My freshmen year of college, I fell head over heels in love. There was this beautiful, smart, redheaded girl, who for some strange reason seemed to like having me around. About a month into the semester we were both stupid, crazy in love with one another. So much so, that we were probably one of those obnoxious, oblivious couples too into one another and their public displays of affection to notice how nauseating we were. Anyways, this girlfriend and I were both in the same sociology class, taught by a professor from Iran whom we both adored, by the name of Mahnaz Kousha. One day in this sociology course the subject of love came up, and professor Kousha cited a psychological study on the brain chemistry behind our feelings of romantic love. According to her the brain activity associated with romantic love never lasts longer than 6 months. All passionate, romantic love ends in under 6 months. At the time, I didn’t give this a second thought. I was in love, what did I care what some brain research said about it. Maybe other people fell out of love in 6 months, but not us. We were both quite sure that we would spend the rest of our lives together.
Well, we did spend nearly 3 years together. But I must say, that the last 2 and a half years were not nearly as fun as though first 6 months. I don’t know if she was right about the brain chemistry, but Professor Kousha was certainly right about us- our romantic love, was more of an infatuation, and that infatuation burned out after 6 months. After that staying together was hard, it was a chore, it was work that neither of us were inclined to do.
The thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has been called his hymn to love. Its beautifully written, almost too beautifully written. Its beauty has led to its popularity which leads people to pull the chapter out of its context to use it in weddings or write it on canvas, frame it and hang it on a wall. So we can be forgiven for thinking that Paul was nothing more than the original author of Hallmark Cards and sappy, inspirational posters. The truth is that what Paul is writing about has precious little to do with romantic love, and nothing at all to do with mere infatuation. The Greeks had three separate words for three separate connotation to the word love, where as English has only one, love. Eros is the Greek word for romantic, passionate love. Filia is the Greek word for brotherly love, love between friends. But Paul doesn’t use either of those words. Paul uses the word agape. Agape refers to a love that manifests itself in self sacrifice, a love that gives freely of itself to others expecting nothing in return. Agape is the love of God.
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians is not a love letter between two individuals. It is a letter written by Paul to the congregation at Corinth. The cause for Paul’s writing is that word has reached him of great conflict within the church. Several of the members have come to think of themselves as superior than others, believing they’re spiritual enlightenment makes them more valuable to God than other members of the congregation. The wealthy are eating all of the communion meal by themselves and not sharing with the poorer members. There are power struggles between different factions in the church, followers of Apollo against the followers of Paul. In short, the church at Corinth is like every other church: they proclaim that they are follower of Jesus Christ called to love one another and the world, and they really mean it, but it turns out loving people, real people, is easier said than done.
At one of our New Members classes this fall, I got to sit one on one with a woman Amanda and chat. I asked her about her religious background, her own faith journey, and one of things she said has stuck with me. When speaking of how she saw God in the world, she said that she sees God in other people. Although the world is full of flawed people doing inconsiderate, hurtful, even terrible things to one another, nevertheless you can still find, with remarkable frequency, ordinary people doing incredible acts of kindness. In the midst of a world full of trials and trouble, Amanda said she still sees that love, those acts of kindness, and for her that is where she sees God.
Paul would have loved that. Because that is exactly what Paul means when he speaks of love. Listen again, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Paul lists the various gifts of the church members, things they can and should do, things like having faith, and he tells them they are all worthless if they aren’t done in love. What makes an action Christian, what makes it resonate with God and with our souls, what makes it truly worthwhile, is the love behind it and through it and beyond it. Love is the purpose of life, it is the reason for living, it is what being truly alive is all about.
Yet Paul goes further than that. He says this remarkable thing, “Love never ends.” Professor Kousha might have disagreed with him, but they were talking about two different things. Infatuation is a human emotion, whereas for Paul love, agape love, is divine, it properly belongs to God, to the eschaton, to the heavens. Eternal is an adjective used exclusively for God, because in truth all things end. This sermon will end, soon I assure you, this church service will end, this day will end. Cities come to an end, countries too. Whole civilizations rise and fall. One day this earth will be no more, and one day the sun too will end in a fiery blaze. All things end. All things except for God. In this life, on this side of eternity, we can never fully know God. God is beyond our comprehension. But eternity reaches out towards us. God reaches out towards us. This initiative of God, this extension of eternity into time, takes the shape of three things: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. When we practice agape love, self-sacrificing love, we are participating in God. Real, true love, agape love, is of and from God, it is God’s presence among us. The gift of the Christian life is the blessing to be a part of God’s love, to experience God’s presence when we are giving freely of ourselves.
We remembered our beloved friend and member, Ms. Penny Hendryx this morning. Ms. Penny loved St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. She was baptized here, she was confirmed here. She spent years playing the organ for worship, and years selecting the hymns. For all of her 92 years, Ms. Penny gave freely of herself to this congregation. And she did it, not because she expected something in return. She did it simply because this was the place that she encountered Jesus Christ. This was the place where she felt and experienced the love of God. Ms. Penny knew, better than most, that service to a loving a God is its own compensation. Yet as Ms. Penny was nearing her death her church family showed up. Following in exactly the example she set for us, you all, cared for her expecting nothing in return. Dorcas and Mosoba, Melisa Jean Marie, and Gabrielle all went to visit her in her room at Jefferson Health Care. Our youth group went and sang Christmas Carols to her in the dining room there. And in her last week, visitors from St. Paul’s were nearly constant by her side, Gwen, Sue, Tom, Melisa, Faye, Janet, Mr. George, myself. We all sat with her, prayed with her, read scripture with her, even sang to her. Few times in my life, have I ever felt the presence of God as strongly as I did in room 125 at Jefferson Health Care. God was there. In and through our love, our real self giving love, God was palpably present with Ms. Penny. That is the love that never ends. That is the love of God. May we seek it out, may we find it, may we treasure it, and may we find ways to give it away again and again. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast