Transforming love

4th Sunday after the Epiphany, 30 January 2022

I Corinthians 13:1-8

If Christianity were only a matter of going to church on Sunday, it would be an easy religion; but it’s a journey and pilgrimage of following Jesus, so that our lives may be transformed, and when we see Him we will be like Him.  In the process we have to unlearn some things and to learn new things.

Without love, we are nothing

The Apostle Paul wrote to a community of believers in the Greek city of Corinth, reflecting on their journey and the challenges they faced as converts from Greco-Roman polytheism, including experimentation with a renewed social identity in Jesus Christ.  Corinth was dedicated to Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, beauty and fertility.  Paul initially describes the Corinthian believers as saints, but subsequent chapters show that this church was far from sanctified.  It was inundated with problems: ignorance of the power of the Gospel, and reliance on human wisdom; division; immorality of a kind that was unheard of – a son having a relationship with his own mother; and turning the Eucharist into a party.  

The Corinthian church was enthusiastic about spiritual gifts.  When I first came to Europe, I began collecting baseball caps; my mother collected stamps.  The Corinthian church collected spiritual gifts.  They boasted and made comparisons – especially regarding speaking in tongues and prophecy; and they were advancing in these gifts.  The Apostle Paul gives them a good lecturing: spiritual gifts come from God’s grace and have only one source; and they are not for personal benefit, but for that of the community of believers.  Then he cuts to the chase by saying, “You might have spiritual gifts, but if you don’t have love, it amounts to nothing”.  That might be a surprise to some.  In some evangelical and charismatic circles, if you can speak in tongues and preach, you must be spiritually mature – but that’s not what Saint Paul was saying. 

He takes a whole chapter to speak in detail about love.  As converts from a pagan background, was their understanding from Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, and therefore mostly carnal?  They are not perfect; but now that they’re Christians and in the process of unlearning and learning various things, Paul takes this opportunity to teach them about the divine love of Jesus.

Saint Paul emphatically says that one may be prolific in spiritual gifts, another may give up everything for the poor… but the shocking thing he says is that you can sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and yet not have love.  We think that when we give we love, because we say that if you love you give – God is a giver.  It makes us think more deeply about what love is.  

  • Judas accompanied the other disciples and understood and heard from Jesus the mysteries and the knowledge of the Kingdom, but turned to be an enemy of Christ.
  • There were those who benefitted from an encounter with Jesus; but today’s Gospel says He went to the synagogue and they did not benefit from encountering Christ and listening to His words of wisdom.  The responsibility for this lies not on Jesus but on those who rejected what He had to say.
  • Humans can make extreme sacrifices, but these sometimes come more from a spirit of altruism.  It is good to do good things for others, and not only Christians do so.  

Love God first

Moses gave Israel the Ten Commandments.  Humans keep to precepts and commandments to order a good society.  If we do something good, goodness will come to us.  The first five Commandments refer to man’s relationship with God; the other five refer to man’s relationship with co-humans.  

After giving these Commandments, God said through Moses:  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might [or strength].”[1]  The reason why the Shema begins, “the Lord is one”, is that Israel was surrounded by polytheistic nations.  The word translated as “hear” means “listen intelligently, pay close attention for the purpose of obeying”.  It’s like abandoning everything you and are I doing to become fixated on something.

Why does God ask us to love Him with everything?  It doesn’t say we’re to love Him if we wish.  C. S. Lewis said the reason God needs us is that we need to be needed.  As human beings, we have a great need to be loved; this is why you want someone to love you, and it’s one reason why God loves us.  But is God so much in need of our love that He becomes unstable or insecure if we don’t love Him?  Or is He saying something else?

  • We cannot love life more than God  
  • A husband cannot love his wife, or a wife love her husband, more than God  
  • We cannot love the church more than Jesus  
  • We cannot love our work more than God 

God must be the object of one’s love.  There is no concession here.  I have some hesitation in sharing this – as I look at I Corinthians 13, I realise my own failures; I am not there yet. 

  • Your heart is the seat of passion and emotion
  • Your soul is the inmost aspect of human nature
  • Strength is might, force and abundance; and sometimes this word my speak about one’s wealth

Paul explains divine love in relations with others.  Why is God asking us to love Him before others?  Because He wants us to love our wife or husband, children and others with the love of God.  Only in loving Him can we receive the love that we can share with others.  Saint Paul said gifts will cease but love will remain.

A miracle of love

We are to love God and also our neighbour.  Do we love our neighour simply to show that we love God?  Or is it that when we love God, inevitably we love our neighbour?

Father Scott Hahn[2] said something very interesting recently in a reflection on the feeding of the multitudes: 

“The miracle of the loaves and fishes is not some supposed multiplication of a few barley loaves and a couple of fish into hundreds of pounds of food required to feed a crowd of five thousand plus women and children – that is just superstition.”  

He said the true miracle is that Jesus’ preaching inspired people.  The selfish members of the crowd who were carrying more than enough food for themselves opened their hearts to one another in a beautiful moment of sharing and caring.

I had always interpreted this event purely from a miraculous standpoint, and I believe there’s no question that there was a miraculous multiplication of bread and fish.  Because of Jesus’ inspired preaching, the boy who is singled out in the Synoptic Gospels unselfishly shared his lunch box.  But was it only one boy, or were there other people in the crowd who were reluctant to share what they had because they were fearful that they would run out of food?  When they offered portions of their food to each other, there was a miracle of multiplication, because the love of Jesus had touched their cold, hard hearts.

It’s all about love

Christian worship involves ritual.  From the Old Testament –Judaism is the cradle of Christianity – there’s a ritual side to our worship: kneeling, making the sign of the cross…  But let us also be reminded that we need to listen to what Jesus is saying, that we might be inspired to be like Him.  Life is not a matter of religious duties – it is a journey of transformation from love of self, love of the world… to the point that I am willing to relinquish those things and begin to love God more than myself and the world, until one day you desire to see Jesus, whom you love, whom you have not seen.  Christianity is all about learning to love Jesus, whom we don’t see, this side of heaven; and the reward is that one day we will see Him.  It’s learning to love Jesus more than self and the world, so that one day you will desire to see Him because you’ll be with Him forever.

An old adage says, “One can give without loving, but one cannot love without giving”.  You and I can give based on altruism, or motivated by the idea that I can give so that one day the other person can help me.  God promised that when we give, we will receive; but really giving has nothing to do with receiving – it is better to give than to receive.  The reason we give should be because God is a giver and we have His nature, and because we love Jesus.  

I come to church, and I hope you do, not because of religious duty but because you love God.  Everything we do must be for the purpose of loving God and giving Him honour and glory.  If everything is done for love’s sake, for the love of God and the glory of God, we will be ok.

A couple of years before he passed, I had a private conversation with our former patriarch, Archbishop Randolph Adler.  He looked me in the eye – I could tell he was very serious – and said, “Elmer, after all these years, I have realised that it’s all about love.”  I will never forget his words.  Everything we are doing is all about loving Jesus, who loved us on the cross.  If Christianity is a matter of coming to church, making the sign of the cross and receiving the Eucharist, it is easy.  But it’s living the life of God and being transformed to be like Him, unlearning many things and leaning many things, that one day when we see Him we will recognise Him.  When we do things without love, could that be the reason that to some who were knocking on the door and saying, “Let us in”, Jesus said, “I never knew you”?  Our journey in this life is to love God whom we don’t see, that one day we will see.

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4-5, NRSV

[2] An evangelical who converted to Roman Catholicism

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