Throughout the history of faith, people have functioned as though we could buy our way into God’s graces through good deeds. Rev. John Weems explores Paul’s take on the matter in the classic First Corinthians “love” passage.
1 Corinthians 13:1-8
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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Along with the masses participating in Women’s Marches around the world yesterday, there were thousands of creative signs. From the lighthearted “We Shall Over Comb,” to the heartbreaking, “Pre-Existing Condition: Breast Cancer,” people of all backgrounds were freely expressing themselves. Of the signs that I personally encountered, one especially resonated with me: “Love (Not Hate) Will Make America Great.”
Please know that whether you are visiting here for the first time today, or have around for many decades, this church consists of people of virtually every viewpoint. My hope for today is that every single one of us leaves prepared to look in the mirror of Christ’s love and reflect his will in the world.
I do believe that selfless love, not hate, will make America great.
The validity of this statement depends upon our understanding of what love is.
Today we continue our sermon series on “Love Is/Love Is Not,” seeking to take a fresh look at the First Corinthians passage shared so often at weddings and memorial services that we can too easily tune out. Our focus today will be on a single verse, 1 Corinthians 13:3. Let’s take a look at three different versions:
“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.” (New Revised Standard Version, Calvary Pew Bible)
“If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” (New Living Translation)
“And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (King James Version)
Of the many times I have preached from First Corinthians 13 at weddings, I realize I have glossed over the third verse. Demonstrating patience and kindness and hoping in all things is much easier to discuss in mixed company. The third verse has teeth. It is strong. It even supports the Beatle’s lyrics from the happy little song the choir just sang.
I believe that Paul (the Apostle who wrote First Corinthians, not McCartney) has probably had many eons of good laughs that his “love” passage became so popular, when it is in fact one of the most challenging in the entire Bible. As for Paul McCartney, he did not set out to write a bubble-gum pop song: “Can’t Buy Me Love is my attempt to write a bluesy mode. The idea behind it was that all these material possessions are all very well, but they won’t buy me what I really want.” Yet the Beatles invasion was in full swing and the version familiar to most of us became the hit.
Popular culture tends to trivialize and monetize love.
As many preachers before me have pointed out, part of the problem is the inadequacy of the English word “love” to capture the meaning of the Greek word in the First Corinthians passage, agape. Consider how we tend to throw around the word love. I must confess that without thinking much of it, I will sometimes say that I love burritos, Warriors basketball, and dark artisan chocolate. If I use the same word to express my feelings for Jesus, my wife, and family, as I do for delicious carne asada and a three-pointer from Steph Curry, what impact is it supposed to have?
The Greeks wisely had distinct words including philia (brotherly or sisterly love), eros (erotic or romantic feelings) and storge (fondness through familiarity). C.S. Lewis explained that, “[Agape] Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”
Though we say that agape is not a feeling and cannot be purchased, churches and clergy like me tend to be part of the problem. In 1517, Martin Luther boiled over with frustration of the church selling indulgences—pardoning sin in exchange for donations—and posted his 95 theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Long before and long after Luther and the reformers, church leaders have explicitly and implicitly condoned all sorts of behaviors that were sinful.
It would be much easier for us to raise the $250,000-plus we need to raise to make budget this year if I could tell you with integrity that giving a significant portion of your income would punch your ticket into God’s V.I.P. suite. For better or worse, I believe that giving is a spiritual discipline and act of gratitude for our Creator’s gifts to us, but salvation comes by grace and through Christ, not our money.
We tend to approach our transformational deity with a transactional mentality.
Jesus did not come as part of a transaction. He came to bring transformation.
God is not a banker looking to sell your spiritual mortgage to a third party.
God’s agape is not a feeling and cannot be purchased.
As Rev. Joann H. Lee reminded us last week, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. further expanded upon true Christ-like love: “Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action…”
This is why I believe that agape can make America great; however agagpe is not focused on America first.
King was not talking about weakness. He was talking about the strength he observed created by Gandhi’s non-violent resistance. He lived and preached the agape strength of Jesus the Christ crucified on a cross at Calvary. Not the fortress of a church located in Pacific Heights, but the hill outside of Jerusalem where criminals who wronged the empire were sent as a message to thee others. On Calvary, Jesus was actively inviting those on the crosses near him and forgiving those who put him on that cross.
“Father, forgive them,” he said. “’For they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing.” (Luke 23:34)
Even as he offered transformation, they were engaging in a transaction.
Dr. King goes on to explain: “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people . . . It begins by loving others for their sakes.”
One day in 2009 a normally cautious mail carrier and grandmother named Shirley took a dream adventure—she went skydiving for the very first time. At 13,000 feet, her diving instructor and tandem partner quickly came to a terrifying realization. The primary parachute had failed. Dave knew that he had to cut away the main chute and deploy the reserve, but the handle was missing from the canopy malfunction. Rapidly spinning and falling, Dave pulled the final reserve chute, which slowed their speed from 100 miles per hour to 60. As they dropped to 750 feet and continued to fall, Dave made a decision.
“Shirley, I want you to pull up your legs now!” he said.
He then pulled down on the canopy lines and kicked his own legs up, becoming a human cushion for Shirley, who he had known for less than 30 minutes.
Shirley survived and was taken to the hospital.
Word came to Shirley’s husband that Dave had passed. Wanting to protect his severely injured wife, he insisted that she not be told.
As it turned out, the word was wrong. Dave, the 44-year-old who admittedly had lived mostly for himself, had survived. He was paralyzed, likely permanently, but survived. Shirley was out of the hospital and “good as new” within two weeks.
When Shirley came to visit him, Dave wept. Not for himself, but because of the trauma that Shirley had to endure.
“I love you,” said Shirley.
“I. Love. You. Too,” mouthed Dave.
People of God, many of our brothers and sisters in this congregation and in the world feel like they are falling and there is no one to help them.
What is God calling us to do?
Agape love never fails.
 “Beatles Bible,” accessed at https://www.beatlesbible.com/songs/cant-buy-me-love/
 See also C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.
 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids. 1970. p. 49.
 The King Center, Birth of a New Nation; Sermon on Ganhdi; http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy