The Imperative of Love
February 3, 2013
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I were to have asked you, as I greeted you by the door today –what was the most important virtue — to have — as a person of faith?” What would you have said?
Would you have said — obedience? Most of all, as a person of faith we are to be obedient. We are to live a life in alignment with the path of righteousness. Where and when God calls, we are to go.
Or would you have said – repentance? Most of all the person of faith is to be repentant. We are to realize our innate fallibility, that despite our best of intentions to follow the life we know we are to lead, we will fall short and so the most important thing is to turn to God with a contrite heart asking for forgiveness and renewal.
Or perhaps – sacrifice? One ought to put one’s life in service to the needs of those around them and willingly make the sacrifices such a life of service demands.
Or maybe — telling the truth? That most of all the person of faith must be honest, living in the light of self examination and accountability to truth, and to speak truth even when it is difficult to do so.
Or perhaps you’d say that a person of faith should make it a goal to cultivate all those virtues and more!
As a sidebar – truth telling seems to be a virtue that needs a lot more cultivation. Some amazing research coming out of the University of Massachusetts by Robert Feldmen has revealed the startling propensity that we seem to have for lying. He found that when two people are meeting each other for the first time, they will both lie on average three times in the first 10 minutes of conversation. Three lies in a ten minute conversation. That does not bode to well for coffee hour!
Research aside, whatever we may name as virtues of faithful living the point is that they are ways of being in the world and with each other that we can practice and perfect over a life time.
And why do we practice and perfect these virtues? Why do we try so hard to live a faithful life? I think many of us would answer that by saying – “So that we will be pleasing to God.” “So that we will be ready for God when that time comes.” “So that one day we may come to know what it is to love and be loved by God.”
And it makes perfect sense to answer in that way for that has been our life experience, right? The more we practice something, the better we get at it. And the better we get at it the more appreciated we are for it. And more appreciation equates to more value and worth. Right?
It is no wonder then that one of the central metaphors for a life of faith is that of a journey. To journey is to move, to progress forward along a road or path that is laid out. We journey as we practice greater and greater degrees of faithful living with the hope of coming closer to God. For we know, our ability to experience God is tied to our worthiness to do so.
Or is it?
Not if you ask Jeremiah, or Paul. Not if you ask Jesus.
You see, it turns out that God is not out there somewhere waiting until we are ready to be received by God. God is not waiting patiently in some heavenly court for the day when we will have cultivated the virtues needed to bring us into God’s company. We may have our eyes on the horizon line scanning for God as we march on, but God is not over the horizon line.
The Good News of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus is that God is with us now. I mean that really ought to shake us up a bit. God is with us now regardless of whether we feel ready or worthy to be with God. God is wholly present and with us before we have even begun to practice all those virtues that we think make us wholly worthy to be with God. God, it turns out may even be with us even while we are telling those three lies in first ten minutes of reception time.
Enter the passage from Jeremiah, if you would. Jeremiah is rather horrified when the word of the Lord comes to him. He protests that he is not ready. He is just a boy. He is not accomplished enough, has not had enough practice, is not good enough yet to be entrusted with the word of the Lord.
But God answers Jeremiah saying that he has always been good enough for God for there has never been a time when God was not with him. God has been with Jeremiah since before Jeremiah even was. And then did you catch this really amazing piece? God tells Jeremiah that all he will do will come from and flow out of the presence of God with him. All the good he will do all the virtue he will practice and bring into the world is the result of not the preparation for God with him. “You shall go” and “you shall speak” for “I am with you” says the Lord.
The starting place — is life with God. All the obedience, repentance, sacrifice and truth telling we may do is not so that one day we may earn God’s grace, but instead, all the virtue we practice and bring into the world is an expression of, is the lived gratitude for God’s, love and grace that is already ours.
In a sermon entitled “You are accepted” Paul Tillich preached that perhaps when you are weary of trying so hard to live a life of perfection that never comes you will hear a voice saying “”You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
“If that happens to us,” he continues, “we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.
We see in a mirror dimly now, writes Paul, but then we will see face to face. Now we know only in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.
To experience such a moment of pure acceptance is to know love.
Love. That’s another tricky concept for us. We are so used to hearing Paul’s teaching about love in the context of a wedding that we cannot help but start smelling roses and looking around for the bride and groom when we hear this passage from 1Coriinthians. We are so used to hearing these words read as a blessing upon the couple as they set out in their love for each other that I think we assume that what Paul is talking about here is human love, love that originates in the human heart.
But we also know that human love is fragile love. We all know deep in our hearts the limits and failings of how we ought to have loved others; and the failings of how others ought to have loved us. People we love have let us down and we have failed to love as we should the people most dear to us. And at its worst, abuse has even worn the guise of love as those we trusted claimed to be doing what they do because they said they loved us.
Human love is a fragile love. It is a love that can fail. But this is not the love of which Paul speaks.
The love of which Paul speaks originates in the divine mystery of God. It is love born of grace that comes from God who accepts us and knows us completely. This love flowing out of the heart of God is the life force of the universe moving in and through all things, the generative energy of life and goodness. This is the love that does not end and is the source of our being before we even do a thing.
In a couple of weeks, we will be moving into the season of Lent the period of time that stretches between Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday. It is often a time of self reflection when we examine our lives, and assess where we are and how we are doing on the journey of faith. Are we obedient, repentant, full of self sacrifice, are we truth tellers? We ask all of this as we journey with Jesus to the cross.
But this year, I wonder if I cannot offer you a different metaphor and a different way of engaging with Lent. Instead of a Lenten metaphor of a journey that you must walk, I wonder if instead you could imagine Lent as an invitation to explore your heart. Perhaps you could imagine your heart as a castle with many rooms (to borrow the metaphor from Teresa of Avila) that you are being invited to enter. And I wonder if over these weeks of Lent you could wander through your heart, opening doors that have been long closed, wandering deeper and deeper into the interior of your heart until finally you open that last door and there sitting before the warm fire is God who has been there always, waiting patiently for you to arrive. Maybe in a rocking chair, maybe with a cup of hot chocolate. There waiting to spend some time with you. And, perhaps if you feel tired you will sit down and rest your head on her lap. Perhaps you will rest your head on his shoulder.
Rest. Just rest a while — in love.