Monday, January 31, 2022

A More Excellent Way

In this morning’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we get some of the most beautiful language found anywhere on love. Paul writes:

“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 fails.”

The only problem with these beautiful words is that they don’t ring true. “Love never fails.”

I wonder if St. Paul had the foresight to know that this reading would become the single most popular scripture reading for a wedding ceremony?

Yet in America today, some reports indicate that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. Paul writes that love never fails. Why then does it seem as if love fails about half the time?

Think about it, if “love never fails” then there would be no country music, and much literature, not to mention film and television would go away…!

When we read the passage in English, it looks as if God doesn’t show up in Paul’s definition of love. Which is why I guess it shows up not only in weddings but in greeting cards, self-help books on Oprah, and in various “spiritual but not religious” type books like The Four Agreements all of which tend to make love all about “me, myself, and I.”

But look again.

A quick look at the Greek text of this passage shows that Paul writes using the word “agape.” Agape is one of the three Greek words for love used in the New Testament. There is eros or “erotic love,” and phileo or “brotherly love.” Finally, there is agape, a “self-giving love,” routinely shown to be the love that God has for us. It is agape that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It is this self-giving agape love of God that “never fails.”

We most often hear this passage all by itself at event like weddings and such. But when the Apostle Paul wrote his meditation on love, it comes right after the passages we’ve been hearing these last few weeks about how Christian community works and how Christians in community “show off” or “reveal” Jesus.

Paul was writing to a Christian community that fell into some bad, but all to common, habits. They held some people as more important than others by virtue of their spiritual gifts, or their wealth, or their eloquence, or their background, and so on. Paul had to teach and remind them that everyone who says “Jesus is Lord” has the Holy Spirit, and that we all have gifts that God activates for service equally, and that all of us together, with our different roles and gifts, all present Christ and that together we are all the living example of Jesus to the world.

If in fact all of us together are the body of Christ, then how do we show off Christ?

Paul says that he will show a “still more excellent way.” Agape love is that “excellent way!”

The Apostle writes that if even if one understands all mysteries of the universe and has enough faith to move mountains, but has no agape love, then he is nothing.

If a person were to have all the generosity imaginable—so as to give away everything he owns and even to the point of handing over his very life, but is without agape love, then he is nothing.


Put another way: that variety of gifts that Paul talks about (the utterance of wisdom, or the utterance of knowledge, the gifts of faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, a discerning spirit, various kinds of tongues and their interpretation not to meantion teaching, prophecy, leadership, and so on) that all come from the same Holy Spirit, means nothing—nothing!—without agape love.

So, what is the difference between this godly love, called agape, that never fails and the kind of love that shows up in all those country songs?

One kind is a kind of love that starts with us and goes out to another person and is usually conditional. “I love you as I think you are.” Or “I love you as you are now.” Or worse yet, “I love you as I wish you were and hope to change you to be like the ideal of you that I love.”

All of these are examples of love that start with “me.” Yet, if I change and you change, this feeling of love will likely go away. I’ll wake up and realize that the feeling I had has gone away and may never return. At that point, I can either give up on love and stick with a loveless marriage, or I can give up on you and seek love elsewhere. None of these options are suggested by scripture.

Paul’s “more excellent way” is that we infuse our lives with agape love, that is, love that starts with God, and God’s love for us, and flows from there. With agape love in our lives, our actions, attitudes, ideas, and relationships, we can then begin to see other people as God sees them. From this experience, we reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

The love that is within the Trinity is not conditional. God’s love is not dependent on our likes and dislikes, job, our mood or temperament nor anything else that can change. God’s love does not depend on our lovability. God’s love is dependable and continues even when we are not. God’s love happens whether we always get things right or not.

The love of God was in the Trinity before creation and never fails. This is the love Jesus had when he was dying on the cross and looked out at those who were killing him, as they mocked him, and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

In Jesus’ incarnation – when the fullness of God becoming fully human in the person of Jesus – God risked everything for love. With real love, there is no force or coercion. There is always the possibility in love that the love will not be returned. In fact, that possibility is reality all the time. God’s love persists even though humanity time and again both refuses to return God’s love and acts as if the only love that counts are own preferences, biases, and what makes us feel good or rich or powerful.

God’s agape love is so persistent and so all pervasive that God came and lived among us in the person of Jesus; and when the cost of that love was a brutal death, Jesus still did not give up on that love. Jesus came, lived among us, died for that love, and even though many people fail to  notice or care, his love persists—not grudgingly but extravagantly. This precarious act of loving even though it may well not be returned is, in fact, at the very heart of the agape love of God.

God’s love is being more concerned about the other than about your own self, but it is not about self-loathing or being abused. Agape love is not a feeling. Agape love is a decision, it is an act of will. It is act of will that we all can participate in when we choose, when we decide, to see others as God sees them. When we act on this decision to love rather than just when you feel the emotions of love, then we become practical, living, everyday participants in God’s agape love.

When we choose experience that sort of godly love for our friends, our co-workers and the people we meet, and for our loved one, then we have chosen to love because agape love is. It is not transactional—what can I get for my loving you. It is not love that attempts to control or coerce, or own. It is love that you have for others that start with God, and begins with our decision to live our faith by participating in the love God has for all of us, all of humanity, all of creation.

Paul started out talking to the friends and apprentices of Jesus in the church in Corinth about spiritual gifts but he can’t leave the subject without getting to the heart of the matter. He told the members of this church that they were immensely talented, able, and ready to be the Church… and what would tip the balance, what would make all the difference, was love. The choice to live, think, act—participate!—in the fullness of God’s agape love would change everything! 

And you know what? We also took on this gift, and we made this choice in our baptismal covenant. And if those promises were first made when you were a baby, you chose to take on the promise for yourself at your confirmation or your reception, and every time you come to this Communion table.

And you can always ask God to give you this gift and deepen it in you wherever you are, in whatever you are doing.

We can choose to participate in the practices and habits that nurture God’s kind of love. Nurture the habits of daily prayer, regular encounters with Scripture, fellowship, companionship, and service that not only open us to grace but teaches us how to be express and experience agape love.

Live life sacramentally, mercifully, graciously.

Choose to cut each other some slack and give people space to grow and learn.

Choose not to be so easily offended.

Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with.

Begin to see the people God gives you every day as God sees them.

It is not always easy, but when we get it right, but when we choose to live a life that daily, bit by bit, grows in agape love, we find that this love never fails us.

The agape love of God is a gift from God, a daily grace of the Holy Spirit, and the daily embodiment of Christ.

The agape way of love is always and every day the “still more excellent way” and through the gift and power of the Holy Spirit is available in many  everyday ways to all of God’s  people.

God’s agape love is how Christians are best seen and known as is healing balm for a world desperate to experience genuine love.

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