January 30, 2022……….4th Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13: 1-13……….Luke 4: 21-30
I have a challenge for you. Try to think of ways to describe the Christian faith and the Christian life without using the word love. Just try it. I know that part of the difficulty in communicating with others about our faith is that we have to use a word that is so commonly used to indicate a variety of things! And, if we are going to communicate with a culture that doesn’t hold the same meaning of the word, we have to find a new way to say it. That word is LOVE.
When I was at Princeton Seminary, I worked in an inner-city church in Newark, NJ. Fortunately, my focus was children and music, and we had a GREAT time! But a fellow seminarian was working at the same church with teenagers from the neighborhood. Much of his ministry was in developing relationships and playing basketball in the church gym. But when he gave a serious talk to the group about what it means to be a follower of Christ, he ran into a problem. Every time he used the word “love,” the girls would cover their mouths and giggle uproariously! It took him a while to discover that, in their culture, “love” was the code word for SEX. These kids had never heard much about the love of God, Godly love that would reach out to us even while we were yet sinners—the kind of love we know about because God, in Jesus Christ, has loved us into life!
So, before we can talk about love, we have to be clear of the definition. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greeks had several different words that all get translated into English as simply “love.”
- There’s eros, romantic love;
- There’s philia, the love experienced among family members and friends;
- But the word used most in the New Testament is agape, and it is the Godly love that gives itself away freely, without conditions, without the need for reciprocation. It’s the kind of love that stands out from ordinary human love, mostly because it seems to have its brightest power in situations where “normal” love tends to give up hope and land flat on its face. Godly love.
Our Gospel reading takes place immediately after Jesus has read a text from Isaiah, a text that describes the loving things that God is going to do. But the people in his hometown synagogue got enraged that Jesus claimed to be the one through whom God was going to accomplish these things. And they missed the whole point because they had different expectations of what God was going to do through the Messiah. They wanted a warrior to kick out the Romans, not someone who was going to teach us to love even our enemies!
But LOVE is the hallmark of the church! Back in the 3rd Century, an early church father by the name of Tertullian reported that the pagans in his community noticed something unusual about the people in the church—and they remarked, “See how they love one another!” This love that they noticed was an other-worldly, remarkable love—the kind that can only come from God.
Here’s an example of that love in action:
Darrell New Plenty Stars is an Oglala Lakota Sioux who found out how different AGAPE is from any human love. He came home to South Dakota from Viet Nam, got a job at a moccasin factory on the reservation, met a wonderful woman, and got married. But Darrell had an anger running through his life, and he sensed that this dark and powerful force was ruining his life. He was “drowning his anger” in bars, ignoring his wife’s pleas to stay sober and go to church with her. For him, only drinking and fighting appealed!
One bitterly cold December night, things took a dangerous turn. He and his drinking buddies had holed up in a house stocked with booze and guns (a terrible combination). Their plan was to get drunk, then go out and “shoot things up.” Darrell wanted to do more shooting than drinking that night, so he hung back from the booze and paced the front room—and he was feeling trapped. Here’s what happened in Darrell’s words:
“A knock sounded at the door. I looked up, startled. My buddies were whooping it up and I couldn’t imagine who would be coming to the house at this hour. I yanked the door open. Standing on the porch was a scrawny, elderly man in a blue jacket buttoned to the neck, his head covered with a fleece-lined hat. I stared, thinking he might be a vision from my past. But I wasn’t drunk—and it really WAS who I thought it was. Before me stood Reverend Ellis Burchfield, one of my teachers back at Brainerd Indian School, the Christian school I had gone to.
“Darrell,” he began. I shut the door in his face and stood there, not sure what to do. I knew it was too cold for anyone to be out in just a jacket. But what was Reverend Burchfield doing here?! I couldn’t just leave him standing out there. I opened the door—he was gone! I raced out into the cold. No sign of him. I jumped in my station wagon and roared down the street, not sure whether I was looking for the old man, or trying to get away from him. I rounded a corner—and there he was, huddled on a curb. I pulled over and shouted at him to get in the car. “What are you doing out here?” I yelled.
His teeth were chattering, but he managed to say, “I was praying for you, Darrell.” I turned to him with a look of what I can only imagine was such crazed disbelief I’m surprised he didn’t jump out! Instead, he told me a story just as crazy. He was retired now, living in Pennsylvania. But he’d been praying a few weeks before and had heard God say quite clearly that he needed to come back to Pine Ridge and find Darrell New Plenty Stars and tell him his soul was in danger. So he’d done it.
The car became very quiet. Outside, a reservation road dusted with new snow rolled under the headlights. I wanted desperately to be angry with this man for barging in on my life like this. But for once I couldn’t feel any anger. I couldn’t find those words of rage that would make him realize how pointless his errand had been. How hopeless I was. I wondered, “What was it about these Christians that made them so different from me?” I looked at the reverend. What had made him drive all this way just to deliver some message I probably wouldn’t believe?
I’d barely formed the question in my mind before I knew the answer. It was an answer I’d been running from all my life, but now I couldn’t avoid it sitting right there next to me.
What was it they had? They had love. God’s love, pure and simple. They looked for it amid the hardships. They tried to live it. And somehow, by some mystery I didn’t understand, that made them stronger than all the anger I’d ever felt.”
Darrell goes on to say that they prayed together, and Reverend Burchfield stayed long enough to mentor Darrell in his faith. His life was re-directed, and he went into ministry himself, knowing that God’s love is always stronger than anything!
The Missing Ingredient
Our passage from 1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as “the love passage,” is not about those other kinds of love. It is about Godly love, AGAPE. And it begins with saying that we might have all kinds of successes, but, without Godly love flowing through us these successes are EMPTY. I might do HUGE acts of faith and generosity, but without love they amount to nothing—they’re worthless. Then it tells us what Godly love looks like.
- It is other-oriented, always acting for the benefit of others.
- It is patient (and if you are not FEELING patient, you still need to ACT patient!)
- It is kind (never hurtful)
- It is NOT envious or boastful or arrogant or rude (not self-centered)
- Godly love is willing to ENDURE: it believes, it hopes, it keeps going regardless of results or the lack of certain “outcomes” we are hoping for. LOVE NEVER FAILS.
- God’s Perfect Love dwells in imperfect people. You and I are not-yet-perfected carriers of God’s love–and agape still does God’s will…even if we carry it imperfectly!
Where Agape Comes From
So, of course, you are asking, “How do I get this agape in my life?” We get a visual clue from Jesus when he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me will produce much fruit.” Think about that. God’s love flows through us, like nutrients flowing through the branches of a fruit tree or grape vine. The “fruit” that is produced is from God’s love, not from us. We cannot produce it ourselves.
Our primary focus, then, is to stay connected to God. God puts us next to people who need God’s love, and it flows through us to them (as long as we don’t stop it up!)
Just think of the church as a conduit, a pipeline. We cannot produce Godly love, but we CAN be a pipeline that carries it! Of course, the pipe must stay connected to the Source. Our relationship with God through Christ connects us to the source of God’s amazing love.
I’ll finish with this thought: Sometimes, we get discouraged about the world and wonder if God’s love is really in evidence in the church. I want to share this encouraging word from Bill Hybels:
“The local church is the hope of the world. There is nothing like the local church when it is working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited.
- It comforts the grieving and heals the broken in the context of community;
- It builds bridges to seekers and offers truth to the confused;
- It provides resources for those in need and opens its arms to the forgotten, the downtrodden, the disillusioned;
- It breaks the chains of addictions, frees the oppressed, and offers belonging to the marginalized of this world.
Whatever the capacity for human suffering, the church has a greater capacity for healing and wholeness. Still to this day, the potential of the local church is almost more than I can grasp. No other organization on earth is like the church. Nothing even comes close.” –Bill Hybels
Friends, when you and I stay connected to Christ, then the love of God flows through us—and the church lives up to what God designed it to be!