Sunday, May 24, 2020

a legacy of love -- a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
A Legacy of Love
1 Corinthians 12.31-13.13 (NRSV)
24 May 2020, NL2-37 text, Easter 7 (easter theme: witness apprenticeship programme)

But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
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. And 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. If 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.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love 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. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 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. For 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. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Throughout the Easter season we have been learning alongside the apostles about how to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. Our apprenticeship programme has included lessons in making eye contact and really seeing people, in having an abundance mindset, in being a praying community, and in having a teachable spirit. Now here we are in the last week of the season, the final lesson before we are sent out from our apprenticeships to put all our new skills into practice in the world.

What better lesson to end with than this? Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Love is like the foundation of our pyramid. Picture something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with food, water, shelter, and safety at the base — they have to be in place before a person can give their energy to things farther up, like relationships or education or self confidence. In this case, it’s Love that is the base of this hierarchy. Without the base, nothing else is possible. Any efforts at using gifts of knowledge or prophecy or even faith will fall flat if we haven’t built on a foundation of love.

And God is Love, according to 1 John chapter 4, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. So if we are not building on a foundation of Love, we have actually built a foundation on something other than God — a foundation that will wash away when the storms come.

These are words that are often read at weddings, to mark the beginning of a new phase of commitment in a relationship. But they were actually written to a community that was well on in their life together, and it was falling apart. The church in Corinth was conflicted, divided, and frustrated. There were divisions over socio-economic status, background, worship style preferences, and theology. And there was conflict over who was most gifted, or who had better gifts and talents than others. They had trouble even sitting at the same table for the Lord’s Supper. It was a church family pulling apart at the seams.

That’s the community to whom Paul writes that there is a still more excellent way, and this is that way: Love.

Not love the warm fuzzy feeling, not the kind of love that’s printed on a greeting card or expressed in a box of chocolates. This is love that is active and hard working — it is actively patient, making room for the different experiences of others; it is actively kind, doing for others as we would have done for us. This is love that refuses to keep a mental catalogue of past grievances, that never seeks our own advancement at the expense of others, that does not make sport of differences or even jokingly rejoice in an enemy’s bad fortune. This is love that carries the weight of relationship, refusing to lay it aside only for convenience or personal preference, that looks forward and insists on faithfulness.

And God is Love.

What incredible news, that God is like this! How different from the way so many people think of God. But this is indeed the God who looked at the creation and called it good, who led the people out of slavery and into freedom, who guided the Israelites through the wilderness even when they moaned every day of those 40 years, who insists on justice for the poor, the immigrant, and the marginalised, who took on flesh in Jesus and lived among us, gathering all sorts of people from all sorts of places, touching lepers and blessing children and feeding the hungry and forgiving the people who crucified him and commissioning women to tell the good news of the empty tomb. God is love: actively patient and kind, making room for all kinds of experiences, carrying the weight of relationship, refusing to keep a note of past infractions, being faithful.

And we are made in the image of God.

As people we spend a lot of time crafting our image, deciding what is important and building a life. 
All those other things the Corinthians valued…all those other things we value…all those things we think define us, that we use to craft that image and build that life…knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, communication skills, awards, talents, work…all those things will come to an end. They are all temporary, however much we might like to think they’re permanent. But love never ends. Love lives on long after we do. Love comes from God, and calls us to God and each other, and existed before creation and will exist long after. And after all, what’s left after we are gone? People may remember our achievements, our skills and talents, for a time. But our most enduring legacy is love — or lack of it. The mark we leave on the world begins and ends with love. 

That’s true for individuals and for communities — Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by how we love. That should be the marker of the Church here and now, and that will be our legacy.

And if we have not love, we are nothing.

Without love, we are nothing, have nothing, do nothing.

Indeed, without love, Paul says, we are a distraction. A noisy gong, a clanging cymbal — something that could be part of the ensemble, making music together, calling people to attention, but instead just pointlessly rattles about, drawing people away from the truth rather than toward it.

Sometimes I think we have built on some other foundation, not love. Sometimes a foundation of preferences, of traditions, of fiscal realities, of rules and regulations, of cultural baggage…there are many possible foundations, but they aren’t the base of the hierarchy of needs for the Body of Christ. And so we have distracted people from the good news of God’s grace and power, from Jesus’ saving work, from the Spirit’s continual call, because without love all our words are just noise. 

How will people see our faith? How will they know the God we proclaim? How will they know the love and the call from Jesus? 

By our love.

Patient and kind, making room for people to come with all their quirks and foibles, different experiences and needs.
Not arrogant or rude, not insisting on our own way.
Not keeping track of the things of the past.
Bearing burdens together, not leaving some to carry them for our desires to be easily and cheaply met.
Enduring together, not abandoning some as if they are disposable.
Holding faith and hope together, not resigning ourselves to injustice because it’s too difficult to tackle.

We don’t understand everything — we see as if through a mirror or a dark glass. But that is no excuse for withholding love. We do not have to know fully in order to love! Indeed, we might even say that as we continue to build on love, we will see ever more…without it, we will always have only the tiniest sliver of understanding. It’s only by loving that we learn to love more, just as we learn any other skill by practicing it. That’s how we grow up and mature in faith, by ensuring a strong base and then practicing love, not just in the easy moments but in the difficult ones as well.

So as our apprenticeship comes to an end, the work of witnessing begins…and though we may not feel as prepared as we would like, neither did the disciples who stood on that mountaintop hearing Jesus commission them. But we don’t have to know everything in order to build from a foundation of love, to act in love, to speak in love, to live in love, to leave a legacy of love. All those other lessons matter, but this one matters most, and without love all the others fade away. 

Now faith, hope, and love abide….and the greatest of these, the largest, the chief, the base of the hierarchy of needs, the foundation without which nothing else can be…is love.

May it be so. Amen.

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