What’s Love Got to Do With It?[1]

Jeremiah 1: 4-10 & 1 Corinthians 12: 1-22; 13: 1-13

 © Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 28th January 2007

Why did we read these two long texts from Corinthians together this morning?  Because they’re related.  In fact, there’s a strong connection between chapter twelve and chapter thirteen that’s often eclipsed when chapter thirteen, the so-called “Love Chapter,” is separated out and read on its own, usually at weddings.  But it’s not a wedding text.  The chapter and verse divisions in scripture, not in the original text, often do us a disservice, preventing us from seeing the logical flow and development of the text. 

Chapter 13 has the advantage of being able to stand on its own and make sense, offer some inspiration, even if the source of that inspiration is misplaced and out of context. We can read chapter 13 and get something out of it, maybe imprint it on a plaque and try to aspire toward what we think its saying about love.  But the chapter makes more sense and has even more power and profundity, and its notion of love clarified and strengthened when connected with what comes before it.  So we really need to go back to twelve before we go forward to thirteen; but since I started with thirteen, let’s stay here a minute.

If you want to know what Paul thought about the nature of Christian love, this is the place to go.  If you want to have a picture of what love looks like in a Christian community, this is the place to go.  And the center of gravity for the chapter that holds it all together, it’s this:  love “does not insist on its own way” or, love, “does not seek its own [advantage].”  Why?  Because, as Paul says earlier chapter 8, “Love builds up (8:1b).”[2]  That is, love seeks the “good, the advantage, the edification of others.”    Simple enough, right?  We’ve heard this before.  Right?  But go deeper. 

Remember this is a letter, a letter written to a church, to the church in Corinth, written to the church in Corinth in considerable trouble and conflict.  This means that what we have here in all this talk about love is, as Michael Gorman helpfully calls, an “anti-description” of the Christian community in Corinth.  In other words, in naming the aspects of love, Paul is describing the very characteristics the Corinthian community are lacking.[3]  It’s sort of like entering “Opposite World” in a Seinfeld episode.  Paul is describing the opposite of who they are.   In hearing this they would have recognized themselves:  a church full of impatient, mean, envious, arrogant, irritable, resentful, selfish, boastful bloviators who all want it their way, and get a kick out of making it difficult for everyone else.   If you want to find a loving church, Corinth would not be the place to go.

Now, what’s lost in the translation of this text into English – and this is important – is that “Paul uses not a single adjective in his description of love,” although it comes across that way in translation,  “all the ‘characteristics of love’ are expressed as verbs.”   Why is this significant?  Because according to Paul “love is an action,” in other words, it’s what moves a sentence, or story, or narrative.[4]  It’s what moves a person.  It makes something happen.  Christian love is less something one feels as something one does; it’s what moves the story of our loves.  It’s a love that moves the narrative of God’s redemptive purpose for the world.  It causes something to happen.  Christian love is not affect, feeling, or even the emotion we might have toward another person, it’s not how we feel toward someone, but what we do to them and for them, what we do to build up, edify, and seek the good of the other.  Love bears all things for the other, believes all things for the other, hopes all things for the other, endures all things for the other.   And is the love that moves the church; otherwise it becomes stuck, when its members are more concerned for themselves and the community turns inward.  This is why Paul makes such a strong case for the power of Christian love after talking about gifts.

Why does he have to do this?  Because the Corinthians were fighting, of all things, over the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church.  What we glean from the letter is, it seems, some believed the particular gift given to them by the Spirit made them superior to others in the church.  They were using their gifts for their own ends, boasting over others, lifting some up and putting others down.  Some were jealous of others’ spiritual gifts.    Even though the Spirit gives gifts to the church as a whole, people started claiming them for themselves, as an occasion for self-aggrandizement or self-edification.   Saying, I’m wiser than you are about God.  I’m a better teacher.  I’m a better preacher.  I’m a better healer.  I have more discernment than you.  I’m a better Christian.  I’m more spiritually mature than you.  I.  I.  I.  Me. Me. Me.  Can you see how destructive this is, dividing up the unity of the community?  The focus becomes oneself at the expense of the whole church.  Being the consummate pastor that he was, Paul says – Cut it out and grow up!  Sure, you’re blessed, Corinthians, but the gifts don’t belong to you.  “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”  In other words, Spirit of Christ is doing all kinds of things through his people, which means the body of Christ is diverse because the Holy Spirit makes it so.  And all the diverse ways God’s Spirit in our lives are given to set us in motion, in order that we together work toward one common mission:  the service of one God, one Lord, to worship for the common good, for the good of all. 

It’s how we exercise our gifts that matters, exercised, activated through love, in love, for love, not to praise ourselves, or have reason to boast, but to build up the body of Christ.  This means when Christians come together in community it’s our job to recognize, accept, affirm, and encourage the use of all our gifts.  And we even make space for people who might be gift-challenged or don’t know what their gifts might be, because even they have something to offer.  So that when we get to the beginning of chapter thirteen, Paul shows us a “still more excellent way.”   Paul turns to the importance of love, not as an alternative to gifts, but that love become the modus operandi, the way of exercising what’s been given to us.[5]  This is what love does; it does not insist on its own way and seeks the way of the other in exercising our gifts.    Without love, our gifts, of which we’ve become so proud, become meaningless and even dangerous.  Because love edifies, it builds up, it does not seek its own way.  When people in the church are more focused on themselves, then the future toward which God is moving them becomes blurry, confused, and we “know in part.”  Love calls out the gifts in another.  When love creates the space for us to use our gifts – whatever the Spirit is bestowing upon us – opportunities to use these gifts for the building up the community, upholding one another, calling out the best from within us, then the church is able to move.  That’s how love – as verb – then moves the church.  Gifts used in love, love shaping the use of our gifts, love and gifts together used for the glory of God.  That’s why they’re given to the church – so that love can then move the church and fulfill its mission.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) correctly observed, “There exists in every church something that sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence.”  This happens when a church loses its focus, when it loses sight of why Christ called us into being and what Christ is trying to do through the church, when are energies are diverted from peripheral, selfish concerns that turn us away from Christ and from each other.  “So we must strive very hard by the grace of God,” Lewis writes, “to keep the church focused on the mission that Christ originally gave to it.”[6]  We might say, chapter 13, the so-called love chapter, is the mission of the church, and the gifts given by the Spirit allow us to fulfill and realize that mission.

In a few moments we will ordain and install elders and deacons.  We will pray over and for our trustees.  Through the voice of the congregation, you identified gifts in these men and women for leadership, and extended a call to them to exercise these gifts, not for themselves, but for the church.  God has gifted them in particular ways potentially good for us all.  If you asked them, I have no doubt they could identify some of their gifts.  But I also have no doubt that they will receive other gifts by the Spirit or discover gifts they didn’t know they had.  That’s how it works.  I also believe that God has gifted everyone in the church and that the church needs your gifts.  If you’re baptized that means the Holy Spirit is in you and if the Holy Spirit is in you, then you’ve been gifted.  For three weeks, in adult education on Sunday morning, Joan Berry, our lay pastor, will help us discern our Spirit-ual gifts.   And in a few minutes, at the annual meeting we will review how these gifts are being exercised by the church as a whole in 2006 and 2007.  It truly is amazing to see how much this church does for a church this size.  This congregation is gifted in so many diverse and varied ways.

As you will read in our report, your pastors are grateful that, from our perspective, and from what we know other churches are facing these days, this is a relatively healthy, vital congregation – nothing like Corinth, but also not without our challenges.  We are becoming clearer about who we are and what God expects of us, gaining a stronger, clearer sense of our purpose.  It’s not easy being in a Mainline church these days for a variety of complex reasons.  If we could just get beyond a self-preservation mentality, of survival, to the point of being more open to what the Spirit of Christ is doing in us and where he wants to take us – and risk following – we would be in a different place.  Instead of turning inward and focusing upon ourselves, let us turn outward.  Because while churches are trying to survive, the intellectual, social, cultural challenges currently facing Christianity and the church are immense and growing in complexity and demand our attention. 

But I believe God is still gifting God’s people with gifts, dreams, visions, and hope, moving in the lives of people who really want to be faithful to God’s mission, faithful not to the past, but to today and tomorrow, offering and embodying the gospel of Jesus Christ in compelling and concrete ways to people hungry for God’s love – real love.  I believe God is still gifting people and this congregation is proof.  So claim it, church; let us believe it, see it, feel it, and live it all the more, as we deepen our commitment to one another, encourage one another, seek to build one another up, as we embody, truly embody God’s love, and then allow this love to move us, and send us where we need to go.

[1] Grateful to Lee Van Koten for suggesting a new title for this sermon – not what Tina Turner had in mind when she first posed the question with her Billboard hit in 1985.

[2] See Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity:  Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids , MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 222-223.

[3] Gorman, 223.

[4] Gorman, 224.

[5] Gorman, 236.

[6] Cited in Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways:  Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI:  Brazos, 2006), 55.