us. For you, and me, for Central, for our neighbors, for the world.

A little taste to help us remember and hold on until one day at last we see face to face. And we will know. Love is our beginning. Love is our ending.

Thanks be to God.