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11.05.17 Growing Up 1 Corinthians 13 Sermon Summary

by on November 6, 2017

What if the “Love Chapter” wasn’t about God’s love for us, but our love for God?

Summary Points

  • The common ways to hear 1 Corinthians 13
  • Dante, the dark wood, and sin
  • A larger perspective of sin
  • Ways we experience and try to manage sin
  • God’s answer to our sin, and how 1 Corinthians 13 helps us understand it
  • God’s presence in the sacraments and a prayer to prepare for Communion

When it comes to the “Love Chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13, most people assume it refers to God’s perfect love. They’ve had some pastor say that’s what the Greek word “agape” always refers to. Regardless, 1 Corinthians 13 is lifted up in wedding ceremonies as the ideal love between spouses, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with romance. In context, the chapter is a strategy for conflict resolution in congregations, not love between individuals.

It’s so hard to hear the “love chapter” apart from these assumptions or to say anything new about it. So let’s listen to it from another perspective. What happens if we listen to 1 Corinthians 13 not for what it says about God’s love or spousal love or congregational life, but for our love for God?

We start in an unlikely place. Dante’s poem the Divine Comedy was written in the early 1300s. It catalogues the author’s journey from hell through purgatory to paradise. It starts with the words, “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a dark forest.” Dante reports he has found himself here because of sin.

The influence of Dante’s work can’t be calculated. Whatever images you have of “hell” and “the devil” and “demons” are more likely Dante’s than the Bible’s. His opening line has also influenced the way we think about our spiritual experience in the dark wood.

The dark wood is that place where we feel lost, confused, and fearful. We are spiritually disoriented, and wonder if God has forgotten us. Dante’s dark wood experience was caused by sin. Reflexively we think of moral sin. Dante would also have included disobedience to God’s law in general. And there’s some truth to that.

But sin is not just wayward choices. It is also a power. It is the sense that we are estranged from God. The great Lutheran theologian of the last century Paul Tillich understood sin primarily as estrangement. He said sin is our estrangement from God, others, and even from ourselves. He taught that forgiveness and love together overcome estrangement: “Genuine forgiveness is participation, reunion overcoming the powers of estrangement. . . We cannot love unless we have accepted forgiveness, and the deeper our experience of forgiveness is, the greater is our love.”

It is this sense of sin as estrangement that underlies Teresa of Avila’s counsel that the greatest hindrance to prayer is the assumption that God is not present. (I’ve never been able to find this quote, but it is repeated often by folks like Thomas Keating. Regardless of its provenance, the statement is true.)

There are several ways we try to solve the problem of sin, the problem of our estrangement. We deny it. We entertain ourselves out of our awareness. We try to fill the void with achievement. Perhaps we expend the greatest effort managing our estrangement by trying to regain control because the feeling of sin and estrangement puts us off center. We know something is not right. We’re not in control. We experience a lot of uncertainty.

This feeling of uncertainty lands us in the dark wood. There are many examples of how to arrive in the dark wood because of uncertainty. One member of my congregation is in the dark wood because his coach and friend recently died of a heart attack at age 47. Sickness and death can lead us to feelings of uncertainty.

So can terrorism, whether a driver of a truck in New York, or a shooter in a Walmart in Colorado, or a gunman in a church in Texas (which occurred while I was preaching this sermon).

Our closest relationships yield to uncertainty. Marriages end. The lives of our children take turns we would not choose for them. Our parents’ deaths orphan us.

Over the years many people in my congregation have been laid off or discovered the products they offer have become obsolete and are no longer needed. This can make us feel that we are obsolete and unneeded also.

Dementia and trauma can erase the education we’ve worked so hard to acquire.

Even our relationship with God can cause the anxiety of uncertainty. We discover the expectations we had upon God are not fulfilled. We’re not at peace. We don’t experience joy. We’ve lost hope.

So to manage this uncertainty we try to regain control. We domesticate God into tight theological systems. We expend heroic efforts to deny death. We impose more laws and buy more guns. We avoid taking any risks, which means we don’t fully live. When I told a friend last week that my daughter was in the Middle East, he said, “There are safe places to go over there, right?” I responded, “Yes, if you know where to go. Just like there are safe places in New Orleans if you know where to go.”

The truth is, we can’t eliminate uncertainty. We can’t regain control. We can’t overcome sin. We can’t reconcile estrangement. When we try, we only compound it. We can’t overcome sin, but God can. But when he does, it’s then that we realize we’re in the dark wood. God shows up where we don’t expect him, like when Jacob dreamt of the ladder ascending to heaven. Such experiences happened to everyone you know from the Bible: Moses, Abraham, David, Peter, Sarah, and Mary. You know them because they are exemplary. They didn’t avoid the dark wood. Why do we hope we can?

Sin has landed us in the dark wood; Dante was right. Both the sin of our choices and the sin of our estrangement. But the gospel message is that God has forgiven sin and entered the dark wood to be with us so we are not alone.

In the uncertainty of our lives God is with us. The solution to our uncertainty isn’t certainty, it is God’s presence. When God is present, it invites us to trust God through our uncertainty. To trust God is to love God, and this is what we hear in 1 Corinthians 13.

The “love chapter” is Paul’s discourse on mature love. It’s what’s left when we “put away childish ways.” Children are necessarily trusting. They are naturally loving. As they grow up, they learn to discriminate. This can happen quite early as we seen when babies react to an unfamiliar face. They have to discriminate because life is uncertain. Part of becoming an adult is learning how to love, learning whom to trust. We trust and love with our hearts, which is why the Bible talks about guarding our heart. This is important and hard work.

If we mature in a healthy way, adults eventually choose to trust and love with wise discernment. This chosen love is mature love. Paul and the Bible in general call us to this chosen love—of one another, of self, and of God. It is this love that overcomes estrangement. We choose to trust God despite the uncertainty of our lives. This is our comfort in the dark wood.

Author Eric Elnes summarizes it this way: “Paul is saying that a mature faith is one that embraces life as a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved—that accepts uncertainty as a gift, not a curse.”

The bread and cup of communion are symbols of God’s presence. So are the waters of baptism. We call them means of grace because they are the means of God’s presence. As the bread of the Lord’s Table is placed in our hands, let us also place our hearts into the hands of the God who comes to us in our uncertainty. Our worries, our fears, our unresolved challenges, even the mysteries we don’t understand—God enters all these in the person of Christ who, in the dark wood of his uncertainty, trusted God with his life and entered fully and without reserve our estranged existence. Perhaps the prayer below can enhance your next celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the dark wood.

We thank you, Creator God for woven into the uncertainties of this life you have given us the sunrise following the dark night, the rain following the drought, springtime to follow a cold winter. We look forward to these certainties, these reminders that you never forsake us, no matter how things might appear or feel.

We need these reminders, including the waters of baptism and the bread and cup of communion, because our sin and the sin of the world cast doubt within us. We feel abandoned and alone, and act in unkind ways to help us cope. Into our darkened woods you sent Jesus Christ to be our light. We celebrate his coming at Christmas, and prepare even now by confessing our need for him and living as children of faith, as children of light.

Send us your Spirit we pray, that we may receive from Christ his life and light. Grant that our communion at his table may secure our communion with him and with you by your Spirit. Accompany us through the dark wood in which we have found ourselves, until such time we no longer gaze at your presence through the mirror of the sacraments, but rather face to face, knowing you fully, even as you know us fully, in Christ. Amen.

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