In his first letter to the church at Corinth at Chapter 13 St. Paul describes a special kind of love. I have reflected on 1st Corinthians 13 many, many times and in no other place have I found a better statement on the absolute importance of that kind of love. And I can think of no better way for us to approach the season of Epiphany than understanding our need to demonstrate such love.
As a Christian it is absolutely necessary to understand that God loves us, all of us. And our response to God's love is clear: we are to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. We are also to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus challenges us further. Jesus says we are to love our enemies. The kind of love that makes any of that possible is agape love: self sacrificial love that puts the well being of others first. “Agape” is the Greek word used in the Church for that kind of love: a love that puts the needs of others ahead of our own wants and needs.
Let’s approach this issue first by thinking about some things people do, often unconsciously, that can impede them from exhibiting agape love toward others. Here just a few.
Too often being abrupt and dismissive. And its opposite: assuming that someone who might simply be pre-occupied was being abrupt and dismissive to you. 2. questioning the motives of others, rather than taking one another’s statements at face value, and giving people the benefit of the doubt. 3. suspicion that there must be an ulterior motive behind what someone is telling us. 4. an unwillingness to see mistakes as a normal part of life. But people forget, and people make mistakes, lots of them; and most of them are unintentional. 5. a failure to realize that others have their own convictions and need not always agree that everything we think is right. 6. assuming that when someone disagrees with an idea of ours that they are attacking us personally. 7. finally, an unwillingness to actually listen to what someone else is saying, rather than trying to figure out what we are going to say next.
Now, who is guilty of that? Well, me, for one. I am guilty of some of that from time to time; not all of it all the time, but definitely some of it some of the time. I’m not proud to say that. But it is true. We are all sinners, including Pastors.
Let’s look at what St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians says that would help us to avoid that list of mistakes I just read to you. Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth is addressed to a divided church. Paul wanted them to understand that they were not exhibiting "self sacrificial" love even toward one another. Paul calls self-sacrificing, or agape love, a love that “seeks not its own.”
As Paul lays it out in Chapter 13, he sees that kind of love as the ultimate truth about who God is, about who Jesus is. It was Paul’s own epiphany in terms of understanding what God is trying to do on this earth: to establish love: love for the Father, love for the Son, and love among all people. Ultimately, nothing else matters. Only love. And here is his bottom line for all of us: Without love we are nothing. Here is just some of what he says in that Chapter.
Paul says, “If I speak in human tongues or even the speech of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Preachers ought to pay attention to that one. No matter how well I preach, no matter how clever I am, no matter how well I know the Bible and no matter how well I can speak about it, and write about it, if I do so without love, I have done nothing more than make a lot of noise. Paul, a beautiful writer, says that pretty words are nothing but noise without love.
Paul says, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.”
All the education that I have accumulated over the years is worthless without love. All the insight into the Bible, all the “insider” information that I have picked up, isn’t worth anything on its own. I want to rebel at that. A lot of hard work went into the gathering of all this stuff in my head. How about you? All you have learned, the wisdom you have gained, the skills you have perfected? Don’t they stand for anything? Well, without love, Paul says that they don’t!
But what about faith? Paul says : “And if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
That’s going a bit far, isn't it? Isn't faith, after all, what saves us? How can it be “nothing?” Well, Paul says that without love, it is nothing. Faith without love, my friends, isn't faith. Period. So if you are a Christian and are proud that you are saved, which is a sin in itself, then, watch out; because if you can’t demonstrate love toward others, you really have no faith at all.
In my life I have known many Christians who know just about everything there seems to be to know about Jesus, except that he is love. These people wear their faith on their sleeves, like some badge of honor. But they don’t know that he is love. If they knew that then they wouldn't use their knowledge to bludgeon everybody else over the head with it. They wouldn't feel so self-righteous because they think that they sin less than others. They wouldn't spend so much time testing fellow Christians about the details of our faith, separating us in their minds from the "true believers" like themselves. They wouldn't be such Pharisees. Not if they truly loved like Jesus loves.
I could go on with further examples about the importance of agape love. But I won’t. Because Paul spells out the characteristics of self-giving love in detail. These, says Paul, are the characteristics of agape love:
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant
5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
That’s it. First Corinthians 13. Read it. Study it. Pray about it. And then compare this definition of agape love with how you demonstrate your love to others day in, day out.
I can’t tell you how that comparison will come out for you. I can tell you that I've done it. I come out fine on some, OK on others, and I fail on some. Six months ago I probably would have come out about the same way, but not necessarily succeeding or failing on the same points. You see, we all change. Hopefully, we grow, and in that growth we can demonstrate more agape love.
In this new year my prayer is that anyone who looks in on the churches of the Baltic Parish, anyone who asks "Is this the right place for me?" will say, "Wow! Look how those folks in the Baltic Parish really care for and about one another! I would like to be part of a community like that!"