Jeremiah 1:4-10 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Could there be more lovely language in all of Scripture than that which Dan read for us this morning from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth?
It is no wonder that we most often hear these words read at weddings. For what could be more fitting than to hear words on love at a time when two are pledging their lives to each other in love?
But it is interesting to note that Paul did not have a wedding in mind when he wrote these words. He wrote these words not for the blessing of a relationship, but because of a disruption in one.
The church in the cosmopolitan trade town of Corinth was starting to fracture. Fault lines were showing up between members of the church. Things were beginning to crumble.
But before we go any further, let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Things had been going well. People had been coming in the doors of the church in droves. Hungry for connection, yearning for meaning, longing for hope, people gathered together in that church in Corinth to hear Paul speak of the Life in the Spirit as the Body of Christ living Love in the world.
But over time, the foundation of this new church started to crack. Divisions started to form. Instead of living the ways of God’s love out into the world; the ways of the world were beginning to seep into the church. Instead transforming the world, the church was beginning to be conformed to it. (Romans 12:1).
We know this because of what Paul has said in the chapters leading up to the one for us today.
In the previous chapters, Paul has been sorting through different problems and transgressions. But it is in chapter 12, the one just before the reading for today, that Paul puts his finger on the heart of the problem. We are very familiar with it because it was the theme for last year’s all church retreat and we have used it as an image we return to repeatedly in our life together.
Paul begins chapter12 by reminding us that “there are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit and there are varieties of services but the same Lord. And there are a varieties of activities but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” Some may have the gift of wisdom or utterance of knowledge or faith, or healing or working miracles, or prophecy or speaking in tongues, but it is the same Spirit, Paul says that gives these gifts.
Sometimes it takes a while to discover what gift the Spirit may have given us. Sometimes it may take time to discover what ministries we are called to engage. And there may be different gifts for different times of our lives. Different ministries into which we are called in different seasons of our lives. But be assured, Paul is saying, each one of us has been given a gift.
Same is true for poor reluctant Jeremiah this morning. Jeremiah does not think he is much good for anything, but the Lord God assures him that God knows Jeremiah even better than Jeremiah knows himself. Listen to these words:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
And before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
God has something very special for Jeremiah to do. Just as Paul assured the people in Corinth that God had something special for each and every one of them, and just as we are assured that we too have gifts and ministries that God has called us to engage.
But the root of the problem that threatens to undermine all that Paul and the Spirit has created in that early church in Corinth is not so much that people are not using the gifts given to them, but that they have lost track of why they have been given the gift in the first place. People have lost tract that they are a part of a greater whole and are to use their gifts for the building up and care of that whole. You remember the language? [We] are members of the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1Cor 12:27). People have started to believe that the gifts they have been given are for their own benefit, and not only that, but that there is a hierarchy of worth of these gifts. People have started to think that some some matter more while others matter less.
This is not just the problem in Corinth so long ago. It is a very real and pressing problem of today. God created a beautifully differentiated world of much variety and blessed it all as good. God did not bless some as better than others. Some more worthy than others. Some more valued than others. God blessed all in this horizontal plane of integration and harmonious well-being as good.
But along the way, we humans have turned it all on edge. Tipping it all on its side and stratifying and sorting, assigning worth and power and privilege. Instead of a harmonious balance of well-being, we have come to have ever widening and devastating disparities. Disparities in income, health outcomes, educational opportunity, just to name a few. Instead of a unified whole we begin to see the very fabric of our society unravel and the environmental integrity of our world start to crumble.
And so, Paul then ends chapter 12 with the words “I will show you a still more excellent way.” And thus, he embarks into chapter 13, which is truly the apex of his corrective and which brings us to this teaching on love.
Now as lovely and inspiring as these words on love are, as fit they may be to read at such hope filled junctures as a wedding, these words actually have quite a barb in them and quite a sobering edge.
Love is more important than anything, Paul says. If we use our gifts but do not have love flowing through them than all we do, all our gifts are worthless really. Love is what orients us to our higher purpose and aligns our gifts for their true intention, which is the well-being of God’s creation and the building up of all.
But, it turns out this love of which Paul speaks? It is not something that originates within us. It is not even something given to us for us to engage. Love of this kind, Agape – self-sacrificing, world transforming and redeeming love is not something we own, or control or can bring to being.
This love belongs to and is “the first fruit of the Spirit,” (Gal 5:22). And by that Paul means that our capacity to love which gives meaning to all we do, is contingent upon our capacity to let the Spirit of God come alive within us. Just as the tree bears fruit, so too will the Spirit bear love when it is well rooted and nourished within our hearts.
So if Love is the most important thing of all, and the thing that we have the least control over, since the self-sacrificing, redemptive love only comes as the fruit of the Spirit, what are we to do?
Mark and I, you know, are now empty nesters. That, combined with our experience of having walked this past fall the Camino de Santigo, this incredibly clarifying and winnowing pilgrimage across Spain, has led us to hear a call to simplify and unclutter our lives. Practically speaking, we have begun in earnest to clean out the attic and empty out the basement. We are going through the closets and sorting through the dressers. But as I do I cannot help but hear Paul’s counsel. Earlier in this letter to the church in Corinth he tells them to let our lives be a temple of the Holy Spirit within us (1Cor 6:19). I hear him say in that that our job, what we can do, is to make our lives be a dwelling place of God. Let our lives, let the interior of our hearts be a place where the Spirit of God takes up residence and can shine.
And for me, that means simply letting go of that which impedes love. Getting rid of the stuff that clutters. That means that taking up practices that help me to be more patient, more kind, less boastful, less irritable or resentful. Practices of gratitude, forgiveness, clarity of speech and intention of action.
So as I throw out old dressers, and sort through old pairs of skis, as I move boxes of hand me down clothes along and rolled up carpets that are now so long past use, I also take time to sort through the clutter of my soul.
When I do this, I find the Spirit is there awaiting me. She has been there in all her shimmering glory all along, resting in my grandmother’s thread bare rocking chair, passing the time by looking through the folders of the kids old art projects, patiently waiting for me to finally take the time and effort to sort through the stuff in my life that has keep me from joining her there, there as she patiently waits in the center of my being.
And when I am finally able to throw out all of that gets in love’s way, when I am able to sit with humility at her side? Well, then love rushes in.
A love that is patient and kind. A love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. A love that does not insist on its own way and is not irritable or restful. A love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. A love that never ends. A love that was in the beginning creating, a love that is now redeeming and a love that forever will be sustaining. A love that has little to do with me but that for me means everything, and that truly makes life worth living.
We are about to move into Lent. A journey in itself. A Camino of sorts. In Lent we remember the time when Jesus went into the wilderness and in those 40 days faced much that helped him to strip away that which did not serve him in the mission of love the Spirit will enact through him. Soon, we too will enter this wilderness so that we too can have the clarifying experiences we need in order to strip away not only that which does not serve us, but also that what impedes our capacity to receive the mission of love that the Spirit will enact through us.
Thanks be to the Spirit who has taken up residence in the dwelling place of our souls. Thanks be to the love that enters us through her. Thanks be to this that is shining through our gifts as we engage them in the important work of healing the fractures and divisions that define our world today. Thanks be to the Spirit. Thanks be to love, Thanks be to God. Amen.