One of the questions a past spiritual advisor would ask me is, “where’s the love?” From his perspective, love was an essential part of life and ministry. If love was not present in one’s work, then it was time to get out. If love was not present in one’s life, it was time to earnestly search for it.
In today’s reading from the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is essentially telling his listeners, that love needs to be the core part of any and every Christian community. What is important to note, however is, when Paul discusses the concept of love, he is not talking about the sappy, romantic love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. Instead, he is speaking of love that in Greek is interpreted as agape, which is a love or concern for others. In the King James Bible, agape is interpreted as charity.
It appears the congregation Paul established in Corinth was a problem child. These past few weeks we have heard his discourse in relation to spiritual gifts, he has illustrated how a well oiled congregation should function and now the he expounds on the need for charity as the core of the community’s existence. While no one is clear as to the exact problems the community faced, it is believed the Corinthian congregation suffered from hierarchical pride, exclusivity, and a lack of concern for the needs of others.
Corinth was not a congregation Paul ever seemed happy with. But to their defense, to whom or what could the Corinthian church model their communal life after. They certainly could not look to Roman society, the true antithesis of Christian ideals. And they could not look towards traditional Jewish society either. After all, Jesus was constantly rebuking the Pharisees and Sadducees because of their lack of charity. Even in today’s Gospel, Jesus rebukes the good people of Nazareth because they too have hearts of stone.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his home town and preaches at the local synagogue. Here he declares the prophecy of Isaiah to be fulfilled, and then he talks about the breadth of the love of Yahweh. The people become angered when Jesus reminds them of how a gentile widow is saved from starvation by Elijah during a great famine that had covered the land several centuries ago. In this instance, what the townsfolk took umbrage with was the implication that Yahweh’s love and grace was and is available to more than the children of Israel. This was a radical concept in Jesus’ day despite several examples in the Hebrew Bible to that supported what Jesus was saying.
The God’s of the ancient world were group specific, each people and nation had their own patronal God who guided and protected them. And, in time of war, fought to conquer and subdue the gods of enemy nations. The thought that the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy could and would benefit other nations and people were beyond the good people of Nazareth’s realm of understanding.
As I examine the issues and concerns of the early Corinthian Church and the gathered congregation in Nazareth, I wonder if modern Christianity has grown all that much. I wonder if we have learned to be more loving. As one who has been actively part of the church for a half century, I cannot think of a time when we were not dealing with some sort of controversy. As a child growing up in Dallas, the issues of controversy had to do with prayer book revision and the “presumptuousness” of Dr. Martin Luther King. As the walls of segregation were being crumbled throughout the south, white pastors who dared preach on behalf of civil rights, or were courageous enough to march with Dr. King, were often times to told by their governing boards to stay home and do what they were being paid to do or else loose their pulpits.
During my teens, the church argued over women’s ordination and then as an adult, the argument deepened over the ordination of openly gay people. With each controversy, our understanding of what it means to be “the church” was challenged, and then stretched as we came to better understand the limitlessness of God’s grace for the world. Through these controversies we have learned to be more inclusive, more welcoming, and to act more like the Body of Christ, as we learned to be more loving of our neighbor.
But unfortunately, we are not known as the folk song of the sixties decried, “know by our love.” Instead, those who stand outside the church only know us by our controversy. In many ways we are the victims of the media and the marginalization by society at large. And, we are the victims of our own lack of courage, our own inability to proclaim our love to the world. It is sad, that our work as a diocese in El Salvador and Haiti goes largely unnoticed, while our infighting is broadcast on national television. I find it scary that churches are now understood and chosen based on their political leanings and not on how they embody the love of the risen Christ. I find it discouraging that most of Maureen’s nieces and nephews, now in their late twenties, have dismissed all of Christendom as homophobic, closed minded, and out of touch with the needs and the realities of the world we live in.
As the institutional church, we now exist in the margins of American society, and we are being watched and analyzed in a new and unflattering way by those who look from outside. And now, like never before in recent history, we are again being challenged to be authentic. If we are to be known by our love, then we need to live into our call to love, to serve justice, and to accept that the grace of God and the salvation of the cross is a gift for all people and not just those who fit into our box of acceptability.
If we are to transform the modern world and prepare it to become the reign of God, we must be the living and loving faith eighteen year old Audrey Cleaver-Bartholomew passionately describes in her recently published editorial.
“My faith, she writes, is rooted in love. Love, not only for other Christians, not only for the socially acceptable, but for all—addicts, prostitutes, gays, atheists, and criminals included. My faith is one based on a Man who healed lepers and befriended tax collectors; today, He would take care of AIDS patients and visit used car salesmen at their homes. My faith is founded on a man who broke down the status quo, lived in poverty, and died a humiliating death to redeem the lowest of the low in both socioeconomic and moral terms. Just as we cannot portray all Muslims as terrorists, we can no longer portray all Christians as extreme fundamentalists, and it is the responsibility of tired Christians to defend our faith—one based on Gospels of love instead of hate, liberation instead of exclusivity, and intended for the poor, the meek, the exploited, and the outcasts and their advocates.”
There is no doubt, love is found in our community and in our faith, and it is this love that we need to promote through our words and every day actions. For as this world knows, if we have love but do not share it, then we are perceived as nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Amen