Love in the Serving Community
February 3, 2013 Series: Serving Jesus-Living in Community 2013: Who Is My Neighbor?
Topic: Biblical Verse: 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
1 Corinthians 12:31b–13:13
“Who Is My Neighbor?: Love in the Serving Community”
“What is love?” “I want to know what love is.” “It must have been love.” “All you need is love.” “The power of love.” “Higher love.” “Tainted love.” “You can’t hurry love.” “Can’t help falling in love.” “I will always love you.” “Keep on loving you.” “Crazy in love.” So many song have been written about love, and yet, more and more keep coming along. Why is love such a central part of the human experience?
People want love. People need love. But what does love mean? As a word, it can be used in a lot of different ways. I can say that I love good food. You can tell your grandparents that you love them. A friend might remark that they love how you help other people out. Most of the time, we use “love” to point to a feeling that people might have – actually, it points to a wide field of feelings. If you’re talking about how much you love something, you might just mean that you enjoy it a lot. You could be referring to your affection or fondness for whatever it is, giving voice to a special connection that others don’t possess. As we’re coming up on Valentine’s Day, though, you’ll be seeing more and more of the use of this word “love” that speaks of a romantic bond between people. In those instances, “love” could refer to a longing for someone’s reciprocal attention. It’ll be used to express physical desire, but it could equally raise the notion of quiet companionship between souls. Love as emotion, as feeling, seems to be connected to so much of life.
What is your experience of love? As a baby and young child, you look to your father and mother for affectionate love early in life. Growing, you find love in friendships as the scope of your life widens to connect with other people. You might know the joys and pains of romantic love later on – especially if you’re listening to Hallmark and Hollywood for direction on what love should be. And whether you’re younger or older, you probably know all too well that the world isn’t always or often a loving place. Even our families, which should be havens for that feeling of love, fall short and seem cold or hostile. People want love. People need love. How are we getting it so wrong?
If you’ve been with us here at St. John’s during this season of Epiphany, you know that the early Christians in the city of Corinth had been getting it wrong, too. In 1 Corinthians, we’ve heard how that community of believers – another setting that should be a haven for love – had been caught up in concerns over spiritual gifts. Some there were putting themselves ahead of others based on a perceived priority that came from who possessed which gift. You’ve also heard St. Paul’s response to them, using the analogy of the parts of the human body to reflect how all God’s people and the gifts of grace that He gives are to be used for the common good, not for selfish ends. Something had been missing in their interaction. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul lets us know what they needed: love.
What is love? While we might use that word most of the time to describe emotions, love at its core isn’t a feeling. Love is an action. Love is the giving of the self for the good of the other. You want to know what love is? It’s giving without expectation of any repayment or compensation. It’s choosing to show compassion for someone who does not deserve it. It’s denying your own interest and serving the person who needs you. Love abhors self-interest. No wonder, then, that you and I or the Corinthian Christians have so often gotten it wrong. We want love, yes, but in our thinking love is about us and what we feel and what we feel we need. Self-sacrifice isn’t pretty or attractive. It certainly wasn’t in its ultimate form, shown when Jesus went to the cross. That is love. In Jesus, God shows what love is. Jesus acted for you. He acted for me. He gave himself knowing that we could never repay him. He showed compassion to people like us who did not deserve it. He set aside his glory to serve, because we needed him to do just that. People want love. People need love. And God gives it to us.
Love is why you’re hearing this today. God has given Himself for you to rescue you from a loveless world. Know that God has called you to be His own and to be a part of the community that He creates and sustains. Living in love, in the care and concern for the other person, is central to the life of God’s people because He is at the center. God’s love shapes His Church, and in our text today Paul shows us what that means. Love, the action, is the still more excellent way in which you and I can live as people who are loved by the Lord.
In the brief section of Paul’s letter that we heard today, the apostle speaks to three aspects of love and how those relate to our life together in the serving community of the Church: the necessity of love, the character of love, and the permanence of love.
People want love. People need love. That’s no less true for us as Christians. In fact, it’s more so. As Paul lays it out, active love is an essential part of our life together. We could do amazing acts, as the Corinthian Christians had experienced; yet if those acts lack love – giving of the self for the other – then those acts aren’t just falling short of their goal, they’re proving to be a distraction and a hurdle, no different from the chaos of pagan worship that the people had once known. If someone were to preach without love, it’s no better than hearing [Charlie Brown animated adult noise]. Our actions are the same. They need active love. If you confine love to just being a feeling, or keep it oriented toward yourself instead of living out love, it gains nothing; nothing for you, nothing for the people around you.
In describing the character of love, Paul begins by presenting two of its greatest attributes. Active love is long-suffering, long-tempered. It reflects God’s patience for His creation. It waits, anticipating a delayed satisfaction that is foreign to our natural inclination. Love is also kind, caring for the weak and the distressed, even the unworthy. Contrasting against love are a number of other actions: indulging in jealously, bragging, claiming self-importance, behaving outside of bounds, allowing provocation, remembering wrongs, rejoicing in unrighteousness. Love is the opposite. It celebrates with others in the truth, bringing about unity and fellowship. The true character of love is shown in the community and restored relationships that it makes possible. It’s not often translated this way, but Paul’s message expresses the fact that love that reflects our Lord’s supports without limits. It is faithful without limits. It never gives up. (1 Corinthians 13:7) Such is God’s love for you.
The active love of the serving community of the Church endures. That’s its permanence. It looks ahead to the day when the good that we know will be made complete in Christ. Love in action is a shimmer of what we will know when Jesus comes again and we are reunited with God. The good things that we know now will find their completion in that day that finds the heavens and earth re-created, just as streetlights go out as the sun’s light covers the land. As Paul describes it, our experience of love now is limited. Instead of imagining a mirror – even a high-quality bronze one from ancient Corinth, think of it this way: It’s kind of like you’re watching the Super Bowl on a little black-and-white television set. The fulfillment of love that awaits us, though, is more like being at the big game in person on the 50-yard-line as a V.I.P. We’re looking ahead to that day when we will be with God in perfected body and soul, and none of us would want or need to put ourselves ahead of anyone else.
As the serving community of the Church, you and I are to live as if the last day has already come. What does that look like in your life? Consider that as you ask yourself, “Who is my neighbor?” Service comes from love, giving of the self for the good of the other. As God’s people, as someone who is already living under God’s self-giving grace, what opportunities do you have to give without expectation of repayment? To whom can you show compassion, even when it is undeserved?
People want love. People need love. It’s a central part of the human experience because it reflects the God who created us, the God who loves us. What is love? As the serving community that gathers around the cross of Jesus to live, we need only look up and see.