Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A More Excellent Way (Last Epiphany, Yr C, Feb. 19, 2007)

A More Excellent Way
J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Vestavia Hills, AL. Feb. 19, 2007.
Text: 1 Cor. 13.
We know that First Corinthians was Paul’s response to a letter that some members of the
Corinthian church had written him. We know this because Paul replies to their questions
and introduces them by saying, “Now concerning…” For example, “Now concerning
meat offered to idols” or “Now concerning the offering for the saints in Jerusalem”.
However, the best-known chapter in First Corinthians --chapter 13, Paul’s so-called
“hymn to love” –does not seem to have been a reply to a question raised by members of
the Corinthian church. Rather, 1 Cor. 13 looks like an interruption of Paul’s discussion
of right and wrong ways to worship. In chapter 11 Paul reiterates what he taught them
about the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion and scolds the well-to-do members of the
Corinthian church for not sharing their food with their less well-to-do sisters and
brothers. In chapter 12 Paul reminds them that they are all members of the Body of
Christ. In chapter 14 Paul rebukes them for loving the more impressive gifts of the Spirit,
such as the gifts of tongues. And in the middle of all this talk about worship comes
chapter 13: “Though I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels but have not love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
This chapter is almost always taken out of context. It is probably the most often-read
scripture passage at weddings. Perhaps many people remember Prime Minister Tony
Blair’s moving reading of it at the funeral of Princess Diana of Wales. But to say that it
is usually read out of context is not necessarily a criticism, because Paul’s words in
chapter 13 have an application far beyond the context for which he meant them.
However, we should keep in mind Paul’s original message: Christian community and
especially Christian worship should be characterized by the kind of love about which
Paul speaks in chapter 13—a love which is about behavior and not about feelings: “Love
is patient and kind… seeks not its own way… believes all things, bears all things, hopes
all things…”
We are in the midst of the most serious crisis the Anglican churches have faced since the
English Civil War resulted in the temporary suppression of Anglicanism as we know it.
There are many aspects to this crisis: the election of Gene Robinson to serve as bishop of
New Hampshire; the choice of Katherine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop of the
Episcopal Church; the threat of many parishes and a few dioceses to leave the Episcopal
Church; the seemingly never-ending stream of critical comments about the Episcopal
Church from some bishops in the developing world. Conservatives argue that the Bible
speaks with a single voice, that it is clear and unambiguous. Liberals argue that the Bible
is ambiguous, that it is a product of its time and must be interpreted in light of its cultural
Conservatives claim to represent Christian orthodoxy and to stand on the side of 2000
years of tradition. I want to state as clearly and as emphatically as possible: I am
orthodox. I am in the broad, main stream of the orthodox Christian faith. There is right
and there is wrong. Some things are true and others are false. Christians believe certain
things and do not believe other things. I would sum up the Christian faith this way: The
Christian faith teaches us that God created the world and declared it good; that God
created humans in the divine image; that God revealed himself to Israel in the Torah and
the Prophets; that God bound himself to Israel with a love that could not be broken; that
in the fullness of time God came among us in Jesus of Nazareth; that the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus effected a cosmic reconciliation between God and the world God
had created; and I could go on and on. These are the clear teachings of the Bible and the
Christian tradition. The orthodox faith is to believe and proclaim these truths. To deny
them is to place oneself outside the Christian tradition.
However, I believe that in 1 Cor. 13, Paul is telling us that there is more to the Christian
faith than just being orthodox. Presbyterian theologian Eugene Peterson paraphrases 1
Cor. 13 with these words: “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but
don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God's Word with
power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith
that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing. If I give
everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't
love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm
bankrupt without love.”
“No matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” There
is more to Christianity than saying and believing the right things. Without love,
orthodoxy is bankrupt, empty, a sham.
As I sat down to write this sermon, I tried to imagine a dialogue between Paul and the
members of the Corinthian church about chapter 13. Imagine Paul and the Corinthians
face to face, and that the Corinthians said, “Paul, we know that we’re on God’s side
because we speak in tongues all the time and have ecstatic experiences. There are people
in our church who can move mountains with their faith, and who have given everything
they have to the poor and have even given their lives for the faith. Now, admit it, that’s
what the Christian faith is all about, isn’t it?” And Paul replied, “Very impressive but do
you remember the time that the scribe asked Jesus which was the greatest of the laws?
Did he say anything about speaking in tongues, moving mountains, or being martyred for
the faith? No. He said that the greatest of the laws was love God with all your being and
love your neighbor as yourself.”
Can you imagine a similar dialogue between today’s conservatives and Paul? “Paul,
what do you think about Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori? She’s an ultra-liberal who
seems to believe that God is as likely to save Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as
Christians. Isn’t that scandalous? Isn’t she undermining the whole Christian faith and
challenging the authority of the Bible?” How do you think Paul might reply? “Tell me,”
Paul might say, “What do you know about Bishop Katherine? Is she patient and kind? Or
boastful and arrogant? If her life is characterized by patience, kindness, joy, and peace,
then leave her alone. Against such people there is no law.”
However, I think that about as many liberals as conservatives need to hear Paul’s
message . I can easily imagine many leading Episcopal liberals saying, “Paul, these
conservatives are a bunch of ignorant bigots. They don’t know the first thing about
Biblical exegesis or interpreting the Bible in the correct context. They haven’t learned
anything new since Sunday school. They don’t even read the New York Times or
Christian Century. Don’t you think they need to read more of Bishop Spong’s books and
keep up with the latest scholarship?” Might Paul’s reply go something like this? “God
isn’t the least bit impressed by your degrees and publications. God doesn’t care about
how many outraged letters you’ve written to the New York Times and the Living Church.
What God cares about is the way you behave toward others. You say you can’t stand
conservatives? Very well then; the real test of your love is how you behave toward those
whom you despise. If you can’t love Bishop Katherine’s worst critics, then you’re no
better than they are.”
I believe there are two different kinds of orthodoxy: an orthodoxy of love and an
orthodoxy of fear. There really are right and wrong beliefs, but even more important than
what we believe is the spirit that motivates both our believing and our behaving. Many
conservatives are reacting from fear, not love. But there are also many liberals who
regard conservatives with contempt, fear, and hatred. Paul has a word for both groups:
“If you have not love, then you are a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul issues a stern rebuke to all of us-- conservatives and liberals
alike. Paul calls us to repent.
Henry Nouwen once wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people
who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We need to forgive and be
forgiven every day, every hour -- unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the
fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” You and I are among the fellowship of
the weak, and the hard truth is that liberals and conservatives alike love poorly. The
measure of our love is not only how bravely we fight for justice or how articulate we are
in proclaiming the faith; the real measure of our love is how well we love and how ready
we are to forgive others and to ask for their forgiveness.