All You Need is Love
A Sermon on I Corinthians 13
I turned 64 on Friday, and I've been thinking about my life. In my reflections, the work of the great contemporary theologian, Paul McCartney, holds new meaning for me. His song “When I'm 64” has a wonderful refrain: “Will you still need me/will you still feed me/when I'm 64.” Thanks, Paul. You're older than I am, but I feel your pain – especially in my lower back. And thanks to the Beatles, who had many hit songs, one of which became the subject of a seminary exam. In my Christian Ethics class, we were given one short question to write about. Here it is: The Beatles said, “Love is all you need.” True or false? I answered “true.” I got a B on the exam. I can't say for sure, but I don't think my professor believed that love IS all you need. Do you?
I still do. Our Prayer Book catechism asks, “What is the nature of God revealed in Jesus?” The answer? “God is love” (p.849). Although “all we need” may be love, and God is love, there are still practical questions. How can we be more like Jesus? How might we love as Jesus loves? What is the loving thing to do? All through our lives, we are comforted and confronted by God's love. And today, in St. Paul's 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, we get a clue about what love is and is not.
Three weeks ago we began to hear from the first half of Paul's 12th chapter of the first letter he wrote to that church. The Corinthians are in a pastoral crisis, and Paul is challenging them to change their behavior. It seems they've been abusing their freedom, refusing to be generous, scorning their neighbor's gifts and boasting in their own, all the while seeking recognition and affirmation by jockeying for position. Their self-interest has turned into self-righteousness. They are doing real, destructive battle with each other, and Paul, in chapters 12 and 13, calls the Corinthians on the carpet.
As we finished chapter 12 last week, Paul spoke of the weaker, less honorable, less respectable members of the church, the body of Christ – members who seem inferior, members who suffer. Paul said that “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (verse 26), invoking a communal spirit of compassion, regardless of the gifts God's Spirit has given each of them. In today's reading of all 13 verses of that world-famous 13th chapter, Paul tells how love trumps all God's spiritual gifts. He describes what love looks like, by implication: everything love is, the Corinthians are not.
This dynamic is not unlike what is happening in the other story unfolding in the Gospel of Luke. Last week Jesus came home to Nazareth and began his public ministry. When his childhood friends heard him read from the scripture, they were amazed and delighted. But when Jesus starts to preach on the scripture; when he dares mention two outsiders, a widow and a leper, marginalized Gentiles whom the Jewish prophets accepted; when he begins to dismantle the stereotypes that have shaped religious and social boundaries for generations – in short, when homeboy Jesus calls his hometown friends to account, they are shocked, even enraged. Their cheering becomes contempt, and they cast him out of town. How dare Jesus speak like that to us! How dare he tell us, God's faithful followers, what God's love is and what it is not! How dare he tell us God's love is not just for us, the chosen people of God! Of course, Jesus is foreshadowing Paul. Nazareth and Corinth both become places where people of faith let their need to be right exceeds their call to be loving.
Two thousand years later, this still happens. Today, we who claim the faith of Jesus and call ourselves Christian may think we know how to love, but our love can easily become something less. We know our love for one another needs to be rooted in the love of Jesus. We'll spend our lives learning how to love one another as Jesus loved, as Jesus still loves us. But how did Jesus love? What loving things did Jesus do? He healed people. He met them where they were. He spoke the truth in love. But first, he listened. It all began there. He listened to God in prayer. He listened to the people who came to him. A Catholic nun once wrote, “there isn't anyone you couldn't love if you knew their story.” Jesus loved others enough just to listen to their story.
Here's part of my story. Twenty years ago, when I was a new, baby rector in a small church, I was talking with my secretary about the challenges I was experiencing with the lay leader of the parish who served in the role we Episcopalians call “senior warden.” That title felt apropos because, when I was with him, I often felt a bit like an inmate, as if I were imprisoned, unable to be myself. Rather than pray about how this felt; rather than listen to God in prayer or receive the counsel of a friend; rather than go to this man and really listen to him, so that we might work this out together – I became, like the Corinthians, irritable and resentful. And whenever I, as rector (a word that means “ruler”), would try to rule; whenever, like the Corinthians, I tried to insist on my own way, I got nowhere. I simply did not know how to love this man.
Finishing the conversation with my secretary, I left her office through the door I had left wide open, and entered a small waiting area. Someone was seated there. It was the wife of the senior warden. She had undoubtedly heard every word I had spoken about her husband. “Well, Father,” she said, when I finally dared to look her in the eye, “sometimes the Lord just puts you in the right place at the right time.” I had been hurt by this couple, and I did not want to listen to them. But God's love, St. Paul teaches us, is kind. God's love is not arrogant or rude or childish. God's love listens.
My prayer is that we learn, more and more, how to love as Jesus loved, how to love as Jesus loves us. This will be impossible, unless we are humble enough to do it together, with God's help. Jesus was humble enough to wash his disciples' feet, yet he was strong enough to speak the truth to them, in love. Jesus was both human enough and divine enough to know the most loving thing he could always do was to listen.
On Sunday nights our Prayers have this refrain: “Listen, Lord, listen, Lord, not to our words, but to our prayer; you alone, you alone, understand and care.” Are we listening like Jesus does? If all we need is love, God's love in Jesus Christ, then why would we not listen? Might listening be the loving thing we need to learn how to do?
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
February 3, 2013