A sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C, the annual meeting of Epiphany parish, Euclid, and the Solemn Sung Eucharist at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland. The main text for this sermon is Paul’s ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13
There’s nothing like a couple of days of -30 degree windchill to make even an ordinary 30 degree winter day feel like a gift.* And whether we face the storm in safety or unsheltered makes all the difference in the world. Context is powerful.
When we read scripture, context matters. Today’s New Testament readings follow on directly from last Sunday: we read them in the context of our ongoing and growing life as a faith community. Even if we don’t have the luxury of coming together every week, or of remembering what happened last Sunday, we read them today in the context of God’s words to the prophets, God’s promise from the beginning: I have always known you. I am always with you. Together, we will move mountains.
Paul’s love poem is all about this context: the context of Christian life and church community. We more often hear it read in the context of a wedding – I heard it read aloud at my own wedding – and we naturally assume from the context that it is offering good advice on how to live together through the trials and trivia of intimacy: to be patient, and not irritable; to be truthful, and avoid Schadenfreude; all good advice for newly-weds, and for the rest of us who live among the human family. But Paul was not writing his letter to a pair of lovebirds, but to a church in serious need of guidance, conflict resolution, and a lot of love. That was his context.
Last Sunday, some of you may recall, Paul was writing about the need for cooperation, collaboration, cohesion within the body of Christ. He was hinting toward tenderness for those less able to claim their own status, exhorting an equality of esteem and opportunity among members of a patchwork community sewn together through the nails of Christ’s crucifixion, and the whole cloth of his resurrection, and the new garments of baptism.
Paul ended that passage listing the spiritual gifts so lauded by the Corinthian Christians among themselves – gifts of prophecy, teaching, leadership, speaking in tongues, philanthropy, interpretation. And we ended on the cliffhanger verse – because yes, the Bible can be just as suspenseful as your daytime stories, read right – we left on the cliffhanger note: But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a more excellent way.
This is the context for Paul’s great poem on love: the more excellent way. He is preaching to a church in Corinth which has become over-excited about its own spiritual gifts and arguments, which is in danger of losing the larger life for which God has called it into being: to serve the gospel of Christ, God’s message from the manger, from the Cross and the empty tomb; from the five thousand fed on the hillside and the dead raised up before their loved ones’ disbelieving eyes; from the outcasts embraced and the prophecies fulfilled: God’s message from Jesus.
Look, says Paul, I don’t much care how many of you can speak in tongues, if you don’t love the people to whom you are speaking. I don’t care if you reverse tithe and beat Bill Gates for charitable tax deductions, if you resent the people who have less than you; unless you love them more than the money you give away. I don’t care, says Paul, how clever or funny or philosophical you can be, wise guys, unless you have love; unless you serve up love on a platter. Unless you sow love, you reap an empty reward.
It’s about love, says Paul, not as we know it, but the love of God, enduring, truth-telling, patient, resilient, steadfast, faithful, revealed in Christ, life-giving; love that has known us from the beginning; love that can move mountains. And if it’s not about love, Presiding Bishop Curry might add, it’s not about God.
You see, context is important. Even our polar vortex days do not occur without context. Set within the scheme of scientific data, they are a portent of the ways in which our world is changing. Even our spiritual ancestors would have told us that. Too often these days, context is used as a whitewash, to excuse the inexcusable, and to pardon the unpardonable. We use it stirred into our conversations to reinterpret everything from politics to coffee beans, from catholic schoolboys to governors, from culture to Christianity. It is used to confuse as much as to clarify situations and statements.
But the context of our life together is love. And contrary to the old cartoon, love does mean saying we are sorry, when we have acted unlovingly, as individuals, as a church, as a culture. That’s what it means for love to rejoice in the truth, rather than wrongdoing. It means repenting, changing our ways to align with the love of God, the love poured out by Jesus, to free the prisoners and heal the suffering.
If we love our neighbour, with the love of Christ, we will find it hard to denigrate their race, culture, gender, marriage, family, or economic situation. If we can love our neighbour enough to get to know them, not in part but as we are fully known, then we will lose the excuse of unintentional offence. If we love our neighbour with the love of Christ, we will protect our own hearts from contempt, derision, self-satisfaction. If the love of Christ is our context – love that embraced the outcast, fed the five thousand, raised hell and raised the dead – if love is our gift, we need fear no evil.
It is difficult to measure the success of a strategy of love. Jesus discovered that a single sermon in his hometown could get him lifted on shoulders as a hero, and lifted right off the edge of a cliff, if he wasn’t careful (and he was rarely careful). Love could get him raised on a cross, and raised to God’s right hand on high. Is love measured in the blood of martyrs, or the lives saved from the lions? Love is difficult to budget, and hard to count. But without love, we are a whitewashed tomb, and an echoing gong.
So Paul was writing to the Corinthians, but even if our context perhaps doesn’t look quite like theirs; if we are not a brand new, burgeoning, baby Christian community, outgrowing itself month by month; if we don’t look like a bunch of Greek philosophers, full of leisure and the zeal of new converts, champing at the bit to spend our spare energy on the gospel of Christ; even so, Paul’s letter still has a word for us in our own context.
Look, he says, if you don’t have a whole lot to give away, but you have love, then you are rich indeed. Share your bounty. If you don’t speak in tongues, but you have love, then speak that word, that language, which is universally understood. If you don’t have faith that you can move mountains; if you live in a context that seeks to keep you down, but you have the love of God in your soul, well then let’s build a base camp, invite a team of faithful and hopeful companions, and climb the mountain together.
Our primary context, our broadest and most specific context is the love of God, present from the birth of creation, from before the birth of the prophets, and with us today. If we can locate and ground and surround ourselves with the intentional and patient and persistent and enduring and powerful context of God’s love, then we need have no fear of being taken out of context. If we can create and sustain a cultural context whose greatest gift, talent, and treasure is love, then with God’ help, we will move mountains.
* updated to add: I live in Fahrenheit country now