An Uncomfortable Love
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13:13
This scripture today, 1 Corinthians 13, did you recognize it? Have you heard this before, perhaps at a wedding? It is so popular at weddings that sometimes I wonder if people even know it is from the New Testament, from Paul. It is a beautiful piece of writing and really focuses on Paul’s triad of religion: faith, hope, and love.
Paul, who was Christ’s first big evangelist and church builder, spent a lot of time on the road going from community to community through different parts of the Mediterranean world. He was on a singular mission, profess Christ’s message to us. It is so well summed up here in Corinthians isn’t it? Christ gave us two new commandments; Love God and Love your neighbor, to replace the ritualistic rules of the existing religions. It really did come down to these two rules, Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Nothing more and yet everything. That was Paul’s mission.
In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul was dealing with the budding church in Corinth. Corinth, located in Greece and part of the Roman empire, was a busy center of art, trade, and religion. There, in this busy center of trade, were the old religions of the Greek gods and there was a large Jewish synagogue. But Paul was rejected by the Jews there and instead focused on the Gentiles, and the church grew.
This letter, with this lovely passage, was a letter to this early church written because Paul had received word that there was dissent and difficulties in the church. Imagine that, a church with challenges and different opinions! Back then there were all kinds of discussions about what they should eat, who should be baptized, who could marry and who should be allowed to speak in church, to preach. This long letter was filled with instructions about how Paul thought one should behave as a Christian. In the sections before this, one Paul talks about the various gifts each person has been given to help build the new kingdom to build Christ’s chruch. The start of this passage talks of prophesying, it talks of speaking in tongues, of leading worship. Here in 13 he starts by telling us that even if we have all these gifts, even the ability to move mountains, we are nothing if do not love one another first and foremost. Paul was worried about the church implementing rules, he was worried about the people using their gifts to further themselves or their man-made ideas rather than following Christ. He was deeply worried they would turn their ways back to a society not focused on love, but focused on self a society rife with the same rules Christ came to elimnate.
Like Paul, I am worried about the future of this church, and by this church I mean the entirety of the United Methodist Church. Like the church in Corinth, we Methodists appear to be in conflict over rules. More specifically, we, again like the church in Corinth are in conflict over the man-made rules about who can lead in worship and who can marry. How lucky we are to have this passage in the lectionary for today. It seems such a wonderful convergence, this scripture and a meeting that is scheduled to happen at the end of this month in St. Louis, Missouri. I wrote a little bit about this meeting for the insert in your bulletin. Some of you may be aware of the meeting. All of you should become aware of it and prepare for what may happen.
From February 23rd to the 26th about 835 delegates comprised of laity and clergy alike from United Methodist churches all around the world will gather in St. Louis in something called a General Conference Special Session to try to decide who can lead worship and who can be married in the United Methodist Church. During the General Conference in 2016, where delegates from around the world gather to decide all kinds of the things, during that session, the trouble and challenges around this issue got so heated that the people decided to send the question to the Bishops for a recommendation and to come back together in 2019 to conference and decide what to do about it. The question concerned specific passages in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, our book that says what we believe and how we are to run the church, passages that were added in 1972 that did two things; defined marriage as exclusively between a male and a female, and forbid clergy if they were not heterosexual. I’ve read some of the discussions from back then and it got pretty heated and pretty nasty.
I think about that discussion in 1972 and about the one ahead in St. Louis and then I think about that early church back in Corinth and Paul’s frustration expressed in this and other letters to the churches. Frustration because they were losing sight of the point. It’s about Christ and NOT all these rules. Maybe Paul, when he was spreading the gospel throughout the area, thought that people would see the beauty and simplicity of the message from Christ; the meaning of the baptism, of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and of the two rather plain and simple rules, Love God and Love your neighbor, that supplanted all others. But, the people of Corinth, like people everywhere throughout time, were not ready for this because, it was radical, it was unnerving to treat everyone with love and grace, to treat all people as equals, as children of God. I’m afraid that sentiment has stayed with us in various forms through the ages. It seems we are still struggling with the very same issue today.
Paul tells us in this elegant and beautiful passage in Corinthians that we need three things, faith in God, Hope in God through Christ’s sacrifice for us, and Love for God and everyone, EVERYONE and that above all this, that last one, the one that comes straight from Jesus himself, Love is most important.
But there were people back then and there are people now who are uncomfortable with that concept. There are people who think that these two rules from Christ should be tweeked a bit. There are people who are uncomfortable with the idea of ‘those people’ being a part of ‘Our religion’ and that we need to protect ourselves from ‘them’ and worse, persecute ‘them’ for not being like us. There are people who think they they alone have God’s favor and can speak on behalf of Christ! There are people who the very thought of homosexuality makes them uncomfortable. There are people who believe people who are not like themselves don’t deserve this church. We’ve heard these arguments through the ages about all kinds of ‘them vs. us.’
I read this scripture and I want to shout out loud “Yes, that’s it! Can’t you see what Paul was really saying here to our church? Stop the fighting” Christ, a radical sent by God to change our world view of each other told us, “Stop the bickering, stop putting people into YOUR boxes and categories, just stop it!” When Christ gave us the new rules to live by He didn’t add any qualifiers. The Gospel is filled with Christ eating with, talking with, sitting with, meeting with, and saving society’s outcasts because those who were outcast, were done so by society’s rules, not God’s. Let me say that again. Christ associated with those who were outcast by society because they were so called outcasts based on society’s rules, not God’s rules.
Paul tells us to put away our childish things. Listen to this final set of instructions to the church, to our church, to our Methodist church. “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.” I put an end to childish ways. Oh I wish we did. These ‘childish ways’ are the ways of exclusion, of name calling like children at grade school recess, of closed groups, of applying our own classifications to people, to those who we are ‘uncomfortable’ with, to anyone who does not look, speak, walk, talk, and yes, love like we do. Those are our ‘reasoned like a child’ things we need to put away. It is time we finally grew up as Paul suggested, to put an end to those childish ways once and for all.
When Paul tells us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” he is telling us that we look in a mirror and measure everything we see by who we are not who everyone else is. He tells us, through Love we can break that mirror and finally see all, ‘face to face’ as what they truly are, children of God, just like me and just like you.
On this day, our first Sunday of reflection on what is about to happen in St. Louis at the end of the month, we are truly lucky to have these words from Paul to our church. We are blessed to have this time together to look at these words from ancient times to a floundering church. We are enriched by the echos from the mistakes of the founders of the church to know that they struggled and that we, like them, are currently confused and falling off the path. But, we can also be buoyed by these words, that we can correct ourselves, that these words so ancient and yet to modern can light the way back to Christ.
When we are most uncomfortable with something, is the time we should return to scripture, return to the words from Christ. The command from Jesus in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations” does not contain an exclusion clause, nor does Matthew 22 in “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet, currently our Book of Discipline does, because in some of our hearts, we have failed to let go of our childish reasoning, we have continued to look for God in the mirror only, instead of seeing each other face to face.
My prayer this day is this. Precious God, I am as guilty as anyone else of ignoring your will of failing to follow your commandment to love one another. I am as guilty as anyone of ignoring the blessings I have received through the great sacrifice made by your son on my behalf. God, on this day help me to put away my childish reasoning that has led to exclusion and hurt. I want to stop clanging like a noisy cymbal, I pray you open my heart and my ears to Your words over mine. Loving and gracious God, this day I pray to you to help me and to help those delegates to the General Conference to instead become the instruments of your love, to hear Christ’s commandment to love my neighbor not through a filter of my own making but instead to love all, everyone as a true child of God. Today God, help us to know in our hearts that faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and that the greatest of these is love, never ending, unconditional love for every person, for every child of God. Amen.