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.
1 Corinthians 11:17-26
World Communion Sunday
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Corinthians 11:17-26
17 Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19 Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. 20 When you come together, it is not really to eat the LORD's supper. 21 For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22 What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the LORD's death until he comes.
The apostle Paul, who wrote our scripture text as part of a letter to the church in Corinth, was a tough-love pastor. He didn’t pull any punches with the churches he founded and served. Lovingly and firmly he instructed them, calling them out on their misbehaviors, their false piety and their injustices. Tough love is what we hear in the opening passage of our scripture reading today. Just before this passage he has been commending them on some good church practices...now he brings the hammer of justice down. “I do not commend you on the way you are celebrating the Lord’s Supper. You are NOT remembering relationship and you are not remembering the Christ who died for you.” Boom!
The problem the Corinthians Christians were having stemmed from the Roman culture and hospitality practices in the first century. The church was meeting in the homes of its wealthier members. In these homes, there was the central dining room which could hold about 9–10 people reclining on couches. So, traditionally, the most important people ate there. Then there was an outer atrium where another 20 or 30 people could gather. Important, but not the inner circle. And then there was another room for the servants and slaves. So the church was not truly gathered together for the Lord’s Supper meal. It was separated in terms of status and class. Some ate well; some not at all. When the early Corinthian church gathered to celebrate the Last Supper or Lord’s Supper there was no distinction between the actual meal and the ritual or eucharist or communion. It was all of a piece in one dinner, a “love feast" or “agape meal.” So if the church is scattered across at least three different spaces eating different foods, how can they celebrate communion in unity? And the group with no food or drink? How could they celebrate at all?
The church was meeting... but they were not really in relationship! And this was the big problem that Paul had with them!! Being out of relationship across class and economic spectrums, they were not remembering that Jesus had died a sacrificial death at the hands of the Romans for all of humanity. Or that God had conquered death in Jesus’ resurrection for all humanity. The Corinthian Christians let their comfort zones and unexamined habits get in the way of their commitment to the love of God in Jesus the Christ.
Thus, the stern reprimand from Paul. And his repetition to them of what he had been given about the Last Supper. We often hear the second portion of this passage at Maundy Thursday services because it is the earliest historical written reference to the Last Supper. Paul wrote down the instructions in this letter 20 or so years after the death of Christ. Most likely he had been taught them verbally -– perhaps by a disciple who was at the supper. This is just about as direct a report as we get from that pivotal night in the life of Jesus. All the gospel reports were written twenty to forty or fifty years after Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. This is a very beloved and historical passage in Christian history.
But it was not originally written for us to revere with sentimentality. It was written to emphasize why and how to celebrate this founding ritual of Christian faith. On the very night he was betrayed Jesus revealed new significance to the bread and the wine of the ancient Passover ritual of deliverance and liberation from oppression. Both Jewish and Gentile Christians in the early church would recognize grapes and grain offerings as typical sacrificial elements prayerfully offered in Jewish and Greco-Roman temple worship. They are first fruits sacrifices given to God in thanksgiving.
In the tradition passed down through Paul, Jesus says to the first century church and to us, “Remember me when you eat together. Remember that as grapes and grain give their lives to be transformed into wine and bread, I give myself for you so that we may all be transformed in God’s love.” Paul adds to Jesus instructions “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the LORD's death until he comes.” Why proclaim Jesus’ death? Because it was through Jesus’ sacrificial giving of his whole life to God even unto death that revealed the unifying power of God over the divisive powers of humanity in the life-giving power of resurrection.
So what do with do with all this besides fondly remember these metaphors and meanings as we celebrate communion? What about Paul’s reprimand of the first century Christians? Is there anything in the reprimand for us? Surely we would meet with Paul’s approval in our ritual of communion. We do it right now....all in one room....all at one table. Everyone invited.
Yes....and..... Paul’s instructions and admonitions call us to examine the bigger picture of our lives as Christians in our 21st century world. We all know we live in a world of extreme divisions and divisions among the Body of Christ are not new. Like the first century Corinthians unconsciously following the patterns of Roman culture, 21st century Christens are separated into different rooms by class, political and religious affiliation, theological interpretation and practice. Is Paul’s admonition a call to reach out across our Christian differences to celebrate in communion God’s gift of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection?
If so, that is a daunting call. How can we possibly heal from the 2000 years of abuse of one another in the Christian faith? We have fought viciously over theology and ethics, persecuted one another even to the point of death, deeply shamed one another because of differences in biblical interpretation. And many of us gathered here today are the walking wounded of these divisions, as well as hidden sexual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant churches. Is there any hope for reconciliation between Christians? Any hope for breaking down barriers to listen deeply and with compassionate hearts to one another as we listen together to God?
I wish I could say I had a plan for this grand scheme of healing! I have not been divinely gifted with one. The only way forward that I see is to come together in this local body of Christ and seek healing through prayer, through service and through the unifying ritual of communion. I firmly believe that as we acknowledge our wounds, tell our stories to one another in appropriate settings, here in this gathered body of Christ, we begin and further our individual healing. As we risk vulnerability with one another here, we gather the wisdom and strength to reach out in vulnerability and compassion to those in our families, our neighborhoods, our work and our schools who come from what seem to be opposing forces in Christianity.
Vulnerability is not weakness. It is the strength of standing in the authentic being of your soul. It is the joyful and arduous journey to know yourself in all your gifts and wounds. It is the ability to speak your truth in love with diplomacy and compassion, rather than wielding words as weapons. Vulnerability is reserving the right to self protect and have boundaries even as we take risks in sacrificial love to reach out to others. It is knowing that each of us is wounded and seeks healing even as we know that we have most likely wounded someone else and want to seek their healing as well. It is laying down our lives for one another in love through the very living of our lives. It is asking for the grace to forgive and be forgiven.
Forgiveness is not easy. I know from personal experience that sometimes it is just doesn’t feel safe to forgive a person or a system who has abused you. That is when I ask God to do the forgiving that I cannot do. When we feel too wounded to forgive, we can still take the risk of a baby step. We can in vulnerability let go of just enough hurt to trust God has a bigger picture of suffering, healing and forgiving than we do. With God nothing is impossible.
Jesus was and is our supreme model of the strength of vulnerability. He vulnerably offered himself as a vessel of God’s love in all his teachings, stories, healings, miracles and ultimately in sacrificially giving his life in non-violent resistance to a system of false power. God sustained him through it all. How can we respond to Paul’s call to be in relationship and union with all our Christian brothers and sisters? By following Jesus to this table. Here in this core ritual of our faith we remember the strength of Jesus’ vulnerability. Even as he was being betrayed by the political powers of his time he said, “This is my body given for you. This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood. As often as you share this meal remember me.”
May it be so. Amen.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Sermon podcasts (no text)