Epiphany 4C – February 3, 2019

But strive for the greater gifts.  And I will show you a still more excellent way.  1 Corinthians 12:31 

In the 2005 movie, The Wedding Crashers, during one of the early scenes Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, who play best friends, are at a wedding ceremony when the pastor announces that the bride’s sister will now read scripture.  Owen says to Vince, “Twenty dollars, First Corinthians.” To which Vince replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.”  The bride’s sister takes the podium and begins, “And now a reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.”  As a pastor it’s been my experience that nine times out of ten, it’s 1 Corinthians 13 — a wonderful wedding text for holds up the gift of love, along with faith and hope.  Yet Paul never intended these words for a wedding, but rather for a congregation that was in the middle of a mess that threatened its very existence.

At First Church Corinth, four different cliques were competing for power.  Meetings overflowed with conflict.  Groups hung out in the parking lot afterwards to lick wounds and formulate strategies.  Everyone was fussing over who’s in charge while their fundamental mission of being set apart for a God-filled life or as we here at St. John’s put it — to live, share and grow in God’s love through Jesus Christ — was completely ignored.  Not only that, there was sexual immorality, the kind, as Paul put it, “that is not even found among pagans.” Rumors abounded about church members suing each other.  There was confusion about marriage and celibacy. Issues over whether or not one should eat food sacrificed to idols – a problem not easily solved with gluten-free or vegan alternatives. At pot-luck suppers the rich lined up first, while the poor got the left-overs, if there were any. 

            It wasn’t only the problems causing trouble, so did the proposed solutions.  First Church Corinth had an abundance of talented people who were experts at all sorts of things, each with an opinion about what should be done.  Prophets mapped out plans to move the community forward, while the teachers believed education came first.  Healers worried about the sick, while miracle workers declared if everyone only pray hard enough their problems would disappear.  Those who spoke in tongues and their interpreters believed they had an inside track on God, while the wise counseled waiting before doing anything foolish and the educated demanded more research.  Everything was at an impasse.  Pastor Paul tried to settle it with his analogy that the Church is the body of Christ and just as the eyes, hands, ears, feet and nose need to work together, so do those who make up the body of Christ.  Imagine him rallying the people, “Come on, everyone is important, we need all your talents, let’s work together.”  But it’s not enough.  More is needed.

            More is always needed.  You can marry your perfect match, have a spectacular wedding, a lovely honeymoon in a beautiful warm place, but it won’t be enough.  On their wedding day I often remind couples of this.  I tell them that the day will come when the honeymoon will be over and then the real work of marriage begins.  Sometimes I even call upon the gathered family and friends to testify to this – to raise their hands if they experienced this.  Hands go up everywhere.  The same is true for us as a congregation.  We can have the best Strategic Plan in the world, along with the commitment of smart and motivated people dedicated to implementing it, but it will not be enough.  This is what Paul’s told the Corinthians when he wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels…if I have prophetic powers, understand all mysteries and knowledge…and faith so as to remove mountains…if I give away everything I own, and even become a martyr, but do not have love, I am nothing.”  More is needed — the gift of love.

            In Paul’s time and place, there were at least three different words for love.  There was the sympathetic philia of friends – think Philadelphia – brotherly, sisterly love.  And there was the unabashed eros of lovers.  But the word Paul uses with the conflicted Corinthians is agape.  This love gives itself away freely to the other without counting the cost.  What the giver discovers is that instead of having less love to give, there is always more than enough.  It is the sharing of God’s abundant, unconditional love that enables congregations to flourish.

            Loving this way can be challenging.  Paul knows this so he tells the Corinthians and us, that such love is not a matter of feelings.  Feelings come and go.  Love abides.  So, when Paul describes the attributes of love, he talks about habits to adopt — to be patient and kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude.  Not to be self-centered, irritable or resentful.  Not to rejoice in wrongdoing, but in the truth.  To bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.  Such love takes practice and yet, we can do this because God first loved us and keeps loving us.  God rejoices in the truth, suffers with us, gives us hope and brings us to a new day for love never ends. 

            What we experience now of love is just an inkling of what is to come, a dim reflection in the mirror.  Through love, we’re given glimpses of God’s kingdom.  A few weeks ago, as someone was telling me about her experience at one of the Strategic Plan Cottage-meetings, she said, “Pastor I went to that meeting sure about what I wanted for St. John’s.  But then in listening to others, I heard something new and my mind was changed.”  Do you think love was at that meeting?  Then today, at our 8 am worship love flows through the baptism of Serena Rae Greninger – daughter of Amanda and Sam – for along with her cousins, she is part of the fifth or sixth generation of the her family to be baptized at this baptismal font.  And then at 10:45 am worship, love flows into a new family as Michael and Angeline Veneziani bring their twin daughters, Sophia and Carsen to the same font where they will be washed in the saving waters of baptism and welcomed into this community – a place where by God’s grace, faith, hope and love abide. 

Now before I say “Amen” is anyone curious about that double or nothing text, Colossians 3:12?  “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion. Kindness, humility meekness and patience.”  Fitting for a wedding, but also for you and me. Amen.
                                                               

                                                                                      

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville