A sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 3, 2019
The title, Love’s Power is my intentional double entendre, meaning love is power and the power of love.
I love Pontheolla! I love South Carolina-living. I love our Spartanburg home! I love you, my Epiphany community!
Though rich the English vocabulary,(1) it is impoverished with only one word for love. This makes communication, in the conveyance of ideas, confining and potentially confusing. For I do not and cannot mean the same thing about my wife, my locale, my domicile, and you.
Paul, writing in praise of love, had the advantage of choosing among four Greek words. Each has its own adjectival meaning, which, when spoken or written, elicits the response: “Oh, that’s the kind of love you’re talking about!”(2)
Paul uses the term, agapé, meaning unconditional and impartial benevolence, perfectly describing the nature and action, the being and doing of God.
Paul doesn’t define love. He doesn’t tell us what it is. He does tell us that love is greater than the omni-linguality that can speak in every earthly and heavenly language. Greater than the prophetic ability to speak God’s word that fathoms every mystery and possesses all knowledge. Greater than faith invincible in the face of any and all trials and tribulations.
For Paul’s definition of love, we have to go back to chapter twelve. There, Paul writes about spiritual gifts.(3) Powers, capacities to do something, given by the Holy Spirit to individuals, never for us alone, but always for the sake of “the common good,” the community. At the end of chapter twelve, after Paul gives examples of spiritual gifts, he writes, “I will show you a still more excellent way.”(4)
Now, Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love…” Love, for Paul, is the greatest spiritual gift. For love is the one spiritual ability given to all, giving all, giving us the power to be and do as God, who is Love, is and does.
Paul then describes what loving like God looks like when we’re doing it: “Love is patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.” To highlight the unconditionality and impartiality of agapé’s benevolence, I refer to this first attribute. Patience, which means more than tolerance of insult or injury, more than forbearance amid hardship.
Ancient folk, knowing how easily words could be misconstrued, in the effort to share meaning and to assure understanding, told stories. This was the story associated with the word, makrothumia, translated patience: Someone who has wronged you in the worst way, against whom you want revenge, the power of which you possess, is standing next to you, and you choose not to exercise your power.
Through the ages, as the story was told, it became clear that this rejection of vengeance was no one-time, but a continual act or, truly, non-act.(5) Thus, over time, a sixth part was added to the story. In the repeated doing of this “more excellent way” than lex talionis or law of retribution, often stated as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,”(6) the natural yearning to strike back was redeemed by the desire to forgive.
Love is spiritual power to be patient and kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, insistent on one’s own way, irritable, resentful, or rejoicing in wrong; but rather, rejoicing alway in truth and bearing, believing, hoping, enduring all things.
The only limitation or conditionality of love is, as in the case of any of our abilities, our choice whether to love. For we humans can choose not to love. Yet we, as followers of Jesus, have been redeemed by Love to love. Not primarily feeling in love (as emotions wax and wane), but acting in love; the truth of which we demonstrate this morning.
“Faith, hope, and love abide…and the greatest is love.” Why?
Faith and hope involve our confidence in the presence, the existence of something unseen. For example, I have faith, conviction in your word that something will happen. Therefore, I live in hope, expectation of the fulfillment of what you have told me.
Today, believing that “church” would happen at eleven o’clock in this building and acting in faith and hope, we came. Once arriving, we longer needed faith and hope. Nevertheless, for community to be present, incarnate, real, we still needed, still need love; being and acting, beyond merely feeling, in love.
The constant necessity of love is its greatness. Love is not, and I know I’m dating myself here, as the old song declares,(7) what the world needs now. Love is what we need always. Love is what we always need to do and to be.
(1) The 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists approximately 600,000 words, which include archaisms no longer in use. Moreover, an estimated 25,000 words are added to the language each year.
(2) The distinctions among the words, depending upon usage, are not wholly precise, though generally they are eros, erotic, sexual love, philia, the love of friends or (as) siblings, storgé, the tenderness or affection of parents and children, and agapé.
(3) 1 Corinthians 12.1-12
(4) 1 Corinthians 12.31b
(5) In many 1st century tribal cultures, one’s offender, often being a member of one’s family or clan, stood nearby for a lifetime. Hence, no one-time suppression of the urge to retaliate would serve the purpose of maintaining the community’s welfare, indeed, the community’s existence.
(6) See Exodus 21.22-27, Leviticus 24.19-21, or Deuteronomy 19.21. Fairly stated, at the root of the principle of lex talionis was the intent to provide equitable retribution for an offended party. The law sought to define, hence, restrict the extent of the reprisal so that the punishment might fit the crime.
(7) “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (1965), a popular song, lyrics by Hal David and music composed by Burt Bacharach.