A sermon based on Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 preached on January 31st, 2016
Ladies, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a minute to talk to the guys for a second: Gentlemen, it’s the last day of January. There are exactly 2 weeks until that day you’ve all been eagerly awaiting: Valentine’s Day.
Now, I’m not married, nor am I coupled, but still, I think it’s appropriate to give you a little piece of advice: start planning for the 14th now!
As many of you know, I was in retail for a good number of years before becoming your pastor, and for most of them, I worked at CVS Pharmacy. And it never failed that the two busiest days of the year for us were February 13th and 14th. Forget the week before Christmas, or the few days before Halloween or Easter. None of those compared to the two days before Valentine’s Day. The scene was always brutal. Men, floods and floods of men, coming in through the doors with no clue what to give their loved-ones, trudging their way through the hallmark cards and the rows and rows of Russel Stover’s heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, mindlessly and frantically grabbing tin foil balloons, all of them losing their heads as they stood in lines 20-feet long until it was their turn to slap down their $15, and there you have it, that’s the extent of their preparation for Valentine’s Day. The whole scene would have been funny if it wasn’t so desperate-looking.
St. Valentine, the saint from which Feb 14th got its name, was a third century Roman saint who defied Claudius the Cruel, Ruler of Rome. Claudius the Cruel had banned all marriages and engagements in order to get more men to join his military. It was St. Valentine who spoke up against Claudius and eventually, he was beheaded for his defiance.
So, gentlemen, the point is this: don’t lose your head like St. Valentine or those husbands and boyfriends who get their loved ones drugstore candy for Valentine’s Day. Plan ahead instead. You’ve got a good two weeks to get this right.
This passage—1 Corinthians 13. We all know it. There are folks who have never opened up a bible in their lives who know its words. They’re read at lots and lots of weddings, and maybe appropriately so, but even outside of wedding ceremonies and holidays like Valentine’s Day, these words have much to tell us about a sort of love that many of us don’t think about all too often.
They say the Eskimos have 50 words for snow. It turns out that that’s completely untrue. The number’s more like 4. They say that in other countries, people have many different words for love. Well, that is true. For instance, the Greeks, to whom Paul is speaking in 1 Corinthians, have 3 words for love: Eros, Philos, and Agape.
Eros is the sort of love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. It’s the swoony, longing, desiring love of romance. Then there’s Philos, which is as you might know from the word Philadelphia, is like a brotherly or sisterly love. You see this when two straight guys hug each other but because that’s always a little awkward for them, they hit each other hard on the back as they hug. As Chris Rock jokes, “I’m huggin’ ya, but I’m hittin’ ya!” Philos love is also the kind of love we as a community of faith have for one another, we love each other because we’ve grown to know each other well.
The third sort of love is called Agape. This is the highest form of love that we can practice. Agape love is the sort of love that we are asked to show to others regardless of who they are, regardless of what we think about them or even if we like them or not. This is the kind of love that Jesus asks us to have (or at least do our best to have.) Agape love for the stranger or even for our worst enemies. Agape love is not a matter of feelings. We see the word love, and we immediately think of how we feel. Agape love is different. It has nothing at all to do with feelings. That’s why it takes some getting used to. Agape love is more a set of behaviors or actions—it’s not about our feelings, but about our will—do we have a will to care for and regard others as we regard ourselves and our loved ones?
This is the sort of love that Paul is writing about in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is exhorting the Corinthians, and us in turn, to show agape—this most profound sort of love—to everyone, regardless of whether we like them or not.
See, at this point the Corinthian Christians don’t really like each other very much. They’re a hodge-podge of people from all up and down the social and economic ladder of their day. And they’re fighting over who it’s best to follow: Paul or Silas, or maybe some other Christian teacher, and there’s no end to their bickering back and forth about this. The Corinthians are a community that’s having a really hard time staying together. So, isn’t it kind of excellent, then, that these words are so often read at wedding ceremonies?! In all the difficult realities of relationships—with all the trivial fights and squabbles couples have—here’s a reminder that the sort of love that we are to practice—to try our best to live into—transcends all those petty differences of ours. Agape love is a very unromantic love. We slog it out, day by day—sometimes minute by minute—doing our best to keep from choking each other. Not just that though. Doing our best to love what’s unlovable in others. Agape love—it’s a Divine sort of love. It’s love in the trenches. Love that holds up under heavy fire.
The first passage we read from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy contains some of the holiest words in the bible:
Hear, O Isreal: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind;
and when Jesus comes along, he adds the phrase
and your neighbor as yourself.
These words are so important that we’re supposed to wrap them around us, the passage from Deuteronomy says. We’re supposed to dress ourselves in them.
Decorate your doorposts with them, bind them on your arms and affix them to your foreheads,
Some Jews to this day take those words literally. They take these tiny boxes with these words from Deuteronomy printing in them, and they tie them with string around their heads, or up and down their forearms. You may have seen that before, that’s what’s happening. They’re called phylacteries.
We too are asked to wear this love—this agape. We might not do so literally, but Paul is saying that we’re to put agape on just like we do our clothes in the morning—to fit agape around us and over us, and carry it with us wherever we go—no matter what happens to us. And day after day of wearing this agape love around, maybe, just maybe, it’ll start fitting us better—or more to the point—we will start fitting into it better. And maybe if we’re really intentional about carrying agape love around with us everywhere we go, one of these days, we might be able to develop it into a life-pattern—something that gives all of our days and all of our hours, all of our desires and all of our choices Gospel meaning. Until we begin to understand Divine love, and how living it out, has the power to change us. C.S. Lewis said something just like this in his famous book Mere Christianity. He writes:
The rule for us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we’ll find out one of the greatest secrets. When you behave as if you love someone, you will presently come to love them.
In other words, we have to act our way into agape.
I think it’s interesting that C.S. Lewis uses the word “rule” to talk about love. He uses that word differently than how we understand it today. He’s not giving us a rule to love like a teacher might tell her preschool kids: “You must love or else!” He’s using the word rule in the old sense. A rule is a basic guide for living—a measurement we keep on taking that helps keep our identities in Christ in check from one day to the next—something that keeps us in a rhythm of worship not just on Sundays, but from Monday through Saturday, too. The rule of love should have us going throughout each of our days and hours continuously asking ourselves why we do things the way we do them.
What kind of presence can I be for others around me? Do I do what I do out of love? Is love animating me right now or is it something else?
Those questions are super important for us to ask ourselves each and everyday because Paul makes it clear in this text, just as Jesus made it clear in nearly everything He said, that love is the ultimate litmus test of our faith. We’re being asked to take every thought we have of others—no matter who they are—and measure it against the rule of love. Remember, agape love has nothing to do with liking anybody who’s unlikeable. We can love somebody without ever having to like them. That’s not a loophole, it’s actually the truth at the heart of agape love. Neither does loving somebody mean we’re condoning their behavior or aligning ourselves with their cause. Nothing at all like that. When Jesus asks us to love our enemies, He’s not telling us that we should forget everything terrible they’ve done and just hug it out and move on. Rather, He’s asking us to do our best to recognize the imprint of God upon their hearts and souls.
Sometimes, though, that’s too much to ask of a human being, isn’t it? How in the world do we go about loving an Islamic terrorist? That seems too high a calling. It makes you wonder if Jesus really know about purely evil people back in His day. Was Paul ever aware of how sinister human beings can be? The answer to both of those questions is Yes. Jesus did know. In fact, he died at the hands of evil men. Paul was imprisoned and eventually killed by evil men. But still, both Jesus and Paul call us to love even the cruelest of people—to notice something in them that connects them to us and to God. No one ever said the Gospel was easy, or even made much sense. Agape love is a costly love. It takes every bit of who we are to practice it, to enact it, to change the world with it. But that is exactly what we’re commanded to do. Even if we eventually lose our heads doing it.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!