Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | September 6, 2020
1st Corinthians 13
When I lived in Glasgow, I learned to drink tea. It would be rude not to.
But there are different kinds of tea. One kind is the simple cup of tea. In Glasgow, if someone offers you a cup of tea, it also comes with what’s called a “Sweetie.” Usually the sweeties are either a plate of candy bars, or what’s known as a chocolate covered “digestive biscuit.”
The other kind of tea is what we think of as supper. Early on in our time there we were invited to the home of a colleague for “tea.” We were forewarned that it was the evening meal.
We sat down to eat, and she served a hearty soup with bread and butter. It was a wonderful meal. Except when she cleared the dishes she said, “And now for the main course…”
The main course was good also. And then came the “pudding.” It might not be actual pudding, because pudding is what we call dessert.
You talk about being stuffed. But wait, there’s more – after pudding comes the coffee and cheese board. I guess the idea must be that by the time you get to the end of the meal, you’re hungry again.
Every culture varies in what is considered good table manners. In Britain, they use their fork upside down and move food onto it with their knife. That seems odd, because we hold our fork the “proper way.” But they say we “shovel” our food, which seems odd to them.
It could be said that when Paul writes about love in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, he is writing about table manners. The reason for this is because the word love in 1st Corinthians 13 is the same word used to denote the Lord’s Supper. Agape means love and in the early church, “the agape” was a term for Holy Communion. They called it the love feast.
How folks conducted themselves in relation to the Lord’s Supper was symbolic of how they conducted themselves in relation to life. When Paul describes love, he is not describing personal piety. We often use this text in relation to marriage, but he isn’t talking about that either. Paul is talking about the way Christians relate to each other in the household of faith. If you are around church for any length of time you realize that church is like a family. It has all the strengths, as well as the dysfunctions of family. We’ve all seen examples of superb church etiquette, as well those manners that could be called atrocious.
But my purpose is not to highlight the positive by accentuating the negative. Rather it is to seek and understand what we might call our higher calling of love. In the old King James version of the bible, in 1st Corinthians 13, love is called charity. That’s not a bad way to think of Paul’s implied meaning. Love is primarily about giving. Giving requires a relationship between the giver and the receiver. The giver must at least care enough to give. Otherwise, as Paul implies, what’s the point.
One could perform all manner of feats and wonders that amount to nothing without the presence or motivation of love. Agape love is a kind of all-inclusive sense of belonging to God and to one another in the community of faith. It implies an intimate relationship, a soul to soul, spirit to Spirit bonding.
Paul gives a few examples of what such love is like. Patient and kind. We could say patient because people can be trying; but it’s more like being non-reactive with each other. By being patient with one another, we respond out of our centeredness with God. We are not riled up because God doesn’t get all riled up. In connection with God and one another, we seek to understand rather than react, and are therefore kind to one another.
What love is not should be obvious and Paul’s list is not exhaustive. Love is not envious, bragging, arrogant, rude, selfish, resentful or unjust. And everything else in between or in any way connected to any of those concepts.
The part I like is stated in verse 8. “Love never ends.” This is the part where we get caught up in the romanticism of it all. We talk about falling in love. Or falling out of love. So being curious about what a word means, I did some research on the word “end,” as in “love never ends.” We tend to read it as “love goes on and on forever and ever.”
I looked up verse 8 in its original Greek, or as close as we can come to original and the literal translation is “Love is never falling.” That hardly makes any sense, love is never falling. Falling from what? Or from where to where? So, in order to understand I had to see where that same word is used elsewhere.
In terms of buildings or inanimate objects it means to collapse. Like old walls that come tumbling down. In terms of people it has three meanings, each of which becomes interesting when we connect them to the concept of love in relationship to God and each other.
We could say, “Love never unintentionally trips and falls down.” That could imply that when we’re holding onto each other in the community of faith, we might stumble, but we hold each other up. It sounds good but it’s probably stretching it a bit.
We could say, “Love doesn’t fall into shame.” Implying that when we are in sync with God’s love, we are becoming the people God intends us to be, lifted up and made whole and well. Shame is not necessary to get where God wants us to be.
And the third meaning could say, “Love doesn’t throw itself down to grovel.” This is especially important for women who are in abusive relationships. Some brands of Christianity will tell them they must remain loyal to their abusers, and love them no matter what. The real meaning of love though is that it requires no one to be a doormat or a punching bag. Love says, “Lift yourself up and do what you need to do in order to reclaim yourself and rebuild your self-worth and dignity. Don’t take this lying down.”
Agape love is too big a concept simply to say it never ends. Love endures. It doesn’t fall down. It stands up to whatever test we put it to. We get fouled up and broken any number of ways, but those failures don’t come from love. And when we do fail, or fall, love is there to heal us and make us whole again. Hopefully when we need it, we find it alive and well and standing in the community of faith.
Some things will always stand the test. Things like faith, hope and love. Love being the greater simply says that love is inclusive of the other two. As well as inclusive of all God’s children. Where we close the door, love opens it; where we stumble, love stands; where we gather at the table, love, the agape feast, includes everyone.
Some years ago, I walked over to the church I served in Glasgow for the Saturday coffee morning. Why they called it “coffee morning” I could never figure out, because it was mostly tea. coffee morning was where folks from the church and neighborhood would gather to share refreshments, meet up, talk and have fun. There was always a “jumble sale.” And it always ended with a raffle drawing.
This particular Saturday happened to be July 4th. I got there about fifteen minutes after the doors opened. I went into the church hall and it was festooned in American flags and regalia. When they saw me, everyone stood up and sang The Star-Spangled Banner. That was a moment when I felt genuinely loved.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every person who entered our church home, went away saying, “I never felt so genuinely loved in all my life?” Amen.