Sermon I preached today at my internship congregation. Scripture text is 1 Corinthians 13: 1 - 8.
All You Need is Love?
Love conquers all. Love can build a bridge. Love’s the only house. Love will keep us together. I’ll never fall in love again. Where is love? Stop in the name of love. You can’t hurry love. Love is a battlefield. Love, love me do. Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love.
Those are all statements that have been made about love over the centuries. Some of those statements are so well known that they have become cliches. Our culture is obsessed with the concept of love. So much so that we even have an entire day dedicated just to it in which love and affection are celebrated and those who have found love are all happy and cheerful and full of joy while those who haven’t are supposed to pretend as if they aren’t depressed by the whole notion of love in the first place.
Permit me to be a bit cynical here and stop to ask the question: why. Why Love? What is Love? Why do we even want or need love in our lives? When it comes to love, I confess I tend to be a bit cynical and bitter toward the whole thing. Perhaps I’ve had my heart broken one too many times. Perhaps I’ve been in too many bad relationships. Perhaps I’ve opened my heart too often only to see it stomped on. For whatever reason, I just find love to be a really hard concept for me, especially around February 14th. Believe me, when you’ve spent 29 consecutive Valentine’s Days on the couch in your pajamas watching TV instead of out with your significant other, the whole concept of Valentine’s Day and of love really starts to make you depressed and bitter.
Yet, here I am today preaching about love. What do I, an old bitter cynic, have to say about love? For that answer, I turn to our Scripture text for today. The Apostle Paul tends to not get a lot of love, particularly in more progressive Christian circles. Some of that is deserved as he does say some very harsh things about women and gays in his writings. However, there are also some great and quite profound things that he says in his writings as well. In particular, these verses from his first letter to the Corinthians are some of the most beautiful and most profound in the whole Bible. They have been reproduced and re-used so much that they have become almost cliches themselves. They are frequently used in wedding ceremonies as a way for the bride and groom to remind themselves how they should act toward each other in marriage.
Yet, I want us to hear them together today with a fresh set of eyes. I want everyone to close their eyes and listen as I read these words to you. Pretend that you have never heard them before. Pretend that they haven’t yet turned into cliches. Just pretend, if you can, that these words are being read to you just after they’ve been written. Let the words wash over you.
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.
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 does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
Did you notice anything about these verses that you maybe hadn’t seen before? Anything jump out at you? What I noticed when I heard these words was how often the word love is used. In these eight verses, the word love is used seven times. The number seven is a very significant number in the Bible. God rested on the seventh day of creation. Jesus tells us to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven. In the book of Revelation, seven angels deliver seven scrolls to the seven churches. Indeed, the number seven is believed to be the most holy and perfect of numbers, a fact that Paul would have been well aware of while writing these verses.
The Greek word for love is “agape”, often translated as unconditional love. This agape love is the kind of love that Paul is referring to in these verses, a love so powerful and pure that it stands as perfect. God’s love for us and our love for God is a perfect kind of love. That is why the word is used seven times in these verses, because agape love is the most perfect and most holy kind of love. The kind of love that is so perfect that it is patient and kind and not boastful or rude or arrogant. It is the kind of love that never ends. It is the kind of love that more of us need to practice. It is the kind of love that more of us need to show toward our fellow human beings.
Before starting seminary, I spent a year living in Chicago serving with the denomination’s Young Adult Volunteer Program. This program is intended for young adults between the ages of 18-30 who agree to serve either domestically or internationally for a year doing volunteer mission work. They are placed with other volunteers their own age and all the volunteers are assigned to work in either churches or non-profits depending on their interests. I was assigned to work in a church, specifically a church located in the heart of what is known as “Boystown”, the neighborhood that is known as being the most gay-friendly. One of my specific duties was to serve as the volunteer coordinator for the church’s Friday night programming known as Cafe Pride. This was a program in which volunteers of the church would commit to opening the church doors every Friday night to allow the local homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth to have a place to congregate and get away from the weather and police harassment. From 8 to midnight every Friday night, I saw real agape love on display as the church volunteers would provide a home-cooked meal for the youth, play games with them, watch a movie with them or just engage in conversation with them about their lives and their interests. There was never any judgment or condemnation of their lifestyles or telling them that they needed to be saved and repent of their “wicked” ways. That wasn’t the purpose of the program. It was simply a safe space for these youth and young adults to see what real, agape, unconditional love looks like. It looks like a church opening its fellowship hall every Friday night to youth who live on the streets.
It looks like Antoinette Tuff, the brave woman who managed to talk a mentally disturbed young man out of shooting up an elementary school in Georgia this past August. At one point in her conversation with the gunman, Tuff says the following: “It's going to be all right, sweetie. I want you to know I love you, OK? I'm proud of you.” This radical approach to dealing with an attacker is widely credited with convincing the gunman to surrender to police with nobody being harmed. Ms. Tuff looked at this gunman and saw a real person. She saw someone who needed love. She saw someone who needed proof of the real, agape love. By showing him that kind of love, she also prevented a tragedy.
That’s the same kind of love that God has for us, the created. The beloved. Our being loved isn’t a choice. It is an inherent and beautiful part of who we are. This is the kind of love that Paul is talking about in 1st Corinthians. The kind of love that is so perfect and so holy that it casts out all our hatred. It casts out all our bitterness. It casts out all our cynicism, our bigotry and our fear. It is the kind of love that can even cause an old, bitter cynic to keep believing in the power of love even when he wants to just give it all up.
Mother Teresa, a woman who fully embodied agape love in everything she did and in the way she lived her life, said “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” If we love with that all-consuming, all-encompassing agape love, we too will find this to be the case. We will find that when we do everything in love, that that love will illuminate and shine throughout all we do. We will find that there will be no more hurt, only more love. We will discover that even when we have had our hearts broken over and over again by other people that there is still love to be found in this world. We will discover that God’s agape love is so powerful that we can’t help but continue to believe that love is still a powerful and important force for good in our lives and our world.
Let us love like Antoinette Tuff or like the Friday night volunteers at a church in Chicago. Most importantly, let us love like God loves. Then, we will find that yes, indeed, all you need is love. Love bears all things. Love believes all things. Love hopes all things. Love endures all things. Love never ends. Beloved, never let your love end. It really is all you need in this world.