A sermon for Epiphany 4C – listen to the sermon here
When 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. In the words of Joanie Mitchell, “I’ve looked at love from both sides now. From win and lose and still somehow, it’s love’s illusions I recall I really don’t know love at all.” The Apostle Paul, who by most accounts, knew precious little about love, is responsible for passing on to generation after generation, one of the greatest love poems ever written. 1stCorinthians 13 is without a doubt the most popular reading at Western Weddings, as brides and grooms whether they are Christians, pseudo-Christians, non-Christians, or simply influenced by Hallmark sentimentality, confidently select this passage to celebrate their love for one another. Most preachers have to stop ourselves from rolling our eyes when prospective brides and grooms suggest this passage. We’ve been taught to understand that this text has nothing at all to do with the kind of love that lovers need to sustain a lasting marriage. Even if you know nothing at all about the rest of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, if you know anything at all about the love married couples share, you know that it is not anything like the love that is described in this text.
I’m as much of a romantic as the next person, but I ask you, patience, kindness, are one thing, and maybe you’ll get lucking and be able to avoid being envious or boastful, arrogant, or rude, and good luck to you if you do. But never insisting on your own way, never being irritable or resentful, bearing all things, believing all things; please give me a break. Show me a couple who don’t ever engage in a battle of wills, or build up resentments, or succeed in bearing and believing everything about one another, well, that couple is in all likelihood headed for some serious trouble. My darling Carol is perfect in every way, and I of course am perfect in every way and we are sublimely happy, so happy that birds sing when we walk by and flowers stand tall in our saintly presence…Of course not! Carol is the love of my life and being married to her is the best thing that ever happened to me. But I am annoying to live with. I have a job that interferes with our life together on a regular basis. When I’m on a role, I can be arrogant and rude. Even though I’d never say a bad word about Carol, especially from the pulpit, I will tell you this, if Carol was never, boastful, arrogant, or rude, if she was always patient and kind, never insisting on her own way, never irritable or resentful, well I don’t think I would be able to live with her. That’s not the kind of love that any of us could live with, let alone be in love with. I want a real-life partner, someone who will engage me in all of who they are, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the not so beautiful, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.
The apostle Paul is not talking about the kind of love that sustains a marriage. Paul is writing to a community in Corinth that is engaged in conflict; indeed, the followers of Jesus’ teachings in the city of Corinth were locked in conflict over a whole slew of issues. They disagreed on just about everything. The last thing these folks needed was a sappy love poem dedicated to emotion. What the Apostle Paul gives them is a piece of the Jewish wisdom tradition together mixed with a dash of Ancient Greek wisdom about “agape.”
We translate the word “agape” simply as love. But our word love is not sufficient in and of itself to carry the full meaning of “agape”. Neither is the word agapecapable of carrying the full meaning of the English word love. In Greek, the English word love can be translated as “eros,”which has to do with the romance and passion between lovers. The word love can also be translated as “phila,”which refers to the affection between friends, or the ethics that foster harmony between people. Philais considered necessary to foster peace among people. Love can also be translated as “storge”which refers to the affection o especially the affection of parents and children, or empathy of the strong for the weak, or the healthy for the sick, or even the love of an enemy, affection or kindness based on the other’s need. So, there you have three different kinds of love, before you even get to the kind of love that the Apostle Paul is talking about. Agape is a kind of unconditional love; the kind of love that is not concerned with the lovers needs, or wants, or status, but only concerned with the needs of the other
I once heard agape defined as the kind of love that seeks the best for the other without regard to one’s own standing in the relationship. In other words, agape is a love that expects nothing in return. Agape is a love that is beyond emotion. Agape is beyond emotion because it has become compassion, or empathy. Agape is the kind of love that we only catch glimmers of in this life. Agape must be embodied in order to be. Agape is embodied, compassion, embodied empathy, embodied love. Agape is beyond description, impossible to fully define and yet we would all recognize agape when we experience. Agape is a dream; a dream embodied and enacted. Agape is the LOVE that we call God. Agape is the LOVE that we call God embodied and enacted in the world.
Agape encompasses eros, philia, and storge, and all the emotions that go along with these loves and is more than the sum of these parts. Agape is Beyond the Beyond, for Agape is God. God is LOVE.
The best translation that I have ever come across of this wisdom poem from the apostle Paul goes like this:
God is patient
God is kind
God is not jealous
God does not brag
God is not arrogant
God does not take into account a wrong suffered
God does not rejoice in unrighteousness
God rejoices with the truth
God bears all things
God hopes all things
God endures all things
God never fails!
When 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. When I was I child, I thought that love was something I need to learn or to find or to do. As I become more fully human, I am learning to put an end to childish ways.
Pierre Terhard de Chardin wrote that, “Love is the very physical structure of the universe.” Tehard believed that at the very heart, at the core of all reality was God who is Love, the source of all that is, the core of everything is LOVE. Michael Morwood has taught us that, “after 13.8 billion years of evolution, the divine is at work in the universe, coming into expression in us.” If we are created in the image of God, then Love is what we were made for because love is who we are.
Is it any wonder then that love becomes known when we see ourselves in the other? The embodiment of LOVE is achieved when we who are made of LOVE, recognize ourselves in the other, because LOVE is not something that we do, LOVE is who we are.
LOVE bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, LOVE never ends. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. When we recognize ourselves in the other, we are the embodiment of love. Now we know only in part, then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. When we recognize ourselves in the other, faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is LOVE.