In the last few weeks we have been reading from the heart of Pauls letter to the Corinthians.
First we heard about Pauls concerns about communion. How division and a lack of respect had crept into the communion practices of the Christians at Corinth, with some having a jolly good time while others went away empty and were disregarded in their needs. Difference in status and standing had started to creep in, causing some to feel they were more and better than others. We also heard how Paul brought them back to the core of the matter by emphasising to them at the table of the Lord they should all be accepting each other as equals, living out their commitment to Christ in equal sharing and care and respect for one another.
Following on from that, we came, last week, to chapter 12 where Paul extols the many ways in which the body of Christ takes shape in its members and how everybody, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, has their own role to play in that community. That everybody has been called by God to play their role and do their part, all different, but all equally valuable and important.
Then, in chapter 13 Paul becomes lyrical and slots this great hymn of love into his letter.
"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love "
It is beautiful and very powerful poetry, that has, over the 2000 years it has been handed down from one generation of Christians to the next, become one of the most well known pieces of scripture, read predominantly at weddings and funerals, framed and hung in homes, printed on book marks and cards. Encouraging people to practice what Paul here has so eloquently put into words.
There is a good chance they are not Pauls words by the way, or not entirely, the Greek is different from Pauls normal vocabulary and we know that poems like that circulated at the time. It is highly probable that the poem existed before Paul used it and applied it to the Christian situation. It may have been a popular 1st century love song most of his audience would have known from another context, or it may have been a hymn that was in use in the synagogue or any other religious context his people were familiar with. But Paul takes those words and applies them to God and his people.
The translation, across the ages, has caused some unfortunate confusion, not helped by its use in wedding services and at funerals. Contrary to what some of the use of this text over the ages may suggest, this hymn is not about the love between two people. It is not about romantic love at all, but about God love, or Godly love: stable, constant, committed, unwavering, relating, connecting, charitable, compassionate community love.
The King James translation translates charity instead of love. And although that takes the interpretation away from the romantic it does not entirely cover the meaning of agape, the Greek word that is used here, either. The love Paul speaks about is a lot more passionate and goes a lot deeper than what we would understand charity or charitable love to mean. It is a love that not only involves the heart, but the whole of mind, body and spirit that we are to an extent which is all encompassing. What Paul writes about is the deeply felt internal love we catch not from each other, but from God.
Some weeks ago we compared God with a power grid, connecting and seeking to connect with the power of love, powerful and empowering and flowing out into the world wherever and whenever people connect to it. This is the love Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 13.
It is the kind of love that makes peace and justice flow like a river, love that breaks down barriers and helps people let go of anxiety and fear. The kind of love that makes the material fall away and become unimportant because it is totally focussed on other things, because it wants to give and share, because it seeks to heal and be whole. Not because of some law or rule, but because it has this internal drive that makes it want to do nothing but love.
It is that love Jesus teaches liberating, whole making, redeeming love which, when we let ourselves enter into it, will not only change our lives, but the world.
John 14 speaks about what it means if we let ourselves be drawn into that and become part of the flow of that love which is going between Jesus and the Father. The way John conveys Jesus Words they seem to go round and round, and that is not a coincidence. The relationship of love between God the Father and God the son is, the way John describes it, like a dance and consisting of a back and forth of love, an intimate relationship, moving in the world, drawing the world into it and calling the world to move with it, in an ever expanding movement of love.
Reading the paper this week, about what is happening in remote aboriginal communities in this country and the ongoing terrible war in Iraq, with all the political agendas and powerplay that go with it, all the fear and emotion that are played off against each other, all the different agendas from various socio political and economic backgrounds, I asked myself the question (with 1 Corinthians 13 and John 14 bubbling away in the back of my mind of course) where Gods love is in that. Where does it come through? What parts of the whole messy business could be inspired by Gods love seeking to flow out into this world?
I cant say it was a question that was easy to answer and it left me feeling quite depressed for a while. Mainly because suspicion, cynicism and lack of faith are deeply rooted in the way I have learned to look at the world. I am not sure the political agenda is as innocent and positive as saving our aboriginal children, and improving the fate of aboriginal families, or even about bringing freedom and democracy in Iraq and improving peoples life there. I find it difficult to silence that little voice in the back of my head that says that other interests may have something to do with it too and that all may not be what it is purported to be.
It was then I remembered Bob Randall, sitting on a rock somewhere in the desert, looking at the sun going down in a spectacular display of colour talking to me, with tears streaming down his face, about his people and me asking how he felt things could change. Of course I cant remember his exact words, but he said something like this:
"With love," he said, "only with love." And later, "The only way we can bring change is to replace our scepticism and anger with love, respond with love every time and keep our deepest selves away from the hatred and violence that has been visited upon us."
It were those words that came back to me when I read that the elders in his community had given police and government authorities a traditional welcome in spite of the fear and misgivings they feel. It is those words which encouraged me, this week.
If he can do this after everything he is been through I can. If he can practise what he preaches and meet with love anybody that will talk to him about the fate of his people and let hope and faith grow from it against the odds, I can do the same in the part of Christs body at work I have been called to serve.
What Bob has also shown me, and others over the years I have known to live out the gospel in their lives, is that if you do this, if you connect to that love and surrender to it and let it guide your thoughts and actions, your life will take on another dimension, a dimension that comes with a deep peace. No matter what others say about you, no matter how difficult life may get because of it, if you make it your first priority in life to love, no matter what, Christ will descend in your heart and hold the fort for you and enable you to deal with the challenges of life in a way that does not make matters worse, but will create space for real solutions.
I hope and pray that those who are dealing with the challenging situations, both here and abroad, will let that love and the deep peace that comes with it guide them instead of other interests and agendas, that somehow. Hope and pray that in the complex mess some of these things are, there will be people who are connected to the power grid of Gods love and inspiration and find the faith and hope that will enable them to create real solutions and enable healing and wholeness to grow. That there be people in there who are dedicated to the vision of the world as it is painted in the new Testament and by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: a vision where the community of Christ is ruled by respect for each other, by acceptance of each others gifts and differences as valuable and God intended parts to Gods purpose of love for this world.
Both inside and outside the community of Christ.
The love 1 Corinthians 13 talks about is the love of God that seeks to become a physical presence in the world through his people. A love that seeks to be in the right place at the right time to make a difference and bring change to the world. Love that seeks to become material in bodies that are firmly planted in this world making for inclusive, caring, respectful community between people happen, accepting that everybody has their own role to play and is part of Gods future, with love at the heart of everything they do.
As there is love at the heart of the trinity, between God the father and Christ the Son, moving between them and inviting us through the Holy Spirit, so should there be love at the heart of every Christian and every Christian community, in every thought and action, in every prayer and hope, in every utterance of faith.
Of course that is not always easy. We see in a mirror darkly says Paul, we dont always understand the rationale of what is going on. We dont know how it will all come to rights and it is often difficult to not let fear, suspicion and cynicism take over, to muster the trust that is necessary to surrender to the love of God and remain in it, no matter what happens.
We are called however not to live out of fear, but out of love, not out of hunger for power or material possessions and security, but out of a hunger for justice and peace, trusting that the love we can feel around us and inside us when we open ourselves up and connect to God will flow out into the world and hold it, and will, in the end, show to be more powerful than anything else in all creation.