First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
February 3, 2019
“Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes”
Sara Branom, Member in Discernment
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (NRSV)
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. 2And 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. 3If 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.
4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8Love 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. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When 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. 12For 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. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
1st Corinthians chapter 13 is probably familiar to anyone who has ever attended a wedding. The poetry and beauty of the verses are inspiring and an encouragement to a couple setting out on a lifetime together.
However: Paul didn’t write these words to create feel good feelings, this reading isn’t a poem, it is actually an admonishment to the Corinthian church.
Corinth in Paul’s time was the most important city in Greece, more important than Athens. It was successful trading port with all the benefits and problems of a large cosmopolitan city. It was an ethnically and culturally diverse city, the population was mostly Romans, Greeks and Jews and due to its geographic location there strong influence from Asia and Africa. Corinth was a city of great wealth and great poverty, this economic disparity created problems for the church as it did in the community. Corinth was a melting pot of religions, Judaism, the Greek and Roman gods, and Asian mysticism all had a place to worship. All this diversity of wealth, faith and tradition was reflected in the Corinthian Church creating a quagmire of beliefs and opinions, with the accompanying infighting and disagreements. It reached a point where they wrote a letter to Paul with a list of questions asking for help to learn what were they supposed to be doing as Christians?
Our reading this morning is Paul’s answer to them
Paul admonished the church because they were becoming a reflection of the world around them and not a reflection of Christ. The church’s mission of bringing the love of Christ to Jews and Gentiles had gone off the rails with self-promotion and attention getting behavior. God’s love had been replaced by love of self, love of power, love of influence. God’s love for them, and their love of God had become blurred, diminished by the noise and distractions of the world. And Paul is calling them out on it, telling them they are just noise, what they are doing counts for nothing because love is absent. Over time we have shifted to reading these verses as eros love, emotional love. Paul is talking agape love, the highest form of love and charity – sacrificial love – life and world-changing love and without it the church and its members were divided and confused.
Paul’s admonishment to them was no matter what you do in the church, whatever your gifts are, no matter how much time you spend working on behalf of the church, no matter the size of your bank account, if you don’t do it with love it amounts to nothing.
Paul explains this is because faith, hope and love are the only things that last and the greatest of these is love. Paul tells them the prophecies will cease, tongues will be stilled, and knowledge passes away, but faith, hope and love last. Instead, Corinthians, focus on loving one another, disagree without creating division, do not put yourself above one another.
Paul wanted the church to know that divine love; agape love is where believers experience their true selves before God and with one another. Only this love can heal the wounds of racial injustice between Jew and Gentile, the socioeconomic divide between free and slave. Only love that is patient, kind, not envious, or boastful or arrogant, love that endures all things can accomplish this reconciliation. Reconciliation we are still working on today with injustice and economic disparity.
Thankfully we, and the Corinthians are not left to rely on our own capacity to love like this. Because quite frankly on our own we can’t it is not in our nature. Yet the good news is because God has already fully known us and loved us anyway, we can love like this and we are to love like this because it is the only thing that will heal and bring change for good.
Our love is the greatest gift we can give back to God. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul, the next greatest is to love our neighbor as ourselves. The love Jesus teaches us is two-fold: it reaches towards God and then to those around us.
The news shows us every day in vivid clarity the ways we don’t love one another. We feel sad, horrified, and angry at what we see. Yet the response of society has often been more violence and divisiveness. There are exceptions; one is a church in Charleston, South Carolina which in 2015 showed the world agape love.
Forgiveness was the response of the families of the nine killed and one wounded at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015. Two days after the shooting the families did something no one else had done, they publicly forgave the murderer. This response was so different than the norm; it shocked the world and put our eyes on the faith of these people. Let me read to you how CBS News reported it, as you know CBS News is not a faith based organization so the language used in this report is remarkable.
“One by one, they looked to the screen in a corner of the courtroom on Friday, into the expressionless face of the young man charged with making them motherless, snuffing out the life of a promising son, taking away a loving wife for good, bringing a grandmother’s life to a horrific end. And they answered him with forgiveness.
“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice rising in anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
These faithful, deeply grieving believers made a choice to respond with agape love. This was not the emotional good feelings of eros love, or the comradarie of phileo love, brotherly love. This is agape love, it makes no sense to the world because it is not of the world, it is God. It is often hard, and painful. It is usually not our first reaction; this is an act of faith by these believers people who chose to follow God’s commands in the hope it would bring healing to them, their community and the murderer. Remember what Paul said; the greatest things are faith, hope and love. This is an example of what it looks like in our times.
We just celebrated Jesus’ birth. We celebrated God’s love coming to earth. The law wasn’t working anymore, is was time for a personal relationship – so God’s love for us came to earth as a babe, who became a man showing us how to love like this.
God wants us to grow in love nowhere in the Bible does it say God has commanded us to grow in intelligence, or to grow in power.
1John 4:19 tells us we love because Christ first loved us.
1 John 4:7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.
To experience God is to experience loving others where they are, for who they are. Loving people in this way is hard, it costs us, it can be frightening, it is work just ask the families of Charleston. It is also good and right. It is good and right because it is how God loves us, we are difficult, prideful annoying people and every day we receive God’s Grace and mercy.
We live in divisive, challenging times. Truthfully I spend a lot of time talking back to the television telling someone my opinion of them and their views. When they keep talking over me I hit the mute button. I’m confident this is an example of the clanging cymbals and resounding gong Paul mentions. Because this behavior does nothing, it changes nothing.
There is an organization called Parent’s Circle, a grassroots organization for Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones due to the conflict. “Two fathers a Palestinian and an Israeli, who had both lost daughters because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, tell their story after the Separation Wall was built. One father said “No wall, no matter how high, can stop two kinds of people, one determined suicide bomber and the one determined peacemaker,” They each went through their own moments of wondering how life could possibly carry on given the death of their children due to such senseless, mindless fighting. They could have chosen revenge to ease their pain, many do, but instead realized that the only way forward was to talk to each other.
In each other, they found the way to carry on because, in their words, “our blood is the same color, our tears are just as bitter.” They found a way to carry on that chose peace instead of revenge, conversation instead of fear, life instead of death because one of the fathers said “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this Holy Land.” At stake for both fathers was peace. By God’s mercy we will never find ourselves in the circumstances of our brothers and sisters in Charleston, Israel and Palestine; nonetheless the command to us is the same.
This is the sacrificial love that led God to send his only begotten Son so who believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Paul isn’t calling members of Christ’s Body to feel passionately about each other or even to like each other. He is calling us to act in a self-sacrificing way toward people who can be insulting to us, and whom we may not like. Agape love is disagreeing without creating division, perhaps even keeping the dialogue going. Paul says love is slow to anger, which tells me we can be angry, not anger that is touchy, reactive, hypersensitive, or manipulative, or explosive, but rather slow informed anger in response to the destruction of God’s creation whether it be a human being from the soul and life crushing consequences of injustice or the destruction of God’s gift to us of the natural world. Remember love is what lasts, so use your anger constructively to contribute to change.
As people of faith this is our role in our world. In your bulletin this morning is a letter written by Reverend Dr. John Dorhauer the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, exhorting us to be the image of Christ in our times. I encourage you to read it. (http://www.ucc.org/a_pastoral_letter_01282019)
In the world, in our pews, schools, offices, book clubs wherever we find ourselves we can certainly disagree. I would encourage you as a child of God with your uniqueness and special view of the world to pray for Divine love to be present with you as you walk about our hurting world, because the love you bring during these divisive times, is the only thing that has a chance to cause change, and is the only thing that will last. AMEN