by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We’re beginning our new sermon series, Neighbors. We will be taking three weeks to look at what loving our neighbor looks like in our daily lives. This week we will be focusing on the question of “What is love?” Next week will ask “Who do I love?” And the final week, just before Thanksgiving, we will be considering “When do I love?”
Today, we’re asking the question “What is love?” And will be focusing on a scripture passage that is often read at weddings, but it was never intended that way. So, this is another one of those times when I’ll be asking you to pay extra close attention. When we’ve heard a passage many times, there is a tendency to either tune it out, “Boring!” Or to think about it the way we always have, our default. When we get to it, I’m going to ask you to try to listen to it as if you had never heard it before.
So, what is it? What is love? Take a few seconds to think about that…. Is it a feeling? Something that can change over time? Is it a thing?
What does the world have to say about love? We hear about it in songs all the time. There’s a song from 1993 actually title, what is Love by the musician Haddaway. He sings, “What is love?/ Baby don’t hurt me / Don’t hurt me no more.” Practically the whole song is repeating these lyrics over and over again. “What is love?/ Baby don’t hurt me / Don’t hurt me no more.”
He obviously is associating his love with pain, but he knows that it’s not supposed to be that way. In one of the verses he says, “I don’t know why you’re not there / I give you my love, but you don’t care / So what is right? And what is wrong?”
Is he right? What is love? Many people think that it cannot be love unless it involves either emotional or even physical pain, being willing to suffer.
In this last season of Downton Abbey, one of the characters, Tom Branson, was advising Mary, “Real love means giving someone the power to hurt you.” Is this right? Is it good? One thing that occurs to me is that this is from the perspective of the outside in. How are people treating me. Are they loving me? Are they injuring me, or even treating me well?
The question being asked here is almost “Should I be putting up or tearing down walls because I might be injured.” What is my role in loving?
This week our scripture passage comes from 1st Corinthians, and a more diverse group of people can scarcely be imagined. This letter was written to a church planted by the Apostle Paul. Corinth was a very cosmopolitan city and a cross roads of the Roman Empire. At that time sailing on the Mediterranean Sea, they didn’t go the shortest distance between two points, like they can now with modern navigation equipment. They stayed closer to shore and follow the edges of the coastline. More like they probably did with Ron’s recent trip, for very different reasons. On Ron’s trip, they would have wanted to see the beautiful countryside and be able to visit the amazing cities, but the reason these cities were built was because it was too dangerous to sail too far away from land. Corinth is in Greece, and it has a lot of undulating coastline. There is a relatively large landmass of Peloponnese attached to the rest of Greece by this very thin isthmus. It is only about 4 miles, and that is where the city of Corinth lies. Now, there is a canal. It was built 123 years ago. Then they would take their boats out of the water and transport them across land.
So, this was a city awash with goods, money, slaves, day workers, servants, business people, wealthy aristocracy. And, people from all of these groups made up the church at Corinth. You talk about at church with diversity. In that way, it was good. It illustrated the equality among all in God’s eyes, but it also created some misunderstandings and conflict.
Greco-Roman culture was very hierarchical and stratified, so people of different socioeconomic groups were not used interacting with each other, especially socially. You may think that we don’t mix with people from other groups much today, but we’ll see them in the grocery store or at restaurants, see others on the street, or that one meeting point for this part of Wallowa County, Joseph Hardware. Not so in first century Greece. One of the things that Paul addresses in this letter is how they come together for the Lord’s supper or communion. The more affluent would come early, eat all the food, and drink all the wine before the people who had to work could arrive. So after, for some of them literally slaving all day, they would come and find nothing left for them. Paul was trying to transform these diverse people into a cohesive community that cared for each other. The main goal of the whole letter is stated in the very beginning in chapter 1 verse 10.
“I appeal to you, Brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” … It’s Unity.
In Chapter 13, he asked them to forget about the ways that they are trying to create a new hierarchy through their spiritual gifts. He says it is all pointless if they can’t love one another.
This is what Paul tells them in chapter 13. I’m actually going to start with the last phrase of chapter 12 verse 31. You’ll find it starting on page 1786 of your Pew Bible. And once you’re there, hold the page. We’ll be coming back to it.
1 Corinthians 12:31b-13:13
12:31b And now I will show you the most excellent way.
13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
A couple of weeks ago, we asked the question, “What would an extraordinary person do?” The love that Paul describes here can sound like an extraordinary love. As followers of Jesus, we are ALL called to love this way, all the time. This is not a love that is reserved for a spouse (though it doesn’t hurt). This is how we’re supposed to love everyone, most especially the people that we might find “challenging” or difficult to love.
Of course, Paul was writing to a church, and he was calling them to love each other, and that’s a great place to start. We can practice with each other, so it becomes our default when interacting with anyone. And, that is a very important thing to do. We’ve all heard about that stereotypical church, where the people are great with each other, but they’re very insular. They are not necessarily loving or kind to the people they encounter outside of church.
Then, there is the opposite extreme, churches where people constantly bicker and find fault with each other. This is the situation that Paul found within the Corinthian church, and it was not the only church where he had to address this issue. Paul was very close to the Philippian church. You can tell this by the tone of his letter, but there is conflict going on in this church that is so dear to Paul. In Chap 2:2 he says, “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” He gets very personal and specific in Chap 4: 2. “I please with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.”
Paul is asking them to love one another in that same way that he wrote to the Corinthians about. We start by treating each other that way. We practice, and it becomes a habit. People observe how we treat each other. They look to see if our walk matches our talk.
We also have to accept our responsibility that we are Christ’s representatives in the world. Whether we like it or not, or whether it’s fair, if you identify yourself as a Christian or a follower of Jesus, people assess or judge the Christian community as a whole by the way we treat each other and the people around us. And because of the loudest voices that the media loves to cover, we have a lot of misinformation to counteract. There is a famous quote by Gandhi, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
In the Gospel of John, shortly after he washes the disciple’s feet, on the night he is arrested, Jesus says in chap 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Love was a big theme for John. In his first letter, chapt 4:16, he says, “God is love.” God is love. We ask the question, “What is love?” And, John tells us that God is love. How does that work for us? How do we put that into practice? Remember when I asked you to hold the place in our Scripture passage for today, 1 Cor 13? Go back there now, and let’s look at this description of love that Paul gives us, and replace the word “love” with “God.” You may have done this before, but it’s a good reminder to do periodically. Starting with verse 4 going to verse 8. Let’s say this together. “4 God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, God does not boast, God is not proud. 5 God does not dishonor others, God is not self-seeking, God is not easily angered, God keeps no record of wrongs. 6 does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 God never fails.”
Wow! Do you regard God this way? Do you realize that is what it means for God to love you? I love the part in verse 5. “God keeps no record of wrongs.” Did you realize that? In Psalm 103:12, it says, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” So, when God forgives us, he doesn’t remember it. Have you ever heard someone say, “I can forgive them, but I can’t forget what they did to me.” Maybe, we have even thought that ourselves, with very good reason, but when we are called to love as God loves, we are called to forgive AND forget, just like God forgives and forgets what we have done when we ask for forgiveness and repent.
Another thing you might have done, or it may be new for you. Let’s try something even bolder. We said the passage using God in place of love. It probably wasn’t too surprising that God fits with all of these things though the realization of all of it at the same time might have been extraordinary. Here’s the challenge. Let’s read it again, but this time substitute your own name. I invite you to read it along with me. I’m going to say my own name. You can say yours out loud or silently. Ready? Found your place? Starting again at verse 4 going through verse 8. “4 Cherie is patient, Cherie is kind. She does not envy, she does not boast, she is not proud. 5 she does not dishonor others, she is not self-seeking, she is not easily angered, she keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Cherie does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 She always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Cherie never fails.”
Okay, I know that I still have some room to grow, and we all will until we are fully sanctified, fully transformed by God, by the Holy Spirit into the perfect representation of the person created us to be. It’s a journey, but we’re supposed to continue to make progress down the path. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes it’s 10 steps forward all at once.
What is love? Jesus says for us to love one another as he loves us? Jesus says for us to make disciples of all nations, all peoples. We are to love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves. (More on that next week.)
Stephen Covey the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People tells a story in that book about love. A man starts talking to him during a break at one of his conferences.
[The man says,] “My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her anymore and she doesn’t love me. What can i do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” [Stephen] asked.
“That’s right,” he reaffirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her,” [Stephen] replied.
“I told you, the feeling just isn’t there anymore.”
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend , love is a verb. Love – the feeling – is a fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”
Love as a verb. Behaving in a loving way, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we don’t have the feeling. Behaving that way creates the feeling. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Have you ever tried doing that? It is amazing how your feelings can change for people that you pray for, even feeling love for people that you never thought possible.
What is love? Love is seeing people as God sees them. Love is treating them as ones created in the image of God. Love is praying for and wanting the best for the people around us, both inside the church and outside the church in an extraordinary way.
As we finish us our first week in our series Neighbors, I invite you to take the index card that you were given with your bulletin and write down some of your neighbors. Then, pray for them every day this week.
Let me pray for you … Lord, thank you so much for loving us and showing us by your example the answer to the question, “What is love?” As we celebrate communion shortly, we will have another example of how you showed your love for us. Help us to live out that kind of loving with each other and with everyone we come in contact with. Help us to remember that they ALL are made in your image. Open our eyes. Help us to see as you see and love as you love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.