A Still More Excellent Way

Sermon for Sunday, January 31, 2016 || Epiphany 4C || 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

AStillMoreExcellentWayWe’ve all heard those words from the Apostle Paul a hundred times. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” I read them at my sister’s wedding. Perhaps you had them read at your own. Statistically speaking, if you go to a wedding there’s a better than average chance you’ll hear First Corinthians 13. Now, it is true beautiful chapter can stand apart as an ancient ode to love. But when we sequester these verses to the marital service alone, we miss how Paul uses them in the greater context of his letter. We miss how love is the corrective for the issues facing the church in Corinth. We miss what love is for. So let’s put these famous words back in context, and with a little help from Harry Potter, we’ll remember a thing or two about love.

First, I’m glad we get to read these words outside the wedding. Of course, with the snow last week, not many of us got to hear Paul’s words leading up to this chapter. So here’s a quick recap: the Corinthians are having a problem welcoming all people into their community. Apparently they have been sorting people out into greater and lesser classes depending on their material wealth, social circumstance, and (this is the one that gets Paul really worked up) their spiritual giftedness. “We need all types of people and all sorts of gifts to make the Body of Christ function,” he argues. “We are all part of the one Body and don’t you ever dare say someone else doesn’t belong because that person doesn’t share your particular set of gifts or your elevated social status.”

Paul punctuates his point by asking a series of rhetorical questions at the end of Chapter 12. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.”

And next we have the verse that links the two chapters beautifully, which the framers of our reading schedule left out. “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.” The still more excellent way is the way of love. Love is the antidote for the Corinthian disease, the symptoms of which include “welcoming only those who are like me” and “judging others solely by how they might be of use.” The first symptom limits our welcome to the least diverse group possible and siloes us off from any point of view that might expand our own. The second symptom discounts the value of persons who contribute to the community in ways that are not readily apparent. As the medicine for this Corinthian disease, Paul prescribes love.

But Paul isn’t sure the Corinthians have any idea what love is, so he instructs them. The still more excellent way begins with a recognition that love is the motivator of all God’s gifts. If I have all the spiritual gifts listed in the surrounding chapters – speaking in tongues, prophesying, understanding mysteries, possessing mountain-moving faith – but do not act in love, then it’s all worthless. Without love, I do everything for myself alone. I seek pleasure at the expense of others. I self-aggrandize. Eventually, I die deserted and embittered. But with love motivating action, our gifts do not enrich ourselves alone. With love, our gifts enrich everyone we encounter. Love is the powerful weaving force that stitches our actions into the tapestry of God’s story. Acting without love, we unravel the tapestry; we pull ourselves out until our individual threads are just wafting in the wind. A single piece of thread doesn’t tell a story until it’s woven together with other threads. The desire to be woven together is better known as love.

With this desire expressed, Paul moves on to what love does. Our translation messes this up. It should not read, “Love is patient; love is kind.” The original language involves much more action: “Love shows patience; love shows kindness.” The old song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.” But how will this nameless “they” know our love? There is only one way, and it springs from the only piece of advice an aspiring writer ever really needs: Three little words: “Show, don’t tell.”

If we have to tell people, “No, seriously, we are a loving community,” you can bet dollars to donuts that we aren’t. But if love is the desire to woven together, then we show love when we start weaving: you learn someone’s name and remember it. You ask, “Want to have coffee on Tuesday?” You look past the red doors of this place and notice the threads of God’s movement running in all directions, towards all people. And you begin to realize that this church is not bounded by these walls and doors; this church is unbounded because the Body of Christ goes forth from this place to show love in every place. You bear witness to the love of Jesus in your homes, in your businesses, the ball field, the gym, the grocery store, the street corner, the Internet. (Especially the Internet! Please show the love of Jesus online. The digital world is in dire need of the healing power of love. Just look at YouTube comment sections.)

I know it may sound tired or quaint to be preaching about love. Indeed, when Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter that Harry’s greatest gift is love, Harry just rolls his eyes. He would much rather be gifted with more talent or better intellect or greater weapons to contend with the dark wizard Voldemort. But no. In the end, Harry is stripped of all the trappings of talent and privilege and pride. He has only the love for and of his friends and family – both living and dead – to give him the courage to face his foe. To die. And then to live. (Sounds like another story I’ve heard somewhere.)

For Harry (and for Jesus) love is the true motivator. Not pride or glory. Not fame or fortune. Love: the desire to be woven together. For an orphan like Harry, this desire first manifests in finding a loving home with the Weasleys. And it last appears when he sacrifices himself to save everyone he loves. To quote Jesus, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus and Harry and, say, the heroic soldier who dives on a grenade literally laid down their lives. Perhaps we might be called to this someday, but it will only happen once. In the meantime, we can show great love by laying down our threads on the loom of God’s tapestry, side by side with each other and everyone else whom God loves.

The still more excellent way is the way of love, this weaving power that heals and reconciles creation. True love will never be tired. True love will never be quaint. True love will never end. Because God’s tapestry has no borders, only edges for more thread to be woven in.

Art: Screenshot from the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2), when Harry meets Dumbledore at Kings Cross Station after being killed by Voldemort.

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