Year C, Epiphany 4
February 3, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
That’s the wedding reading, right? “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful…” All great sentiments, great tips for a wedding, even better for a marriage. The thing is, that’s not the kind of love that St. Paul meant. No, he’s talking about a different kind of love here. For a wedding, what Greek word for love would probably best be used? We heard Dr. King’s on the different forms of love a couple of weeks ago. Which is it? Eros, right? Affectionate or romantic love. There is a yearning nature to erotic love, and not just sexually. Hopefully in a marriage there is also filial love, the love of friends, the love we give in response to love we receive. In the best of cases, in the strongest of relationships agapealso exists. Dr. King described agape as “An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart.” That is big Love, God love.
What St. Paul is talking about here is bigger than personal love, love between a couple, or in a family. He is talking bigger. Bigger. BIGGER. He is talking about God. He is defining the nature of the Body of Christ. He is revealing the power of the Spirit that binds us together. If God is love, which we proclaim in all sorts of ways, then what Paul is describing in his first letter to the folks in Corinth is nothing less than God.
No matter how eloquent you are, without God you are an alarm sounding for naught. No matter how wise, how right you might be, without God, without Love (with a big “L”), you are nothing. Godis patient. God is kind. There is not just one path, one way of doing things. God is not to be resentful, or bitter, or trite, but revels in truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Again, a good way to be a husband or wife, but Paul is talking a lot bigger than that.
When we talk about God, we could be talking about a lot of things. The idea of God is fractal, each branch forks and forks infinitely. One aspect of God-ness is metaphysical. Our notion of God helps us define ourselves in relation to the nature of existence. The primary nature of human existence, as posited by Christian teachings, is that we exist in relationship. Only in relationship. Our very idea of God is Trinity, itself a relationship. We cannot be, are not, alone. We came from the coupling of our parents. We exist by the toil of others. I can’t exist, I am nothingwithout you.
Descartes was wrong when he said “I think therefore I am.” The Christian story is “I am loved therefore I am.” (Another way of saying I am in relationship therefore I am, and our first and last, our Alpha and Omega relationship, is with God). We are not without Thou, without God. God is the ideal and the foundation of relationship itself, and the ultimate, the perfect right relationship possible is Love. Ergo, God is Love.
The purpose of Christianity is the expression and embodiment, the praise and blessing, the practice and propagation of Love. It is both descriptive and aspirational of how we are supposed to be in relationship with everything, starting with God, with Love itself.
Each of our scripture passages today are about the most fundamental relationship we exist within, the relationship between us and God, really, the relationship between us and reality. God knows us and loves us. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” says God to Jerimiah. “I have been sustained by you since I was born” sings the psalmist. Paul writes, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” I cheated a bit on the Gospel. God put a claim on Jesus’ life last week, but the scene in the synagogue continues today. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” He said. Being incorporated into God like that, Jesus was fully known, the scripture was fulfilled in their hearing, and the Life of God was transmitted to them, like it is to us, each time we gather together in the name of God; when we gather in Love.
When that happens, when we gather for the great Mysteries of the Church, great things happen. The scripture is fulfilled in our hearing. God is present, our lives are infused with God’s life, with God’s love. In that, as one of my favorite commentaries puts it, “a share of God’s Spirit is ours as well, to equip and empower us in every circumstance, to live and love in accordance with God’s righteous purposes for us and the world.”
If right relationship with God and everything came easily, came naturally to us, we wouldn’t need instruction. If we just naturally always did the right thing, always loved everyone we met as God loves us, I’d be out of a job. But alas, in our fallen world, we need help, which brings us to our perennial question, how do we live and love in accordance with God’s righteous purposes?
There are lots of ways to go about that. God gave Jerimiah a series of means to make the Commonwealth real, “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” As much as aspects of this American life demand plucking up and pulling down, destruction and overthrow, we here at little old Church of the Resurrection in our sleepy corner of Eugene, are in better position to build and to plant.
For a long time I have been suspicious of The Church. TheChurch that is, largely because often it is too easy to see the church as an end in and of itself. It is not an end; it is a means, and nothing more. The end is the Commonwealth of God made real on Earth (well that and judgement on the final day, but don’t worry about that, that’s in God’s hands). We do, however, need to worry about the former, making real the Commonwealth of God. And in that mission, The Church, including our parish here, is important. Very important. And is capable! That is what I am learning. Not only can we help bring about the Commonwealth, we are uniquely suited for that work.
So we shelter the unsheltered. We feed the hungry. Our diocese and The Episcopal Church, which we give over $40,000 per year to, exert moral influence in Salem and Washington. We build the kingdom in what we do. And that is essential and fantastic, and pretty exciting if not sexy, activist church. Pulling the babies out of the river AND working on the structural sins that put them in the water to begin with. But that is not what we are best at.
What I am learning is that there is deeper work to be done; long game work. Work on the foundationsof the structures that are our world. I am not talking about electoral politics, or policy or public opinion… I am talking about the content of human hearts. The formation of human character. The tending our relationships with God, the foundation of relationship itself, with each other and with ourselves. Until wechange, untilwe, who live in this world really learn to live inbut not ofthis world, the cycle of sin and death willcontinue. But we are in a position to do that. To be reconciled with God and to help others do the same.
So when we form our children into Christian actors in the world, imbued with the Spirit; when we receive the transmission of God’s life here; when we are healed, forgiven, reconciled to God and each other here, we are able to be all those things out there. Is there anything more important? Is there anything we are better at? Truly, it is from that, from small groups of people loving each other and God that allgood things come.
In a few minutes we are going to commission 24 Stephen Ministers and Leaders. I have learned a lot with these folks over the past five months, and I am more convinced than ever that the work of the Church is really a training ground and aid station (and an old soldiers home) for God’s army engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil. Sounds dramatic, but it is true. Evil exists and it is encroaching our borders. One of the things we are doing as a church is dealing with that fact. And what our Stephen Ministers will be doing is building up the Commonwealth of God one human being, one relationship, one dose of Agape at a time.
Now this is not work for the faint of heart. Just think of the name: Stephen Ministry. St. Stephen was one the people commissioned as deacons by the Apostles in the earlies church. They distributed food and alms, they cared for the poor and vulnerable. They spread the Gospel through their deeds, and, in Stephen’s case, in words as well. And Stephen was the first what? Martyr! When the principalities and powers are confronted with incontrovertible truth, either in words or deeds, they react, and poorly. Stephen invoked God’s will in both, and for it, he was stoned to death. The first martyr of the Church.
We chuckled about this at our training, how odd it is that a ministry of providing kind of one-on-one lay Christian care as is named after the first martyr. (That’s what happens to you if you violate confidentiality). But as I was praying on this sermon, I got to thinking, does loving others in the name of God in Christ, letting God’s love operating in our hearts, does expressing agape mean we will be somehow martyred? Well that’s kind of my Easter sermon. But in a word, yes. This sin sick world seems to recoil at the full expression of divine love. The virtues of competition, success, drive, accumulation of wealth, individual freedom even (freedom from regulation that is), those are notdivine virtues. Those are not attributes of God, at least not what the church teaches. Patience. Kindness. Knowledge and wisdom in love. That is what these people, our Stephen Ministers are being commissioned to do, to carry the love of God, the love of the Body of Christ, with the Holy Spirit from this table to the hearts of we here who are in need of that kind of love and support and encouragement in the name of Christ.
This ministry likely won’t get anyone stoned to death, but it is pushing against the tide, it is counter cultural to an extreme, it is exactly how we are best suited to making the Commonwealth of God real right here, right now. We build it or maybe better said, it is revealed to us one well loved, well cared-for person at a time. Thank you to those offering yourselves to this ministry. Thank you for those offering yourself to the care of these ministers. Love, divine love, agape, willsave us all.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” AMEN.