Saturday, January 30, 2016

Love Means . . . (RCL Proper 4C, 31 January 2016)

RCL Epiphany 4C
31 January 2016

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
         Paul of Tarsus looked at the letter he was writing to the Christian community at Corinth.  He was not, as we now say, ‘amused’.  Not so long ago they were the crown of his missionary achievements, a diverse Christian community existing in an important colony of the Roman Empire that straddled one of the more important east-west highways.  But now everything seemed on the brink of collapse.
         Jewish followers of Jesus were claiming superiority over Gentile believers.  Rich Christians refused to share their food with poorer Christians when they came together for the community meal.  Free-born Christians were unwilling to accept the equality of Christians who were either slaves or freed slaves.  A small number of the community claimed to have special spiritual gifts from God that made them superior to other Christians.  Christian men continued to treat Christian women as second-class.  And as if these weren’t enough problems to plague Paul, the community was split by partisanship, some claiming to be Paul’s, others claiming to be followers of other Christian teachers.
         As he looked at what he had written, Paul realized that he had come to a critical point in his attempt to deal with the problems.  He had acknowledged that God bestowed differing gifts upon Christians, but he had emphasized that no gift made one Christian superior to another.  He had compared the community and its various gifts to the human body.  Hands needed arms, feet need legs, mouths needed stomachs and digestive tracts.  But was there a greater gift?  Was there a word he could use that would distinguish Christians from others, even in the midst of conflict?
         Paul knew that there was one word he could not use.  There had been rumours that a few of the Christians in Corinth were engaging in extra-marital affairs and other unsavoury relationships.  Some non-Christians were already accusing Christians of being immoral, so the last thing Paul could do was to add fuel to the fire.  No, eros, ‘sexual love’, was definitely not the term he was looking for.
         What about storgé, ‘love between members of a family’?  After all, Christians called each other ‘sister’ or ‘brother’.  Many Christians had been disowned by their own families after choosing to follow Jesus.  This might just be word Paul was looking for.  But then, maybe not.  You can choose your friends, Paul thought, but not your family.  Too many families were dysfunctional and, in Greco-Roman society, fathers had life and death power over their children and wives.  No, this was not the word Paul was looking for.
         What about philia, ‘love between friends’?  Friendship was an important dimension of any person’s life.  Friends shared thoughts, hopes and aspirations.  Friends looked out for one another.  Hold it, Paul, thought, that’s the problem.  Friends did look out for one another, sometimes to the exclusion of other people, even those desiring of attention.  No, Greco-Roman society was full of old boys’ clubs who furthered their own ambitions.  No, this was not the word Paul was look for.
         Just as things were looking a bit bleak, Paul discovered the mot juste, the right word for the right relationship between Christians.  Christians were to treat each other with agapé, ‘self-giving, self-sacrificing love’, the love that God had shown to the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Agapé was just what the Corinthians needed to embrace.  No more social distinctions.  No more partisan associations.  No more gender distinctions.  No more ethnic distinctions.  Just as Jesus had lived and died for all people, so should his followers, sharing in the risen life, be a community that embraced one another.  This was what Paul needed to write.  And so he did.
         Unfortunately what Paul did not realize was that the Christian message would spread throughout the world and his words would be translated into languages that did not share the precision of the Greek language.  How could Paul have known that agapé would be translated in English by the word ‘love’?  How could he know how imprecise and open to misunderstanding his challenge to the Christians in Corinth would become in the twentieth century?
         We love our cars.  We love our smart phones.  We love our shoes.  We love the shine our brand of floor wax gives to our kitchen. 
         We confuse lust with love.  We confuse infatuation with love.  We confuse warm and fuzzy feelings with love.  Crusty clergy like me roll our eyes sometimes when a young couple chooses 1 Corinthians 13 for their wedding, unaware of the implications of these glorious words for their life together.  Perhaps we should make ‘the familiar strange’[1] and read

                  1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have agapé, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 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 agapé, I am nothing.  3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have agapé, I gain nothing.

         When Paul writes about agapé, he is asking the Corinthians and us to choose a way of life which involves the willingness to consider the needs and concerns of others as more pressing than our own.  He can ask this, because Paul expects me to look out for your needs and concerns, just as I hope you will look out for mine.  No one need be afraid that he or she will be forgotten.  It’s an expectation that I must honestly say has yet to be fulfilled, but it remains the expectation that is to shape our Christian lives.
         Agapé may bestir us to buy five goats for a village in Africa rather than the gifts our families expect at Christmas.  Agapé may cause us to vote for a political party who promises to raise taxes to ensure the well-being of all citizens rather than targeted tax cuts that bring personal benefit.  Agapé may lead us to volunteer for causes that our friends think akin to the adventures of Don Quixote.  And sometimes, agapé may lead our neighbours to drag us to the edge of a cliff because we are upsetting the status quo.
         But agapé will also bring us insights into God’s purposes for us and for all of creation.  Agapé will forge new relationships that are life-giving even in the midst of all that tries to deny the fullness of life to our sisters and brothers.  Agapé will lead us to look at the world through God’s perspective and see its beauty, its promise and its future.

[1] A phrase my colleague Harry Maier has been known to use as a description of the vocation of a New Testament professor.

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