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The Way

 

Old Mystic, January 31, 2010
1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Summary

Writing to a church immersed in a controversy about the possession and use of spiritual gifts, Paul points to a more excellent way: the way of love. Real life, what Jesus calls abundant life, is life powered by love in speech, in action, and in expectation. It is Christ’s way; The Way.

Sermon

Most of us would agree about the importance of knowledge. Even the most ardent defenders of the subjective—perhaps even mystic—nature of experience, especially religious experience, would attempt to articulate it and explain it through a careful rational account. Furthermore, we would systematize it and even dogmatize it so that everyone should conform to its validity as we perceive it: objective universal truth.

Beyond of what our understanding of the nature of knowledge is, common sense seems to indicate that our human ability to have just a grasp of the truth is bound by our own limitations. Paul’s statement is sobering for the Corinthians as well as for us: “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.” The Apostle’s metaphor is colored by the fact that mirrors in his day were imperfect and only reflected a pale and dim image of reality. It is like if in our time we attempted to distinguish the features of a body through a dark, thick, and rugged glass. Again, we would only perceive a distorted image of the object.

It is perhaps against the grain of certainty and objectivity about truth with capital “T” that Paul is speaking today; to claims of authority whether religious, political or economic. It sounds—to me, at least—like Paul is saying, “folks, you don’t have all the facts. Moreover, you just have a dim, distorted, insufficient idea of reality.” The way of human knowledge is and has been quite deficient to achieve the good life for all human beings; taking a look at history should be enough proof. But Paul knows, as we do—hopefully—that love can be experienced and that the very description of the nature of love in our passage claims its power to transform our lives and the whole world. “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And love is God’s way: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Can we in any way love like God does? The very idea of sacrifice is horrifying to many. Yet, the scriptures also tell us that God’s love has been shed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. When we embrace God, when God is in our own center, we begin to understand more about love and we grow in our ability to love God and one another even if it is sacrificial. Paul made it clear to the church in Corinth, a church that believed it was spiritually empowered for life and ministry: there is a more excellent way! The Way; the Way of Love, the Way of Christ.

Loving, however, entails many challenges. Interestingly, Paul addresses his audience about the power and consequences of speech. Speech can be edifying but it can also be destructive. Though the apostle refers to speech in spiritual utterances as tongues and prophetic verbal communication—as sermons, perhaps, I am going to take the liberty to expand the challenge to speech in general. It is about how we talk to one another; what we say about each other; the weight and the tone of our words. For good reason James referred to the human tongue as “a fire” that “stains the whole body” and as “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Beyond the hyperbolic rhetoric of the biblical writer, there is so much speech in the world that is aimed to mercilessly destroy another human being.

Hasn’t political speech increased in its hatred in the last few years? As far as I can see—though I’m subject to my own bias, as anybody else—the tone, the use of words and arguments, including flagrant fallacies and outright lies are constantly being used, not to just debunk the opponent’s ideas or proposals, but to completely destroy that person if possible. Good dialogue and debate are absolutely essential to construct a social and political world that seeks the common good. Yet, the language used in politics today is far away from being constructive. We are constantly bombarded through all the types of media available today with negative, destructive, and even evil speech.


We have the blessing of the first amendment: freedom of speech. Yet, as any right, this precious right is bound by the universal challenge of the golden rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Freedom of speech is not permission to use words in any way we please; after all, we all know what it means to have to take back what we said. It is the creative possibility to build, to encourage, to nurture, to save, and to care through our words. We can speak the truth in love. How often we tell someone that we love him or her? Without love, speech may be like a “clanging cymbal” or perhaps “piercing dart.” Praise be to God, there is a better way.

The way of love is challenging beyond our speech. In fact, we know that we speak out of the “abundance” of our hearts, as Jesus taught and that our speech is rooted in deep convictions. But again, love has been granted to us by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we can be guided by love in speech and in action. In his hymn of love, Paul goes beyond the power of words generated by love; he expands to how human action can be inspired by love—or not. The apostle uses religious metaphors to illustrate human action: faith that removes mountains, giving away possessions, and giving away our bodies in sacrifice. Indeed, human endeavors require the strong determination to get things done, but unfortunately, very often throughout history this has been done not without the enslaving of others. Human action has been constantly fueled by the human spirit of achieving great things, yet it has also often been plagued by the lack of love.

Are the words of Paul strong? Is building the Golden Gate, or the Empire State Building, or the statue of Liberty of no gain if there is no love? I have no doubt that there must have been a higher motivation in those who undertook these architectural endeavors; they probably loved humanity and they envisioned the beauty of a good society. But the statement of the apostle is compelling, and let me paraphrase: in the end, there is going to be little or no meaning to any human construction—whether physical or spiritual—that is not made out of love. For that reason, I say, Love is the Way.

Love is so essential for the church! I’d love to be able to call us a “missional church.” A congregation that goes beyond its walls to build, to act, to inform, to create, to serve, to bless—in a word, to do mission—beyond its walls. Yet, it has to be out of love! Mission begins by loving our neighbor and I mean the person next door. Or perhaps we should begin by loving those in our own household. No matter how small we are or how insignificant the drop we pour into the bucket it is for us, love will make a difference.

Finally, Paul spoke about the expectation of love. Actually, love can wait. Put it that way it doesn’t sound too good. The victims of the earthquake in Haiti, real people with names and faces, can’t wait for our love to be poured unto them. They need concrete expressions of that love right away. Yet, love is patient. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Don’t we know well that love has not been fully realized in this world? When it is finally fully realized that will the beginning of the consummation of the kingdom of God.

Love can wait and, by loving, our expectation of the kingdom and of the “shalom” to come is hopeful. We can love and wait even without receiving love in return because God loves us, because we can love, and because love will never end. There will be a time when preaching and hope will no more be necessary, yet love will remain for ever.

Messages about love are always challenging. Love is constraining, very often difficult, and occasionally painful. We could perhaps call it a commandment. It is the law and it should be obeyed. But that sort of legalistic approach will fall short of love’s purpose which calls for doing good in God’s Spirit. But that same Spirit also compels us to love. And the reward of love is so powerful, so precious, and so beautiful, that any suffering related to it will be completely overshadowed. Love is and will continue to grow to be the blessing of the very presence of God at the center of our lives as we go on with our journeys. Love will show the way; Love is the Way; the Way of Christ.

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