[Much of what I write below I prepared for and proclaimed at the funeral of a dear friend, Marion Yaiser, of Troy, NY. Marion died on February 2, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday. Her life was a prism for God’s love.]
1 Corinthians 13
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. 2 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. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 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. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 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. 12 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. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
One cannot live in this world, in any little section of it, without knowing that there is a deficit in the matter of love in our world. The way things are is not the way God designed and intended life to be. The garden God gave to us has been littered with garbage. The human family is filled with strife, fear, and too much hatred. But make no mistake, love is present in our world and in every little corner of it. If love were completely gone, so would life as we know it be gone. Love is the fuel that keeps the heart of this planet pumping. Love is the engine that energizes this train forward. We see it in more ways than we can count. We see it especially in faithful lives governed by love, like Marion’s.
When the Spirit of God nudged the Apostle Paul to pen this chapter we name as 1 Corinthians 13, the world was as divided as it is now. Super powers ran over smaller nations then as they do now. Fear of the other was strong, as it is now. Refugees and asylum seekers were in perilous circumstances as they are now. Jesus, just a toddler, and his parents were refugees seeking asylum in a foreign country (would they be met by a wall or a welcome?). Ethnic and racial animosity was strong, as it is now. Women struggled to achieve full personhood, then as now. There is not much new under the sun. The need for love was great then, and it is as great now.
Paul’s introduction to this love was altogether unexpected. His birth name was Saul. He was religious in the worst way. His religious commitment sharply divided the world into insiders and outsiders. He, by birth, training, and behavior was an insider. That drove him to despise this new movement started by Jesus, in which people of high and low birth, insiders and outsiders, found in a humble, peasant carpenter a whole new way or being and living. That spark of love that Saul once sought to extinguish finally overwhelmed him. So fully did this love capture him that he needed a new name for his new identity: Paul. Paul, apostle of God’s love to outsiders.
In reading the glorious poetry of this love chapter, know that it came from the heart of a man who once thought he could earn God’s favor by being religious. Who needed love? Just keep the rules. Keep the insiders in and outsiders out. So it once was for Paul, until he met this radical Jesus and his world was turned upside down. He would never be the same. Love has that power.
Love in the living, breathing form of Jesus of Nazareth changes everything. Eugene Peterson, a mentor of mine who died about four months ago, translated the verse we know as John 1:14 this way in “The Message”: “the word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus enfleshed (incarnated) the love of God for us. When Jesus was asked by a lawyer which commandment in the law is the greatest? “Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The death of every one near and dear to us is a bell ringer and an opportunity. The death of a loved one, whatever the age and circumstances, gets our attention. This life is not all there is. But this life is our opportunity to live in love and get the life of this world closer to God’s original design, a garden of love, with every aspect of life in loving harmony.
That love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” fuels my vision for what can be. I hope for a world in which all children are loved and nourished every day and sleep in comfort and safety every night. A world in which all are well fed and no one goes hungry. A world with no room for hatred. A world in which we tend the garden God gave us in this planet, protecting its fragile beauty and incredible variety. A world in which war is no more. A world in which every person is seen as an image bearer of God the loving Creator. The source for these visions, these hopes, of mine is the Bible, in which the loving heart of God is revealed. The energy for these visions is that love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love that never fails, never runs dry, and is never in short supply.
In the Greek language of the New Testament there were several good words for love: family love, brotherly/sisterly love, and physical love. All those were good. But none of them individually or taken together could catch the full scope of this new love we find in Jesus. So they took a little used word, agape, and made it the word for this love from God revealed in Jesus. The essence of this love is that it is not transactional. It is not, I’ll do this for you, and I will expect you to do this for me. It is not, I love you because you are so lovely. Rather, it is love that gives and gives without thought of receiving. Frankly, it is not the way we love naturally. Left to myself, I do not love in this way. This love comes to us by the grace of God, whether we acknowledge it or not. Rather than transactional, it is transformational. It intends to change us and make us new. It calls us to love God and love neighbor, without distinction. It is not a feeling, but a choice, a decision we make over and over again, every day.
The power of God’s love is seen and experienced in lives transformed by that love. But it isn’t something we just decide to do; it is the divine at work in the human, in the routine, mundane world of everyday life.
That love cannot be severed from us. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This day when card shops, florists, and candy makers help us to express love to others, let us consider what it means for us to live in love this day and every day. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”