The Most Excellent Way – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Every Sunday [at the 10 o’clock service] we sing this song as the children leave for Follow the Word.  For years, I haven’t given this little ditty much thought.  I just enjoy singing it.  It is a cute song that reminds me of the Vacation Bible Schools of my youth, but as I spent this week immersed in the lessons, I found myself reflecting on this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  These are words of comfort and hope.  That the Son of God loves me means that I’m included in those who are his brothers and sisters.  It means that I’m an inheritor of the Kingdom of God.  It means that I’m a part of the people who Jesus was anointed to save.

This week’s Gospel lesson is a continuation of last Sunday’s in which we heard Jesus read words of comfort and hope the from the Prophet Isaiah.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he as anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  The crowd that was gathered in the synagogue was excited at these words.  They heard the promise that God loves them, that God cares for them in their hardship, and that one day, God will restore everything and make the world right side up again.  They stared at Jesus with eager expectation, hoping for a clearer picture of what this could possibly mean for them.  And so Jesus sat down, as preachers did in those days, and uttered his first public words in Luke’s Gospel.  His first sermon is only nine words long, but it would forever change the course of human history. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today?  As in, right now?  As in, no more boot of Rome on our throats, no more heavy taxes, no more fear?  Today!?!  Luke tells us that the crowd moved beyond excitement to wonder and amazement.  They were thrilled at these words from Jesus and began to murmur among themselves, “Can it be?  Could this really come from Joseph’s son? Can he really be the anointed one who has come to save us?”

But Jesus didn’t stop there either.  He kept talking, opening up their imaginations to a more excellent way.  He invited the crowd to see a world where God’s love isn’t confined to the Sinai Peninsula and the people of Israel, but is available for everyone, everywhere.  Remember the Widow at Zarephath?  She lived in Gentile country, but Elijah ministered to her and her alone in the midst of a famine.  She lived in the wrong town and worshiped the wrong way, but, Jesus says, she is included in the year of the Lord’s favor.  Namaan the Syrian, was an ungrateful leper.  He talked harshly about the waters of Israel, even as he had come to Elisha to be healed.  He was a Gentile and not a very nice one, and Jesus says, he’s included too.  Jesus tells the crowd that it is God’s desire to restore to right relationship everyone on the face of the earth.  This word is too much for the crowd to bear.  Their excitement turns to anger in a split second.  Their rage takes Jesus to the brow of a cliff.

“Jesus loves me, this I know…”  We love that song.  “Jesus loves you, this I know…” is less popular.  That other person might be nice and pleasant, but what if they aren’t?  What if they’re a jerk?  Jesus loves jerks.  I know because I can be one sometimes.  What if they’re Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are a banker on Wall Street or a drug dealer in Aaronville?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are my ex-husband or my emotionally distant mother or my annoying neighbor?  Jesus loves them, too.  For the crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach, that was just too much to handle, and if we’re honest with ourselves, it is probably too much for us as well.  So what do we do?  How do we come to grips with the reality that God’s favor rest upon many who we consider to be undesirable?

We follow Paul’s more excellent way.  The Christians in Corinth were singing a different version of this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know because I have the gift of tongues, but I’m not so sure he loves you because you only have the gift of prophecy.”  That pretty awful song threatened to tear the young church apart, and so, in the midst of his teaching on spiritual gifts, Paul took a pause to teach them how to love one another.  From verse four to the first half of verse eight, Paul uses 45 words to describe love.  Sixteen of them are verbs.  Love is something that requires work.  Love is busy.  Love is active.  Love is always finding ways to lift up and care for the other.[1]  Remember that this is being written to a church that was on the verge of divorce.  The Corinthian church was being torn apart by envy and bitterness and to them Paul says:

Love is patient, but it isn’t passively patient.  Love means being slow to avenge when someone does you wrong.  Love isn’t just kind in the polite “hi, how are you” kind of way.  Love is kind even to those who have hurt you.  Love is not being envious of the gifts that someone else has.  Love is not being boastful about the gifts that you have.  Love is not being rude or puffed up with an overinflated sense of self.  Love is the most excellent way because love is the ultimate dream of God for all flesh.  “Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment.  Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will never fail.”[2]

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard the bishop talk about how heaven isn’t some place that is far from here in time and space.  Instead, he says, heaven exists somewhere right here (waves hand at side of face).  When we love one another in the way that Paul suggests the Corinthians should love each other, heaven comes right here.  God is love, and so when we love one another, God is right here.  Jesus Christ came to earth to show us the way of love; the way of self-sacrifice; the way of God’s holy restoration of all creation, and when we follow his example of love, Jesus is right here.  It doesn’t matter what else we might do, if we don’t have love, heaven stays out of view, God remains absent, Jesus is not among us.  But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we usher in nothing less than the Kingdom of God.

“Jesus loves me, this I know.”  These are words of comfort and hope, but if that is all they are, then they are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  Because of God’s love for us, we are called to show that love to the rest of the world.  By showing patience, by acting with kindness, by eschewing envy, boasting, and arrogance, by seeking the common good, and rejoicing in the truth we are living into the fullness of God’s will for us. With some practice, who knows, one day we might even be comfortable enough to turn to our neighbor and sing, “Jesus loves you, this I know.”  That kind of love will change the world.  Love really is the most excellent way.  Amen.

[1] Brian Peterson – http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734

[2] Ibid.

Advertisements

The Cost of Love

It might be fairly obvious by now that I plan to preach on Paul’s love hymn in 1 Corinthians 13 this Sunday.  Still, it doesn’t seem right not to at least touch on the Gospel lesson.  Like the Epistle, we’ll hear a continuation of last week’s lesson.  Jesus is preaching from Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth.  He offers words of comfort and hope: good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and in general, the year of the Lord’s favor.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Needless to say, the crowd gathered is pretty stoked about these words.  Life in a backwater town under Roman occupation hasn’t been great.  Money is always tight, hunger is never more that a few days away, and the whim of the Pax Romana could change at any moment.  The Year of the Lord’s favor, a Jubilee when all was set right, would have sounded like music to the ears of the hard-pressed members of the Synagogue at Nazareth.  Luke tells us, the crowd spoke well of him and were amazed at his teaching.

If only he had stopped talking, but Jesus went on to say that this promise wasn’t just for Nazareth.  It wasn’t just for God’s chosen people, Israel, but for the whole world.  The Gentile Widow at Zarephath?  She’s included.  Namaan, the ungrateful leper from Syria?  He’s in.  Jesus tells the crowd that it is God’s desire to restore to right relationship everyone on the face of the earth.  This word is too much for the crowd to bear.  Their excitement turns to anger in a split second.  Their rage takes Jesus to the brow of a cliff.  This is the cost of love.

There is nothing we can do that will make God love us less.  There is nothing we can do that will make God love us more.  As great as these truths are for me, they can be really hard to hear when their meant for someone else.  The cost of agape love is that it includes everyone, everywhere.  God’s grace that covers me also covers Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.  God’s grace covers Bishops Spong and Duncan.  God’s grace covers bankers on a Wall Street and drug dealers on O Block.  This reality is too much for many of us to handle.  We’d prefer to decide who is in and who isn’t.  This vision of God’s love nearly got Jesus killed by people he grew up with, and it is the sort of vision that gets preachers in hot water as well, but it is the reality of God.

In Christ, the Jubilee has begun.  The work of setting all things right continues as God’s love overflows upon all of his creation.  This work is, as Paul says, a more excellent way, but God knows, it comes at great personal cost.  Jesus died because of God’s love.  We fight and scratch and claw at oppression, sexism, hunger, racism, and class warfare because we know that God’s love is bigger than we can even imagine.  Heck, God even loves a sinner like me.

The More Excellent Way – a reprise

Last week, I wrote a post imploring preachers everywhere to find a place for 1 Cor 12:31b.  After two weeks of hearing how Paul handled a church tearing itself apart over whose gifts were more important, it seems important that we hear how he transitions for bitter infighting to his great love hymn.  “I will show you a more excellent way,” he writes. There is not shortage of memes dealing with the word excellent. Having used the classic late-80s film, Bill and Ted’s Excellent adventure last week, I decided to forego Wayne’s World as it is another buddy comedy, and will instead use a show that defined my adolescent years.

burns-excellent

The way that Paul shows the Corinthian church isn’t the way of greed that Mr. Burns would follow.  Instead, it is the way of love.  As I researched for Sunday’s sermon, I came across Brian Petersen’s commentary in which he writes these words: “Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment.  Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will not fall, fail, or falter.”  As I read those words, I began to realize that because God is love, love is an end unto itself.  Love is its own telos, and when we love our neighbor in the way that Paul describes; when we agape love our neighbor by showing patience, by acting with kindness, by eschewing envy, boasting, and arrogance, by seeking the common good, and rejoicing in the truth we are living into the fullness of God’s will for us.  We bring the kingdom of God to earth when we love one another.

No doubt, that is a more excellent way.  It is a way that brings heaven to earth.  It is a way that, if only for a moment, brings the not yet into the already.  It is a way of realized eschatology, an apocalyptic vision of the age to come that isn’t full of firey skies and tribulation, but is a model of the perfect love that has existed within the Trinity of God from before creation.  This way is prefect.

The Extreme of Love

In yesterday’s post, I posited that as Paul laid out some of the more extreme ways that people have chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, he had in mind only one real extreme: the extreme of love.  While 1 Corinthians 13 gets regular airplay at wedding ceremonies, the sort of love that Paul is talking about here isn’t the gooey romantic love of the wedding day.  It is more the ongoing, life-giving love of every day that follows.

During wedding rehearsals, as we go over the questions and vows that the couple will engage, I note that television shows and movies are fairly comfortable with the Episcopal marriage rite, but that they have missed a key part of the liturgy.  During the betrothal portion of the service, the Officiant asks the couple “Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage?  Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?”  The pop culture answer to those questions is “I do,” but the truer answer is “I will.”  “I can get you to agree to anything on your wedding day,” I say to the couple, “but I’m much more interested in the life you’ll live after the event is over.”

loveparkskater99custom

Paul’s extreme of love is focused on a lifetime of living in community.  The love that he describes to the Christians in Corinth is a “more excellent way” than the bitter disputes that have been dividing the community heretofore.  This love, if it is going to change the world is a love that must be patient and kind.  It must be a love that doesn’t seek its own gain, but rather cares for the greater good.  It must be a love that doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and endures even when the times get tough.  This love which can never end can come only from the Creator of the Universe, the inventor and perfecter of agape love, who showed us that love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his only Son.

The extreme of love is impossible to accomplish on our own.  Human beings are incapable of the sort of patience, kindness, and endurance that the true agape love Paul describes requires.  While still in our mortal bodies, we can only see that love through a mirror dimly, but in Christ, we know it is possible.  Through Christ, with the help of the Spirit, we grow into that sort of love more and more until that day when we see fully and are fully known.  Paul lays out of the Corinthians a more excellent way, a way of extreme love.  Give us grace, O Lord, to love as you love us.

The Extremes of Love

Every third year, on Proper 23B, we hear the story of Jesus and the rich young man.  You are probably familiar with the story, but as a reminder, a young man approaches Jesus wishing to become a disciple.  After a brief back-and-forth on what that actually means, Jesus invites him to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.  The young man leaves disheartened; Mark tells us it is because “he had many possessions.”  Every third year, on Proper 23B, preachers wring their hands about whether or not this requirement was specific to that which was holding this particular person back or the more frightening option, that Jesus was thinking this was a requirement of everyone who followed him.

The latter can easily be argued based on how Jesus’ disciples are  called in Mark’s Gospel.  Andrew, Simon Peter, James, John, and Levi all drop everything: job, family, inheritance, and presumably wealth; in order to follow him.  The former often gets argued based on gut feeling – a feeling that often aligns with the American Dream of getting money and buying stuff, which is less than convincing in the Kingdom politics.  As one who lives in a comfortable home, drives a comfortable car, and enjoys the comforts of good food, decent clothes, and the occasional Apple product, all while giving more than tithe to the building of the Kingdom, I find myself stuck in the dissonance between these two arguments.  I want to think that I’ve dropped everything to follow Jesus, but I know that there is some decent justification happening on the side.

That is, until this morning.  As I read Paul’s great love poem from 1 Corinthians 13, I noticed something I had never seen before.  Paul begins his great sonnet by listing the extremes of the faith life: speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels; understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge; having all faith; giving up all possessionsand handing over the body.  Paul writes that he could take the life of discipleship to its farthest extremes, but without love, it would be useless.  Giving up all possessions makes that list of extremes, which leads me to think that this type of living was being discussed in Paul’s day.  Some must have been suggesting that all disciples called to sell everything and give it to the poor, while others, presumably those who were beginning to realize that Jesus probably wasn’t coming back tomorrow and plans had to be made to sustain the fledgling community that was following the Way, were arguing for a more modest stewardship plan.

1 Cor 13-3

Everyone loves a good faux needlepoint.

Paul suggests that even those who live at the extremes of the life of faith, if they don’t have love, their fruit is rotten.  By including it on this list, the call to sell everything seems to fall into the category of optional observances.  That is to say, it isn’t the rule of faith, but rather the exception.  The rule of faith, at least as Paul sees it here in 1 Corinthians 13, is the extreme of love, about which I will write more in the days to come.

1 Corinthians 12:31b

As I noted in my sermon on Sunday, the Corinthian church is perhaps most famous for fighting about everything.  Paul spends most of the first twelve chapters covering a laundry list of topics he would really rather not cover.  This coming Sunday, we’ll hear the final correction to a church tearing itself apart: “you are the body of Christ.”  In the midst of a teaching on spiritual gifts, Paul makes a short aside to remind the Corinthian Christians that above all, they are members of a community of faith and unless they can figure out a way to live together, they are failing to live into their identity as members of the body of Christ.

Sunday week, we’ll hear the antithesis of this argument in Paul’s great Love Hymn.  He’ll show them what life in Christ, united in love to the Trinity that overflows with love, looks like.  Between here and there, however, there is a key phrase which the RCL has decided we do not need to hear.  Epiphany 3C ends at 1 Cor 12:31a.  Epiphany 4C starts at 1 Cor 13:1.  In between is 1 Corinthians 31b.

72017-bill-and-ted-excellent-gif-jlyq

“I will show you a still more excellent way.”

The Greek word translated as “excellent” is “huperbole” which is basically hyperbole without the exaggeration.  According to my handy-dandy Bibleworks Lexicon, huperbole means surpassing greatness; outstanding quality; beyond measure, utterly, to the extreme

to-the-extreme-4f46ea34a27b9

This way is certainly better than the conflicts and tensions of the Corinthian community. This way far surpasses the way of self-interest and greed.  This way is more extremely awesome than Vanilla Ice’s hair.  What way is this?  The way of love.  The way of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The way that seeks peace, that calls us to pray for our enemies, that invites us to seek to be forgiven and to forgive.

1 Corinthians 12:31b is an important moment of transition, and it would behoove the preacher who is tackling 1 Corinthians to give it a nod either this week or next as we follow Jesus on his most excellent way.