Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Church Without Love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

What is it that makes a parish church truly great in the eyes of God? What is the one characteristic we all should aspire to, that thing which to lack would be disastrous, and would make us wholly unprofitable?

There are many important elements that contribute to making a parish one that truly honors God, you may even say that they are essential. For instance, reverent liturgy. The Apostle instructs us in Holy Scripture, “Let all things be done decently and in right order.” Others might say that a church in which the spiritual gifts are not active is sadly lacking, that the church’s worship should be spirited and passionate. Many also say, quite rightly, that a church that glorifies God is one which teaches sound doctrine. Still others say that the church must advocate for social justice and serve the poor.

I wouldn’t want to subtract from the importance of any of those things, but none of them—in themselves—are enough. In our epistle reading today, Saint Paul instructs us that without love, none of these things matter at all. He writes, “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 so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Some parishes have beautiful and well-choreographed liturgy, perfectly adhering to the rubrics, and yet the people are rigid, arrogant, judgmental, and just plain snotty! They are haughty and look down on others. What good is it to expertly perform the liturgy if you are proud? What good is it to be arraigned in beautiful vestments if you have a dreary soul? What is reverence without love? All these things they ought to have done without neglecting the other, without neglecting love.

Again, some churches can boast vibrant, charismatic, worship. They may be bursting at the seams with worshipers having a cathartic and emotional experience. There may even be signs and wonders, dramatic healing, and speaking in tongues. Yet with all the flash, they lack real substance. When Saint Paul says, “If I speak with the tongues of angels but lack love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol,” he is making a comparison with the pagan revelry of the worshipers of Bacchus, the god of wine, who used bells and drums in worship. In other words he is saying, “Without love you are no better than pagans!”

To use a more modern comparison, one might say, anyone can take LSD at a rock concert and feel at one with the universe, but that doesn’t mean they have the love of Christ. If just beneath the surface there is materialism, sensuality, pride, and divisiveness, charismatic worship isn’t much different. If your faith makes you look down on others, if you are more concerned with self-aggrandizement than the needs of others or the glory of God, if you lack love, you may be full of something but it isn’t the Holy Spirit!

Some churches have all the right doctrine, they are theologically rigorous, and yet they are harsh and combative. What good is belief if we lack love? Saint James writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well, but even the demons believe—and shudder!”  What good is it to know the truth if it does not change our hearts?
It is even possible to do all the right things for the wrong reasons. We can perform heroic acts of sacrifice and service, but be motivated more by a desire for recognition than love. In our quest for justice, we can even put our politics before people, and our ideology in the place of God.

God once rebuked his wayward people through the prophet Amos saying, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Does God have a problem with feast days or solemn assemblies? Of course not! He is the one that commanded them in the first place! The point is that without love, all these good things are worse than useless, they are downright offensive to God!

But what is this love without which we cannot please God? Is it a feeling or a sentiment? Not quite. The type of love that Saint Paul is referring to here is sometimes translated as charity. It is the divine love that graciously reaches out to all people. It is more than feeling. Love is a verb. It rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. That is not to say that it leaves our affections unchanged. There are charitable and uncharitable feelings. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It takes no delight in evil.

This kind of love is not of human origin. It is the presence of Christ working in us, the power of his reconciling grace. It is the gift of God. If what I have said makes you nervous, let me assure you, the kind of love I am speaking about is not a condition for our salvation. We love because God first loved us, and God loved us while we were still loveless.

This love is not a condition of our salvation, but it is the essential evidence of our salvation! Love is the fruit of salvation. God will judge whether we have received the grace of God in vain by whether or not we have love. The scriptures tell us, “by their fruit you shall know them” and “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

As we approach the season of Lent, let us examine ourselves. Are we as a church bearing the fruit of love or have we received the grace of God in vain? Are we seeking to grow in the love of God? Are we kind? Are we patient with one another in our weaknesses? Are we quick to point out the faults of others or do we charitably give them the benefit of the doubt?

I believe we will most certainly find that we have a tremendous amount of growing to do, both personally and corporately. “Love,” as Saint Paul writes, “never ends.” It is fathomless. In this life, we only scratch the surface of what it means to love like God loves. Paul continues, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Brothers and sisters, let us put away childish things. Let us seek to be mature in faith and in hope, but most importantly in love.