Rev. Teri Peterson
Essentials of Life
1 Corinthians 12.27-13.13
1 May 2016, NL2-34, Easter 6 (Everything is Different Now), PADS celebration
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And 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. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Back in the early days of social media, when the idea of making friends over the internet was new, the websites where people set up their personal pages used to ask lots of questions that were designed to help people get to know each other. One question I still see sometimes on people’s profiles is “what are six things you couldn’t live without?”
It’s fascinating to see people’s answers, which range anywhere from the very literal—and these are real examples I saw over the weekend—(water, food, shelter, clothes, sun, sleep) to the self-conscious (God, Jesus, church, the bible, prayer, KLove) to the hilarious (spoons, nail polish, Meg Ryan films, pickles, the Cubs, comic books). Occasionally people answer with traits they feel they couldn’t live without: curiosity, resourcefulness, calm, listening, humor, spontaneity.
This is kind of what Paul is doing here in his letter to the church in Corinth. You may remember from last week that this was a church divided—they were arguing about which preacher to follow and who among them had the best spiritual gifts. Is it the people who speak in tongues? Or those who interpret what the others say? Is it the people who can work miracles, or who speak prophecies?
Paul writes to the church that all these gifts are needed, just as the body needs all its parts. No one gift makes someone more important—all of us in the body of Christ belong together, and we need each part. But ultimately, even all those things—knowledge, prophecy, generosity, teaching, healing, helping—all these gifts that the Spirit gives us so we can follow God’s call are non-essential. The essentials of life, the six things we, as the body of Christ, can’t live without, all boil down to one: love.
And this isn’t sentimental or romantic love. It’s not even really a feeling. Agape love is self-giving, it’s a choice, an action. It’s the way God loves us, which we see best when we look at the life of Jesus—love that shares life, walks alongside pain, touches the outcast, welcomes the stranger, carries the burden, dies rather than seeking its own way, and lives despite all our selfish human attempts to stop it.
And if we do not have love, all the rest doesn’t matter.
Paul uses the word “great”—strive for the greater gifts, the greatest of these is love. I always think of that to mean better, or best. This weekend—I’m a little slow at realization—it suddenly occurred to me that “great” also means “big”…so greatest also means “largest.” When I realized this, I felt a little bit ridiculous, because everything made so much more sense when I pictured love as the umbrella under which all the other gifts hang. Without love, the gifts of knowledge or healing or faith or humor or creativity or prophecy or teaching simply fall flat and useless. Or perhaps a better visual is more like the food pyramid—the base is love, and without that foundation, nothing else can stand. Sure, you can eat the other things on the pyramid, but without the base you still won’t be healthy. And the gifts of the Spirit will still be present, and we can try to use them, but if they don’t grow from a base of love, they won’t help at all.
The good news is, as we heard last week, God is love, and we belong to Christ. We already have love—God cannot help but love. We have received more of this self-giving active love than we can comprehend.
The hard news is that we then need to turn around and give it to others. Whether we feel love for someone or not, we need to love them the way Christ loves us, or else everything we say about our faith is meaningless.
This is what it means to grow up in faith. The childish ways divide people into categories, and base actions on how we feel about people in each category. There are better and worse, winners and losers, enemies and friends. It’s still a temptation—we think of people in categories and we have feelings about whole groups like Americans and foreigners, Christians and Muslims, poor and middle class, black and white, women and men, liberal and conservative. And then, depending on how we feel about the stereotype of the group, we treat people differently—and often with not much love for those in different groups than ourselves. But as we mature as people of God, we put an end to childish ways. We see that this duality is false, and we learn that God doesn’t care much how we feel about people, God cares that we love. This is the essential of life, the one thing we can’t live without—as individuals and as the body of Christ.
Each season team throughout the year chooses ways that we can love our neighbors with actions. Some seasons have collected money to fund water projects in northern Ghana, others put together opportunities for us to work together here in our neighborhood, others focus on special offerings that help when there are disasters or young people in need. Weput God’s love into action when we grow vegetables for our neighbors whose diets are mostly canned goods and when we spend time playing checkers with kids at school. This season we have been collecting items that are essentials of life for people in our community. Because, as Gandhi said, there are people whose needs are so great that God can only appear to them in the form of bread. Our neighbors who don’t have homes to go to need our love to take the form of socks and water bottles and granola bars and peanut butter sandwiches.
Last night was the final night of PADS for the season—beginning tonight, all those who have been going to churches for a dry place to sleep and a warm meal will be out on their own. The nights are still in the 30s and 40s and the ground is damp. For the past seven months, we have done our best to love our neighbors by greeting them with a smile, serving them dinner restaurant-style, with real dishes and silverware, using this space that previous generations built for us to keep people warm and dry. No one individual person could do it all. The leadership team (please stand) organized us all to work as one body. Hundreds of people have come through our doors as volunteers and guests. Many of you have spent hours downstairs, preparing meals, washing dishes, staying awake through the night, checking supplies and making trips to the store, welcoming new and returning guests and helping them get comfortable, playing with small children and talking with people who are spending their first night in a shelter. Many of you have strengthened the foundation with your prayers, your donations of food for breakfast and lunch, and your generous giving that helps us keep the building in good repair so that people have a warm dry place to sleep. Through many hands and feet, prayers and emails and phone calls, hours at the stove and the store, God is doing amazing things. The power of the Spirit is at work, and little by little, we see glimpses of God’s kingdom peeking through. Indeed, through all of you, we can see love that is patient and kind, not boastful or rude; love that endures and hopes and works for that hope. (you may be seated)
This is the essential of life for the body of Christ—the one thing we cannot live without, the greatest, biggest, most all encompassing gift: God loved us first, and showed us that love in the life of Christ, so we can love others, no matter how we feel about them.
May it be so.