Sunday, March 04, 2007

Epiphany last ( Yr C): 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 Cor --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 appears to have been 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 abolition 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 election 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 context.

Conservatives claim to represent Christian orthodoxy and to stand on the side of 2000 years of tradition. There is a place for orthodoxy, and I hope that I am in the broad, main stream of the orthodox Christian faith. Christians believe certain things and do not believe other things. 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. But listen to the way theologian Eugene Peterson paraphrases 1 Cor. 13: “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. 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 ready we are to forgive others and to ask for their forgiveness.