Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 and Luke 4:21-30
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 (1 Cor. 13:1-2).
First Corinthians, chapter 13. Kind of distressingly … every time, now, that I hear that text … it reminds me of a movie.
Yup. A movie: Wedding Crashers. Have you seen it? It’s an old one. It came out in 2005, starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as John Beckwith and Jeremy Grey, divorce mediators who spend their free time crashing wedding parties as a way to pick up women. And we worry about pastors not having professional standards!
Anyway, John and Jeremy—Owen and Vince—pull off their conquests by developing elaborate cover stories to charm the crowd and become the life of the party. In one of the early scenes, the two are at a wedding ceremony; and when the priest announces that the bride’s sister will now read Scripture, John says to Jeremy, “Twenty dollars, First Corinthians.”
To which Jeremy replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.”
The bride’s sister mounts the lectern and begins, “And now a reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.”
My money would have been on First Corinthians, as well. Because of its routine appearance at weddings, almost everyone is familiar with this Bible passage. And its popularity is easy to understand. Certainly, this is one of the most beautiful love poems in all of Scripture.
Like most of you, I expect, I love it when love looks lovely.
I love it when love looks like a mother holding her newborn for the first time.
I love it when love looks like a bride and groom reciting their wedding vows.
I love it when love looks like a couple—married for over 60 years—who still hold each other’s hand as they walk into church … not to keep from tipping over … but because they are still that much in love.
I love it when love looks like the beaming faces of grandparents as they watch their children’s children perform in a Christmas pageant.
I love it when love looks lovely.
But those of you who’ve ever tried to love for a lifetime—who’ve sought to love authentically, in a Christ-like way—you know that love does not always look like that.
It does not always look like a mother with a newborn—because the newborn grows up. Then that child is two-and-a-half and has a terrible cough and can’t sleep—and it’s four in the morning and the exhausted mother, who wants desperately to sleep herself, is sitting up rubbing that child’s back because that’s the only comfort she can offer.
Or now that child is 17, and you told her to be home at 10 o’clock … and now it’s 11:35 and she’s not home yet. You’re pacing back and forth. You’re worried. You’re frightened. Where is she? And is she OK?
Sometimes love looks like waiting, doesn’t it? Sometimes love looks like patience.
Sometimes love looks like rising before dawn after too-short-a-night because you’re holding down two jobs to try to make ends meet. Because you have to buy groceries and make the rent and purchase clothing and school supplies. And it’s grinding you down. But you do it anyway.
Sometimes love looks like starting over. Or just getting through the day. Or being willing to forgive yet again.
When Jesus calls us to love one another, he is calling us to a demanding vocation. And when Paul wrote his magnificent ode to love in First Corinthians 13, he knew that we see the greatest image of love when we behold Christ Jesus upon the cross. Jesus gave everything for our sakes. That is what love really looks like.
When Paul tells us that “love never ends”—or, as some translations say, “love never fails”—he’s not talking about our feelings. Because feelings do fail. Honeymoons do come to an end.
Paul was talking about the kind of love whereby we wake up every morning … and we decide. We decide to do what is right. We decide to do what is just. We decide to do what is generous and sacrificial—not because we’re going to get anything in return, not because we’re going to receive adulation or applause, but because it is the Christ-like thing to do. And we do it even when we don’t feel like it.
Listen once again: “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” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
When I hear those words from the apostle, I stand convicted—because I know that my own love rarely looks anything like Paul’s description. I suspect it’s that way for many of you, also. And that is precisely why we need to stay focused on the love of God made manifest in Christ.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth. He has just finished reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).
Then he rolls up the parchment, sits down, and says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Nazareth, of course, is Jesus’ hometown. He had grown up there. People in that synagogue knew him well. They’d witnessed him falling and scraping his knee. They’d seen him on the days when he didn’t feel so well—and on the days when he got into some trouble and Mary and Joseph had to correct him. They’d watched him learn. They’d watched him worship.
And here, in his hometown, Jesus announces that he has come to fulfill the promises God made through Isaiah. He has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed. He has come to open everybody’s eyes. The year of the Lord’s favour is now!
Through his life and ministry, Jesus was answering the age-old question: “What does God’s love look like?”
As it turns out, God’s love looks like tenderness and compassion—and inclusion of society’s outcasts. It looks like patience with the habitual sinner and kindness toward the stranger. This is how divine love appears, displayed in the person of Jesus. God’s love looks like God’s Son.
But the folks in Jesus’ hometown are not so sure they want God’s love to look like that. They’re not so sure that they want God’s Messianic servant to look so much like … Like this boy who had grown up in their midst. Like this young man who looked so much like … everyone else.
So many people in our time are just like those in Jesus’ time. They want God’s love to look like our own imperfect love—limited and delineated; controlled—and rationed. Served up in reasonable portions. Given to some and not to others—because some are “in” and some are “out.” Some are excluded, and some are welcomed.
But here is Jesus, saying and showing that God’s love is for all—offered to all, and available in ways that tear down the walls we have erected to hide and to divide. And the good people of Nazareth conclude: “We don’t want God’s love to look like that. We don’t want God’s love to look like him!”
And so, here in his hometown—for the first time, but not the last—Jesus is rejected. He is condemned. Sometimes, love looks like suffering. It looks like sacrifice.
Some years ago, I got to know a woman who had been addicted to heroin; I’ll call her Susan. I’ve told her story before, on this blog site—so today I’ll give you the condensed version.
This young woman—whom I’m calling Susan—would do whatever she had to do to get money for drugs. And that usually meant doing some very ugly things. Over the years, she half-heartedly tried to quit, but (of course) without success. Susan told me that a big part of her problem was that she hated her life—and so she could see no good reason for straightening it out. That is, not until her baby girl was born.
It was obvious that the heroin had done tremendous damage to this poor infant. The baby looked normal enough, but she screamed and cried most of the time, and she was very sick all of the time. When Susan saw this, it broke her heart. She had not expected to love this little girl. And she was appalled by the damage she had done.
The infant was, of course, apprehended by social services and placed in foster care. But Susan wanted her daughter back. And so, for the first time in her life, she had a compelling reason to change.
She went into rehab once again—but this time, she worked very hard to get well. After that, she joined a support group and made some tremendous positive changes in her life.
To make a long story short, Susan’s child was eventually returned to her. That was many years ago, and Susan has remained clean and sober until this present day. That baby girl has herself grown into a fine young woman, with a bright future.
You see, Susan turned out to be a very good mother. If you were to ask her what made the difference for her—what finally made her want to turn her life around—Susan would tell you it was the sight of her newborn baby in severe distress.
In that moment, she found out not only what love feels like—but also what it looks like. Love showed her how terrible her addiction (her “sin,” if you like) truly was. And her love for her child—her own unanticipated love—was what finally brought her to repentance.
As I contemplate her story, it occurs to me that—in a very real and literal sense—Susan’s baby daughter became as Christ for her. In her own tiny body, she bore her mother’s sin, and by doing so … she removed it.
When love breaks our hearts—when love demands a sacrifice—we need to remember what we see whenever we behold our crucified Saviour. And we need also to remember that from sacrifice, new life is born—as death gives way to resurrection.
I wonder what would happen if we Christians really took Jesus—and the apostle Paul—at their word. I wonder what would happen if we began—through the grace of God—to love one another with a fierce and faithful holy love.
I wonder what would happen if we focused upon the cross, and said to ourselves: “Yes, sometimes love—even my love—is going to look like that, and feel like that. But I am willing to pay the price, so that my love will never fail.”
I wonder what love could look like—in your life, and in mine. Could it look like us feeding the hungry? Or visiting the lonely? Or giving a warm coat to someone shivering in the cold?
Could it look like us working for justice? Or extending mercy? Or forgiveness? Could it look like us letting go of grudges, and petty resentments?
Could love—in us—look like compassion, as we support those who minister to the last and the least?
Always—always—love looks like Jesus. And sometimes, friends—sometimes …
Sometimes, love looks like us.