October 28, 2012

And the greatest of these is love

Passage: Job 42:1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34:1-8, 1 Corinthians 13, Mark 10:46-52

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


I came across a report about a recently established Twitter feed that had accumulated a significant following titled KimKierkegaardashian.  Each of the account's tweets is said to contain the "philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard mashed with the tweets and observations of Kim Kardashian."  Kierkegaard is one of the finest thinkers Christianity has ever known; Kardashian is known for starring in Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the reality TV series that she shares with her family.

Typical of the wide divergence in perspective, these two thoughts were mashed into a single tweet.  The existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote that, "to love God is to love oneself truly." Conversely, Kim Kardashian once said, "It doesn't matter if you have a valentine or not—just love yourself and be your own.”

1. The “me” focus of our postmodern culture—typified in Kardashian tweets—is very similar to the self-sufficient, self-congratulatory mood of first-century Corinth.  Peer-group prestige, success in competition, and the devaluation of tradition and universals were Corinthian obsessions.  The rationality that dominated the thinking of first-century Corinth and the so-called postmodernity of the twenty-first century have parallels; the concern is not for facts and truth but for applause and success.  The influence of this mindset created challenges for the converts to Christian faith.

In the Corinthian church Paul had to battle the conceits of peer-group pride; “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos”, or “I belong to Peter” were the badges of superiority claimed by factions in the church.  The focus was on who was deemed the best speaker and had the largest following and had baptized the most (applause and success).  The church was rife with all kinds of self-centred “spirituality’.  Some considered themselves spiritually a cut above the rest—not like those immature believers who have scruples about eating meat offered to idols.  There was a pride taken by some because they spoke in tongues of had a gift of prophesy; their “spirituality” was all about them and the status it gave them.

We live in an era where we speak about “my” spirituality: there is the “I’m not religious but spiritual” peer-group.  Within the church there is this sense where spiritual life is viewed as a consumer product so I search for a church that offers worship that inspires me in my spirituality.  According to the editor in the July edition of the United Church’s magazine the Observer, the only acceptable “spirituality” is held by those who share a particular view with respect to sexual orientation; anyone holding a dissenting view was labelled a “backwater bigot”.

Paul would never deny that there are many things important for a life of faith; he addresses, for example, the subjects of orderly worship, sexual morality, and the problems of self-centred spirituality with the Corinthian believers.  Paul would never say “all you need is love”, but he would say that without love all the rest is smoke and mirrors.  Let’s hear it in his words: “2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

We must be careful not to lift this affirmation of Paul’s out of its context in the gospel.  For Paul the prism through which all life is viewed is the cross of Jesus Christ—“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  Love is understood through this prism.  Paul and the Apostle John are in complete accord here John wrote, “we know love by this, that he (Jesus) laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16).

Jesus shows us that true love is completely self-giving and self-forgetful.  It is to be completely for the other.  Jesus demonstrated his love for the One he called the Father by his obedience to the Father and demonstrated his love for us in giving his life for us.  It is important to note that

Jesus’ love of the Father was the ground of his love for us; that is his obedience to Father—the expression of his love for the Father—is love for humanity.  Love, true love, is grounded in love for God.  Kierkegaard is right, "to love God is to love oneself truly."

2. The story is told of a young minister who found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the worship service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition.  Nothing the minister said or did helped solve the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young minister sought out the congregation’s 99-year-old founder.

He met the old minister in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me," he pleaded, "was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?"

"No," answered the old minister.

"Ah," responded the younger man, "then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers."

"No," answered the old minister.

"Well," the young minister responded, "what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout and the other half sit and scream."

"Ah," said the old minister, "that was the tradition."

There was something like this going on in the church at Corinth.  This is why Paul would write “I will show you a still more excellent way” and then penned this tome on love.  It is true that there is something to be said for the various ways the church engages in public prayers.  Some prefer extemporaneous prayers confident that the Spirit of God will guide the mind and heart in the moment.  Others prefer written prayers that are timeless in that they could be said in any generation keeping us in touch with God who changes not.   Some insist on liturgical prayers that are part of every worship service; I have observed that in the Anglican Church the weekly prayers are steeped in the gospel so if the minister wanders away in the sermon at least the prayers announce the gospel.  The necessary thing is that we pray at worship because to pray is to express love for God.

Music is another of those hot buttons that has some standing and shouting while others sit and scream.  Some love the hymns of the church that declare with theological acumen the timeless truths of God; there is an objectivity that is prized.  Others love the more subjective side that touches on the emotions and we sing to Jesus of the experiential side of faith; the contemporary praise songs often fit this category.  I think that there is something to be said for beginning worship with objective expressions of worship and moving to the subjective—we need both.  I believe this follows the logic of the gospel.

The gospel says that humanity is dead in trespasses and sins.  There is no natural inclination towards God—we have each gone astray to our own way.  The cross of Jesus reveals humanity’s sickness; the cure discloses the disease.  Humans, left to themselves, will never diagnose what is wrong; we are not naturally asking God to cure my sin.  Think of the past summer of the spate of killings in Toronto—no newspaper proposed that we pray to God to cure the sin of our own hearts as a solution.  So the gospel begins objectively—outside our selves—announcing to us what we cannot find on our own.  It then touches every aspect of our lives in the gift of faith and we respond subjectively with love for God.

“While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  There is a pattern disclosed in the love of God for us that our pattern of worship endeavours to mirror.  We begin by declaring that is was God who initiated love and moved towards us and having been overtaken by him we can then respond with love.

At the foot of the cross we stand on level ground; here our self-centred spiritualities are exposed for what they are—inconsistent with the love that saves us.  The Apostle Paul does not render superfluous the many things that are important for a life of faith by insisting on love; but he does distinguish between the important and the necessary.  I wonder if many congregational squabbles occur because of category confusion—we have turned the important into the necessary.  “And the greatest of these is love,” wrote Paul.

3. The artist and musician Yoko Ono—widely known because of her marriage to John Lennon—once wrote: “I saw that nothing was permanent. You don't want to possess anything that is dear to you because you might lose it.”  Is there really nothing of permanence and do we simply set ourselves up for injury if we love too much?

In the play The Borderers, by the English poet William Wordsworth, one of the characters proffers this about permanence:

"Action is transitory - a step, a blow.
The motion of a muscle - this way or that -
'Tis done, and in the after-vacancy
We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed:
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And shares the nature of infinity."

Is all action taken really transitory and is suffering that which can be counted on to be permanent?

Ursula Le Guin and American science-fiction writer said: "The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next."  Is uncertainty permanent and as such is it what makes life possible?

I understand why each of these writers would say the things they do; they each offer and angle of vision on the anxiety that we often feel about life. My father is 91 years-of-age; while in most respects in good health, his abilities are declining.  I am happy to do for him what is now beyond him; still, I hate the decline.  When I was a boy he was the man who could do anything.  I loathe death’s errand boy of declining capacity.  Can anything be counted on?

The Apostle Paul bookends the final paragraph of this chapter on love with two amazing statements about love’s permanence.  “Love never ends” the paragraph begins; at then he ends with that sentence that soars, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Paul has been pointing out to the Corinthian Christians who are enamoured with and focussed on spiritual gifts that none of these gifts are permanent.  Indeed “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets (think preacher), third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.”  These gifts are given in support of the gestation, birth, and sustaining of faith.  The gifts are important for the here and now, but one day faith will be sight and will no longer need these means of support.  Paul is underlining a distinction between the contingent (even though important) and the permanent.

In one sense faith and hope abide also, but in forms in which faith becomes assimilated into sight, and hope absorbed into the perfect, even though this is an active perfection.  Thus in a subtle sense love alone abides forever in the form in which Christ and the cross has revealed it: “it is that which continues”.  I think this is the reason Paul says of these three love is the greatest.

The teacher, theologian, pastor, and evangelist become redundant in the sense in which their work is currently carried out.  But learning to love, to have respect and concern for the Other above the self, is grounded in the nature of God as revealed in Christ, and this will never become redundant, obsolete, or irrelevant. The future thus provides the model for the present in working out priorities at Corinth and in the church at large.

I look forward to the day when God will purge the world of everything that undermines or diminishes love; that Day when love and nothing but love will pour out of us in self-forgetful self-giving. Love represents “the power of the new age” breaking into the present, the only vital force that has a future.  The theologian may receive his or her redundancy notice; the prophet may have nothing to say which everyone else does not already know; but love abides as the character of heavenly, eschatological existence

Friends, every act of love offered for the sake of the other; love acted out for the Saviour’s sake who held nothing back when it came to his love for us; to love like this is to participate in that which is truly permanent.  God is love and this is why love is permanent, why it never ends.  To do for a parent what they can no longer do for themselves is to love; remember that we abide in love as we obey God who commands to honour parents.  To take up a posture of kindness towards others; to eschew rudeness; to stop keeping score and harbouring resentment—this is love.  It isn’t complicated but it is as profound as it is permanent.

and the greatest of these is love.