The Greatest Of These
I Cor. 13:113, Luke 4:2130
If I were to take a survey today on favorite passages of scripture, I presume we would have to vote for some nominations of texts like the 23rd Psalm, a few people would say that. Some folks might say Luke, chapter 2, which is the Christmas story; but my guess is that a lot of you would say I Corinthians 13, the chapter that was read for us a little bit ago. It is a very famous passage; one that we read frequently at weddings and we hear it, we love it and we enjoy it. It is one of those beloved passages of scripture.
It is also a text that is easily misunderstood. For one thing we tend to separate it from its environment. This text was not written to stand alone. It was never intended to be read by itself, but when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, this was just one section of a larger communication; to rip it out of its place and stand it aside from the context is to do it real damage. In Paul's letter he's writing to the Corinthian church and he's writing about all the extraordinary things that have happened among them and the extraordinary gifts, graces and talents and abilities that people have in that congregation. He talks about the dramatic sort of things that put people up front, people who can sing, or preach, or pray, or heal the sick, or any of those very spectacular kinds of things that put people in the limelight; things that seem special and extraordinary. Then, after he had outlined all these dramatic things, he says, in spite of all those things, "I will show you an even more excellent way;" I will talk to you about something even more important than being able to do grand deeds. Then he launches into this chapter about love.
When I was a little child I remember that I thought love was what I felt when I sat on the lap of one of my parents. I invite you to remember that feeling, remember it from your childhood, remember how safe, secure, enveloped, and warm that you may have felt. When I was a little one I thought that feeling was love. When I became a teenager I started thinking about love in some different ways. There were some people that, when they came into my presence, would make my heart beat faster; the palms of my hands would get moist; and my stomach would be all aquiver. I thought that was love. It troubled me because actually quite a number of people could make me feel that way when I was a teenager.1 But not everyone did! There were people that the only way in which my heart beat faster when they came into my presence was because I was angry at them. I was troubled because I knew the command of Jesus to love your neighbor and love your enemy. I couldn't put together the commandment with the reality of my feelings because my feelings didn't always follow—didn't love everybody—not everybody made me feel good—I didn't feel all warmth and affectionate and all of that for everyone.
Fortunately, like most of you, someone later helped me; helped me by saying to me that love is not a feeling. You know, if Jesus could command us to love people, if he could command us to love our neighbors and love our enemies, feelings are not subject to command. You cannot will yourself to feel something. Try this. I'm going to point at you and say: "Love me or else." And then I invite you to set your jaw, clench your fist, summon your will and make yourself feel love for me. Kind of hard to do, isn't it? Love is not something that is, in that sense, a feeling. The feelings of love are not volitional. They do not happen because we decide, or will, or intend, or struggle to make them happen. Feelings just don't work that way. Biblically speaking, those
feelings are not love. When Jesus said, "love your neighbor and love your enemy," he didn't mean to feel all mushy inside about them.
Frederick Buechner has said this much better than I. In a Lenten devotional booklet he once wrote: "Love is not primarily an emotion; but it is an act of the will." When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with cozy emotional feelings. You can as well produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their wellbeing, even if it means sacrificing our own wellbeing to that end. Even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. So in Jesus' terms we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them.1 I think Buechner would say feelings and love are different, separate, not the same thing.
I said earlier that the Corinthians passage is one we frequently read at weddings and, I must admit to you, I have mixed feelings about that. The trouble with reading that passage at a wedding is that it reinforces the notion that love, in a biblical sense, is romantic. The bride and groom—they are all mushy about each other and their wedding and you read about love and everything is just syrupy. It leads us to a misunderstanding of Paul's text. Because Paul is not talking about romance, he's talking about something more substantive than that. Paul is saying to us, and I think Jesus meant us to understand, that love is an act and an attitude not an emotion. Love is an action or an attitude not an emotion. Actions and attitudes can be commanded. Jesus can say to us love your neighbor and we can act in certain ways. We can approach that person with a certain attitude but Jesus cannot make us feel mushy about someone. Feelings are not the same as Biblical love.
So I'm not real crazy about this text at weddings and yet on the other hand it belongs right there. Any of you who have been married for more than five minutes know that you don't feel like you felt at the altar every day. That is true, isn't it; it's not just me? It is just me! No! You know all that "lovey dovey" stuff isn't always there in close relationships, but the wonderful reason for reading Paul's passage at a wedding is that it belongs there. What does Paul say about love? He doesn't say its romantic and cozy and all that syrupy stuff. He says love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful or rude, love does not insist on its own way. Now friends, you can behave in that fashion however you feel. You see the difference. I want to say to all those who are in love, all those who have spouses and family members and loved ones and dear friends, I want to say to you that, if there are times when things aren't going so well, that is the very time that's most important to hear what Paul has to say about love because it is about how we treat one another. It is about wanting the very best for the other one and acting for the very best interests of the other, and you can do that anytime. Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous, or boastful or rude; it does not insist on it own way. I have a confession, I get in the most trouble in my household when I'm insisting on my way. It's not just in homes that can happen; it can happen at churches it can happen anywhere.
A long time ago, 1982 for heaven’s sakes, my bishop invited me to be a district superintendent. Those of you who are Methodists know that district superintendents are part of the bureaucracy; district superintendents are people that are involved in personnel matters, and trouble shooting matters of various sorts in the churches. From a religious point of view we sometimes say that district superintendents are the pastors to the pastors. Well I was assigned to a district way away from the place where I was serving at the time and I want to tell you about a relationship.
One of the pastors in the district was named Sam and Sam had a reputation. You see, Sam had been in the ministry for many years, but had never been any one place more than three years. There was a six-year period in Sam's ministry when he moved every year? As you can imagine, I could hardly wait to visit Sam's church, for you see, Sam had already been there for five years—a record for him. I could imagine what would happen. People would call me aside and ask, "What are you going to do about Sam? When are you going to move Sam? We just have to have a change!" Well the time came when I could no longer avoid visiting Sam's church. Just as I expected, people asked to speak with me privately. But to my surprise, when they pulled me aside they said things like, "Don't ever move Sam. Sam is the best pastor we have ever had. We just love Sam."
Some time later when I met privately with Sam to talk about his appointment for the next year and that sort of thing, Sam said he wanted to stay and I said to Sam, "Well, your people want you to stay but, Sam, let's talk. I want to know something. We both know that this will be the longest that you've ever been in a congregation and we both know that often it was rocky when you left," I said, "Sam, what's different this time?"
Sam thought for a little bit and then he smiled and he said, "Well, I am a slow learner." He said, "I used to think it was my job to make people believe what I did. I used to think as the pastor that it was my job to correct all of the bad theology, all of the errant ideas of everyone in my congregation. Only now have I finally learned that love does not insist on its own way." He said "I finally learned to love them and, lo and behold, they love me."
And they did. Sam stayed in that church five more years and he was the only pastor I have ever known personally that literally died in the pulpit. One Palm Sunday in the middle of his sermon he slumped over and was gone and the way that congregation grieved for him and supported his spouse was a beautiful thing to see. Love does not insist on its own way. Families and congregations get lots of opportunities to practice, don't we?
You know, in the weeks and months ahead none of us know what we face as a congregation. We see that building going up over there and I don't think any of us fully comprehend the impact that that is going to have on our life together. There are decisions we are going to have to make. Are we going to have an 11 o'clock service or 9:30 or an 8:00 or when is Sunday School going to be and are we going to have both at the same time I don't know but I have this sneaking little feeling that we won't all agree. I'm not sure where I got that idea but it's just possible. Someone said to me not long ago, "it doesn't matter whether you have a dedicated hour for Sunday School or not; it doesn't matter what you do with the worship services as long as you don't bother mine." If any of you are the kind of person that gets nervous when somebody says the word "stewardship" or "money," fasten your seatbelt. Moving into that building is going to affect our budget, we are going to have stewardship needs we've never had before; we going to have evangelism possibilities we've never had before and on and on and on. It potentially will change us enormously and that is always somewhat disconcerting and we will have different ideas about what we ought to do. We will not all see it the same. And love does not insist on its own way. It's as simple as that and we are going to have plenty of opportunity to practice in the months ahead.
Having said all that I still like to think about the feeling I had sitting on a parent's lap, don't you? Having said all that, I still like to think about that wonderful feeling of falling in love romantically. And you know what I've learned is that, contrary to what we normally think, feelings follow actions not the other way around. We commonly think, well, if you love somebody, you'll treat them well. But the reality is, if we treat someone in a loving way, the feelings follow. The feelings follow the action rather than the other way around and in our home, in our churches and in our neighborhoods everywhere we circulate, there are opportunities to practice. In our days ahead we as a congregation, like the congregation in Corinth, are going to accomplish wonderful things and people with extraordinary talents and abilities will come forward, and there is a lot to celebrate but the greatest of these is love. Amen.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck Manchester United Methodist Church
1 Buechner, Frederick, "From Death to Life."