The famous Lutheran theologian, Adolf Harnack, referred to this chapter as, “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote.” And G. Campbell Morgan, said that “If one examined this chapter, it would be like dissecting a flower to understand it. In the process, one would tear the flower apart and lose its beauty.” My goal here isn’t to tear it apart Paul’s perfectly penned words, but to find our place and God’s power in them.
It should go without saying that the subject of this chapter is love. But not the kind of love I use to describe my longing for donuts or the feelings I have for my wife and kids. Instead Paul chose a rarely used Greek word “Agape.” We’ve talked about agape before; describing it as a type of altruistic, undeserving, unmerited love. The ancient Greeks considered it to be Divine because no human could achieve it. Maybe that’s why Paul chose to use it. And why the early church took the idea and ran with it.
If you read the entire epistle, you’ll see that Paul did not have brides, bouquets, or unity candles in mind when he wrote it. He was not trying to be poetic either, but pastoral. You see, Paul had heard that there were some in Corinth who were trying to enhance their status in the church by puffing-up their spiritual gifts. The age-old, “I’m right, you’re wrong, so get over it” type stuff.
There will always be people who think their insight or opinion is better than everyone else’s. And will do whatever it takes to get their way. This happens in business, in politics, in school, and even in the church. Yet tucked away in the Bible are these profound verses where Paul both admonished and affirmed the young church with one simple command: practice agape, be the divine love of God.
My first point is this: The primacy of love begins with God. You heard me say God is love. And that those who dwell in Love dwell in God forever, for God is love and love never ends. But what exactly does that love look like? Just reread this passage and wherever you see the word love, or any inference of it, replace it with the word God.
For example, God is very patient and kind. God is never jealous or envious, boastful or proud. God is never haughty or selfish or rude. God is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever truth wins out. God never dies.
I think this exercise gives us a wonderful portrait of who God is. And what agape looks like in reality. Like the ancient Greeks, you might believe it to be impossible for humans to attain agape. You might think the things you’ve done in your past have made you undeserving or unworthy of such love.
But that’s where agape turns everything you know upside-down. It’s God’s way of telling us that we are worthy to be divine and beloved. Agape is our assurance that no matter how far you have strayed from doing what God has called you to do, you are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love. And the proof of this claim is Jesus – the incarnation of God’s agape.
Which is my second point: the character of love is Jesus. If you want to know who Jesus is, then all you have to do is look at what he does. Jesus is God’s love because he lived agape in all that did. Again, replace the word love in this passage with the name Jesus.
Jesus cares more for others than for himself. He isn’t selfish, or force himself on others, or have the need to be first. Jesus doesn’t revel when others grovel. He takes pleasure in being truthful. He trusts God always. He doesn’t keep score but keeps leading us onward and upward to God’s glory.
When we look at Jesus through the lens of Paul’s letter, we see that wherever this kind of Love is practiced, God’s love is present. Our world today could use agape because it defuses fights, and exhausts the need to be right, or to get its own way simply because it’s not focused on itself but on the other.
There was a couple who had been married for 60 years and had no secrets except for one: The woman kept in her closet a shoe box that she forbade her husband from looking in. But on her deathbed the two opened the box together. In it was a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. She explained to her husband that her mother taught her that the secret to a happy marriage was to never argue. Instead of fighting she should crochet a doll. Her husband was touched. Because there was one doll was in the box meant she’d only been angry with him only once in 60 years. But then he asks dying bride, “what about all this money?”
“Oh,” she said, “that’s the money I made from selling all the dolls.”
While Paul isn’t speaking of weddings, his pastoral point remains true in all circumstances. Our capacity to flourish in God’s love is realized when we can live out the love of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. By seeing and doing what Jesus did, we begin to understand that Love is not so much a feeling or spiritual gift. It’s an action. A way God intended us to give our gifts and talents to others. When we give ourselves freely to others… we are giving others a glimpse into God’s gracious heart.
Which takes me to my last point: the enduring presence of love is us.
We are both loved and love. But my fear is we throw the Love word around so much that we’ve lost any sense of agape. To this point, the other night my wife and I were enjoying a glass of wine after dinner. Out of the blue, she says, “I love you.” Instead of just taking it to heart, I jokingly asked “Is that you or the wine talking?” She said, “It’s me. But I was talking to the wine.”
I still remember that time my daughter fell in love with five different guys in a single day…Niall, Harry, Louie, Liam and the other one. Around the same time Fiona began her love affair with One Direction, there was a post making its way around Facebook. It was written by a concerned mom whose daughter always fell head-over-heels in love with whomever she was dating.
When the mom saw her daughter getting involved with a guy she had reservations about, she handed a piece of paper to her daughter with the words of 1 Cor. 13 written on it. And wouldn’t you know it, she put the boy’s name wherever love was written or implied. She told her daughter if this boy could passed this test, he was worthy of her love.
It didn’t take long for the young girl to think about all the times her boyfriend laughed at her when she goofed up. And earlier that day she saw him lie to a teacher so he could do something he wanted to do. The mother concluded her post by stating, “Not only did this give my daughter greater discernment about others but it also has helped her reflect on her own behavior.”
I invite you to put your name in the passage, and think about how might it affect the way you see yourself or how others respond to you. When we take on the qualities of Jesus, God’s agape, we attract those same qualities from others. Patience begets patience. Kindness begets kindness. Love begets love.
God is the primacy of love. Jesus is the character of love. And we are the enduring presence of a love that can transform and renew the world. To practice agape is to practice the immense compassion of God and “to look at people with love the way Jesus looked at the adulterous woman and made her discover her own goodness that empowered her to go and sin no more.”
There’s a good chance we’ll mess up it up from time to time. That’s ok. Love is sloppy and messy and complicated. That’s just the way it is. But as Paul so poetically penned, love rejoices in all things, good and bad, because wherever love is, God is. By this truth, we are able to be patient and kind, to bear all things and hope all things and get through all things.
As we know some marriages don’t last. And our spiritual gifts will eventually fade away if only because every human life comes to an end. But love never dies. We pass it on throughout the generations. But the divine love we receive through Christ is not merely left behind in the hearts of others when we die. But it grabs hold of us and pulls us into God’s heart throughout eternity.
Let us pray:
Most loving Lord, in your perfectness you have made us in your image, and by your steadfast love you have empowered us to be agape. Send us out into the world to be a mirror of you love so others may see you and glorify your wonderful name. Amen.
Today I leave you with the charge Paul gave to the Corinth Christians: “Be on your guard; stand firm in your faith; be courageous; be strong; and let all that you do be done in love.”
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. (Westminster John Knox: 2009) pp. 302-306.
Garish, Jim. Word of God Today. http://www.wordofgodtoday.com/1-corinthians-13 (accessed Oct. 23, 2019)
God Vine. My Daughter’s Boyfriend Test. https://www.godvine.com/read/love-verse-insert-boyfriend-name-test-relationship-951.html(accessed Oct. 23, 2019).
So, I just got back from a lovely trip to Scotland, where I was invited to officiate a wedding of an old friend of mine. It was a beautiful occasion and a spectacular location in the Scottish Borders along the River Tweed where the leaves where just beginning to change colors. The weather was supposed to be rainy and cold, so I grabbed a rain coat and a very thick sweater. Both took up valuable space in my suitcase… and both were never worn because it was so lovely there.
Checking the weather before I left is about all the time I spend preparing for my trip. I spent many hours preparing the words for the wedding ceremony. But as for everything else, I probably took about a half hour max to compare airfare prices, book my flight, and rent a car. And only half that time packing my suitcase.
My friend Dawn is the polar opposite. She prepped for months for her trip to Ireland. She joked about practicing packing and unpacking her bags as if she is preparing for an Olympic event. Unlike me, she goes well prepared. Has all she needs, and knows where it is. By the time she landed in the Emerald Isle, Dawn had her entire journey mapped out – down to the local grocer. Whereas I relied on the overly polite British lady in my GPS to help me navigate the roads and roundabouts so I wouldn’t get lost or starve to death.
We all prepare differently, because each trip is different. Yet no matter how we go about it, nothing compares to the planning God has made to be with us. Then again, God wasn’t planning for just a visit. Which takes us to our reading today from the gospel of John 14:1-7:
I have spoken these words from John’s gospel at countless funerals and bedsides. They often provide a sense of promise and comfort in times of grief or worry. Like the comforting voice in my rental car, when Jesus speaks these words, I feel hopeful – believing them to be true and following them as such. While John alludes to an afterlife, and a promise of something greater is to come, I think Jesus is speaking to the present. After all, preparing for a life after death starts with preparing a way to live rightly so we can die faithfully.
The scene of this passage is set in the upper room where Jesus has gathered with his friends for one last meal. Up to this point, Jesus has washed their feet – teaching them what it means to serve. He has revealed his betrayal by Judas who has already slipped out into the night. He has told them he is leaving soon and where he is going, they cannot come. He even foretold of Peter’s imminent denial to the shock of all present.
So, when Jesus tells his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it’s easy to understand why there’s a little push back. They’ve been looking for the Messiah. And now they believe they have found him. What they don’t know is that in less than 24 hours, all they had hoped for will be nailed to a cross. And Jesus wants them to be prepared.
But how does one prepare the human heart to be free of trouble when your world seems to be crashing down around you? On Google, Facebook and Twitter you’ll find a million stocked answers and opinions on this. But in the Bible there just one. Jesus said, “Believe in God. Believe also in me.”
It’s worth noting that the central theme of John is the indwelling relationship between Jesus and God. His gospel opens with the bold declaration, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Here John is telling us that Jesus is the Word, the Christ. The one God has been preparing for this moment since the beginning of time.
Jesus comforts his friends by inviting them to have the same intimate relationship that he has with the One who sent him. Jesus is also inviting you and me. This relationship begins not with some great faith which might seem impossible to achieve. It starts with a sliver of belief in the preparation God has made to remove our troubles, distress, agitations and fears through the redemptive work of Christ. Try to imagine the prep that went into that!
After a long overnight flight and a nerve-wracking drive to the rental home, I was exhausted and needed sleep. Unfortunately, I arrived well before our check-in time, and the owners were still preparing our rooms from the previous renters. As I waited in the car for them to finish, I thought about Jesus trading his righteous robe and holy halo for an apron and rubber gloves.
It’s funny to think of Jesus pushing a vacuum and making a bed for me. But that’s what he does. He serves others. He feeds them, washes their feet, and cares for all their needs. So, it’s no surprise that wherever Jesus is, or whatever he’s doing, it’s all to prepare a place for our hearts to share oneness with God.
It makes my heart feel good, knowing there is a place that Jesus is preparing for us and that he is going to come back and take us there. That’s why I often read this passage at funerals or at the bedside of the dying. But every now and then someone asks me “What is that place? And where exactly is it?”
Like so many of us, Thomas also wants to know the way to this place so he can be in the safe care of his Messiah. Can you blame him? Up until meeting Jesus, Thomas relied on the world to make sense of the great mysteries of life and death.
As Jesus begins to reveal the truth for him, its natural for Thomas to want a map or a softly spoken British Sherpa to tell him where to go… because these are roads he’s never traveled. There are signs that are hard to read. And roundabouts ready to throw him off course.
As the Bible reveals, Jesus knows the only way to make sense of the mystery of death is to enter it. And the only way to come out the other side is to follow God through it.
Like a soft spoken voice guiding the way through a backwards maze, Jesus calmly tells his beloved friend, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I read these words and find comfort knowing Jesus is exactly what I need to prepare for life’s journey; there is no need to panic, no need to search desperately for a secret map. I just need to follow the One who is already One with God.
I can trust and believe he knows the way because he’s already been there before. By his words and deeds, Jesus reveals the fullness of God’s love for me so I know where I am going in a world of twists and turns.
I invite you to join me on this trip. I invite you to hear Jesus’ words and follow his way of living, so you will find your place of peace in God’s expansive and everlasting heart… no matter where you are or what the world throws at you.
Jesus said, “Believe in God. And Believe also in me.” In doing so, he’s telling you to believe in who God made you to be – a beloved child with a great mission.
Through Christ, God has already prepared you for glory. By seeing and doing what he does, you too can reveal the personhood of God for others. This is why I believe this passage isn’t so much about being with Jesus in some afterlife, but it has everything to do with our life here and now.
As the world will tell us we can’t, Jesus says we can. This does not necessarily happen in spectacular ways like making the blind see or raising someone from the dead. Yet wherever you bring healing, forgiveness, or any life-giving work into the world, the glory of God is made visible. The presence of God is known. And the love of God is felt.
It is as though God had thought very carefully and spent a lot of time prepping…not so we can just be in heaven after we die. But so we can experience heaven as we live and travel in this journey called life.
As you leave here today, I hope you will ask yourself where you might become the presence of God’s love in the world. How might you be for others the way of Jesus, the truth of Christ, and the life that draws people back to the Oneness of God’s ever expanding love… as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen.
Let us pray:
Most Merciful and Loving God, through the ministry of your Son you have soothed our trouble hearts and free us from the grip of the tomb. As we await the coming of his glory, we pray for your Spirit to keep us filled with the fullness of life so that we can proclaim your glory to all the world. Amen.
In today’s reading, the disciples doubt they have what it takes to accept such an invitation. They feel like it will take more faith than what they have. You might feel the same way – wondering how in the heck anyone can live like Christ, or love as he called us to do?
Even though I ask myself that all the time, it doesn’t invalidate the job of the church or her members. In addressing their concerns Jesus gives us this answer in Luke 17:5-10:
This might seem like two idea’s crammed into one reading. First Jesus talks of faith, and then jumps into something about being a slave. It feels like one of those incomprehensible tweets we get on a daily basis. How are we to read into this? By remembering that it’s Jesus who we follow and not some rambling stooge on Twitter.
A few years ago I was struck by something I read from Richard Rohr who wrote, “After two thousand years of studying to be like Jesus Christ we’ve managed to avoid everything that he taught to do.” His words echo something G.K. Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Both men’s views on Christianity, suggest Christ followers have never really put our faith into action, at least not like Jesus did. Yet I think even Rohr and Chesterton would agree there was at least one notable exception beside Christ – Francis of Assisi.
The son of a wealthy textile merchant, Francis always dreamed of earning glory in battle. His first time at war, Assisi was defeated, and Francis was taken prisoner and nearly died in captivity. Through a series of divine interventions, Francis found new glory in answering a unique call to repair God’s church which had fallen away from what Jesus intended it to be.
By the 13th century, the church was waging its own wars in Europe and in the Middle East. Priest were giving special privileges to the wealthy while forgetting the poor completely. Some leaders at the top were even selling positions of power to those who could afford it. While all this was going on, Francis was leading a revolutionary new interpretation of the gospel life – one based more on the works of Christ than the doctrines of man.
This quiet revolution started after Francis met a stranger on a pilgrimage to Rome. Outside of St. Peter’s Church Francis saw a beggar calling out to him. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Francis did something unthinkable. He traded clothes with the man. And Francis himself spent the rest of the day begging for alms in his place. That experience shook him to the core causing him to renounce his family’s wealth and to take on the garb of the poor. Following closely to the example set by Christ, Francis cared for those who were forgotten or pushed away by the church. And soon others followed suit, and a monastic movement was born.
What can Francis teach the Christian churches today?
In some respects many churches have gone back in time — supporting war-like leaders, favoring the rich over the poor, and being more concerned with defending politics and doctrine than loving people. They preach a new life in Christ but they themselves are unwilling to live it.
Perhaps Chesterton was correct to suggests that the Christian ideal is just too difficult and thus left untried. Not so with Francis. His approach to imitating Christ and living a life of service fits with what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.
In response to the disciple’s plea, Jesus tells them that they can accomplish great things for God with just the tiniest amount of faith. This is important to us because Jesus goes on to describe the thankless task of serving God. But a careful read of this passage suggests there is a connection between these two seemingly different points: it’s in serving God that our faith is strengthened.
Francis took great effort to see Christ in every living thing...not just in people but in animals and in plants. He knew he could faithfully embrace a servant life because in every task he did he was actually serving the Lord in the process. The challenge for us today is to see the Divine in all things, especially in the people we serve. In doing so, we can approach even the most thankless task with joy and grace.
I have to keep this in mind when I’m wiping up muddy paw prints off the couch or cleaning dried up toothpaste out of the sink. My dog doesn’t thank me for picking up her poop, but it still has to be done.
In his understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus taught us to do, Francis knew he had all the faith he needed to give of himself completely to do the will of God because through Jesus God had given him complete and unconditional love. As he engaged with this divine love, Francis watched his faith grow stronger and stronger with every person he served.
I believe the same can be true with us. And this is good since Jesus reminded us that when we come in from doing something for God, don’t expect a reward, expect more work. It wasn’t accolades that motivated Francis to see and do what Jesus does, it was love.
Likewise we are called to serve others with love, mercy and grace as if we are serving Jesus himself. Because to love thy neighbor requires us to constantly care for the needs of one another (including animals and our environment that Francis cared deeply for). With each step we take in this direction, our faith increases as does our love, our health, our peace, and our security.
Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to exchange clothes with a beggar. In the process, he found all he needed to work among the poorest of the poor. The very place where God needed him the most.
What is your mustard seed of faith? And how will you put it to work for the Lord? What steps are you willing to take as God opens your heart to this call to serve?
Francis took small steps of faith, each one emboldened him to trust God more. Likewise, with every step we take our trust strengthens – as does our relationship with our Creator and all of creation.
As we leave here today, let us look to the examples of Francis and strive to see Christ in every living thing. Let us serve one another as if we are personally serving our Lord. Let us take up the challenge to embrace the Christian ideal by living it as if Christ actually meant what he said.
G.K. Chesterton concluded in his critique of Christianity by stating, “Let religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Walking the life of faith is simply an act of love. When we embrace Christ with love, we are able to embrace everyone we see and everything we do with love. And like Francis we can say that we are merely servants doing what we were called to do…be the mirror of Christ so others can see the Kingdom of God in all its splendor.
Let us pray together the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O God, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.
You have been called by God to be a chosen people, and through Christ Jesus you have been given all you need to go out into the world to love as God loves you, and to forgive others as you have been forgiven. So go serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.
Special thanks to Fr. Frank S. Logue whose sermon An Act of Love (10/1/2016) inspired this message. (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/act-love-pentecost-17-c-october-6-2019).
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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