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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany February, 3, 2013

I always have trouble figuring out how to sign my cards and letters. Do I put “blessings” or “peace” or do I write “Love, Ann”. Love always seems so close, so intimate. I have good friends that I always sign my name with “love”; I have acquaintances for whom I choose another closing, but those in between always pose a dilemma. When I write “Love, Ann”, it is more of a feeling of closeness that I am expressing. It is an expression of past or current friendship or family ties. But what would I do if I were called on to “do love” rather than just “feel love” for one of those persons. Would I go a great distance to help them, as my friend Laura did when I had my hip surgery? Would I lend them money? Would I let one of their children live with me if they had an internship in Washington, even if that child was sloppy and kept irregular hours? I would like to think I would, but I don’t know.

If I ever wrote love letters, I would know what to do. If I were a teenager, I would probably put XOXOX, for kisses and hugs. As an adult, the closing might be even more flowery than just “Love”. “Your loving sweetheart”, perhaps or “Yours forever”. Couples in love are pledged not only to a feeling but to action. But what happens when an expression of love has to be confronting or uncomfortable? Suppose you had to do an intervention for an alcoholic you loved. It would be uncomfortable for both parties, but a loving action. What if you wrote a note to your spouse about some conflict in your relationship and your need to talk about it? Again, uncomfortable, but loving. Once you do the intervention or write the note, control is out of your hands and that is uncomfortable too.

In this morning’s lessons, we have two uncomfortable love letters, one from Paul to the Corinthians and one from Jesus to his hometown congregation in Nazareth. They are written to speak the truth in love, but they are met with hostile results in one case and probably in the other, though we are not told. It is important that we set Paul’s memo to the Corinthians out of the context we think of (weddings) and in the context in which it was written. Paul is communicating with a very contentious Corinthian community. They have become divided over spiritual gifts and whose are better than whose. They are doing the human thing of wanting to find status in something, to establish their place in the new community, to let people know that they are better than others. Paul is very firm with them in talking about the spiritual gifts being secondary to the love they should have for their brothers and sisters. Even the most sought after spiritual gifts – even faith – are nothing without the ability to show the compassion of Jesus for everyone. Giving away possessions and even handing over one’s body (presumably to torture or imprisonment), which are laudable things, gain the Corinthians nothing without love.

It seems clear that the Corinthians need an explanation of what love is, because they are not practicing it. They are encouraged to be patient and kind to one another, not to engage in competition, which results in envy and bragging and arrogance and general mistreatment of their fellow Christians. That is not what Jesus did, and that is not what they should do either. About the phrases that say love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things, William Loader says that we must be careful not to assume that love means that an abused person should stay with an abuser, that injustices should not be fought, that people should accept criticisms they are given by others and take them in, resulting in shame or guilt.

Paul finishes his message by reminding the Corinthians that spiritual gifts will cease, because they are fueled only by partial human knowledge. When the complete knowledge of the kingdom comes, there will be no need for them anymore. Only faith, hope and love will last, and the greatest is love.

Paul is not rhapsodizing about love; Paul is doing an intervention with this Christian fellowship that is dangerously close to fragmenting due to unacceptable attitudes and behaviors. As with any group, when their failings are pointed out, Paul would probably receive hostility rather than humility at his words.

Jesus is also giving the people a love letter. He is interpreting God’s love for the world, given through him. He is the anointed one that Isaiah spoke of in Scripture who has been sent to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Of course the congregation at Nazarethis in favor of all these things. They consider themselves on the margins because of Roman domination and expect that all these things will fall to them. They are amazed at the gracious words that Jesus speaks. When they say, “Is this not Joseph’s son”, they are showing pride in their hometown boy, who has somehow learned to read and interpret the Scriptures with such ability. They are probably thinking of the next part of Isaiah, which talks about the day when the Lord will trample down allIsrael’s enemies underfoot and restore Israel to its rightful place (David Lose). That is what they are used to. They are God’s chosen people, and these good things will happen to them.

But that is not where Jesus goes. He turns not to Isaiah but to the acts of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah brought relief from the famine to a widow of Zarephath in Sidonand brought her son back to life. Elisha healed Naaman, the Syrian general, of leprosy. There were many widows and lepers in Israel, but the prophets did not assist them. Jesus is doing an intervention with his hometown congregation, speaking the truth in love, talking to them about God’s love extending to all, even the Gentiles. It was not something new; God’s covenant with Abraham said that the Jewish people would be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations. But Jesus’ words were uncomfortable to the people of the time, who tended to regard the God of Israel as some tribal deity (Peter Gomes) instead of the God of the whole world. They were filled with rage and drove Jesus out of town. They were ready to throw him off a cliff, but he escaped and went on to carry the message to other places. Jesus’ love letters from God were received well in some places, especially where the poor and marginalized gathered, and badly in other parts, eventually leading to his death.

Speaking the truth in love is a dangerous thing, especially when it upsets the status quo and tells of new things that are being done that are outside of people’s control. God is doing new things in taking the good news of the kingdom of heaven to the Gentiles, and God is doing new things in creating church communities that are based on love for one another. To get these messages across, Paul and Jesus stage interventions with people they love to help them see where they have erred and how to put it right. Jesus was forcibly ejected from town and almost killed when he said that God was going to bring the kingdom to the poor, the marginalized and the Gentiles. Paul probably received a very cool reception from the Corinthians when he told them that they were not to behave as before and develop a system of who was inside and who was outside the fold, as their previous faith traditions had done. Both love letters emphasize God’s loving compassion for everyone, especially for those who need it most.

These two letters speak to us too. We have the homeless, the hungry, the poor, the prisoner. We have undocumented aliens. We also have payday lenders, sex offenders, and the NRA or gun control advocates depending on our point of view. We pretend to be inclusive, but are often more comfortable in the company of people just like us. We want everybody to be equal, but are often not willing to give up what it would require to make that so – time, money and resources. We need to ask ourselves what we would do if Jesus or Paul staged an intervention with us today. Would we accept the truth with humility or hostility? Would we repent of our sins and begin to look for ways to treat everyone equally and include the marginalized in our communities? Love is difficult, but we must act with compassion because Jesus did. Our acts of love will fill others and will meet our deepest needs.

AMEN

   - Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Epiphany 4”
David Lose, “Three Questions and a Promise”, Blog post 1/27/13
Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 39. Quoted in Peter Eaton, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Homiletical Perspective, p. 313.