January 31, 2016 – Is…and is not…

Epiphany 4   January 31, 2016   1 Corinthians 13:1-13   Is… and is not…

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Love is patient. Love is kind. And –

Loves is not enviou – or boastful.

Love is not arrogant – or rude.

Love is not insistent on it’s own way.

Love is not irritable – or resentful.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing…

The word of God in First Corinthians defines love for us here – positively, in terms of what love is… And – negatively, in terms of what love is not

And I’m remembering one of my former pastors, Barbara, and her husband Mitch, a clergy couple – both of whom used to take turns writing the sermon that each of them would then deliver in their respective churches… And I remember Barb telling me “once you know that we share the sermon writing, you can tell who wrote a sermon any given week – because all of mine are about “Jesus loves you…” And all of Mitch’s are “Jesus loves you – But…”

And both Barb and Mitch were formative influences on my preaching… And most of my sermons, you may have noticed, can’t quite decide – whether the main point is all about ‘Jesus loves us’ – or about ‘Jesus loves us – But’…. (The word of God says it both ways. Both can be right…)

And here we are today hearing again the best-known writing on love in any language… And if anything, the word of God tells us more about what love is not… Than about what love is

Causing me to remember the old song that sings about love as a question mark – That’s why I ask – the Lord in heaven above – What is this thing – called love? Which can have a different implied answer, depending on who is singing the song…

And this week, as it happens, our daughter Rohi borrowed a Mr Rogers video that features a circus performer asking virtually the same question – ‘what is love?’ But this time when the question is asked, an owl opens a bible and reads – “love is patient. Love is kind…” Which seems to settle the matter sufficiently, for viewers in Mr Rogers Neighborhood…

But with many adults, I notice, there are often still questions about ‘what is love?’ Sometimes even for married lovers who have been together a long time in love… Even when we know we’ve got it, love is often still a profound mystery… All the more so, the closer we get to the author of love… Whose name is never mentioned directly here in our reading today – yet who is always present whenever two or three or more of us gather together in the name of Jesus. Who has revealed for us the truth – that God is love…

God is love. Which is not the same thing as saying ‘Love is God’… Because God is love in ways so many, so deep, so wide we can’t fully comprehend… And because there is love, and there is love… And not everything we call ‘love’ has anything to do with love… or God… Which is yet another reason why it is still fair to ask “What is this thing called love?”

And maybe love is defined here by the apostle at least as much in the naming of what love is not (as what love is)…Because it is so easy to imagine love… in all manner of idealized imaginative language… (Like It’s so easy to fall in love… It’s so easy to fall in love… Or… All you need is love, love – love is all you need….)… Love language like this can be ok, even good, in it’s place… But done to excess or inappropriately, this kind of ‘love’ language soon starts sounding like a noisy gong or clanging cymbal… When the works of love aren’t there to go with our words of love…

So St Paul takes some time to name some of the many things love is not. (And this list is illustrative, not comprehensive, and it could go on and on for a very long time…) But – Love is not envious – or boastful – (And I have been there, and I have done that, I confess – Lord have mercy…)

And love is not arrogant – or rude… (Again, I’ve been guilty, many times – Lord have mercy…)

And love is not irritable or resentful…. (Yet again I confess, and pray – Lord, have mercy on me…)

And when we read this whole letter to the church in Corinth, it becomes evident I’m not the only one who has difficulty being patient and kind – and who has to struggle not to be envious or boastful, arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful…

The Corinthian correspondence – the letters we call 1st and 2nd Corinthians – are written to a church that’s obviously full of serious problem behaviors… Yet this church is also dearly loved by God… and by the apostle who writes these letters…

And I can identify with both the apostle and with the Corinthian church members… So I do keep asking God – What is this thing called love? And…

How does one get over all these negative behaviors that are not love? How do we get better in our daily practice of love?

When I was a new Christian I often puzzled about why Christians don’t always seem altogether loving… Probably I was overly naive and idealistic when I was younger. And of course I did notice many Christians are good at love. But even having had a born-anew experience, I know it’s often still a struggle for me to love… As was the case with many of the Corinthians of old…Some days, some moments, some situations are easier than other days, moments, and situations…But struggle seems to be the norm for most of us, most of the time, through the ages.

Yet the word of God assures us – we can do this thing called love.

Today’s reading is squeezed in between longer discussions of the body of Christ, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and how we’re supposed to function together as church…

First Corinthians 12 (where we’ve been reading the past two weeks) gives a long list of spiritual gifts – and tells us all these gifts, all these ministries, are all for the common good, and the building up of the one body of Christ – concluding: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way….”

This more excellent way of course, is love…. And faith, hope and love these three abide, and the greatest of these is love… But now the letter continues without a pause saying: “Pursue love – and strive for the spiritual gifts – and especially that you may prophesy….” Meaning speak the word of God accurately for God’s people.

On either side of this wondrously beautiful passage on love – deservedly the best known ode to love there is – Corinthians tells us – strive for – pursue – spiritual gifts…

Even though all the gifts and ministries we’re told to strive for and pursue – all amount to nothing – if we don’t have love – even though speaking eloquently in human tongues and angelic spiritual tongues (the Corinthian church’s favorite spiritual gifts) mean nothing at all if we haven’t got love – even though prophetic speech (first on Paul’s list of greater gifts) – that provides necessary guidance for God’s people is also worthless – if not done in love

Even though if I give away all I’ve got, but don’t have love it’s all for nothing – even if I give up my life for the cause of God – if I do so without love – it’s all for nothing – Yet still –

At the end of this naming of all the attributes of love and along with all this naming of the absolute priority of love… Still the bible tells us – both to pursue love – and also to strive for the greater spiritual gifts. The both-and gospel of love and spiritual formation…

The apostle is perhaps short on practical counsel here. St Paul will go on to say we shouldn’t speak in ecstatic tongues in public unless there’s someone to translate. And let only two or three prophets speak, and not all at the same time. That’s about all the how-to help we get. And when it comes to describing how we are to love – all we hear is “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…”

We can do this thing called love, the word of God tells us clearly. But.. Exactly how we are supposed to become patient and kind and all the things that love is… is not explained. How we are to cease from all the things love is not is not explained…

Except, of course we have been given our short list to remind us of what love is… And is not… To let know when we’re on the path of love… And when we’re not…. And…

Of course the bible assumes we know we can’t love… on our own. Assumes we know (or can figure out) our need for mutual support. Assumes we know our need of one another every day… in prayer, in serving together, in love…

Assuming we know these basics…the word of God seems to say… We can figure out the details together…

Because the only way there ever is to love… is with God, together… forever.

Thanks be to God. Amen.