I Corinthians 13.1–13
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you don’t know anything else that Paul of Tarsus wrote, you likely know this passage from First Corinthians, probably because you’ve heard it at a wedding. And it is a good starting place to understand Paul, who often gets a bum rap in progressive churches. And this passage is also a great way to understand love.
Even though Valentine’s Day is less than two weeks away, I am not going to talk about eros and erotic love this morning…I’m going to talk about agape or self-giving love, which is the variety of love that Paul writes about in this letter.
I remember a conversation with a Swedish friend many years ago in which he sang the praises of English. My friend Tore pointed to the huge vocabulary of our language, which is relatively larger than Swedish, thanks in large part to Celtic Britain being invaded by Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Vikings, and Normans, all of whom brought new words to the language we speak today. Yet we have a pretty limited vocabulary of love, at least compared to the Greeks. Yes, we have attraction, affection, and fondness, but they all sound kind of a vague and pasty compared to the eros, philia, and agape of Greek. And for us, love also is shaded by the canopy of the Romantic era, which leaves it soft, squishy, and pale. That isn’t agape. Agape is about going deeper.
Agape is the kind of love needed if you are in Amsterdam in 1943 and you are hiding Jewish children in your attic. Agape is the kind of love needed if you are a part of Christian Peacemaker Teams, putting yourself in harm’s way in a war zone. Agape is the kind of love you need when you are called upon to risk and sacrifice something in order to stand up for your faith. Agape is self-giving love in action; it is risky, it is costly, and it is not for the faint of heart. When John’s gospel quotes Jesus as saying that “no one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” [John 15.13], he’s talking about agape…costly, self-sacrificial love.
You and I are seldom called on to really step up and act from a sense of self-giving love for our faith, and we’re unlikely to be imprisoned for it…but that is still a reality for some Christians, like Pastor Jin Mingri, whose church in Beijing was bulldozed by the government, which then sent him a $179,000 demolition bill. In an interview with the Guardian, Jin said, “Of course we’re scared, we’re in China, but we have Jesus.” [The Guardian, 28 Sept. 2018, “We Were Scared, but We Have Jesus: China and its War on Christianity."
At last week’s congregational meeting, we were able to meet openly, elect a slate of folks who agreed to serve on boards and council, pass a budget, and there was no intrusion from the state. We don’t talk very much about “loving Jesus” at Plymouth; and even if we don’t use that phrase, our love of God drives us to do amazing things together, going deeper in our faith, getting out of our comfort zones, making offerings that are costly to us, and living out our faith boldly. People like Bob and Nancy Sturtevant, who established a kindergarten in Ethiopia and just returned from there last week…and you’ll see them giving their time as well as moderator, deacon, sound guy, Interfaith Council rep., and more. That’s what self-sacrificial love looks like.
Glennon Doyle, a UCC member, whose #1 NY Times bestseller is called, Love Warrior, says this: “Life is hard because love is hard, and it’s not because you’re doing everything wrong. Often life is hardest when you are doing everything right.” [From Glennon Doyle’s talk on Work of the People.]
Earlier in First Corinthians, Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” [I Cor. 8.1] How do you see that at work in your home or workplace or here at Plymouth? Offering our service, our time, our wealth, our compassion, ourselves to God and one another is an act of self-giving love.
Paul writes of all kinds of wonderful spiritual gifts -– speaking in tongues, prophetic witness, knowledge, faith, hope, giving away everything. And he says that if you have those gifts and graces but you don’t have love, then you are left empty.
Agape, as Paul describes it, is not always easy to put into practice…maybe it is also a variation on what we know as “tough love,” when we have to do uncomfortable things because we see a person bent on self-destruction. Families who do interventions with a member with a substance abuse problem know what agape love looks like. Tough love doesn’t tolerate denial; it “rejoices in the truth.” Maybe agape in this sense blends love and courage.
It takes a lot of love to tell someone things they would rather not hear. My own family did that with my mom to help her acknowledge her alcoholism. It is seldom easy to “speak the truth in love” [Eph. 4] when you have something hard to say…but it can be loving.
So, here is a small dose of truth telling that I hope you will hear in the spirit of agape: I think that we as a congregation have become complacent. We’re a little bit “fat and happy,” and there is nothing recently that seems to drive a sense of urgency. When you walk into Plymouth, you see a comfortable, well-maintained building, and so perhaps you assume that “it’s all good,” that there is no financial need here…that people seem generally happy and affluent. That’s because we have some people who tithe and give sacrificially of their time and money. But this involved segment is pulling more than their weight, and it’s not sustainable. if you missed the Congregational Meeting last Sunday and didn’t read the 2019 budget or annual report…you missed the urgency. Twice last week, I told members of the congregation and staff, “Sorry, we can’t do that, because of budget cuts.”
To those of you who give generously of both your time and your money, thank you! And to those of you have time and wealth to give, please consider this an encouragement, and invitation to step up with a sense of self-giving love.
I appreciate the congregation’s understanding that freezing spending on all mission and programming costs and not being able to fully fund cost-of-living increases for staff was not a nefarious deed on the part of the Budget & Finance Committee or the Leadership Council. All of us together are the ones who decide what Plymouth’s annual income will look like, and we decide it by what we pledge. And to all of you who are giving so generously of time, talent, and money…thank you deeply!
An even bigger issue is that we need to live our faith from a place of God’s abundance and infinite love, rather than from scarcity. Richard Rohr writes, “The flow of grace through us is largely blocked when we are living inside a worldview of scarcity, a feeling that there’s just not enough: enough of God, enough of me, enough food, enough mercy to include and forgive all faults.”
We need everyone –- yes, everyone –- at Plymouth to go deeper in their faith with a sense of agape. That might mean helping with Faith Family Hospitality, teaching Sunday school, working at the reception desk, helping at spring clean-up day, and yes, it means stretching yourself when it comes to financial giving. We also need you to follow through on the commitment you make when you join Plymouth to attend worship more frequently…and also to invite your friends who need the gift of Plymouth.
So, why? Why do we need to kick it up a notch? Is it because we don’t want our church to stagnate? Yeah…in part. Is it because there are people out there trudging through life and not finding much meaning in an endless cycle of work and entertainment? Yeah…that’s part of it, too. Is it because somebody in this town has to stand up for LGBTQ rights and sensible gun laws and immigration reform and people who experience homelessness? Yeah…sure. Those are all perfectly good reasons why we need to lean into our common life at Plymouth. But the dominant reason is that God calls us to live out our agape love for one another, for the world around us, and for God.
I wonder if we sometimes forget that that’s why we are here in the first place. In Deuteronomy, the heart of Jewish faith is expressed this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.” Deut. 6.5] And Jesus adds another: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Mark 12.31]. That’s agape.
I hope that you hear what I am saying as an expression of my love for God, for Plymouth, and for you. I love you all far too much to remain silent.
Love is both a noun and a verb in our language. My prayer for Plymouth this year is that we go deeper and take action to tie our faith together with a sense of God’s love for us and all those we call neighbors.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.