Sunday, February 3, 2013

Absolute Truth

This is the manuscript for my sermon to the Deer Creek Charge on a Sunday (which happened to be Ravens Superbowl Sunday--- we had purple communion bread!). This was the final part of sermon series on 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13
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.

The last two weeks we have been talking about the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthian Christians, focusing mainly on how we are to care for each other as the body of Christ. On how we are to build the kingdom of God here and now.

It might seem that the imaginative and creative image of a many-membered body of believers caught up in mutual care for one another would be enough to imagine that we were already in heaven, or at least close. But Paul isn’t finished. He says, if you think this is something, let me pull back the curtain a bit and let you in on an even more fantastic vision of the Christian life as prepared for us by the Spirit of God.”1

First Corinthians chapter thirteen, this even more fantastic vision, is perhaps one of the most famous passages in scripture. Even if someone does not go to church, he or she is bound to hear this passage at weddings, see it up on walls. When I was growing up, we had a similar picture to the one I brought in here that Aaron and I have hanging in our bedroom hanging up in our bathroom. Perhaps a strange place to keep such a scripture reading, but the point is that by associating 1 Corinthians 13 with weddings and homes, we domesticate it. We forget that Paul is talking about a radical love here, not marital love, not familial love--- though certainly those loves can be radical too and reflect the love Paul is describing. But what Paul is talking about is a totally different way of acting with every person we encounter, a Christ-centered life that should not be relegated to our homes alone.

So let us pray together:
Patient teacher, come alongside us this morning
as we focus on this scripture together. Teach us the meaning of this love
you call us to. Amen.

When I was in my first year of college, I was part of a campus Christian organization that had dynamic worship on Friday nights. I loved the music we sang, and we all sounded so good together. After singing and prayer, the leaders of the group invited a preacher, usually from the surrounding community, to come and preach.

Well one week a man came to preach about Absolute Truth. I don't remember what scripture he preached from, but I do remember his lesson and it still pains me to this day. He said that Absolute Truth was marriage between a man and a woman. Now, I know that many of you may believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. My point is not how we ought to define marriage this morning. My point is that the Good News we read in the bible, the Absolute Truth we read here is not a definition of marriage. Not even close, and it makes me so sad that here were forty or so college students, broken people in a campus culture that had little room for Christ-centered living, being told not of the poetic love of God but lectured on a narrow political hot-button issue.

Because friends the Absolute Truth we should have named that night is summed up in 1 Corinthians 13: Love. Love Never Ends. Not a tame love that sounds nice at weddings and poetry that looks nice on your living room wall. Rather, a powerful love that is modeled off of Jesus' own love for us. This love patterned off of Jesus' own love for us is the key to the whole gospel.2 So today, let's focus on Paul's words about love to un-domesticate them.

It is worth remembering that these past few weeks we have spent on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians have only focused on chapters twelve and thirteen. So what was Paul talking about before he got to love? Well, he was adjudicating arguments that kept popping up all over the place in the young Corinthian church. People were arguing over which mentor and teacher to follow, about what kinds of food they could and should eat, about how to worship, about who had the most important spiritual gifts, about marriage and sex. You know, easy stuff that we certainly never fight about today.

Paul addresses these arguments. But chapter thirteen is something different. I feel as Paul has been writing he takes a moment to set aside his letter, cover his head with his hands, and pray harder for these troubled and argumentative Corinthians than he has prayed before for them. And so when he comes back to the letter, he is renewed, and he points them and us to the real way to get in on the gospel. You see, the real practice that is the key to the gospel is not what teacher we follow, Calvin or Wesley, Mark Driscoll or Adam Hamilton. We have not unlocked the gospel if we discover whether contemporary worship or traditional worship styles are better. We do not unlock the gospel when we define marriage, and we do not unlock the gospel when we polish our spiritual gifts. Certainly all these things are important questions as we explore our faith, but they are not the Absolute Truth of the Gospel. Rather, what unlocks the gospel for us is the practice of the discipline of love. We cannot discern our other questions properly unless we first start with love.

Rev. Lauren Winner, Episcopal priest and professor of Christian spirituality at Duke, used that term the discipline of love in a sermon I heard this week and so I had to use it. Too often we don't think of love as a discipline. We think of love as magical, using phrases like “love at first sight” and talking about how we “just know” when we find the right person for us. The discipline of love reminds us that love is something we should grow at with time, something that we must focus ourselves to do, center ourselves. It is something that we should model on Jesus' love for us. Lauren Winner describes this as, “God's love for us. A love expressed in creation and a love expressed on the cross. And it is a love that is always Other-directed, or, more accurately, a love directed to Two Others: to one's Beloved and to the God who created her and sustains her.”

Love, of course, can become an occasion for sin. And that's why Paul explained what he was talking about when he was talking about love, why he defined love for us. Too often we seem to be attending to our Beloved, but we are using the other to make ourselves feel good. And sometimes we love the other person for what we think they should be or could be, rather than for who they are. Romantic love seems to be particularly susceptible to these problems, I think.

But Paul saves the definition of love from the limited definitions of romantic love, conjugal love. He corrects our selfish forms of love through his definition of love as patient and kind. He tells us that jealousy is not really love, that insisting on our own way is not really love. But when we read 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings, we sometimes miss that part. To really take it seriously, we have to recognize that Paul is not talking about marital love here, but Paul is talking about the love we should have for everyone as Christians. About how our every action should be rooted in love--- a love that reflects not our own selfishness, but that reflects God.

I came across this story by Charles Moore, a former seminary professor who now lives in a Christian community. The story is about the transforming love that Paul is talking about here. As a student at Cal Poly, Charles met a physics major named Alan. Alan was virtually blind, able to get around well enough, but he struggled with reading and needed to rely on others to drive him places. He was a straight-A student, later returning to Cal Poly as a physics instructor.3

Now, Alan was very happy to discuss religion, but he was extremely skeptical of anything religious, especially Christian. He was well read and well versed, and he argued his doubt like a scientist. He said he was an agnostic: there simply wasn't enough evidence to warrant belief in God. Charles and his friends trued to convince Alan, give him some kind of “proof,” but Alan would gently explain that he needed an assurance of truth.

What was intriguing about Alan, according to Charles, was that he liked to hang out with Charles and Charles' “Christian friends.” They reached out to him, always inviting him to the beach or midnight runs to Taco Bell or whatever else they were doing.

One evening, Charles' group of friends had a praise night on the beach. Alan said he would go to enjoy the sunset and roaring bonfire. But by the time the evening was over, Alan had made a commitment to follow Jesus. No one had spoken to him, nor did anyone even know at first.

“You see,” Alan explained to Charles, “while everyone was singing around the fire, I realized that whenever I am around you Christians I am happy. Even when we disagree with each other, I find myself liking to be with Christians.”

Charles, not understanding, said, “But, Alan, I thought you were never going to become a believer unless there was first enough evidence.”

“Yes,” he replied, “and I still require it. But that's precisely why I now believe. It's how you all love each other that strikes me most. I never considered that evidence before. A good scientist, you know, considers all the facts. I simply haven't found the love you Christians have for each other anywhere else. That's evidence enough for me that Jesus is Lord.”

That's what Paul is talking about when he's talking about love. What makes a difference in people's lives in not whether we speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, or whether we have prophetic powers, or even faith--- it is about love for all our brothers and sisters, a simple patient love. I say simple, but certainly this discipline of love is not possible for any of us without the Spirit's aid. Certainly it is a practice we will have to work at all our lives. But friends, love is our call as Christians. So let us go forth to love, each and every day.

Friends, may we go forth from this place remembering our calling to love. Let us remember in the difficulties of the week ahead, and in the joys, that love never ends. Jesus' love never ends. May that give you strength. So let us go out and embody Christ-centered love for all whom we meet. Maybe even fans of the 49-ers. Amen.
1James Boyce, Commentary of the Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Working Preacher, 3 February 2013,
2Much of this sermon is inspired by or borrowed from Lauren Winner, “Corinthian Cross-Stich,” Sermon given at Duke Chapel on 31 January 2010,
3Charles Moore, “The powerful witness of community,” Beyond Argument, Intervarsity 1997

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