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 –

[2] Ibid.

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.


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.”


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.

Theos agape estin

It has been a while since I taught an adult Sunday school class, and I’m slowing shaking off the rust in a particularly hairy book to walk through.  The First Letter of John, written at the height of the Ephesian Gnostic Controversy is a book that tempts me, again and again, to get overly academic in its study.  I’m getting OK feedback from the participants, but as I’m teaching it, I can feel my brain dragging in the depths of seminary mire.

So, I’m excited about this week because, finally, we will deal with the phrase that has been on the white board from the very begininning.

God is love.

This phrase appears twice in Sunday’s Epistle lection; both times arguing essentially the same point, first apophatically, and then cataphatically.

  •  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
  • God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

God is love.

The first thing that comes to mind is that I’ve heard 100 sermons that argue, “it is all about love.”  In fact, I was pretty rude to a classmate in homiletics when she preached just such a sermon (sorry Amanda).  My point then, as awfully articulated and self-serving as it was, and my call to preachers and teacher this Sunday, is that The Episcopal Church doesn’t have a good working definition of love.  Partly, this is a function of language.  In the New Testament, our one word “love” is used to describe four very different Greek concepts:

  • Storge – affection between family members
  • Philia – virtuous love between friends
  • Eros – passionate love between intimate partners
  • Agape – unconditional, self-giving, sacrificial love as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13

<rant> Somewhere, lost in translation, guilt, fear, and self-esteem issues, love became something of an “I’m OK, you’re OK” philosophical construct based in “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”  We gave up accountability and turned sacrificial love into becoming a door mat for the other.  Because of this erosion of love, when we read 1 John 4:7-21, when we hear “God is love,” we fail to grasp the depth of love, agape, that John is describing. </rant>

God is love: unconditional, self-giving, sacrificial love, and if we are to live in the Kingdom, then we ought understand what that means and how to live it.